By Beth Levine
It was the summer of 1995, a beautiful weekend afternoon. I was driving home from the dog park with Sophie and Owen, my two Greyhounds, and Haley, my mixed breed. All were in the back of the station wagon. Traffic was fairly heavy and I crawled along the freeway in the Seattle suburbs at around 35 mph. Suddenly, I saw the red flash of the brake lights in front of me. I stepped on the brake gently, grateful for the few car lengths' distance between the preceding car and me. That inner voice, that longtime habit, forced me to look up at the rear view mirror.
My heart leaped to my throat as I realized the car behind me was coming too close and too fast. I suddenly felt the collision as it rear-ended me, forcing my car into the car in front of me in a series of jarring impacts. Fear clutched my chest as I heard the impact of my beloved dogs against the metal wagon barrier, and heard their cries of pain and anger as they were thrown against each other. Sophie, my alpha bitch, was furious that her subordinates would dare step on her and was on the verge of violent disciplinary action. I was helpless, physically separated from them by the metal barrier, and too mentally focused on what was happening on the road to prevent a possible serious dog fight.
When the dust settled, it was a five-car accident. We crawled to the shoulder to await police intervention. My dogs forgave each other and the raised hackles peacefully went back into place. I was left weak and trembling. Except for Sophie's pride and the $1500 damage to my car, the worst injury was my sore neck. It could have been far worse. My dogs could have been seriously injured or killed either in the accident or the ensuing dog fight. I was wearing my seatbelt, but what about them? That was the day I began planning to buy and outfit a properly dog-safe vehicle. Why?
Car safety is an important consideration for dog owners. Otherwise conscientious and responsible owners often let their dogs ride loose in the car, even hanging out the windows, without regard for the possible danger inherent in such activities. My own mother, who was adamant about seatbelt use when I was a child, scoffed when I told her my plan to buy a dog-safe vehicle.
Dogs hanging out of windows can suffer eye injuries from debris flying by. They can be thrown from the car in case of accident or can escape if they see something tempting on the side of the road. If the windows are rolled up for containment, dogs can suffer fatal heatstroke in a matter of minutes. In an accident, loose dogs can be thrown around in the car, colliding with windshields and other human or canine passengers, often resulting in serious injury or death.
By far the best solution for containing dogs safely in a moving vehicle is a van or similar vehicle outfitted with properly-sized crates for all canine occupants. However, realistically this is also the most expensive option and probably the least practical or affordable for the average large breed dog owner. While a station wagon may suffice for crating smaller breeds, sports utility vehicles or even many mini-vans are too small to hold more than two large crates. Thankfully, there are other options for ensuring the safety of our beloved Greyhounds even if we are unable to afford a "luxury" van and must make due with a modestly sized or priced vehicle.
I originally bought my barrier because my mixed breed loves to ride plastered to the front window and thinks nothing of climbing into my lap as I try to drive. She is a sheltie mix and loves to bark, particularly at other dogs, and she would bounce around barking madly every time we passed a dog while driving. Physically separating her from me while I was driving was the best option. At the time, the wagon barrier seemed to provide adequate safety for my canine passengers.
Barriers are generally available in adjustable sizes in multiple styles. There are metal barriers that attach with vertical pressure points to the floor and the roof of the car. There are other barriers that attach to the windows with suction cups. There are also barriers made of netting or webbing. Whichever style you choose, take care to attach the barriers as securely as possible according to the directions provided by the manufacturer. I often pass vehicles on the road with barriers attached in a makeshift manner. I cringe because in an accident, the barrier itself is sure to become a dangerous projectile. Barriers are advantageous because they are relatively inexpensive, readily available, and do adequately segregate the dogs from the passenger area, which is an important safety consideration. They do not, however, afford maximum safety. In an accident, a dog can still be catapulted into the barrier, potentially causing injury or even dislodging the barrier itself if the force of the impact is sufficient. And, as was illustrated in my own accident, dogs can be thrown against each other, resulting in dog fights at absolutely the worst possible time.
Canine seatbelts consist of a harness designed to minimize compression to the chest, through which the car's seatbelt is fastened. They are generally considered safer than barriers, because they keep the dog in place in case of accident with the same efficiency as a seat-belted human. They are also relatively inexpensive, readily available, easily removable (thus allowing the vehicle to be used for occasional human passengers), and allow a place for as many dogs as there are seatbelts. On the other hand, some Greyhound owners have reported that they are an awkward solution for Greyhounds, considering their conformation and inconvenient propensity to tangle themselves.
Crating dogs in an appropriate- sized vehicle is the safest way for them to travel, if one is lucky enough to be able to afford this solution. Expense is most certainly the major drawback, however. Beyond the cost of the vehicle itself, mini and cargo vans get poor gas mileage and are generally costlier to maintain and insure. For those of us who are unable to afford to maintain and insure more than one vehicle, our only choice is to commute in our more costly dog-safe vehicles. Mini-vans will only suffice for crating two or three greyhounds. Owners of multiple dogs may be required to purchase a full or extended cargo van.
However, vans are advantageous for many reasons that are persuasive enough to merit serious consideration. In an accident, there is no safer place for a dog than in a crate. A properly-sized crate will not only protect the dog from injury but will contain the dog in the vehicle in case of broken doors and windows. Crates will contain the dog if emergency workers are required to open the vehicle to assist drivers and passengers. Your individually crated dogs have little chance of getting loose on the freeway and have no chance of getting into a dog fight whether they occur in the chaos of an accident or merely in everyday canine disputes. Dogs can be safely left in the vehicle during the heat of the summer with side and back doors opened.
Some people buy or design barriers of various kinds to use in mini-vans as well as in station wagons, but by far the most popular use of a van is to outfit it with crates.
Plastic airline-approved crates such as The Vari-Kennel made by Doskocil and the Furrari crates are airline approved crates. General Cage, Midwest Cage, or Kennel Aire make wire crates. Wire crates often come in more appropriate sizes to maximize usage of space inside the vehicle, but many people do not consider them as safe as a plastic crate. Most airlines do not approve of wire crates for shipping, for instance. Many dog fanciers forego their convenience in the interest of safety. However, if space is an issue, wire crates are a safer solution than letting the dogs ride free.
Crates must be appropriately sized, as a crate that is too large offers less protection in case of collision. Generally a crate should be big enough for the dog to stand up, turn around, and lie down again. Head clearance is not critical. A crate of excessive size will allow the dog to gain more momentum in a collision, increasing the force with which it will impact the sides. A snug fit is far safer than a roomy one. A 500 Vari-Kennel is quite appropriate for most Greyhounds. Crates must also be securely fastened within the vehicle, as a flying crate is an even more dangerous projectile than a flying dog in the case of accident. Bungee cords work nicely to secure the crates. Another option, particularly if one is mechanically inclined, is to rig the existing seatbelts.
My Ideal Dogmobile
I am a single dogmom with a modest salary, and was not planning on replacing my reliable station wagon anytime soon until my unexpected car accident abruptly changed my mind. After much consideration I decided that buying a van was a sacrifice I was willing to make to ensure the safety of my canine family members. I researched used vans and finally settled upon the Volkswagen Eurovan for a variety of reasons. I prefer a foreign-made car, a manual transmission, and was acutely aware of the size limitations of most mini-vans. I based my choice on the number and size of the dogs I currently had (two Greyhounds, one 25 pound mixed breed), and the dogs I was likely to add during the time I would own the van (another Greyhound and a Whippet). I knew that my optimal van would be able to fit three 500 Vari-Kennels and two 300s. I knew that rear air conditioning was an important feature for my needs. I knew that reliability and repair records were an important consideration, as I planned to put above average miles on the vehicle driving to various canine activities. I went to dealerships and measured van interiors, and the only one I found that would accommodate the size and number of crates I needed was the Eurovan, which also matched my other criteria as well.
Outfitting my Eurovan
I secured a pre-approved car loan, ordered spare crates from my favorite pet supply mail order catalog, and began my search for used Eurovans. Within a matter of weeks, I was the proud owner of a 1993 VW Eurovan. The first thing I did when I drove it home from the dealer was to remove the rear passenger seats and secure my new crates with bungee cords. Later, I built a wooden platform to raise two of the crates over the rear wheel-wells, maximizing the useable surface area and providing storage space underneath. I love my van (named Willi — a good German name for a good German van) and consider its purchase one of the very best decisions, financial or otherwise, I've made in my entire life.
My Greyhounds participate in competitive dog activities, including lure coursing and obedience. I knew that I would need an appropriate vehicle not only for the safety of my dogs in transit, but to haul them and equipment to dog shows and coursing trials. With my van, I am able to leave the dogs crated, both for their own safety and that of the interior of my van (Greyhounds often destroy car interiors in their excitement to chase the lure) regardless of the weather. When it is hot I can open the rear and side doors and rest assured that my dogs will not overheat. I have traveled over 1,000 miles to many dog shows and Greyhound specialties in the dog days of summer, and my canine companions have traveled comfortably and safely in their air-conditioned van. I hope sometime soon to make a cross-country trip with my dogs and am confident that my van will get us all there as safely and as comfortably as it gets us to our visits to the dog park.
Vehicle Safety Items
Many crateless people use the Sure-Fit Premier harnesses with seat belt leash/holders. A safe, inexpensive alternative for those who do not have vehicles large enough to hold crates, they are available from PetsMart chain stores; from Changing Horizons at 1-888-751-0877 or e-mail www.chorizon.com or other pet supply sources. The retail price is about $20 for both harness and selt belt holder.
Vari-Kennels win thumbs-up as the safest crate (if the bolts are tightened properly). The Kennel-Aire is next, followed by the collapsible crate.
Metal barriers are excellent to keep dogs from becoming projectiles into the windshield. Maureen Lucas made a barrier of lawn chair type webbing, sewn together with a heavy craft needle on her sewing machine. This is easier on the dog.
Oster makes plastic tags with removable paper inserts for information.
Crates, barriers, other supplies
R.C. Steele: 800-873-3773
KV Vet Supply: 800-423-8211
New England Serum Co: 800-NE-SERUM
Beth Levine hails from Seattle, Washington. She resides with her two greyhounds: Owen (P's Call Bell CD JC FCh); Sophie (Country Terror JC); and Haley the Dog.