How to keep your dog safe in your vehicle — and what WA law says you can and can’t do

Dogs are the most popular pet in America. For many pet owners, their dog isn’t just a pet but part of the family.

So it makes sense that it’s common for dog owners to take their furry best friend with them in their vehicle. But is it legal and safe to travel with your dog in your car or truck in the state of Washington?

Devin Martin, a trainer at Positive Pets Dog Training in Boise, Idaho has been working with dogs in the northwest since 2012. He thinks ensuring your dog is safe while in the car is as vital as ensuring a child is safe.

“For me, making sure that your dog is safe is the equivalent of making sure your child is safe,” Martin told the McClatchy News in an interview. “We take a lot of precautions with kids and whatnot. So you should be taking similar precautions for your dog.”

Here are some tips for keeping your furry best friend and you safe while traveling in a vehicle, and what the law says:

Dog safety in Washington cars

While some states like Minnesota and New Hampshire have laws requiring safety measures when transporting an animal, Washington’s laws are a lot more lenient. While there are no laws about the proper transportation of dogs inside the vehicle, dogs cannot be transported on the outside of a vehicle — such as the bed of a truck — without being harnessed or in an enclosure.

Although there are no laws in Washington state restricting how dogs should be transported on the inside of vehicles, experts like Martin believe people should still take precautions.

According to Martin, two main methods to keep a dog safe are travel crates and harnesses that clip into seat belts.

“I’ve met many dogs that have passed away because they were in a car accident,” Martin said. “And they’re really good dogs, but they were loose in the vehicle, they get into a crash, and all of a sudden, they’re flying through the windshield or whatnot.”

Travel crates are a little bit more precise — travel crates and house crates are different and serve different purposes.

“If you see the plastic crates that have got the gate on the front, those are normally travel crates,” Martin said. “While the wire crates are not made for travel.”

The size of the crate also matters. According to Martin, the crate should be large enough for the dog to stand comfortably, but when they lie down, there should only be a couple of inches at the front and back.

“You have to make sure that the travel carrier is the right size for the dog,” Martin said. “Obviously, you don’t want a Great Dane-size crate for Shih Tzu; they’ll still be flying about in there. The goal is to have that crate take the majority of the impact.”

Seatbelt harnesses, as well as dog travel crates and harnesses to strap the crate down, can be purchased from most major pet supply retailers such as PetSmart, Petco and Chewy.

One among the roughly 150 dogs that authorities removed last week from a suspected puppy mill in a west Modesto duplex. The dogs are being cared for in several undisclosed locations.
One among the roughly 150 dogs that authorities removed last week from a suspected puppy mill in a west Modesto duplex. The dogs are being cared for in several undisclosed locations.

What if your dog is loud or anxious in a vehicle?

Keeping your dog secured isn’t just for their safety — it’s for yours, too. A barking or anxious dog can cause a distraction for you when driving, creating further potential dangers on the road. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,142 people were killed by distracted driving in 2020, which includes the distractions a dog can cause.

Anxiety levels in cars vary by the dog, Martin said. For example, herding breeds like Border Collies and Heelers often get rambunctious and vocal when a vehicle’s movement triggers them. Other dogs may simply get excited because they know a trip to the park is coming whenever they get into the car — or, inversely, a nervous trip to the vet.

“Having a balance of positive experiences, with not overly-stimulating experiences, is a good way to get them to be calmer in the vehicle,” Martin said.

While a harness or crate can stop a dog from bounding about the car, it won’t stop them from barking. This is where a chew toy or bone can help calm a dog down and keep it preoccupied.

“People give their kids tablets,” Martins said. “So if you give your dog a chew toy or something like that to work on while they’re in the vehicle, that can calm them down too.”

Can you keep a dog in a cold car?

Most people know that leaving a dog — or any living being — in a hot car during the summer is a big no-no. Under Title 16 of the Revised Code of Washington, leaving a dog unattended in a vehicle to where it can be harmed or killed by exposure to excessive heat, cold, lack of ventilation, or lack of necessary water can be punished with a Class 2 civil infraction, which is a maximum penalty of $125. Separate animal cruelty offenses can also be charged.

But what if your dog is suited to cold temperatures?

While leaving your dog in the car for an extended period isn’t the best practice, Martin said some dogs can withstand the colder temperatures.

“There are some dogs that prefer it when it’s 40 degrees outside,” Martin said. “So there are some dogs that will absolutely love it when it’s colder. You can see Husky owners a lot of times where they let the dog outside, and they’re like, ‘come in, it’s cold,’ and the dogs like, ‘no, no, this is perfect for me.’ So some dog breeds are bred to be in colder weather.”

Dogs with thicker coats tend to be better in the cold, but ultimately it’s up to the owner to see what their dog prefers.

“Other dogs that don’t have a lot of coat,” Martin said. “So, like a Vizsla or a German Shorthaired Pointer, or something like that, they don’t have a lot of coat, and 40 degrees would be like you sitting outside in a T-shirt and shorts.”