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Keeping Dogs Safe in Cars

Posted: March 11, 2013, 8:15 p.m. EST

Retailers would be wise to recommend safety restraints for dogs, but they should know the limitations of the products.
By Steven Appelbaum

Products designed to keep pets safe when traveling are not just a luxury, they are a necessity. Why? While not all pet owners plan on taking their pets on a long road trip, almost everyone will take their dogs to the veterinarian, the groomer or the park. When this involves driving, not taking basic precautions in the car puts your customers' and their pets' safety at risk.

More than 30 percent of drivers have been distracted by their dogs when these pets were either unrestrained or sitting on the drivers' laps, according to the American Automobile Association. This is one reason a growing number of states are considering laws that make it illegal to drive with a pet in your lap. Some states are even considering laws forcing drivers to buckle Fido into a seatbelt.

Because looking away from the road for more than two seconds can double the risk for an accident, it stands to reason that it's risky behavior for drivers to allow pets into their laps or to roam freely about the automobile.

Given the risks associated with an unrestrained dog in a moving car, pet store owners are wise to recommend safety harnesses and canine restraint systems to their customers. The challenge retailers face is helping customers understand the current limitations of these products.

Traveling with dogs in the car
The typical safety harness fits like a regular body harness around a pet and then is attached via a clip or a belt to the car's seatbelts. There are no federal or state standards to which pet safety harnesses must conform.

In the absence of such standards, pet owners must consider what each product is designed to accomplish. Some products are created to simply prevent a pet from wandering around the car. While this makes it less likely that the pet will distract the driver, these products are not designed to hold the pet in place in the event of an accident.

So how safe are these devices in an accident? The nonprofit Center for Pet Safety recently tested several brands of pet harnesses using the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS 213) for child restraint systems. The crash test—complete with life-sized canine crash dummies—was conducted at an independent laboratory that also tests for the Department of Transportation. The results: Every restraint system failed. While none of the brands tested was named, the test did state that “a control group of readily available canine automotive restraints” were used. For more information on the test, visit

Bergan, a Monkey Island, Okla.-based pet product company, understood the need for some standards and, to its credit, worked with an independent laboratory to create safety benchmarks it hopes will be used industry-wide. These standards, called V9DT, test the tensile strength of the materials from which the harnesses are constructed. Tensile strength is defined as “the resistance of a material to a force tending to tear it apart, measured as the maximum tension the material can withstand without tearing.” For more information on this standard and testing go to

The bottom line on the V9DT testing was that several manufactures' canine restraint products failed. Bergan's Travel Harness passed, but the report states that while the materials used in making the harness passed, the harness itself was not crash tested. Crash testing is mandatory for human seatbelt systems.

What does all this mean? For me, it means that pet safety harnesses and restraint systems are not held to the same standards as human seatbelts and, thus, are not as safe. In the absence of this, the V9DT standard at least means the materials were tested.

This isn't to suggest that pet stores stop selling these products, as they do prevent pets from wandering around and distracting the driver. Click here to learn about other products for dogs traveling in cars. That being said, I do suggest that when selling safety harnesses, canine automotive restraints or any product in which the dog is attached to the car's seatbelts by a harness, be very careful about claiming that these products will protect the pet like a seatbelt protects a human.

I believe it is just a matter of time before regulations appear that hold all pet products designed to keep a pet secured in an automobile to the same or similar levels as human seatbelts. Until that occurs, you, the retailer, should be aware of the limitations of the products you sell.

Steven Appelbaum

Steven Appelbaum is the president of Animal Behavior College, a vocational institution devoted to helping animal lovers succeed in animal careers. Appelbaum has been a professional animal trainer for 30 years. He is the author of the book “The ABC Practical Guide to Dog Training,” and is a freelance writer, lecturer and consultant.

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