3 Tested Products to Keep Your Dog Safe in the Car

My dogs go many places with me, including work, and ride in my pick-up truck.

They ride in the back passenger section; never in the front seat or bed of the truck. Keeping them safe has always been a concern of mine, and I’ve tried a number of different techniques, from travel crates to harnesses with hook ups that utilize the seat belts. However, in the last several years there have been several accidents affecting people and dogs in the performance sport world that have caused me to take another look at how my dogs travel. In each situation, the dogs were in a car when an accident occurred and the dogs were either killed in the car from the crash, or were ejected from the car and killed, or ejected and the dogs ran away.

All three of these were enough to give me nightmares so I took another look at ways I could keep my dogs safe in my vehicle. The first thing I discovered is there is little agreement about anything except that pets should never ride loose in the vehicle. Even though dogs love it and many dog owners do too, a loose dog can distract the driver and, in the case of a crash, the dog will become a dangerous flying projectile.

When addressing how a dog should be restrained in a vehicle, some people (and safety tests) advocate for crates, others for harnesses. Some feel the installed pet barriers work well, others disagree. So I took a look at some safety tests performed by the Center for Pet Safety in conjunction with Subaru, and then I did some research of my own. The Center for Pet Safety (CPS) is a non-profit research organization that is presently focusing on pet travel safety. Using federal motor vehicle safety standards, CPS has conducted crash tests on many available pet products. No animals are used during their testing; instead they have specially designed and amazingly realistic crash dummy dogs (they even have them in different coat colors and sizes).

Dog Harnesses for Car Safety

I’ve used a couple of different harnesses for my dogs, all of which are between 40 and 50 pounds. Some of the harnesses were difficult to fit the dogs, while others required some fussing to get them on the dog for each use. Both of the brands I used required the strap(s) from harness to vehicle to be snapped into the seat belt fastener. Both of the harnesses I tried used only one strap, which didn’t provide me with much confidence. I finally stopped using them because all I could imagine was a strap wrapped around a leg and the damage that could be caused if I had to stop quickly.

Neither of the harnesses I used were included in the 2013 CPS and Subaru pet car harness crash research, but I doubt that makes any difference because only one harness, the Sleepypod Clickit Utility, was shown to be effective in keeping dogs safe in a crash situation. This harness has a wide supportive vest and three-point connections to the seat belt connection. It’s made of automotive seatbelt material, high carbon steel hardware, and has neoprene impact absorbing material inside the vest. The dog wearing this harness can sit or lie down. This harness retails for about $100.

I wanted some input on this harness from other than CPS, so I checked for online reviews from people who had bought it and used it. One caught my eye right away; a dog owner was in a serious crash and the dog was unhurt, still wearing the harness, and in place on the seat. Overall, the harness had 4 stars out of 5 with most of the negative comments directed at sizing. Some reviewers said that with small to medium sized dogs, it’s more difficult to choose the correct size or adjust the harness to fit. Some dogs with different body shapes, long bodied dogs especially, are also difficult to fit. Unfortunately, there were also some customer service complaints.

©istockphoto/ROMAOSLO

©istockphoto/ROMAOSLO

Crates are Popular

Many dog owners, including myself, use dog crates to restrain the dog in a vehicle. The dog can have more freedom of movement in the crate and the crate can be fastened down with the seat belt or with tie downs to other hookups in the vehicle. I have used both plastic crates and metal wire crates, both of which have their pros and cons. I’ve always felt that plastic crates were a little more solid; after all, airlines require them for flying dogs. I know that’s a false sense of security, though, as I’ve seen some plastic crates demolished amazingly easily. Wire crates provide more air flow, which is important, but little force is needed to flex and bend these crates.

The CPS and Subaru tests on crates chose the Gunner G1 Intermediate Kennel as their top choice. This is a heavy duty plastic crate with heavy duty fasteners, door latch, and uses a four strap connection system to fasten it in the vehicle’s cargo area. During the crash test, the kennel remained in place, didn’t hit the seat back, and had no structural damage to the crate body. In addition, the door remained closed during the test, and opened after the test with no problems. This crate retails for just under $500, depending on the size.

Most of the reviews I found for this crate were positive: five out of five stars when rated in that manner. The sturdiness of the crate and quality construction were both praised, as was the tie down system. The only negatives mentioned were the price, although several reviewers felt the price was fair even if high. A few people had minor complaints because of the limited sizes available, although one comment from Gunner Kennels said they were working on additional sizes, though what sizes those were wasn’t mentioned.

The Top of the Line Crate

When talking to dog owners, especially those with working dogs, performance dogs, or show dogs, the top of line ‘wish I were rich so I could buy it’ crate is the Variocage dog crate. From Sweden, these crates have passed a number of Safe Pet Crate Tests. These top of the line crates are downright expensive (one size is $1300), but are the tanks of crates. Around for over a decade, they have a great track record for keeping dogs safe. There are 14 sizes available to fit pets of various sizes and a variety of vehicles. The crate doors lock and the crates are made of powder coated steel, have a built in crumble zone for added safety, and have an emergency escape hatch in the top  in case the crate entry door is blocked.

These crates are specifically made for safety in a vehicle; they are not a crate to be transferred from car to house and back again. The small size crate weighs 75 pounds and the largest crate weighs over 100 pounds. These are best installed in a vehicle and left there.

Although this crate provides the ultimate protection and I wish the best for my dogs, the price is out of my budget. With three dogs I’d be looking at $4000. Plus, although I could probably maneuver one 75-pound crate into the rear passenger area of my truck, I doubt three of these heavy duty crates would fit. So I’ll just drool over them instead.

The Right Choice for You and Your Dog

I’m probably going to save my pennies and take a serious look at the Gunner Kennel G1 Intermediate dog crate. I like what I’ve read about it and like the reviews. In the meantime, until I can save up for three of those crates, I’ll probably put my dogs back in harnesses.

What will be the best choice for you and your dog depends on many factors, your budget certainly being an important one. Your dog, his size and body type, your vehicle and how much room is available, and whether you need to keep some room for cargo and/or other people are also considerations. Just remember that leaving your dog unrestrained is not a good idea at all, even if it is the easiest.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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