A quick Google search of "dogs lost after car accident" will return a ton of heart-warming stories of humans who were reunited with their beloved furry friends after days — sometimes weeks — of the dogs being missing. Most of the dogs were either ejected from the car during major accidents, or they simply ran off in the chaos afterward.
Some dogs were found quickly, like Pretty Girl, who was returned to her family by a Georgia State Trooper in 2020 the day after they were in a wreck east of Atlanta.
Other dogs, like 8-year-old rescue dog Mia, are more difficult to locate. She ran off after a bad accident in the middle of nowhere Colorado — at night in the snow. It took more than a month to find her; she was thin, scared and dirty, but relatively unscathed considering her adventure.
But for every Pretty Girl and Mia, there are those dogs that aren't so lucky. They end up lost forever or worse — dead. So aside from never taking your furry family on the road, what can you do? Put them in a dog seat belt.
Most Dogs Don't Wear Seat Belts
We don't just take our dogs on walks; dogs keep us company on days-long road trips, kids' carpool at school and of course family vacations. The National Pet Owners Survey says that 40 percent of pet owners travel with their dogs. However, as we've shown, getting our pets from point A to point B can be dangerous if they're not properly restrained.
In 2019, Volvo and The Harris Poll conducted a study, Volvo Reports: Keeping Pets Safe on the Road, that found one-third of respondents would rather go on that road trip with their dog than their family, but two-thirds of them didn't think their dog would be safe in their car if there was an accident. However, they still allow their pets to roam unrestrained.
"We seem to have a bit of a blind spot for canine seatbelts and car safety," she says. "But in the event of a crash, inertia will send dogs, people and anything else in the car flying forward. A 60-pound [27.2-kilogram] dog becomes a 2,700-pound [1224.7-kilogram] projectile at 35 miles [56 kilometers] per hour."
Jordan Schaul is a Ph.D. in conservation and comparative medicine and spent 12 years as an animal trainer and animal behavioral consultant. He experienced the danger of having his dog unrestrained firsthand when his rescue Doberman took a brutal hit on the dashboard of Schaul's car.
"He was sitting in the front seat unrestrained and hit the dashboard very hard; I was terribly concerned," Schaul says. "I know better than to let him sit without a safety harness."
Dog Seat Belts Keep Pets and People Safe
The Volvo study also found that driving with an unrestrained dog isn't just unsafe for the dog, it's unsafe for everyone else, too. Hazardous driving behaviors more than doubled when dogs were unrestrained compared to when they were restrained.
But pet owners want safer ways to travel with their pets, so is a seat belt the answer? "The purpose of a dog seat belt is restraint and safety. Many dogs jump around in a car and may try to jump in a driver's lap, which could lead to an auto accident," explains Justin Padgett, a veterinarian at Branchville Animal Hospital in Odenville, Alabama. "Dogs also need to be tethered to a safe point in the event of an accident to keep them from being ejected from a vehicle."
Schaul takes that one step further and says that dog seat belts are beneficial to pets and humans after accidents, too.
"Seat belts secure dogs who may interfere with first responders," he says. "If a dog becomes loose at the site of a collision, it can vigorously defend its owner, particularly if the owner is incapacitated."
Which Dog Seat Belt Is Best?
Experts agree that dog seat belts are the best way to keep your pup safe in the car. But there are so many in various designs on the market — everything from zip line contraptions that give them room to roam, to thick, padded harnesses that look more like BabyBjörns. How do you know which is right for your dog?
"Most dog seat belts tether the animal to the seat and attach to a safety harness," Padgett explains. "A harness is preferred, rather than just a collar, as it contains multiple points of contact and won't put too much stress on one body part, like the neck. I would recommend using a harness seat belt that attaches securely to the seat of the vehicle."
Phillips says that a good harness also means having a short leash. "One of the most common faults of dog seatbelts are tethers that are too long," she says. "While this gives dogs more freedom to explore, it can completely negate the benefits of the seat belt by letting inertia send dogs flying."
Dog seat belts aren't perfect for every pup, either. Size and temperament need to be considered, too, says Schaul. "Medium and smaller dogs are often better suited for dog car seats, whereas larger dogs are better suited for seat belts," he explains. Dogs or puppies that chew may do better in a carrier than a seat belt, too.
The problem with choosing a dog restraint at the pet store is that there are no formal standards for pet safety crash tests. The pet product industry can label products as "crash-tested" or "safety-approved" without having any actual data or proof to back it up.
Crash-Tested, Center for Pet Safety-approved
Between 2013 and 2015, the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a nonprofit pet safety organization, crash-tested several pet harnesses, carriers and crates, with funding from Subaru. No actual dogs were harmed in these tests; CPS used three different-sized dummy dogs for the harness tests, including a 25-pound (11 kilogram) terrier mix, a 45-pound (20-kilogram) border collie, and a 75-pound (34-kilogram) golden retriever. After rigorous tests modeled after the FMVSS 213 standard — the same used to verify child safety seats — only three harnesses achieved the final crash-test certifications.
Phillips recommends a harness, especially crash-tested ones, by reliable sources like CPS. "That doesn't mean that only seat belts tested by the CPS are safe," she says. "Many other brands use their own third-party testing for crash testing. There are enough brands that have pursued crash testing of some kind that people should stick with a brand that has some real-world data backing it up."
Phillips says the main problem with a harness or restraint is if it's too big or too small. So be sure you get one that fits properly. "Harnesses that are too large could be dangerous as they could encourage dogs to try and wiggle out," she says. "Harnesses and seatbelts that are too tight could cause chaffing or skin irritation, more so if dogs are constantly testing the limits of their restraint."
Not only are they the safest way to travel with your but, but pet restraints are required by law in some five U.S. states: Connecticut, Main, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Washington D.C. has the "Distracted Driving Safety Act of 2004" and it includes interacting with pets. Violating any of these laws could result in fines or even jail time. It's worth taking a few minutes to review the law in your state.
If you're ready to take on the open road with your furry side-car sidekick, Phillips has suggestions to get started. "Let dogs wear the harness in the house while playing. The goal is to make only positive associations with the harness. Patience, praise and treats will help," she explains. "Once dogs are calm and comfortable in their harness, it's time to hit the road!"