- This post contains affiliate links. Read more here.
So many dogs go crazy for a ride in the car. All we have to do is jingle the keys, and they race to meet us at the door. If these dogs could call shotgun, they would. So why ruin the fun by strapping those joyriders down with a dog car harness?
Or, on the other side of the dogs-in-cars spectrum, maybe your dog suffers from car anxiety, fearing the car as if it were a one-way ride that only ever ends at the vet’s office. Why make car rides worse by introducing a dog car restraint into the mix?
In the past, most dogs have freely roamed when riding in the car, encouraged to hang their heads out the windows, ears flapping adorably in the breeze. But then pet owners learned some of the dangers of dogs riding free in cars from helpful resources such as this PetMD article which explains that an 80-pound dog can become a 2,400-pound projectile in a car accident occurring at the speed of 50mph. Oops.
Lately, many dog owners have been rethinking car safety for our pets, and for good reason. And so has the law. States such as Connecticut and Hawaii enacted laws against driving with a pup in your lap, while states such as New Jersey and Rhode Island require some sort of safety restraint for dogs in cars.
Really, a Seatbelt for My Dog?
Certified dog trainer Nicole Ellis and member of Rover’s Dog People panel says, “one of the first things I tell pet owners to get is a car safety harness.” Yes, we’re talking about a dog car seat belt.
Most dog car harnesses work in concert with your car’s existing seatbelt strap (which is definitely not designed for dog safety). These harnesses are designed for restraint, and a good one will be much more heavy-duty than your dog’s harness for walking. Combining your human seatbelt with a well-designed dog harness will provide the ultimate dog safety and more fun car rides for you and your dog.
Dangers Dogs Face When Riding in Cars
It’s no fun pondering these frightening scenarios, especially when, for so many of our dogs, a ride in the car is a joyous occasion. However, many of us are simply unaware of the dangers that riding in cars present to unrestrained dogs and their drivers:
- Enthusiastic or anxious dogs can leap out open windows.
- Dogs who hang their heads out the window can be injured by external debris.
- Airbags deployed in the event of an accident can injure dogs sitting in the front seat.
- Using a tether such as a leash or a zipline combined with a dog collar could cause severe injury in a car crash or even in the case of a sudden stop.
- And as mentioned, a loose dog in the backseat during a collision can become a dangerous projectile, and this is true for small dogs as well as large dogs.
No Dog Seat Belt = Distracted Driver
Dog seat belts help to prevent driver distraction. A study co-sponsored by AAA and Kurgo determined that over 65% of dog guardians engage in distracted driving behavior because of a dog roaming free in the car.
Dog distractions cause us to take our eyes off the road and can lead to serious accident and injury. Dog seat belts keep your pup in place, minimizing distraction so you can focus on the drive.
Dog-as-passenger distractions include:
- Attempts to escape the car.
- Barking and lunging at other dogs, cars, or for no apparent reason at all, smashing against windows.
- Wandering nervously into the driver’s lap (which is illegal in some states, as we mentioned).
- Moving restlessly around the car cabin, blocking mirrors and sight lines.
- General adorable—or nervous—antics that you can’t help but take your eyes off the road to watch.
We may miss the sight of those adorable flapping jowls in our side view mirror, but the peace of mind that comes with practicing safe dog travel makes for a great substitute. We reach to fasten our human safety belts every time we get in the car—why not do the same for our dogs?
Okay, How Do I Choose the Right Car Harness for My Dog?
An effective dog harness for the car should maintain your dog’s stability in the car and restrain their movement.
Unfortunately, there are not yet standard regulations and requirements for dog car restraints the way there are for human restraints. As a result, third-party consumer reports and product tests—in other words, tests and reviews not conducted by the company that manufactures the product—are your best resource for finding the safest harness.
Bad News: Most Harnesses Haven’t Been Crash-Tested or Have Failed Testing
According to Consumer Reports (our favorite non-profit source for consumer awareness and product ratings), The Center for Pet Safety properly conducted third-party tests on 11 car safety harnesses for dogs. The results of the safety tests were staggering.
Of the 11 harnesses that claim crash protection, only seven passed the initial strength portion of the test and therefore qualified for the crash test evaluation.
That Kurgo harness with the high customer ratings? Safety harnesses that try to be as lightweight as a walking harness? Harnesses such as these failed the independently conducted crash test conducted by CPS. With many of these unreliable harnesses, CPS found the construction was not strong enough to withstand the velocity strains of a crash impact. The harnesses essentially fell apart in testing.
Trainer Nicole Ellis sums it up, “A lot of the harnesses on the market say crash tested or made for the car but have failed these tests.”
Good News! Three Dog Car Harnesses Certified By a Third Party
That’s right, of the harnesses that made it to the crash test, only three were certified by CPS standards, which are based on the same standards used to test child car seats. Let’s pause for collective dog owner gratitude for these high-quality brands and the Center for Pet Safety that tested them. (Side note: the CPS test videos are both terrifying and adorable.)
And now, the outstanding choices for dog car safety:
Sleepypod harnesses work with your seatbelt to easily secure your pet in the car and can also be used for walking. The harnesses come in four sizes and will fit dogs up to about 90 pounds.
Trainer Nicole Ellis is a big fan of this brand. She says, “My favorite harness is by SleepyPod, as all their products have passed the Center for Pet Safety testing.
Features of note:
- Made from force-reducing webbing that will lessen the impact in the event of a crash
- Sleek design, with four nice color options
- Reflective stripes for nighttime visibility
- Machine washable
- Maybe not as durable as the Terrain option, but great for most dogs
The Sleepypod Clickit Terrain harness comes with more features than the Sport and even more safety.
In addition to what we already like about the Sport, the Terrain model is built with more durable straps and D-rings. It also offers removable/changeable reflective strips for service dogs and, to purchase separately, a pack that will fit over the harness for wilderness adventure dogs to carry their own supplies.
This harness might be the best choice for those looking for versatility in a harness as well as for outdoorsy types.
Features of note:
- All the benefits of the Sport, with some additional features and stronger hardware
- More advanced impact-reducing webbing throughout (10% more effective according to Sleepypod)
- The option to purchase a pack attachment for dog adventures
Made for smaller dogs up to 19″ from head to tailbone, this harness is nothing short of hilarious—and effective!
While some have mocked the image of a small dog essentially strapped upright into a car’s backseat as if it’s about to be rocketed into space (the name is apt, here), no one should laugh at safety. Okay, laugh a little. But from what we can tell, this is a great option for smaller dogs who are nervous in cars, keeping them in place, with great sightlines out the windows, and feeling secure.
Features of note:
- Full body wrap for total security that may calm your dog
- As with other harnesses, it works with your seatbelt to secure your dog to the backseat
- Raises a dog’s sight lines, which may reduce anxiety as well as carsickness
What About Using a Pet Car Seat, Booster Seat, Carrier, or Crate?
If a car harness isn’t an option for your dog’s needs, once again, the testers at the Center for Pet Safety have your dog’s safety covered. They found in a 2015 test that not a single one of the pet car seats for small dogs performed well in an impact.
For larger dogs who do better in the car with a crate instead of a harness, CPS gave the thumb’s up to travel crates made by Gunner. Gunner Kennels are designed for use outdoors and are popular with outdoor enthusiasts; they are super-sturdy and include many reinforcements that keep dogs safe in an impact. This quality comes at a high price: upwards of $320. For some dog owners, this may be a worthwhile investment, especially if you frequently drive long distances and venture backcountry with your dog.
Getting Your Dog Accustomed to a Seatbelt Harness
Some dogs find a car seatbelt harnesses uncomfortable at first, or are a bit offended by having their movement restricted. You’ll want to introduce the harness gradually. Make sure your introductory sessions involve plenty of treats.
- First, let your dog wear the harness around the house for short intervals.
- Take your dog on a short, familiar car ride to somewhere they enjoy (the park, maybe?).
- Offer lots of treats and praise, and be sure to introduce the harness before taking long trips.
Before you know it, putting a seatbelt harness on your dog will become second nature for both you and your dog, and you can hit the asphalt safely and distraction-free. Enjoy the ride!