by C.C. Holland
Every day, people load their dogs into cars for trips to the vet or dog park, to run errands, visit friends, or to take day trips. Unfortunately, many of them don’t realize that the outing can spell danger for their four-legged friends.
While most of us, spurred by safety concerns and government regulations, wear seat belts as a matter of course, we don’t always think about restraining our dogs when they’re our passengers. But going without a restraint poses dangers to dogs and drivers alike. In the event of a sudden stop or crash, a dog can become a flying projectile that can injure you, crash through a windshield, or slam with bone-breaking force into the dashboard or seatbacks.
In addition, a terrified and battered dog who’s just survived a crash may, if unrestrained, leap into oncoming traffic or become lost in unfamiliar surroundings.
How to restrain your dog
We advocate keeping your dog restrained at all times when he’s traveling with you. The best form of protection is a crate, securely strapped or, better yet, bolted down to keep it from shifting. If your dog’s crate is too big for your car, a doggie seat belt is our recommended alternative.
Dogs should ride in the rear seat whenever possible, well away from airbags. Passenger-seat airbags can maim or kill a dog. If your dog must ride in front, disable the airbag and make sure that his restraint doesn’t allow him enough room to clamber into your lap and interfere with driving.
The designs of the dog restraint devices on the market are diverse. Some consist of a harness that can be attached somehow to your car’s seat belt. Some are simple straps that allow you to clip your dog’s harness to the seat belt. Some are intended only as restraints that limit a dog’s mobility in the car, and prevent him from being thrown out or escaping from a wrecked car. Others are designed to absolutely secure dogs in an accident; these, necessarily, also severely restrict the dog’s movement (and in some cases, comfort) in the car.
Although strength is an important factor in selecting a dog seat belt, it’s not the only one. The “safest” product we examined was also the most difficult to put on and get off the dog, and the least comfortable for him. If a safety restraint is a pain for the person and dog alike, chances are it’s not going to be used as often as it should be. So we gave equal weight to three other criteria: quality/durability, adjustability, and ease of use.
Items that feature good quality parts and reinforced stitching at stress points, offer options for a customized fit, and are simple to put on and take off were given higher ratings. The overall score for each product is an average of the four criteria.
The Universal Car Harness was the only harness-style restraint we found that, instead of providing a loop through which a seat belt could be passed, came with a separate strap that clips directly into your seat belt buckle. The advantage to this attachment is that once your dog is latched in, there’s no play – and you don’t have to rely on your seat belt’s locking mechanism to secure your dog during a sudden stop.
The strap attaches to the harness with a carabiner-style clip. A metal tang on the other end of the strap is purported to fit into any standard seat belt buckle. It took a little bit of maneuvering to get the tang to seat firmly into our seat belt buckle, but once it did, it acted like a regular seat belt; it didn’t pull free unless we hit the release button.
The strap is adjustable from 12 to 21 inches, letting you determine how much room to roam you’d like your dog to have; we recommend keeping it on the shortest setting and then triple-stitching it in place. Another advantage: our test dog didn’t get twisted up, since she could easily walk over the seat belt strap when she turned around.
The harness itself is a marvel of simplicity: one plastic buckle connects and removes it. When unclipped, the harness resembles a bra; you slide two loops up your dog’s forelegs, and then clip them together behind his shoulders. The seat belt strap clips to a pair of metal D-rings, which provide a place to attach a leash, and more importantly, replace the relatively weak plastic buckle (see photo detail).
Adjusting the harness is easy and generous. Sliding metal clips allow 10 inches of fine-tuning both on the chest strap and belly strap. This Universal Car Harness was the easiest of all harness-type models we tested to remove: simply press the single plastic clip and the harness essentially falls off.
According to company president Bruce Cook, the product has been safety-tested by the manufacturer, although not by a third-party facility. “We have a pull strength of almost 1,400 pounds,” he says. “We were trying to get to eight times a dog’s weight, using a 150-pound dog as our benchmark, and we actually exceeded that.”
Cook said the harness probably won’t withstand a major crash; however, “We feel fairly confident that in most moving collisions at lower speeds, eight times the dog’s weight is a good number.”
One problem with this setup: if your dog steps on the release button of your seat belt buckle, he could be instantly free in the back seat. (This is a potential concern with all but one of the products we reviewed.)
Cook says about one percent of purchasers complain that the “universal” tang doesn’t fit the seat belt buckles in their cars. However, many of those complaints were from people trying the unit in a front seat; Cook says the universal tang should work on at least one of the rear-seat buckles.
I experienced a different problem with the tang. I had been using this model for several months when the tang became permanently wedged into my seat belt buckle. Nothing, short of cracking the buckle open and replacing it (at an estimated $200), is going to remove the tang, according to my auto repair shop. That’s fine for my dog – after all, it solves the accidental-release problem – but it’s not quite as convenient when I have a human passenger who cannot use that particular seat belt.
As you might guess, the Fleece Lined Car Safety Harness comes with a fleece chest pad, which (according to its maker) helps protect the dog at high-impact stress points. This may or may not be the case, but our test dog seemed extremely comfortable in this harness – when she stopped trying to chew the fleecy pad, which apparently reminded her of her favorite stuffed toys. The fleece is generously thick and the nylon straps are soft. The harness fastens with two large plastic squeeze buckles, and adjusts in four places. Usage is intuitive, and it took less than a minute to get the dog into the harness and adjust the straps for a secure fit. Removing it is even easier; just unclip the buckles.
Rather than providing a fabric loop through which the seat belt is threaded, this product offers a strap finished with a carabiner-type clip that attaches to a metal D-ring on the back of the harness. (One quibble: The carabiner is heavy, and its weight could be annoying or painful on the dog’s back.)You wrap that strap around the (fastened) seat belt and hook the carabiner to the D-ring. It’s quick, easy, and allows you to choose whether to clip the harness only to the lap-belt portion of the seat belt or to both the lap and shoulder section.
According to its maker, the harness hasn’t undergone strength testing, and although its components were rated by their manufacturers, the maker did not provide us with this information. The buckles are extra-large (and presumably extra-strong), but because the stress points on this model appear to be right on the buckles, it’s unlikely that it will withstand a serious impact.
Also, the design features a lot of straps stitched together; we fear these connections could be another weak point. In fact, the first product we purchased arrived with one of the back cross-straps unsewn – a defective model. Of course the pet supply company replaced the product, but it was worrisome; what if someone who didn’t know better used it anyway?
This simple black nylon harness has a lightly padded chest strap for comfort, plastic squeeze buckles (which connect conveniently on one side of the dog and allow a lot of adjustment), a metal D-ring (for attaching a lead), and a fabric loop through which a seat belt is threaded. It took very little time to place the harness on the dog and adjust it for fit.
Our concerns have mostly to do with adjustment. The buckles can loosen during usage, so you may want to triple-stitch the straps down once you find the appropriate fit for your dog.
According to its maker (Leather Brothers, of Conway, AR), the product has not gone through third-party impact testing, and although the company has done basic strength tests, they didn’t provide us with the results. Because of this, and because the plastic buckles are located at stress points, we would guess that the product offers less impact resistance than the above products.
NOTE: We found this item marketed under two or three different names. Two companies verified it was the same product: the maker, who calls it the “Kwik Klip Car Safety Harness”; and Drs. Foster and Smith, who sells it as the “Car Safety Harness with Kwik Klips” (catalog #JD-3243). A third company (Ethical Products Inc.) claims it manufactures its product (the “Ride ’n Walk Harness”), but it appears identical to the other two.
If your dog’s safety in the car is your main concern, the Roadie harness is the doggie seat belt you want; it’s far and away the strongest product we examined. Carl Goldberg, the owner of Ruff Rider Products, says the Roadie is designed as a “true safety harness” – not just a simple vehicle restraint.
According to documents provided by Ruff Rider, the Roadie underwent strength testing at Commercial Testing Laboratories in Denver, which showed it would withstand 9,600 pounds of force before its stitching tore. By comparison, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) requires that two-part seat belts used for humans be able to withstand 4,000 – 5,000 pounds of force (for the chest and lap portion, respectively).
Its strength is partly due to its design, which features wide webbing wound around in a figure eight, and exceedingly well-reinforced at its single joining point. Most other harnesses include at least two separate straps that are stitched together, and relatively weak plastic buckles in stress points. While the Roadie does incorporate plastic buckles, they are for minor fit adjustments, and not located at stress points.
However, we have to give it low marks for usability. The harness is a baffling conglomeration of straps, and when it comes out of the box, it’s anything but clear how it’s supposed to go onto your dog. Ruff Rider apparently recognized the challenge, and includes an instructional video and an illustrated how-to guide with the product.
Although viewing the video did explain which end was up, this knowledge doesn’t make using the product all that much easier. Two loops slide over the dog’s head; you must then pull the dog’s forelegs through the side loops to get the harness on. Even with a fairly docile dog who’s used to harnesses, this requires extreme compliance.
Removing the harness is a little easier. The video suggested two methods, and both require you to push your dog’s head down and slide a loop over it – not something every dog will cooperate with.
The harness comes with an extended strap on the back that can be used as a short leash; a longer leash can be clipped to a metal ring at the end of that same strap. There is also a “keeper” loop on the side of the harness that you can thread the strap through, to keep it from flapping around if you leave it on your dog for off-leash play.
The harness attaches to a standard car seat belt via one of its heavy-duty stitched loops, which are built into the extended strap. The maker of the Roadie recommends that you use the first (shortest) loop, which allows the dog the least amount of play. We found that adjustment to be punishing in its lack of mobility. Indeed, if you watch the video, you’ll see two dogs with the seat belt crossing tightly over their backs, as they lie presumably pinned to the seat. But given more mobility, the dog is less safe. Only you can decide what works best for your dog.
Finally, the webbing used is very stiff, and the adjustable straps offer very little leeway. If you guess slightly wrong with the size, the Roadie isn’t very forgiving; you’ll have to send it back for the next size (there are nine to choose from).
The Roadie has gained several improvements in the past few years, and, given Goldberg’s passion for his product, it will probably continue to evolve and improve.
Now we move from super-strong and complex to super-simple and not-so-strong. This product is designed to be used with a harness you supply; like the next product, it should never be snapped to a dog’s collar.
The Batzibelt is a web strap with metal spring snaps at each end; one snaps on to your dog’s harness, and one snaps to a triangular metal shackle that slips over your car’s seat belt to provide an anchor. The strap has a slide buckle to adjust in length from 6½ inches to 11 inches. It comes in two sizes, one with 5 /8-inch nylon webbing, the other with 1-inch webbing. This restraint is simple to use and we like it for that.
According to Batzi Enterprises owner A.J. Dupree, the Batzibelt recently upgraded its components by adding welding to the metal shackle. Both pieces underwent manufacturers’ testing that showed the shackle would withstand up to a 640-pound load, while the strap failed after 460 pounds. That’s not much of a strength rating. Dupree points out that the item is not designed to keep your dog safe in a high speed crash; it’s intended to limit your dog’s movement and help keep him from flying through the windshield if the car screeches to a halt.
The shackle can be used on either the lap belt portion (for maximum motion control), or on the shoulder belt strap (for more movement); however, we’re concerned that using it only on the shoulder portion could give your dog too much roaming room, and cause the locking action of the belt to fail to engage in a hard stop. This also enables the dog to get twisted up in the seat belt. The Doggie Catcher is essentially just a two-inch wide webbed strap with a D-ring and a spring clip that attaches to your dog’s harness on one end, and a plastic fitting that you clip your car’s seat belt through. The fitting doubles as a shield that prevents the dog from accidentally stepping on the release button.
The strap is adjustable from 12 to 18 inches, letting you decide how much room your dog gets for roaming. It’s exceptionally easy to use, and seems quite sturdy. Smiling Dog president Bobby Westbury says the components of the Doggie Catcher were independently strength-tested in 2001; following those tests, the snap hook was upgraded.
The ratings are based on pounds of thrust. The polypropylene webbing came up with a 1,600-pound limit; the D-ring, 1,763 pounds; and the plastic shield (which is injection-molded, high-impact polypropylene, says Westbury) at 726 pounds. Information on the new, heavier snap hook was not available. Any item is only as good as its weakest link, and a piece that can’t withstand more than 726 pounds of thrust isn’t going to weather a huge car crash, unless it’s attached to a minuscule dog. However, it’s a sturdy item and we like that it uses the car’s own seat belt system and buckle, rather than attaching to a seat belt strap and hoping the locking mechanism will kick in.