Car Safety for Dogs: Everybody belt up!

Car Safety for Dogs: Everybody belt up!

It’s not uncommon to look back on “The Old Days” and shake your head at the way things used to be done. Things that seemed perfectly normal fifty years ago would be considered reckless endangerment now. A perfect example of this is car safety. Safety standards for cars have changed drastically over the years. Nowadays no one would have a second thought about the wisdom of buckling up or putting their baby in a car seat. However seatbelts weren’t standard in cars until 1968, and car seats for small children weren’t required nationwide until 1985!

Well believe it or not, in a few decades TODAY will be “The Old Days” and some of our current practices will cause our grand kids to shake their heads in dismay. Safety standards are still improving and the next big frontier in car safety is all about the pups! For the most part, when dogs join us in the car, they tend to roam free. It’s not at all uncommon to see little dogs on people’s laps, happy panting faces hanging out of windows or wagging tails in the back of a pickup truck. I would be lying if I said that my dogs haven’t traveled in the same way. Growing up, that was how it was always done, and if everyone does it then there can’t be a problem with it, right? Well, that’s what we said about the “Steel Travel Platform” for babies pictured below too.

The truth is that dogs having the run of the car can create a lot of issues for them and their human companions. They can be adorable little distractions that ask for affection while your attention should be on the road. Little dogs in laps can jump down by the pedals risking an accident. Dogs in the back of a truck or with their head out a window can jump out, be hit by debris (particularly dangerous for their eyes), and be seriously hurt if your car were to roll. Finally we can’t forget that a dog riding loose in a car is just as likely to get injured in an accident as humans are if we are left unbuckled in a car. Not only that, they can become deadly projectiles that can seriously injure human passengers as well.

So what are our alternatives? Over the last several years a plethora of products have hit the market aimed at solving this dog transportation issue with some being better than others. Below I’ve provided a brief breakdown of some of the more popular solutions.


Pet Seats:  

Pet seats are typically marketed toward the owners of small breed dogs. They are basically soft comfy little boxes that your dog can be strapped into so that they can be kept in place while enjoying the comfort of a dog bed. However while these seats may keep you dog in its place to prevent driver distraction, they aren’t helpful when it comes to the big stuff.The Center for Pet Safety which conducts stringent third party crash testing for dog safety products has only completed a pilot study of pet car seats which means that only a few representative ones were tested, but the results were not promising. None of the pet seats tested kept the test dummies safe in a collision with most of them completely failing and leaving the dog flying across the car. Not ideal for car safety.   


Car Barriers:

Car barriers are usually designed to separate the front seat from the backseat, or the backseat from the cargo area of a car. High quality barriers can not only prevent your dog from distracting you while driving, but can keep your dog from becoming a dangerous projectile and injuring humans in the event of an accident. However your dog it still very likely to become injured as he will still be thrown around his separate compartment of the vehicle. And that is a best case scenario. If your barrier is not sturdy enough to withstand the thousands of pounds of force that hit it when your dog goes flying, it will basically become another flying projectile that can seriously harm others.


Crates and carriers:

Unlike barriers and pet seats, crates and carriers not only reduce distraction but keep you and your pet safe in the event of an accident. That is of course if they are strong and properly installed (even the best kennel won’t help much if it gets loose and goes rolling around the car).The Center for Pet Safety has tested several crates and carriers on the market. The carriers that passed the test were several from the Sleepypod line (Air, Atom, Mini with PPRS Handilock, and Mobile Pet Bed with PPRS Handilock), and the Gen7Pets Gen7 Commuter. The only winner for the crates was the Gunner Kennel G1. The CPS has by no means tested all of the safety equipment available on the market, but their results are a good place to start if you want to be sure that you are getting a quality product. Especially since many products in the market advertise as crash tested while conveniently leaving out the fact that they failed said tests or conducted their own rather biased ones. If you decide to shop for products off this list, I would advise that you first visit CPS’s website linked below to be sure you aren’t buying a product that they proved would fail in an accident, and then to do your own careful research to be sure that the product you choose has been properly tested.


Harness and Seatbelt:

The most important thing to know is that you should never EVER attach a seatbelt or tether to your dog’s collar! If you were ever in an accident you could seriously injure or even break your dog’s neck. Instead any seatbelts or tethers should be attached to a chest harness that can distribute pressure to minimize injury. That being said, the proper harness and tethering system, like crates and carriers, not only prevents distraction issues but protects your dog and other passengers from injury in the event of a collision. There are actually only three car safety harnesses that have passed third party crash testing done by the Center for Pet Safety: the ZuGoPet Rocketeer Pack, the Sleepypod Clickit Safety Harness, and Sleepypod Clickit Terrain Safety Harness. Some other harnesses passed the test for smaller dogs but not larger ones (see the CPS website for more info). As with crates and carriers, there are many harnesses that have not been tested by CPS, but it is highly advised that owners investigate the crash testing claims of those products before purchasing them. In general the harness should be built with quality materials that can withstand the force of a crash and should  be secured with the car’s own seatbelt. In its research CPS found, “Pets are essentially “clothes-lined” by extension tethers – they launch forward and snap back with the spine incurring the most damage.  Reports of paralysis, blunt force trauma – and in some cases the spine has been damaged so severely that the internal organs could no longer function and the dog had to be humanely euthanized.” Tethers and other harnessing systems can be helpful for more common minor issues like keeping your dog from distracting the driver and  preventing them from flying forward if you have to suddenly hit the brakes, but when it comes to a real accident, only crash tested harnesses secured with a seatbelt will protect your dogs like a seatbelt would protect you.


The conclusion? Change happens incrementally, and no one is going to judge you if you don’t use crash tested products for your dog (at least not in this decade). Reducing driver distraction is probably the easiest most impactful change we could make as dog owners and would be a great first step. However if you truly want your dog to ride as safely as you, the crash test evidence speaks for itself. Either put them in a well secured crate or seatbelt them using one of the crash tested and approved harnesses or carriers listed above. It may take some time and effort to get them adjusted, but keeping your whole family safe will be worth it.

For more information on car safety for dogs and crash tested products, see the articles linked below.



How to Enrich your Dog’s Life

How to Enrich your Dog’s Life

What basic things does a person need to provide for their dog? Well in every TV show and movie ever made where a kid brings home a dog and begs mom and dad to keep it, they use this argument: “Please mom, I promise I’ll feed them and walk them and clean up after them!”  The fact that this theme is so popular in media tells me two things: 1. Dogs are amazing so everyone can identify with wanting one. 2. When we think of taking care of a dog, we tend to think about their physical needs.

Now there is nothing wrong with thinking of your dog’s physical needs. Food is pretty darn important. But once those basic needs for physical well being are met, it is time to think about your dog’s emotional and mental well being. After all, how happy would you be if your entire life consisted of only eating, going to the bathroom, and sleeping? (Okay, so I might have had a few wonderfully lazy weekends that looked a lot like this but I wouldn’t want to do it every day.). After a while the lack of stimulation would probably get a bit dull or even make you anxious and depressed.

Dogs need things to occupy their minds just as much as we do in order to stay mentally and emotionally fit. So what are your options? Well frankly there are tons of them. Some are super easy and some require practice. Which ones will work best for your dog is something that may require some trial and error. I’ve listed my three go-to’s below. For more examples and information on the benefits of mental enrichment, you can check out the articles linked below.

  1. Field trips! Going out and exploring the world is a great way to mentally stimulate your dog and get them some exercise to boot. Gotta love knocking out two birds with one stone! The key to your outing being mentally enriching as well as physically stimulating is to let your dog explore. Instead of just focusing just on cardio and moving forward the whole time, let your dog do that sniffing thing that dogs do best. Unlike us humans, dogs’ eyesight is not their primary sense, smell is. So instead of going out with a power walk on the agenda, try enjoying what I have nerdishly dubbed the stroll n’ sniff. If your dog isn’t too stressed by strangers and has decent manners, you can also switch up your adventures by going to different dog friendly places like local pet stores. Social interaction is great enrichment for the dogs that can handle it!
  2. Agility training and tricks. Like with walks, agility is great for brains and bodies. And while other types of tricks like sit, lay down, and roll over may not be a workout, trick and agility training both stimulate the mind by asking dogs to learn tasks. Just like with people, learning and practicing skills requires brain power and can be highly satisfying (especially when you are rewarded for performing those skills with pets and treats). Trick and agility training also have the added benefit of building helpful skills for public outings and distracting situations. Several of the dogs I’ve walked, if left to their own devices, would pulls my arm off trying to get to a dog in the distance. But if I step off to the side and make a fun game of doing tricks and eating treats then that passing dog loses some of its interest. (This of course is not true for all dogs. One of my own dogs is terribly anxious around strange dogs and no number of treats in the world will make her forget their presence.)
  3. Puzzle toys. There are a number of different dog toys on the market that require your dog to use a little problem solving in order to get some treats (I’ve included pictures below of some different store-bought variations, but google can also show you TONS of DIY options). I personally use these types of toys not just for treats, but to feed my dogs the majority of their meals. That way one of the basic things I do for my dogs’ physical well being doubles as a good mental workout too. These toys are also great if you have a dog that eats too fast or is susceptible to bloat because the effort they have to put in to getting to the food makes them slow down as they eat.

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

Reading Your Dog’s Body Language

As humans, we sometimes take for granted this wonderful thing we call the spoken language. The ease with which we are able to communicate important messages to our fellow man is truly spectacular. If there is danger, if we are frightened, if we are in pain, we have words for these things that others can understand instantly and then typically know how to respond. Now for a moment imagine a scenario in which you are in danger or afraid, and the only people you can speak to do no speak your language. What do you do? You would likely resort to some kind of frantic charades. It would probably be frustrating, but in all likelihood the person would be able to get the gist of your body language. Now imagine a slightly stranger scenario in which the only person who can help you isn’t even human and looks on in complete confusion as you babble away in a strange language and contort your body with gestures that would surely make sense to another human, but make no sense to the newcomer.

Welcome to the wonderful world of human dog interaction! Dogs aren’t blessed with spoken language like we are, though they do have a small range of vocalizations with different meaning. For the most part they rely on body language to communicate with other dogs and with their human companions. This body language can sometimes be very subtle making it hard to pick up on. And unfortunately even the more obvious body language is often misinterpreted by us because, as humans, we have a tendency to project human traits on to other animals and even inanimate objects. These misunderstandings can be relatively innocuous, but they are also frequently the precursor to preventable dog attacks. The internet is awash in home videos in which dogs and humans (often children) are interacting in a way that the people think is funny or cute, but the dog is clearly, to the trained eye, giving body language that is saying, “I don’t like this. Back off!” I’m willing to bet that the majority of dog attacks in which the owners say, “She’s never done anything like that. It came out of nowhere,” there were actually many signs that the owner simply didn’t understand.

For the safety of ourselves, our families, and the public, as well as the safety and emotional well-being of our dogs, it is important for us as dog owners to know how to read our own dog’s body language. It is also wise for people in general to understand the basics of canine body language so that you can more safely gauge your interactions with dogs you meet because, unfortunately, not every dog owner knows their dog as well as they think they do.

For a run down on the different types of body language and what they mean, I recommend looking over the diagrams and reading the article linked below.


The Basics of Dog Training: Do’s and don’ts for a happy, well trained pup

The Basics of Dog Training: Do’s and don’ts for a happy, well trained pup

As much as I love dogs, and as much as it pains me to say this ….no dog is perfect. There, I said it! (But don’t tell my dogs, because they are told that they are my perfect angels). Bring a puppy into your family without giving them any guidance and your life and home can become a bit of a tornado.This is why most of us train our dogs to some degree. You might not take your dog to a professional trainer, or teach them to skateboard (yes that’s an allusion to the picture above) but most dog owners at least attempt to teach their dog to pee outside,or maybe even sit and stay if they’re feeling adventurous!

So here’s the age old question: what is the best way to train your dog? There are many different tricks and tools that have been in vogue over the years, but all dog learning can be boiled down to two concepts that scientist and behaviorist have been studying for over a century: classical and operant conditioning. Classical and operant conditioning describe the ways I which our dogs learn things about the world, with or without our being aware if it. By understanding these concepts we can better understand how our dog is interpreting our efforts at training as well as their world in general.

As you will learn in the articles below, not all conditioning is equal. The use of aversive methods, often called corrections by those that support them, have been proven not only to teach less effectively, but also to increase the likelihood of fearful and aggressive behavior in dogs. Instead, training should focus on positive reinforcement with a bit of negative punishment added in. (Be sure to read the article on operant conditioning as these words mean slightly different things to scientists than they do to the Average Joe.) As a helpful visual, check out the graphic below. When working with your dog, try to stay in the green column and avoid the red column. I promise that you and your dog will be better off for it!

The Evolution of Man’s Best Friend: Why You Shouldn’t Treat Your Dog Like a Tame Wolf

The Evolution of Man’s Best Friend: Why You Shouldn’t Treat Your Dog Like a Tame Wolf

Watch advertisements for canine products and you’ll notice a theme. In commercial after commercial we are shown images of a majestic wolf juxtaposed with a friendly family dog and told that we must buy this product because it would be good enough for a wolf….and your dog has a wolf inside him!

It is true that today’s wolves and our domesticated dogs share a common ancient wolf ancestor, but domestic dogs diverged from their wild cousins thousands of years ago. In that time everything from their physical stature, brain structure, and digestive system to their social behavior have changed. Unfortunately, the perpetuation of many myths about wolves and frequent equation of wolves with domesticated dogs has lead to potentially damaging trends when it comes to our care for and training of man’s best friend.  

Luckily for those who want to do right by their canine family members, scientific research in the past few decades has provided us with a great deal of knowledge on which to base our relationships with our dogs going forward. While some of the finer details of canine history are still debated by scholars, the latest genetic research suggests that dogs diverged from a now extinct subspecies of wolf 30-40 thousand years ago making them the first domesticated animal. Our partnership with dogs started before we settled in villages and before we learned to farm. They travelled with us on our hunts and helped us find game. They provided protection from potential threats, both animal and human. And as is true today, all they wanted in return was kindness….and food.

The partnership between dogs and humans is one that likely shaped the course of human history, which is probably no surprise to anyone who has shared their life with the descendants of those first dogs.

For more information on the evolution of dogs and how they differ from wolves, you can read the articles linked below.

For an in depth read on canine evolution from its beginning to the present and the roles dogs play in our lives today, I highly recommend the book, Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger.

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