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Nothing makes me sadder than having to leave my dogs behind when I’m traveling, out at a park, or, if I’m honest, basically anywhere. Dogs are family. While a few decades ago, a lot of folks might have found that hard to understand—after all, a dog isn’t human—we take it for granted these days. With all that travel comes a need for a way to keep your dog safe while en route. That’s the job of a dog carrier. But how do you choose the best carrier for your dog?
Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Below I’ll talk about how to measure your dog for a carrier, what to think about when you’re choosing one, and I’ve consulted with Nicole Ellis, a certified dog trainer, to determine what the dog carrier options are and how to know what’s best for you.
Before you go looking for what type might be the best carrier for your dog, it’s important to take your dog’s correct measurements. Any carrier needs to be large enough for your dog to be able to stretch out and roomy enough to allow for your dog to stand up and turn around readily.
To get your dog’s length, measure along his back from the base of his neck—where the neck meets his shoulders—to the root of his tail. You’ll want to add a few inches to this measurement to account for his head and tail.
Next, calculate your dog’s height by measuring from the floor up to the top of his shoulders. If you ultimately select a soft-sided carrier, you’ll add one to four inches to that number to get the overall height of the carrier that will work for your dog. For hard-sided carriers, you’ll need to add three to five inches to compensate for lack of flexibility in the carrier materials.
Finally, you’ll need to have an idea of just how much your dog weighs since many carriers have upper limits on weight. If you have a particularly heavy dog, you might need to bump up a carrier size or two to be certain the carrier is sturdy enough to hold your dog without straining or breaking.
Check the height and weight specifications on the carriers you’re considering to be certain they’ll work for your dog. If your dog’s measurements put her at the top of a size range, you might want to consider bumping up to the larger size for your dog’s overall comfort.
Next, before deciding on which carrier will be best for your needs, think about how you’ll be using it. Ultimately, this will determine which type of carrier—soft-sided, sling, backpack, etc—will be the best fit for you and your dog.
For example, if you’re flying with a small dog, you’ll probably want to look at soft-sided carriers that fit within airline specifications for under the seat. But if you’re flying with a larger dog who will have to travel in cargo, you’ll want to look for very sturdy hard-sided carriers that offer plenty of ventilation and stability.
You’ll also want to think about if you’ll be taking your dog in the car or on public transportation, on bike rides or to places where you’ll need to carry your dog on your person, and what lengths of time will your dog have to be in a carrier.
Do you need a carrier that you can carry on your back? One that will keep your dog snug and close, something that will easily buckle into a car seat, fasten safely onto a bike, or has plenty of ventilation for hot climates?
It’s really important to spend some time thinking about what you’re really looking for in a carrier before you start exploring options. I’d recommend taking notes and making a checklist of must-have options before you look at specific carriers just to be sure that the one you choose is a good fit for your needs and lifestyle.
There are quite a few other things to think about when you’re choosing the best dog carrier for your dog. Let’s take a look at some of them.
While there are many times it’s okay to be frugal—I, myself, have been called a cheapskate more than once—your dog’s carrier is not one of those instances. That’s because it has a super important job: to keep your dog safe and comfortable.
In fact, I once flew with my Shiba Inu, Space, and I cheaped out on the carrier. He proved to be a nervous flyer and was immediately able to break through the somewhat cheap quality fabric and then I had to deal with hours of a dog trying to escape all while the flight attendants kept reminding me that dogs weren’t allowed out of their carriers. It was not fun for either one of us.
How can you tell if something is better quality? If you have a chance to see the carrier in person, look for high-quality materials, double stitching along seam lines, sturdy latches, belts, and closures, and a cozy interior for your dog.
For both hard and soft-side carriers alike, you want to be certain that the carrier is well built and has proper internal supports to keep the carrier from collapsing on your dog. Check to be sure that corners and seams are reinforced and that it sits even to the ground without a tilt that could quickly become annoying to your dog.
Your pet’s temperament
One thing I wish I’d considered before I bought the cheap carrier for my dog was his temperament. He’s not just a nervous flyer—he’s nervous in general. That carrier only had a front zip for loading him in and out, and that didn’t work well for a dog who wanted nothing to do with a carrier in the first place. I think a top-zipping option would’ve made the loading process a lot smoother.
Furthermore, if you know you have an anxious dog, you might want to consider whether more or less visibility will be calming. Some dogs might really like the openness of a mostly mesh carrier while others might do better in a more private environment, in which case you’ll want to look for a carrier with zip up windows.
A lot of owners may just need a carrier for one specific reason—trips in the car, flights, hiking, etc.—but others might want a carrier that’s multipurpose. In that case, look for carriers that can expand and contract, have shoulder straps that can convert into backpack straps, or perhaps have wheels for pulling behind.
One last thing to consider is whether or not your dog is housebroken or prone to accidents. For puppies, older dogs with continence issues, or dogs who can’t always hold it, a soft-sided carrier might not be the best option since they’re much more difficult to keep clean. If it’s possible, you might want to opt for a hard-sided carrier which has plastic sides that are much easier to wipe clean.
There are a few accessories that can help make your dog’s time in a carrier just a bit more comfortable. First of all, though not an accessory, per se, you’ll always want to include a comfort item in your dog’s carrier if room allows: a favorite blanket, chew toy, or bone.
If you’re afraid of accidents, you’ll want to lay down an insert pad, like the DryFur insert pad or a puppy training pad that can be thrown away after use.
Further, if you’re going to be on the go, you might want to pack up a pet travel bag like this one from Hilike that includes silicone water and food dishes as well as food container and storage space for toys and such.
When it comes to types of dog carriers, it’s not an understatement to say that you have options. To explore some of them, we consulted with someone who really knows what dogs need. Nicole Ellis, a certified dog trainer, talked to us about what the options are and which ones she specifically prefers.
Backpack dog carriers are carriers that can be carried on the back. They come in a multitude of styles, from sportier hiking backpacks to ones that work well on public transit. The most important things to look for are extra padding in the shoulders and plenty of ventilation since your dog will be getting a lot of body heat radiating off from you. A reinforced bottom is also a must for safety and stability.
So what’s Nicole’s choice for backpack carrier? The K9 Sport Sack because it’s “an easy way for my dogs to join in on adventures. I love it because my pets can see over my shoulder to enjoy the sights and sounds…from hiking to biking to motorcycling.”
A soft-sided carrier can have a lot of advantages, namely being more flexible, generally lighter weight, and, in smaller sizes, usable for any dog that might be accompanying you under the seat on a flight. Nicole’s favorite soft-sided carrier is “The Sleepypod Air, for multiple reasons.” She likes that she and her dogs can go from “plane to car safely because of this carrier.”
Check out our video review of the Sleepypod Air, too.
Ellis also wants to remind dog owners that just like “we buckle in our kids for car travel, our pets should be buckled in, too and their carriers should pass third-party crash tests. The Sleepypod Air passes the Center for Pet Safety’s crash test with flying colors.”
A sling carrier is a fabric carrier that’s designed to wrap around the owner’s body and leave a cozy spot for a smaller, young, or senior pet to be held snug to the body. These can be a great choice for dogs who have a nervous personality and need a little extra cuddling, toy breeds, and puppies who haven’t yet been vaccinated.
While Nicole doesn’t use these for her own dogs, she thinks they’re a great way for a dog to “see the sights and sounds while you rush around the house or town.” Our favorite is the Tomkas Small Dog and Cat Sling because it offers reversible fabric, an ergonomic design, and plenty of comfort for your favorite tag-along dog.
These carriers, sometimes also called kennels, are generally made out of durable and rugged plastics that hold up well to wear and tear. The harder exterior offers more protection for your dog. Additionally, as noted before, they can be much easier to clean in case of any puppy accidents.
The downside, of course, is that these tend to be bulkier and heavier. For dogs traveling under a plane, however, they’re a must. You’ll want to check with your airline to see what hard-sided carriers are approved for travel in the cargo hold.
My favorite hard-sided carrier is the Petmate Two Door Topload Dog Kennel because it offers sturdy construction, plenty of ventilation, and the option to load your dog in through a top access door or the traditional front metal door.
Hopefully, you feel more than prepared now to choose the best carrier for your dog to travel with you. If, however, you find yourself unable to bring your dog along, we have plenty of dog watchers, sitter, and walkers who can take care of your dog while you’re away.