It’s a classic scene: A car cruises down the highway as a dog runs side to side in the back seat, poking his head out the windows, tongue flapping in the breeze.
Here’s the problem: Not only is the dog at risk of injury, but the pooch’s owner may actually be breaking the law.
Seatbelts and car seats aren’t just for humans; some states require your pet to be restrained. But whether it’s the law or not, it’s always a good idea. So whether you’re driving to the dog park or trekking cross-country, here are some essential precautions to keep your pet safe in the car.
Know the Law
This is a good first step before getting in a car with your pet. In numerous states it’s illegal for a dog to ride in your lap or loose in the flatbed of a truck, and in some states it’s required that any dog in the car be restained, either with a seatbelt-harness or in a crate. (More on that in a moment.)
Learn more about your local laws by visiting the site for your state’s department of motor vehicles or by calling their office. Mandated or not, these precautions are essential for the safety of your pet—in any state.
The Right Restraint
“The worst place for your dog to ride is on your lap,” says Sally Morgan, a holistic physical therapist who specializes in pet safety. “It may seem fun, but it is not safe for you or the dog.”
“A very small dog may be safest in a crate, secured in place with a seatbelt in the back seat,” says Morgan. “Bigger dogs are often best in a wire crate in the back seat, or in a harness attached to the rear-seat seatbelt.”
If you use a wire crate, Morgan recommends covering it with a sheet (to shield the dog from the sun) and rolling down windows to aid ventilation. If it’s too cold to crack the window, plan for frequent stops so your dog can get fresh air. Keeping your dog in a crate or size-appropriate restraint ensures her safety in case of a sudden stop; plus, she’ll be less likely to distract the driver than if she’s moving around freely.
Train, Train, Train
There are many ways to prepare your dog for car travel, according to Irith Bloom, director of training at The Sophisticated Dog, a pet training company based in Los Angeles.
“Starting as early as possible, take your dog on regular, short car rides to fun places,” she says, as this creates positive associations with riding in a vehicle. If the only time your dog ever gets in the car is to go to the veterinarian, he may develop an aversion to car travel. Morgan recommends keeping him calm and happy with treats and reassurance during these short trips. Over time, he’ll come to enjoy being in the car, and you’ll both be ready to take longer trips.
Plan for the Long Haul
A quick jaunt to the dog park is simple enough, but what about a lengthier ride? Before a long trip, pack your dog’s supplies as carefully as you would your own, stock up on food, and bring water and bowls, treats, chew toys, any necessary medications, old towels and something for the dog to sleep on. Before you leave, Morgan suggests taking the dog for a walk to tire him out.
Once you’re in the car, stop every couple of hours to give your dog water and exercise (on a leash), preferably at a rest stop with a designated dog run. Beware of grasses by the roadside, warns Morgan, as they can play host to ticks and parasites.
Also keep in mind that, just like humans, dogs can get car sick on long drives. Head this off by making sure your pet is as comfortable as possible. If your dog starts to look a bit queasy (excessive drool, dry heaves, etc.), Morgan says rubbing Fido’s ears will help. A dog getting a scratch from a beloved owner—now that’s a happy pet.
Man’s best friend can be man’s best travel buddy too. Learn more about protecting your pet with a pet insurance quote from the GEICO Insurance Agency.
Read More: Flying with your furry friend? Take a refresher course with Pet Travel 101: Tips For Flying With Your Cat Or Dog.