Dogs in cars: The trouble with big dogs [Part 2]

Subaru and the Center for Pet Safety conducted a collaborative crash test study to test the effectiveness of pet harnesses marketed with safety claims. (Image courtesy of Subaru and Center for Pet Safety)

As the weather gets nicer, I see a lot of people driving around with big dogs sticking heads out of car windows.

Everyone does that, right? Some of us may even smile when we see a big dog, head out the window of a passing car, chomping at the air as if it were solid.

What many of us don’t think about in this situation is the potential for serious harm to us – or heaven forbid, our pet.

In addition to creating a distracted-driving situation, driving like this creates a truly dangerous -- and potentially fatal -- situation for dogs and drivers.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently did a study about rear-selt belt use among adult passengers and dropped a statistical bomb from a 2013 University of Virginia study:

“Drivers are about twice as likely to be fatally injured in crashes in which the left rear passenger was unrestrained compared with crashes in which the passenger was belted.”

In a crash, that unrestrained passenger becomes a projectile. It doesn’t matter if that projectile is human or canine; the result is the same: the driver gets sandwiched between the seat and the steering wheel, pretty much negating any good effects an air bag might create.

And the driver’s injuries are quite likely going to be fatal.

If you don’t care about your pooch, self-preservation should be enough to restrain your pet properly, right?

However, after talking with a friend who has two very large Old English Sheep Dogs that weigh more than 120 pounds each, the resolution isn’t as simple as “put them in a crate or harness.”

According to Lindsey Wolko, founder of the Center for Pet Safety, more research and testing needs to be done for larger dogs.

Wolko created the Center for Pet Safety after her dog Maggie, a blue roan English Cocker Spaniel, was injured during a car crash by a poorly constructed and unsafe harness.

After the crash, she wanted to find a better product and quickly learned there are no safety standards or required testing for pet products.

“This is something like a $72 billion a year industry with no oversight,” Wolko said. “They can make any marketing claim they want, and it goes straight out to the public.”

So, even if a product says it has been crash tested, it might not have been done properly – or at all.

Thus, Wolko has dreams of turning the Center for Pet Safety into “the Consumer Reports of pet products.”

Currently, the organization has crash-test certified harnesses that fit dogs up to 90 pounds, and it used dummy dogs that weigh as much as a real dog, with more mass at the bottom and less at the top.

Some of the crash-test results are horrifying to watch.

Wolko has a large laundry list of things she would like to do – including creating even more accurate dummy dogs that show exactly where and how a dog gets injured in a crash and continuing the testing for large-dog harnesses.

So why stop? No funding.

“We work on behalf of pet owners to make sure they have the truth about a product that is out there,” Wolko said, “and we don’t take funding from industry.”

So, the research is done in fits and starts, but it’s done thoroughly and without prejudice.

But what does that mean for big dogs?

“I don’t know if there’s going to be a perfect solution for any pet owner, but being restrained is better for everyone than not being restrained,” Wolko said.

With one caveat: Do not use a harness with an extension tether.

Why? Because the extension tether is often no better than being unrestrained.

Wolko said CPS has seen instances of dogs going through windshields, tearing ACLs and being paralyzed by extension tethers during crashes.

“Extension tethers are exceptionally dangerous,” Wolko said. “In our opinion they should be removed from the market.”

And with that I went back to my friend’s Old English Sheep Dogs. My friend had previously tried to restrain them, but whatever she bought either tore skin or fur, which is why she eventually chose not to restrain her dogs. She thought the restraints were doing more harm than good.

Wolko countered with even if the pet has a little discomfort, that’s better than permanent nerve damage. And if something is chafing or causing bleeding – that’s exactly the kind of thing CPS wants to know about.

So, what to do with big dogs?

Wolko's first recommendation is always to look and see if one of the CPS-certified products will fit the XL breed dog.

After that, she has one other suggestion, again with a caveat. She says if anyone with a big dog calls her, she sends them to the KlienMetall AllSafe harness, which offers an XL harness for dogs weighing more than 110 pounds.

The caveat: remove both the adjustable and fixed tether and connect the harness directly through the seatbelt.

According to Wolko, the reason this harness hasn’t been CPS certified is because of the tether; KlienMetall refuses to re-engineer the product sans tether.

Another concern with this harness is the foam chest plate, which might be a little hot for the dog, though this hasn't been tested.

There are so many variables and concerns, but at the end of the day, you can’t undo physics, and a 130-pound dog will be like a 5,850-pound lethal projectile during a crash if it isn’t retrained.

The Bottom Line:

In the long term, it’s best not to let your dog roam throughout the vehicle while you’re driving. It’s a potentially fatal situation for you and your beloved pet.

While more testing still needs to be done, there are several CPS-certified harnesses that have been crash tested and will fit most dogs under 110-pounds.

You put your child in a car seat, so why wouldn’t you restrain your pet, who is just like another child?

NOTE: This is part 2 of a “dogs in cars” feature, for pet safety tips and more information about restraining your pet, be sure to visit part 1, which gives more dog safety tips.