Cars were invented for humans to travel in, comfortably and safely. It’s only recently that we humans started bringing our dogs with us everywhere we go, and even more recent that we have become concerned about our dogs’ safety in cars, too.
Unfortunately, it’s a little late in the game to try to marry our dogs’ safety with existing car design. Automobile seats and seat belts are designed to securely hold human bodies that are sitting upright and facing forward against those seats in the event of a crash. The technology is amazing; it works more often than not to hold drivers and passengers in place during the wildest crashes – but only human passengers. Dogs are still not faring well in car accidents.
The dogs who survive car accidents in the best shape are those who were contained in well-engineered and strongly built crates that were securely strapped to solid anchors or bolted to the car itself. These very expensive crates (starting at about $500 and going up, up, up) are, without a doubt, the safest way to transport a dog.
But many of us have cars that can’t accommodate a properly secured crate – and you are not doing a dog a favor by putting him in a regular crate – the kind you use around your home for short-term confinement – with the crate unsecured in your car. There are crash-test videos of regular crates with dog crash-test dummies inside and they are not pretty to watch. Household crates fly apart like matchsticks.
If they are unrestrained in a car when it crashes, dogs tend to fly through the air in the car like projectiles and often “punch through” car windows. In an effort to increase our dogs’ safety while riding in a car that can’t accommodate a strapped-down mega crate, we are stuck with the next best solution: trying to strap dogs onto car seats using a combination of harnesses and car seat belts.
APPRECIATING THE CHALLENGE
The companies that attempt to design, build, and sell a product that can accomplish this feat should be applauded; there is a huge and urgent need for a product that works to secure the dog – and many challenges to overcome:
✓ First, the company has to find a design and materials that are strong enough for the job. Again I will refer you to crash-test videos that show a great number of inferior products – products that probably seemed plenty strong before being subjected to a simulated 30 mile-per-hour car crash, but that ripped apart as if they were made with Velcro, sending the crash-test dummy dogs flying. Sincere thanks go to the Center for Pet Safety, a private organization that started making and releasing these videos to raise public consciousness about the lack of adequate safety products for dogs.
After seeing a few of these videos, we quickly realized that we couldn’t possibly include any product in our considerations that wasn’t subjected to a crash-test with video footage that is available for public viewing. This single criterion eliminated the vast majority of the products on the market today.
✓ Another challenge: Once crash tests have helped them find a design and materials that won’t break or tear, they have to deal with the next weak link: the dog’s body.
When you strap a relatively squishy and heavy body (a dog) to a far heavier object (a car) with unbreakable straps, and then subject the whole melange to strong forces, the effect that the straps will have on the dog’s body must be considered. Narrow straps will cut into the dog, so the straps need to be wide. A wide web – a chest plate – is needed to contain the bulk of the dog’s body, because a strap just can’t contain it.
✓ The final challenge: Because dogs’ bodies come in so many shapes, the whole thing has to be highly adjustable and not impossible to put on the dog. It’s a Herculean task!
We sorted through ads and other reviews, looking for products to review. After applying the critical criterion for selecting a canine car harness – that the manufacturer has subjected the product to crash tests that are viewable online – there are just five candidates:
• EzyDog’s Drive Dog Care Harness
• Kurgo’s Impact Seatbelt Automotive Harness
• Ruffwear’s Load Up Dog Care Harness
• Sleepypod’s Clickit Sport
• Sleepypod’s Clickit Terrain
Of the two Sleepypod products, we selected the Clickit Terrain to test. The Terrain is beefier than the Sport, and since we were looking for the safest product available, we bought only the Terrain to try.
We got fooled by another candidate, the Reddy Road Trip Crash-Tested Dog Harness, which is made for Petco and sold there (though we saw it offered for sale on Amazon and elsewhere, too). We ordered the Reddy Road Trip and were well into testing it before we realized that we couldn’t find its crash-test videos anywhere, and so we eliminated it from further consideration.
Lesson learned: Just because the words “crash tested” are in the product name or in the product descriptions, unless those videos are available for viewing, the words are meaningless. Without proof to the contrary, we suspect that these products did not survive their crash tests intact.
WDJ’S TOP PICKS FOR CANINE CAR SAFETY HARNESSES
|WDJ Rating||Product Name|
|3 out of 4||Ruffwear Load Up Dog Car Harness|
|$80||5 sizes, for dogs with a girth (chest) 13 to 42 inches||This is the most comfortable and least restrictive of the harnesses we tested, giving our tall test dogs the least amount of anxiety (but perhaps also offering the least amount of safety). Ruffwear’s site says the Load Up harness has been updated and that all sizes of the exact model we reviewed will start becoming unavailable. In August, the new version will be available in all sizes. The only difference, a Ruffwear spokesman explained, is the buckles that are used to connect the back of the chest plate section to the back plate. The spokesman said that consumers found the current “nesting” buckles to be difficult to manipulate. She went on to say that the new buckles have been crash-tested and that video of those tests will be released when the new product is on the market.|
|3 out of 4||Sleepypod Clickit Terrain|
|$95||4 sizes, for dogs 18 to 110 lbs or girth of 16 to 40 inches||We believe this is the safest product we reviewed, due to its “Infinity Loop” vest-like design, which offers no potential points of failure in case of a collision. However, once buckled into the car, our test dogs also found it to be the most restrictive, due to the way the seatbelt presses on their backs. This is definitely worse for tall dogs; shorter dogs may not find this as oppressive. A D-ring on the back enables owners to attach a leash; smaller D-rings on the four corners are for the option of attaching a complementary “Terrain Pack” for the dog to carry when walking on trails. Sleepypod offers a “crash replacement program” and will replace or provide a replacement discount on any pet carrier or safety harness damaged in an auto accident, regardless of brand – WOW. See website for details.|
|2 out of 4||Kurgo Impact Seatbelt Automotive Harness|
|$76||4 sizes, for dogs 10 to 108 lbs||We were impressed with the continuous, single-strap design of this product, which offers few points of potential failure in a collision. We wish the straps were a bit wider; it hurt to watch the crash-test videos, which showed the straps cutting into the test-dog dummy quite a bit (though the product held the dummy on the seat, as designed). Depending on where your dog fits in the range of sizes accommodated by each size of the product, there may be more or less excess strap forming the loop that the seat belt is threaded through. If the loop is too big, the dog will be less secure once belted in; try the next smaller size. Harness has double D-rings for leash attachment.|
|2 out of 4||EZYDOG Drive Dog Car Harness|
Sand Point, ID
|$115||3 sizes, for dogs 15 to 65 lbs or girth of 11 to 42 inches||Made with wide vehicle-tested seat belt webbing and a molded neoprene-padded chest and back plates. Straps have numbers printed on them to make it easy to adjust the straps on either side to the same length so that the product is centered properly on the dog’s body – genius! To fasten to the car, the car’s seat belt is threaded through two loops on the back of the harness, the most vulnerable point in this design. Harness has double D-rings for leash attachment.|
COMFORT AND INCONVENIENCE
If you read user reviews of these products, you’ll see that many people don’t seem to fully understand the challenges that we’ve described above, and this lack of understanding leads them to complain about how heavy, bulky, stiff, and hard to adjust these products are. They also complain that it’s a hassle to have to put these harnesses on the dog for a car ride and then have to take it off and use a different harness or collar for walking the dog an one’s destination. Everyone wants the harnesses to provide car safety and walking convenience.
Only one of the four manufacturers of products that we reviewed said no – it can’t be done. The Ruffwear Load Up harness is alone in refusing to add a leash attachment to their harness – and we actually support this choice. If the product is as strong and bulky as it needs to be for safety, it’s not likely to be all that comfortable for the dog to wear while walking. Putting a leash attachment on the product will just encourage people to use it for walking, too.
But the other manufacturers went the other way, giving their products a leash attachment point for convenience. We’ll just say that we would use these leash attachments for the convenience of, say, walking the dog from the house to the car – not for a long walk with the dog. Remember, these harnesses are built with strength as a primary goal; efforts to make them lighter and more comfortable may well make them weaker.
A DESIGN IDEAL – AND HOW WELL IT WAS MET
One thing that all those failed crash tests taught product designers: Nylon-type straps don’t break; it’s the connection points that fail. How they are fastened to each other or to other materials makes or, ahem, breaks them.
Once this was clear, a design concept emerged as critical to the strongest products: Ideally, the design would use the fewest number of straps and connection points possible.
Ruffwear’s Load Up harness is the least successful at this concept; they apparently made different decisions. Their harness is made with several straps that are sewn to each other; inside and at the top of the chest plate, there is a steel ring that three different straps are sewn to. To secure the dog to the car, the car’s seat belt is threaded through a loop at the very rear of the back plate. This strap is sewn to a steel ring inside the back plate – and the security of the entire harness depends on this and the other sewn connections. It’s a vulnerability.
In contrast, Sleepypod’s products are the most successful at meeting the design ideal of reducing connection points. Ballistic nylon cloth, rather than straps, provide the strength of this vest-like garment. Sleepypod calls this an “Infinity Loop” – its “energy-absorbing padded vest” will distribute the force of a crash across the entire harness.
The straps on both of the Sleepypod products are not involved with how the product connects to the car’s seat belt; they are there just to keep the “vest” in place and to provide that connection point for a leash that everyone seems to wants. To secure the dog into the car, the car’s seat belt is directed under one side of the vest, over the dog’s back, under the other side of the vest, and then clicked into the seat belt buckle. In an accident, the seat belt will be pulling against both of the long sides of the “Infinity Loop,” helping to distribute the force of the crash.
It would be our prediction that of all the harnesses we reviewed, properly sized and worn, the Sleepypod Terrain is the most likely car safety harness to hold your dog on the car seat in a car accident without suffering a catastrophic failure.
A theoretically similar approach was taken by Kurgo’s Impact Seatbelt Automotive Harness. This product is made with what appears to be a single strap – actually, a “high tensile tubular webbing” – that winds in its own sort of continuous loop around the harness. The strap passes through four steel “nesting buckles” that slide along the strap easily for adjustment; the buckles “mate” with their other halves, which are sewn to a sort of back-plate. The ends of the strap are sewn, out of view, in the center of the padded chest-plate. This is hard to describe, but the ingenious design eliminates as many problematic connections as possible.
The main body of the EzyDog Drive Harness would appear to be comprised of just two straps made of seat-belt webbing. These straps are much wider than the ones used on Kurgo’s or Ruffwear’s harnesses, making it less likely to press into the dog’s body under severe forces – nice!
These straps are sewn along their length to a molded chest plate, which appears to be a neoprene material in the inside, bonded to a ballistic nylon material on the outside. These straps get securely threaded through some beefy aluminum alloy buckles that are sewn onto two back plates; it’s as if EzyDog took the concept of a back plate and split it down the middle, creating a sort of step-in harness.
Once you have it adjusted to fit your dog (not the easiest process), you can have your dog step in, one front leg on either side of the chest plate, and then fasten the two sides of the back plate together with plastic quick-release buckles.
Each of the back plates has a sewn-on strap that makes a loop. To secure your dog in the car, you direct the seat belt through these two loops and then click the latchplate into the buckle. That makes the place where those loops attach to the back plates both a critical and vulnerable spot in this design.
OUR TOP PICKS
We’ve rated the Ruffwear and Sleepypod products as our top picks, for completely opposite reasons.
The Ruffwear Load Up harness offers the largest chest plate of all the products we reviewed, increasing its potential for distributing the force of a collision across more of the dog’s body. And it’s absolutely the most comfortable of the four products we tested. Due to the location of the seat belt attachment loop, way at the back of the harness, it’s also less restrictive of the dog’s movement and position changes, making it less confining – potentially less scary – for a dog who is used to being able to sit, stand, or lay down on the seat. For that reason, it’s also not quite as safe. The more the dog can move, the greater distance he can be thrown in an accident. When you add the fact that it has more potential points of failure (connection points), it must be considered the most vulnerable of our choices.
Conversely, what appears to be the safest possible harness we reviewed also seemed to be the least comfortable for our test dogs: Sleepypod’s Terrain harness. That is, it’s perfectly comfortable for a dog to wear around, but the way it attaches the dog to the car is highly restrictive. When the car’s seat belt is threaded through the sides of the harness and clicked into place, the seat belt itself acts like a back plate on the dog’s back. Our test dogs are tall and couldn’t or wouldn’t even try to stand with the seat belt fastened in this harness. Again, that’s almost certainly safer for them, but they also found it rather aversive. Shorter, more medium-sized or small dogs would probably not experience this difficulty.
We managed to have divergent reasons for liking and criticizing our two runners-up, too.
We found the Kurgo Impact harness to be more comfortable and less restrictive to our buckled-in test dogs. Also, with its nesting buckles that slide along the strap, it’s a bit of a hassle to adjust and fit properly each time you put it on and take it off the dog, though we got better at quickly making these adjustments with practice. However, we were impressed by the continuous, single-strap design, which offers few connection points that may fail.
In contrast, once it was adjusted and fit properly, the EzyDog Drive harness is a snap to put on the dog, and its wide straps and generous chest plate would certainly be kinder to a dog’s body in a collision than the narrower straps of the Kurgo. This product holds the dog more tightly to the seat, so he’d have less room to be thrown before the straps would catch him in a collision. But we would be concerned about the sewn-on straps that secure the harness to the car; though they appear to be well-sewn in several rows of stitching, this is a point of potential vulnerability.
That said, keep in mind that all four of these products are stronger than every other product on the market, as proven by crash-test video you can see with your own eyes. (We’ll include the links to all these videos in the online version of WDJ.)
Consider your own dog’s size and behavior in your car when selecting a product. If he’s an anxious sort that would panic if held too tightly by his harness and seat belt, as might happen when you have to brake sharply, one of the less restrictive products (Ruffwear or Kurgo) might be the best choice for you.
If your dog is secure and relatively stationary in the car, and absolute safety is your top priority, we’d recommend the Sleepypod harness, with the EzyDog a distant second.