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Few things give me more joy than watching a car drive by with a large dog hanging its head out the window, jowls and slobber flying in the breeze. I know that you can’t reliably read a dog’s mood by its expression, but I have little doubt that a smiling dog with its nose in the wind is happier than one sitting at home looking out the window.

That said, having your dog out and loose in a car poses a few problems. The first is cleanliness: even the most well-groomed pup is liable to leave some hair or fur behind. And, if your destination dog park is the sort that gets muddy, you’ll surely be cleaning up paw prints for months to come.
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More problematically, though, is the safety of driving with dogs. Thanks to decades of research and crash testing, driving with children in the car is a rigorously scientific thing. With dogs… well, it’s a little more loose. So, here’s some advice for how you can keep your pups, and their various bodily fluids, well-contained for a trip on the road.

Seat covers

If you plan on having your dogs sit on the upholstery, the most important part of the equation is some sort of seat cover. There are hundreds and hundreds out there, ranging from cheap generic options to far more expensive custom-fitted units. Given that it’s hard to recommend any one in particular. I’d recommend finding some owners groups and seeing what works for your particular vehicle, but in general I’m a big fan of hammock-shaped seat covers.

I have an inexpensive one from Gorilla Grip that I bought on Amazon for just $21. I got it specifically for use in our now dearly departed Land Rover Discovery long-termer, but it went on to see use in our Nissan Leaf SV and now is deployed in our Subaru Ascent. It’s big enough to work in bigger SUVs but, thanks to the little rubber bits of rubber tubing that you wedge into the seats, stays taut even on smaller vehicles. The pockets are handy for leashes or treats and the hammock style keeps the worst of the fur contained while keeping your pups where you want them.

Barriers

Seat covers are a good starting point, but some dogs may require something a bit more… incarcerating. While bigger dogs are a little easier to keep in place, littler pups, who sometimes have a tendency to wander, can squeeze between seats and doors. Add in a bit of anxiety and you can quickly create an unsafe situation with a pooch either trying to jump in the driver’s lap or cuddle up at their feet. Neither is good.
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In this case, the rear hatch of your wagon or SUV may be a better place, but now the game becomes keeping them back there. Many wagons and SUVs come with barriers that keep precious cargo in place, but if yours is lacking, there are plenty of aftermarket units out there.

For the Ascent, we tried out the $40 PetSafe Solvit barrier, but I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend it. It’s way too fiddly to put together, too flimsy once assembled, and too slow to install and remove.

While more expensive, this fabric unit, called the Bushwhacker, looks like a much nicer option to me. It’s $77 at the time of writing.

Crash-tested

Putting your pups in the back hatch may make driving safer by keeping them contained, but it isn’t the safest option in the case of a crash. The science of crash testing with pups is relatively limited and few products out have been specifically tested to keep your best friend safe in a crash. And, while don’t mean to be morbid, keeping your dog safe in a crash also means keeping you safe, because nobody wants a 90-pound Malamute flying at them in the midst of an accident.

Of those certified harnesses that exist, the Sleepypod Clickit Terrain is my choice. It goes on easily, just like any other harness, and then you just slip the seatbelt in beneath the rear loops. This gives the dog enough freedom to sit up or lie down if they like, and it even has mounting points for a little backpack. Yes, it is far, far more expensive than a normal dog harness, but as soon as you take it out of the packaging you’ll see and feel why.

Staying hydrated

Dogs need about an ounce of water every day per pound of body weight, and if they’re agitated and panting that amount only goes up. Throwing your pup in the car can be very stressful for them, especially if they realize you’re heading to the vet. So, make sure you can keep them hydrated. I purchased a Lixit Water Boy water bowl years ago, and since then it’s seen us through many thousands miles of road trips. It’s easy to fill, stores vertically and, while not totally spillproof, does a good job of keeping down the splashing.

Loading up

Bigger, older dogs will some day get to a point where they need a little help getting into and out of the car. And, depending on how good your back is, you may or may not be able to provide that help. Ramps are the answer, but make sure that you don’t go with the cheapest, smallest ones you can find. For one thing, a shorter ramp is a steeper ramp, which may defeat the purpose. Plus, a flimsy, shaky ramp may scare your dogs, and they’ll likely need some encouragement as it is.

We tested the PetSafe Solvit Deluxe ramp on our Subaru Ascent, rated for a whopping 400 pounds. At over $100 it’s expensive, but it slides together easily and deploys in seconds, and was rock-solid once out. My only concern is the no-slip surface is like skateboard grip tape, aka sandpaper, and I worry about the effect of that on the pads of my older pup Bowser, who now drags his rear toes a bit as he walks.

Eye protection

Finally, I want to talk briefly about eye protection. As I mentioned at the top, seeing my dogs hang their heads out the window gives me nearly as much joy as I hope it gives them. However, many have rightly questioned the safety of this behavior. There are many factors at play, but eye protection is a major one.

I wouldn’t imagine going out for a ride on my motorcycle without some sort of eye protection. Consider doing the same for your pups. A set of doggles, like the ones from QUMY that Bowser is wearing here, costs less than $20 and, thanks to their dual straps, will stay in place even at speed. I’m sure they’re effective at preventing damage, but my dogs absolutely hate the things.

More recently I’ve seen some ski goggle-like options, including the Rex Specs. Far more expensive at about $80, and I’ve not had the opportunity to test any, but they certainly look more comfortable. And, frankly, a lot less goofy — vital if your pup suffers from self esteem issues.

 

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