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Taking your dog on a long car journey

01 November 2019

Read our tips for a safe and legal car journey with your dog, including how to relax your dog and make sure he is properly restrained.

Dog travelling in the car
If you don't have a suitable boot, invest in a safety harness so your dog can travel without risk of being flung forward

We are travelling with our pets more frequently than ever these days. And the recent market explosion of dog-friendly pubs, holiday cottages, shops and restaurants means there’s no need for them to stay behind!

Some dogs jump for joy when they see you grab the car keys. Others run and hide in the nearest corner. But regardless of whether you have an enthusiastic or reluctant four-legged passenger, it’s important to have a safe and pleasant journey. 

Read our tips on car journeys with your dog to ensure that you and your furry passenger arrive at your destination safe, happy and relaxed.

Get your dog used to the car

Before setting off on a long journey, get your dog used to going on short trips in the car. Drive somewhere nice - perhaps the park (not to see the vet!) - and your dog will soon associate the car with fun times. Talk to them while you’re driving, and say their name, so they hear your voice and feel comfortable. Or if you usually have music on in the house, turn up the radio and sing along.

If you have a puppy, then you need to start them in the car early with short journeys that slowly become progressively longer.

Of course, with a puppy there are bound to be accidents, so put plenty of newspaper down and don’t, whatever you do, scold him. If you do, he will associate car travel with getting told off, entering a vicious cycle that will end in misery for you both.

Break negative connotations

Some dogs associate cars with an unpleasant experience, whether that be getting car-sick or just a visit to the vets, and will refuse to even get into the car, no matter how much you cajole them!

If you can break that chain, you are well on the way to owning a dog that loves, rather than hates, the car.

You could try leaving the boot open and playing with your dog around the car before tempting him with a treat to jump into the boot for a moment or two. If he refuses, try opening both rear doors before climbing into the car with him on a lead. Gently move across the seat until the lead tightens and hopefully he will follow as your car now looks like a tunnel, not an enclosed space. Extend the time that you and he spend on the back seat of the car, encouraging him all the time by praising and stroking him.

You can then move the same game into the boot and extend the period before finally closing the boot for a few seconds with you sitting beside him. Eventually – and this might takes weeks to achieve – you will be able to take short journeys with both of you feeling much calmer about the whole thing!

Prepare for the journey

First things first. It goes without saying that pooch should be properly toileted before setting off. A light walk and some fresh air just beforehand is the perfect way to settle your furry friend.

Most dogs love going in the car, as it usually means they’re going somewhere exciting – and they love to feel included. But if your pooch isn’t the best of travellers, you might want to consider restricting food until the journey is over. Instead, try giving him some cooled ginger tea, sweetened with manuka honey, before you set off. Other dog owners swear by a ginger snap biscuit to settle the stomach.

The law on dogs in cars

It’s the law in the UK to ensure your dog is restrained while travelling. This is for their own safety, yours and other road users.

The Highway Code states:

‘When in a vehicle make sure dogs or other animals are suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving or injure you if you stop quickly’.

A dog that is left loose and free to roam in the car is a real safety risk; not only could he distract or jolt the driver, an unrestrained dog, even a small one, turns into a furry projectile that is capable of breaking bones and causing serious injury in the event of an accident.

You should ideally travel with your dog in the boot or backseat, properly restrained. A restrained dog can legally travel in the front passenger seat but this is not advisable because an airbag being deployed would put your dog at risk.

Keep your dog restrained

You have a couple of options, and the choice comes down to what works best for both you and your dog. If your dog is used to being crated, and your boot is large enough, you can transport him in a metal or soft fabric travel crate, lined with comfy blankets. Include a favourite blanket and small treat inside.

A dog guard, or wire grill, is another option. If you own a large or elderly dog that can't leap into the boot and and you are unable to lift it, it's worth investing in a lightweight folding ramp.

Alternatively, if your dog likes to ride in comfort on the back seat, you don't have a car with a suitable boot or your boot is full you can attach a special seatbelt to his harness, so that he can change position without moving too freely around the vehicle. The brilliant and car-safe Ruffwear Load Up Harness is super comfortable to wear and will secure him from sudden movements. A waterproof seat cover is a good idea to protect your upholstery.

Help your dog feel relaxed

However you choose to transport your dog, help him to feel safe and relaxed in his doggy space for the duration of the journey, so he will be able to settle and make himself at home. Make sure that he isn’t too cramped, that the temperature and sound levels are comfortable and that he doesn’t have direct sunlight shining on him. Anxious doggie travellers often benefit from the fresh air and interesting smells coming through the crack of a slightly open window.

Take regular breaks

Why not look at your route beforehand and build a couple of dog-friendly toilet/relaxation stops into your journey? Not all motorway services are ideal for pets and can be quite noisy and frightening for some. Instead, do a bit of Googling and find a park or grassy area close to your route, where you can stop and take a wander in the fresh air together. It doesn’t have to take too long – 15-20 minutes will do nicely – and you’re both likely to continue with your journey feeling relaxed and refreshed. (A quick word of caution: if your chosen chill-out location is new to you and your dog, unless he has perfect recall it might be a good idea to keep him on lead.)

Visit Driving With Dogs for walks near motorways and service stations across the country.

Keep a towel in the car in case the weather turns nasty and you have a wet dog to transport. You can even get dog bathrobes now.

Have a supply of drinking water available

There are a couple of practical options you could go for here. You could use a Road Refresher, a non-slip water bowl with a slotted floating device inside it, which keeps the water from spilling while the car is in motion.

You could also carry a bottle of water and pour it when required into a silicone collapsible bowls. They are great space savers and perfect for doggy refreshment on the move.

Advice on running with your dog

Plan your arrival

Try and find out if there is somewhere to take your dog for toileting as soon as you arrive at your destination. If there isn’t, then that gives you the chance to stop somewhere suitable a few minutes before arrival. If your destination is somewhere new for your dog, if at all possible try and arrive in daylight so he can explore the environment and get used to the smells before night falls.

Find out about Saga Pet Insurance


Never leave your dog in a hot car

The RSPCA warns dog owners that cars become very hot very quickly, even if it doesn’t feel that warm. When it’s 22 degrees outside, it can reach a dangerous 47 degrees inside a car within an hour. Even within a few minutes, in the shade and with windows open, temperatures can soar. Cracking the window open a few inches isn't going to make the slightest difference and is not worth the risk to your dog's life.

If you’re driving on a sunny day, provide your dog with some shade and put on air-conditioning if the car has it. Stop frequently so you can give your dog water.

Keep the windows closed

Most dogs like travelling with their head out of the window but this isn’t a good idea for a couple of reasons. The first is that a passing vehicle or piece of roadside furniture might strike their head.

The second is that any air-borne debris will be blasted at her and even the most innocent object, like a grass seed, can cause serious eye infections and damage when it is propelled at 70mph and you really don’t want to imagine what a piece of gravel could do.

If you want to provide a safe breeze for your dog, then either open the window for just an inch or so or buy a window guard that will prevent her sticking her whole head out.

Know how to prevent your dog's car sickness

If you know your dog or puppy struggles with car sickness, then making sure you're ready for the inevitable accident will keep you calm and avoid stressing your pet out further. He knows he isn't supposed to throw up or otherwise void his body anywhere but outside, so if he does, it's because he lost control. Car sickness is more common in young dogs than older dogs.

If you suspect your dog is about to throw up stop the car somewhere safe and let him get some air. If you know your dog is prone to motion sickness wipe-clean coverings are a good idea.

The signs of motion sickness in dogs can be:

  • Vomiting
  • Trembling
  • Panting excessively 
  • Diaorrhea 
  • Lethargy
  • Pacing

Don't tell him off, simply deal with the problem as quickly as possible for the comfort of everyone in the vehicle. Take a spare blanket to swap the soiled one with, and pack an emergency accident kit - The Little Accident Box (£19.99 by Aroma Care Solutions) has enough supplies to save the day in the event of three separate accidents, containing gloves, a mask, apron, Absorbent Aromatic Granules, a sealable bag, Textile Cleansing and Hygiene Formula and an antibacterial wipe to sort your hands out after you've finished.

The aromatic granules remove all trace of the incident, removing the unpleasant smell that might set off your own motion sickness! You'll have to pull over to sort everything out properly, so if you're on the motorway some way between service stations, you might also be wise to pack some kitchen roll as a temporary mess measure.

As for preventing car sickness in the first place, the best method is to build up your dog's resistance by taking small, enjoyable journeys. If your dog is still experiencing sickness it would be worth discussing options with your vet. They will be able to advise on options like tablets and calming sprays.

Plan for emergencies

If you often travel with your furry friend, it might be worth keeping an emergency dog pack in the car in case of a breakdown or accident. This could include: some long-life dog food and extra water, a couple of blankets, a high-visibility dog vest and lead and a doggie first aid kit: this Pawly version is fantastic and contains everything from bandages to a tick remover. Hopefully you will never need it, but it may add to your peace of mind.

Have a great trip!

Visit Travelling With Your Dog for more information on planning dog-friendly trips.

Planning on taking your on holiday? Read our guide to post-Brexit animal health certificate requirements for taking your dog abroad

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.