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by Maren Bell Jones DVM, MA 2013
There is occasionally a purpose for leaving dogs in cars.
Wait...what? Did a vet really just say that?
Yes, I did.
Trust me, nothing infuriates me more than seeing a dog in a car with the windows rolled up or barely cracked in the parking lot on a hot day. I will absolutely go into a store or other place of business with the license plate number and try to get the owner out, particularly when the dog is in distress (pacing and panting heavily which then may lead to ropey saliva, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, coma, and death). Failing that, calling either animal control or the police. This great video from a veterinarian colleague shows why:
However, there are occasionally valid reasons why a dog may have to be left in a vehicle for short periods of time, with the understanding that there is always going to be risk involved with doing so. I have heard of a working dog owner who had two of her working dogs left in a van with the engine on and the air conditioning running while they were having lunch at a restaurant after training their dogs, but the engine quit. The dogs both died of heat stroke in less than an hour. So this is not without risk!
The following situations outline when it may be acceptable to leave your dog in the car:
1) When you are traveling long distances. When you are traveling via car with friends or family, it is not too difficult to have someone sit with the car with the dogs while everyone else runs in for a pit stop or lunch break. But when you are by yourself, this is challenging
2) When you have your dog with you and you have to stop for an emergency. Please note that a spouse calling you to bring home a cart load of groceries is not an emergency.
3) Competitive working/performance dog events or conformation shows. For some events, having a crated area indoors is a given, but for others, this is not an option.
So what should you do? The first thing to do is to keep your dog in a crate so that you can have the windows, tailgate, or doors open appropriately without your dog escaping. I use a two door plastic crate for my car, but there are many options on the market for adequate ventilation.
The next is to find adequate shade. If I pull into a parking lot while traveling with my dogs, I find the nearest reliable shade first, even if it is two or three parking lots away from the entrance to where I need to go. If you are going to be there for several hours like at a dog event, remember that the sun moves and a comfortable spot late morning may have the sun right in your dog's face by late afternoon.
If you arrive to a dog event and there is no shade, you now must make your own. This can be acheived in many creative ways. Inexpensive pop up canopy tents can be assembled and then driven under for many small to medium sized vehicles. A tremendous amount of sun can build up from your windshield, so use the inexpensive sunshades to decrease the sun's rays into your car. Aluminum or mesh shade cloth can also be secured on your car using zip ties or bungie cords. Also consider simply pulling your dog's crate out (when and where appropriate) and setting them on the ground in nearby shade. Obviously if your dog is crate reactive, this may not work. Some handlers also choose to add to the window tinting (where legal) to further darken the interior of the vehicle.
An inexpensive battery powered digital thermometer can be placed in your car with the display facing a window to help you know how warm it is in the car. Some may chose to run their air conditioning, but as the previous story mentioned, this should not be the only method to keep the dogs cool.
For cooling the dog itself, it should go without saying that there should be a source of fresh water in the crate with the dog. Some dogs like to spill water either on purpose or from moving in the crate, so check frequently. Some dogs appreciate a gallon sized milk jug frozen overnight with water to lay against, though some dogs either chew these or ignore them. Battery powered crate fans are fine but can be unreliable, so using a power inverter and attaching a real fan (if your car's battery can handle it) is another way to go.
In traveling or at a busy show, I have yet to have anyone try to steal anything out of the back of my cars when I have the back tailgate down for the dogs, but this is potentially a concern. A ventlock tailgate lock may be a good solution for this:
In addition, I have had a family with kids approach my vehicle at night while at a restaurant after a protection sport trial "trying to say hi to the dogs," so park as far away as possible is a good idea to keep passerbys from sticking their fingers in the crate. Having vinyl stickers or a magnet that says "caution: working dogs" or something similar may also help remind those without much common sense.
In conclusion, prepare well in advance for the possibility of leaving your dog in a car for appropriate short periods of time and check on them frequently, no matter what method you chose to keep your dogs cool!