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Recently, I was out for a bike ride along a major road and I was horrified to see a Labrador Retriever jump through the back window of a moving car and get partially dragged by his leash. Thankfully, traffic stopped and the owners stopped the car quickly. Most of all, this was a big reminder about how important it is for dogs to be properly restrained when in cars, and to be taught how to behave in a vehicle to ensure dog car safety.
For everyone’s safety, dogs shouldn’t be riding on the driver’s lap, or unrestrained in the car. Dogs should also never ride in the back of a pickup truck (which is illegal in many areas), whether if they are loose, tethered, or crated. When dogs are riding in a vehicle, they should be in a dog crate or secured with a crash-tested dog seat belt.
Seat belts are great options if your vehicle isn’t large enough to accommodate an appropriately sized crate for your dog. This will prevent your dog from being injured or ejected from the car in the event that you have to brake quickly, or if you get into an accident. If your dog is wearing a seat belt in the backseat of your car, make sure that you have turned on the child locks to prevent your dog from pawing at the door and accidentally opening a window.
To ensure dog car safety, you’ll also want to keep windows completely rolled up or only cracked open. Never allow your dog to ride in the car with their head out the window. This can result in injury from a dog jumping out of the car (like I witnessed), or a dog’s eyes being injured by flying debris. Also, don’t leave your dog alone in the car, whether it’s they’re in a hot car or a cold car.
Dog Car Safety Training
Although car travel is familiar to humans, how to behave in this scenario isn’t something dogs automatically understand.
As soon as your dog or puppy comes home, begin teaching your dog to behave safely and calmly in and around your car.
- To start, get your dog comfortable and familiar with the restraint equipment (crate or seat belt) ahead of time outside of the car.
- Let your dog investigate the seat belt or crate, and offer them dog treats and praise for approaching and sniffing the equipment.
- Keep training sessions short and fun.
- When your dog is comfortable with the crate and seat belt, you’re ready to get into the car.
- Introduce your dog to the car. Have a family member or friend drive so you can focus on working with your dog.
- Depending on your dog’s age, health, and size, either lift your dog into the car or encourage them to jump up. Praise and treat for getting into the car. Close your dog in their crate or connect their seat belt.
- Start car training without a planned trip in mind. This way, you won’t be in a hurry and can start with just a short drive down the street, especially if you already know your dog gets excited or struggles in the car. Praise and treat (small treats that aren’t likely to upset your dog’s stomach) your dog for any calm and relaxed behavior, like not barking or lying down.
- As your dog is more comfortable in the car, you can vary the rate of reinforcement (treats) and the length of the drives you take.
Helping Your Dog Safely Exit the Car
When you reach your destination, it’s important that your dog not bolt from the car the minute a crate door is opened or your dog’s seat belt is removed. To support your dog with developing impulse control and waiting, make sure they are appropriately leashed and cued to leave the car.
Going places is exciting, so we want to build value for our dogs in relation to being in the car and being calm in the car. If your dog is generally excited while in the car, you can start teaching car exiting manners at home without going anywhere.
- When you are ready to get your dog out of the car, take a moment to settle yourself and get your dog’s leash and treats ready.
- When you open the door to where your dog is seat belted/crated, praise and reward calm behavior.
- If your dog starts getting overly excited or frantic, pause what you are doing. You want to avoid moving forward and letting your dog out while they’re overexcited, as it will reward the behavior you don’t want.
- As you open the crate or undo the seat belt and clip on your dog’s leash, continue to praise and treat.
- Give your verbal release cue to let your dog jump out of the car (if it’s safe for your dog to do so) or as you lift your dog out of the car.
- Praise and treat your dog for standing calmly next to you. Alternatively, if you prefer, cue your dog to sit and praise and treat your dog for being calm next to you as you close the door and get ready to go.
We’re helping our dogs to understand they need to wait for our cue to leave the car. By doing this, we’re aiming to to build safe habits, as well as value for our dogs in staying next to us and out of traffic.
Dog Car Safety Tips: Drive-Through Training
An easy-to-forget aspect of training good dog car safety manners is to help your dog to get familiar with drive-throughs and gas stations. These situations can be particularly stressful or overly arousing for dogs who are very excited, nervous around new people, or prone to guarding. This is especially a concern for dogs who are wearing seat belts, as they can see out the windows and watch as people approach the car.
Have treats ready and give your dog lots of praise and treats if gas station attendants approach your car or as other stressful interactions occur. Always make sure that your rear windows are completely closed to prevent your dog from sticking their head out, and to prevent people from reaching in to pet your dog. Some drive-throughs offer special doggy menus or hand out dog treats. But be sure to wait for your dog to be calm before giving your dog any drive-through treats.
When driving, remember you’re responsible for the safety of yourself and others on the road. You cannot be distracted by anything in the back seat that might take your concentration away from safely driving your car. Having your dogs properly trained and controlled in your car will allow you to concentrate on the task at hand.