Dogs and Cars – A Sensible Approach

Savvy goes for a ride through the drive-thru

Savvy goes for a ride to the drive-thru.

With summer upon us, we’re seeing the heart-wrenching stories that come up every summer of a dog trapped in a hot car that suffered serious health affects or even died. Every summer, people who apparently love their dogs nevertheless leave their dogs in hot cars while they run into a store or restaurant. Good Samaritans will break windows to rescue dogs, and even that act causes controversy. The issue pits dog-lover against dog-lover. Last summer, even a professional dog walker left dogs in her care in a car.

Some people say you should NEVER leave your dog unattended in a car and that home is the best place for a dog, but that’s a bit extreme. I’ve traveled a lot with my dogs (from long-distance-across-state-lines trips to dog-related events, shows, and competitions), and there are some ways to safely travel with your pets (and even leave them in the car for short periods).

Pets are part of the family, and sometimes if you’re out traveling with your pet (for vacation, to a dog event several hours away, etc.), you may need to make pit stops where you leave the dog in the car. Some dog sports even necessitate leaving a dog in a car until your dog is “up” on the floor or field for their turn (this leads to windows open, battery-operated fans, and sometimes cooling beds and reflective tarps). In addition, dogs do genuinely enjoy being with us, so where it makes sense to bring a dog, there’s no harm in responsibly taking your companion along. For example, say you’re taking your dog to the veterinarian and the grocery store you frequent is nearby, and you HAVE to pick up toilet paper or things at your house are going to get very ugly very soon. Consolidating a quick errand with a trip to the vet isn’t complete madness.

What is madness is leaving a dog in a HOT car or a car that can get too hot in short period of time. Here are some guidelines for those who travel with dogs and good Samaritans who see a dog in a car.


  • Don’t leave your dog in a hot car, even with the windows cracked. Dogs pant to cool down (a form of evaporative cooling), which increases the local humidity. It can create uncomfortable conditions in a car in a short amount of time.
  • Know your vehicle. Not all vehicles are equal in how hot their interiors become. Light vehicles with light interiors stay cooler than dark vehicles with dark interiors; furthermore, some manufacturers have glass that offers good protection from UV rays, which helps keep the interior cooler. Take time to understand how your car absorbs heat by taking the time to sit in your car for a period of time in different conditions (sun vs shade; windows up vs. down) to get a sense of how hot your car actually gets inside. For example, I often eat in my car, sometimes in the shade, sometimes not, sometimes with the windows down, sometimes with them up. Recognize, however, that the interior of the car will be more uncomfortable for a dog than for you. Dogs pant, and they overheat more easily than we do; and some breeds are even more prone to easily overheating.
  • Never leave an active or young puppy in the car loose (they can do all sorts of damage). Try putting your dog inside a crate within the vehicle if your dog isn’t trustworthy (and consider some type of restraint for your dog when the car is in motion). If you are keeping your dog inside a crate, you might want to remove his or her collar for safety as some dogs have strangled themselves on collars.
  • It is best to leave your windows open as far as safely possible in the shade to allow maximum ventilation (and have your dog restrained/contained so he cannot jump out). If you have a sunroof, open it all the way; and consider a portable, battery-operated fan.
  • If you leave your car windows closed with the air conditioning running, only do so for very short periods of time (air conditioning units have failed and caused dogs to die).
  • If you can stay within eyesight of your car, all the better.
  • Consider purchasing a remote temperature sensor that will allow you to check the interior temperature of your car (note: these are often limited in range to about 100 feet).
  • Consider placing a thermometer on your window inside your car so people can see how hot it is inside your car at a glance.
  • If someone DOES have to break your car window because you were foolish and left your dog in a hot car and your dog was in distress, and doing so saved your dog’s life, thank the person; don’t get defensive and threaten to sue them. You can replace a window. You cannot replace a life.

Good Samaritans:

  • Make sure a dog appears to actually be in distress before taking serious action. Dogs pant even when they aren’t particularly hot; sometimes they pant due to excitement, stress, or to cool down (even in mild weather). A dog in distress will usually be panting quickly and either be very lethargic or panicky and hopping around trying to get out of the car.
  • Stay with the car and call 911; ask a passerby to have the nearby businesses page the owner of the car.
  • If you believe the dog will die soon without intervention, you have to make your own decision about how best to proceed. Breaking a car window may be appropriate and necessary, but realize that not all states have laws that will protect you for doing so, and some dogs may not take kindly to a stranger breaking in the car window (especially dogs that aren’t clearly in distress and otherwise lethargic). Follow your conscience. I can tell you if you broke my car window, and in doing so saved my dog’s life, I would thank you and feel guilty for the rest of my life.

Business owners:

  • Help our canine companions and dog owners out by welcoming well-behaved, on-leash dogs in your establishment if laws don’t otherwise prevent you from doing so. For example, home improvement stores, department stores, etc. that don’t serve food can allow dogs, and many do (Home Depot, Bloomingdale’s, Etc. – here’s a list of some dog-friendly businesses). Follow the lead of these successful organizations by permitting dogs, especially in spring and summer months.
  • Restaurants, offer an outdoor patio that welcomes patrons with dogs. One of my favorite local restaurants, The Waffle Experience in Sacramento, has a lovely outdoor patio and offers dogs a treat and a bowl of water. I’ve gone there specifically for that reason many times, as have many of my dog friends.  Bella Bru Cafe in Natomas also offers a dog-friendly patio. (Know of other dog-friendly restaurants? Mention them in the comments!). As a side note, In Europe, it’s much more common to see dogs dining out and shopping with their people than it is here in the U.S., and it seems to work well for them.
  • Feel free to exclude people with unruly dogs or dogs that present a danger (note: if someone has a service dog, you may exclude a service dog that presents a clear danger to others, but you do have to offer to still provide service to the person with a disability once the dog is removed; however be careful before excluding a service dog. Get more info on the ADA government site).

So, go out and enjoy the world with your dog, just make sure you and your dog stay cool and safe!  And to anyone who is looked at the photo at the top of this post and is ready to comment about how unsafe it is to let your dog hang his head out the window, we were stopped at a drive-thru. Old man Savvy gets to indulge himself every now and then.