9.12.2017

Travelin’ Dog

This article first appeared in the 2017 Summer edition of Maine Dog Magazine.


Captain’s Log: Travelin’ Dog

Vacationland garnered widespread attention in March when Maine Representative, Jim Handy, proposed a bill mandating all dogs should be physically restrained in moving vehicles. He later decided to pull the bill, but not before it brought up an interesting national discussion. Another area of my job is blogging with veterinarian extraordinaire, Dr. Sip Siperstein, for Car Talk (yes, THAT Car Talk). Together, we tackle some of the more interesting aspects of pet travel. Some of the pieces are fluffy and silly, but when something like this comes across our desks, we take these on, too.
In every aspect of my job as a professional dog trainer from working hands on with dogs to writing about them, safety is my number one concern. My biggest pet peeve (pun completely intended) is observing dogs in the laps of drivers in a moving vehicle. My veterinarian friends all have stories to tell about dogs that have fallen out of the window at speed. These injuries include broken bones, smashed skulls, eyes falling out of the socket, and skin rubbed completely off of the body, exposing muscle, tendons, and even bones. Some of these dogs go through several costly, painful surgeries and many others do not survive. 
Additionally, if the airbag is deployed due to an accident, little Fifi will likely be crossing the Rainbow Bridge. These cases are incredibly sad considering they are almost always prevented by making sure the dog is not sticking his head out of the window and not sitting in the driver’s seat. So while I think the bill is a great one to suggest given these terribly gruesome and potentially fatal outcomes, there are some other considerations to weigh.
Maine still has many farmers who use working dogs to protect livestock from coyotes and other predators. These dogs often look like 100 pound polar bears (Kuvasz, and Great Pyrenees). They are raised from puppy-hood with the sheep they guard. When a coyote or other predator threatens the flock, the guarding dog comes out of hiding with her teeth bared, and typically wins. These dogs, while incredibly social with their sheep, are often not known for their flexibility regarding changing environment, new people, and new experiences which makes situations of restraining these dogs by way of seat belt or crate to go to the veterinarian a much more challenging and stressful event. I’d personally suggest that during the socialization period, these dogs are acclimated slowly to crates, harnesses and travel, but because their job is to live with and protect the flock, that can be tricky.
The other big hurdle that I can’t seem to shake relates to the safety of the harnesses and crates that dogs would presumably have to use to get from point A to point B. Until very recently, independent studies on the efficacy and safety of pet travel gear didn’t exist. Every harness, crate, and restraint system sold was tested by the company that created the device, which in short, meant there was no standard of safety. The company could throw a piece of lettuce at the device and suggest the harness stood up to “rigorous testing,” stamp it as “safe,” and sell it to you. That is, until the Center for Pet Safety came along with some eye opening crash tests in 2013.
The Center for Pet Safety (CenterForPetSafety.org) is the first independent group to test restraint systems against a standard. They teamed up with Maine’s State commuting vehicle maker, Subaru, to test harnesses and crates in real crash tests. These crash tests were conducted in the same facilities used to test car seats for kids and seat belts. The dummy dogs used in these tests were weighted like, and looked like, common pet dogs. This was by design so when the tests were running, people didn’t see a fake dog cruising through the air - people saw a real likeness of a dog cruising through the air.
When Dr. Sip and I saw the videos of the crash tests, each of us watching on opposite coasts of the US, the line went silent. We saw dogs in harnesses that were labeled as “safe” fly through the air when the straps failed, and through where the windshield would be at 30mph. There was a dachshund that sailed through the belted-in mesh dog crate as if there was nothing more protecting the dog than a sheet of printer paper. The solid crates dented and collapsed, no doubt causing injury or death to the animal trapped inside.
What was particularly heartbreaking was just a few months before, Dr. Sip and I had recommended all pets be restrained in either a harness or a crate when traveling to cut down on distracted driving, and then the Center for Pet Safety results came across our desks and we just wanted to cry. Recommending pets are confined or restrained is certainly something we would love to do, except there are only a few tools on the market that meet independent safety standards, and the ones that are actually safe are cost prohibitive. The ones that don’t meet the standards give an owner a sense of false sense of security and likely won’t keep Fido safe in an accident.
My feeling on this whole thing, and I know not everyone will agree, is that we can at least make sure that dogs don’t have their heads out the windows while we are driving. Rocks and debris that can crack your windshield can cause significant damage to a dog’s eye, nose, or face if hit. Very few things are more distracting than a dog spurting blood and howling in pain while your eyes are supposed to be on the road. If a dog were to fall out of the car at speeds, fatalities are likely. If an accident were to occur and the dog is in the front seat when an airbag is deployed, the dog will not likely survive. I also feel if a dog that can be safely restrained to reduce distracted driving, this can minimize the risk of an accident to begin with. These are all things we can all do to really keep our dogs safe.
Where we get into murky waters is if a dog is more stressed out by the restraints which can lead to an increase in distracted driving, or if the equipment doesn’t work in an accident. After purchasing a safe harness for Captain, he twisted and turned so much he got himself stuck in a way my husband and I couldn’t fix on I 95. The equipment needs to be better. This is where companies can come in to aid this process. Currently, the only harness on the Center for Pet Safety approved list is the Sleepypod ClickIt Harness, but others are stepping up to the plate. Companies like Kurgo had changed the design of their harness to meet the rigors of crash tests in their own testing trials, but have not yet been tested by the independent group (as of this writing in 2017). For the record, only three crates met the safety requirements set by the Center for Pet Safety but they did not test other crates that could potentially pass independent tests.

     Gunner Kennels G1 Intermediatewith 8’ Tie Downs
     Pet Ego Forma Frame Jet SetCarrier with latch connection
     Sleepypod Mobile Pet Bed with handilock

I wanted to see a bill that would result in safer travel for our four-legged companions. Stories of dogs that are thrown from the car during an accident, resulting in that dog being hit by another car, or missing for weeks on end if they are found at all, are incredibly heart breaking. Stories from my veterinarian friends of dogs falling out of the car window, an event that could be completely prevented if the dog didn’t have access to the down window or was not sitting in a driver’s lap are emotionally crushing. The ultimate emotional wound striking the owner of a dog in surgery while they recount, “but it was his favorite thing to have his head out the window.” These actions often come from a place of joy and love. We love our dogs and want them to be happy, so we let them ride on our laps or sniff the breeze as it whirrrrrrs by their olfactory organ at 55 mph on Rt 1. We never want anything to happen to our pets, our precious cargo, but at the same time, I can’t in good conscience state that all dogs need to be restrained in a car, at least, not until the equipment is affordable and safe for all four-legged passengers. While I’m glad the bill was proposed to start a conversation, I don’t think we can legislate something like this right now, though if cops wanted to ticket people with dogs on their laps or heads out of the windows as “distracted driving”I’d be 100% in favor.
Companies are catching up, costs are coming down, and cars are even starting to consider our pets as passengers with special Fido Features. While we are getting there, we are not there yet. I’m with the American Veterinary Association on this one - I highly recommend at least preventing distracted driving by restraining a dog in a moving vehicle. Don’t play, feed, or try to train your dog while you are operating a car. If possible, make sure pets are traveling in the back seat, away from airbags. If you can afford to swing for the $500 Gunner Kennel, by all means, go for it. If you cannot afford that or drive a Honda Fit, do the best you can with the tools you have to keep your pet as safe as you possibly can by preventing accidents from the minute the key is turned. Lastly, do yourself a favor, and see a science based, positive reinforcement trainer to help your pet acclimate to a restraint system if you think you’ll ever need to transport your dog anywhere, including the veterinarian. A veterinarian who will hopefully be seeing Sparky for an annual visit and not for any of the injuries in this article.

Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA is one-half of the FIDO Blogging Team at Car Talk Plaza. She is also the co-Training Director at New England Dog Training Club and the author of ‘Considerations for the City Dog.”