Should dogs wear seat belts?

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I couldn’t believe it when I saw a guy driving around with what looked like a full-grown springer spaniel in his lap. I wasn’t worried about the dog, but I was worried about the driver causing an accident.

It irritates me when I see drivers with dogs of any size in their laps. It’s not so much the obvious distraction that bothers me. It’s the relationship these drivers must have with their dogs. Are these owners completely unable to tell their dogs no? Are these dogs really unable to obey a simple sit/stay command?

Dog seat belts are becoming more common, and some areas are requiring or considering requiring all pets to be restrained while riding in vehicles. I’m not sure what I think about this, as my dogs always rides loose on the back seat of my car.

Dogs as distractions

Obviously if we’re only considering the distractibility factor, all pets should be restrained in vehicles for the sake of safety for the humans in and around the vehicle.

You could argue that your dog is well behaved and does not distract you while driving. That’s probably true. My own dog curls up on the back seat and really is not a distraction at all. But …

What if there is an accident? Will my dog be safe if he’s not restrained?

Most of the time, an unrestrained dog will be fine in the car. It’s not like we’re all getting into accidents every day. However, think about what could happen to your dog if an accident does occur:

  • The dog could panic and become a distraction by pacing, trying to get out or barking.
  • The dog could be thrown around in the vehicle and injured, or the dog could cause injury to a person.
  • The dog could be thrown from the vehicle and injured.
  • A fearful dog on the run is more likely to bite.

Dogs are safer in the car if they are restrained, according to Dawn Ross of PetAutoSafety.com. “Restraints can include a dog seat belt or a pet travel crate that is secured in the car.”

PetAutoSafety.com is a retailer that sells car safety products for pets, according to its web site. It also provides free info about keeping pets safe while traveling in vehicles.

Maya (top photo) and Pierson (below) are owned by Ross, and they wear dog seat belts in the car. They are modeling their Kurgo Go-Tech harnesses.

“When a dog is involved in a car accident, they have no idea what has happened and they will panic,” said Ross. “I hear time and time again about a dog that escapes the car after an accident and runs away. Sometimes they run off only to get hit by another car. Sometimes they run away and are never seen again.”

Still, there are reasons to question the actual safety of dog seat belts.

Are dog seat belts safe?

A 2011 study by the Center for Pet Safety found a 100-percent failure rate on the dog seat belts used in the study (Read about it here). The center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to companion animal and consumer safety, according to its web site. Results of a 2013 study have yet to be released.

According to the center’s web site, “None of the harnesses were deemed safe enough to protect both the dog and the humans in the event of an accident.”

The center chose not to reveal the specific harnesses it tested in the study, so keep in mind there are other brands available that were not tested.

There are currently no measurable safety standards in place for manufacturers of dog seat belts, according to the center’s web site. The intention of the study was to address this issue and not to attack specific products.

According to the center’s web site, the study used a 55-pound crash test dog model (not a live dog). Each test was designed to simulate what could happen to the dog if it had been wearing the tested dog seat belt during a collision at 30 miles per hour. Some problems included:

  • An extremely low survival rate for the dog.
  • Danger to the humans in the vehicle when the dog becomes a “missile.”
  • Choking or other bodily harm to the dog where the harness tightens upon impact.
  • Extensive damage to the vehicle caused by the projectile dog.

This study alone has been enough to convince me not to spend money on a dog seat belt as of now. However, improvements are continuing to be made to dog seat belts as more research is done.

Dog seat belt companies are “always looking for ways to make their products better and safer,” according to Ross.

“Seat belts for dogs have come a long way over the past several years,” she said. “Continued improvements are always being made as research continues on the best way to protect your pet in the vehicle.”

Are kennels a safe alternative to dog seat belts?

My own conclusion is that dogs are at least equally as safe riding in a kennel as they would be wearing a dog seat belt, especially if the kennel is tied down.

Of course, a kennel is not always an option if you have a larger dog and a smaller car as I do. While I can fit a wire kennel large enough for Ace on my back seat, it is a huge hassle to set up and the kennel blocks my view a bit. Driving my dog around without a restraint is a risk I’ve chosen to take for the last six or so years.

Could a dog seat belt or kennel trap a dog in an accident?

This is an argument I hear as a reason not to restrain dogs in vehicles.

Yes, a dog could become trapped, and depending on the situation this could be worse for the dog than if she had been loose in the car. For example:

  • The car could be on fire.
  • The car could be stuck under water.
  • The driver and passengers could be unconscious, and it’s possible first respondents would be unaware of the dogs in need of rescue.

But how often are these scenarios really going to occur? Thankfully, not often.

Other safety tips to consider for traveling with dogs

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It’s important to get dogs used to vehicles early on so they get used to traveling, said Dr. Thomas Watson, owner of Carolinas Veterinary Medical Hospital in Charlotte, N.C.

“Put limits on them,” he said. “Teach them where they need to be to ride safely in the car and how they need to behave while in the car.”

Other tips:

  • Be aware of airbags. Do you really want to hold your dog while driving? The front passenger should not be holding a pet, either.
  • Always keep ID tags on each pet.
  • Make sure you have a leash handy for each pet.
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