When it comes to travelling with gundogs, safety, security and comfort are essential, says Shooting Times vet Tony Buckwell
Recent surveys have shown that 4% of pet owners whose dogs were insured had had an accident or near miss as a result of the animal being loose in their car. More worrying is that 21% of owners would usually leave their dogs unsecured on car seats. So, since most people who care to take dogs with them when they go shooting have a need to transport them in a vehicle at some time or other, it’s worthwhile considering how we might best provide for their safety and any legal obligations in this respect.
Transporting dogs in cars – be safe and secure
The Highway Code includes reference to transporting dogs in cars and requires animals be “suitably restrained so they cannot distract you while you are driving”. The Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order requires that “no person shall transport an animal in a way which causes or is likely to cause injury or unnecessary suffering to that animal”. Essentially, we have to ensure that a dog is safe, secure and comfortable whenever it travels. (Read bringing home a puppy for the first time.)
First and foremost, the dog should have no fear of travelling and needs to be trained, ideally from an early age, so that it will readily enter a vehicle, becomes accustomed to travelling and remains in the vehicle when required. Start by simply putting the dog in the back of a stationary vehicle then staying with and reassuring it. Try to ensure that the dog associates the car with pleasant experiences; let it play with or chew a favourite toy in the back of the car or feed it a few tasty treats and give it plenty of praise for sitting in the car.
Later, start the engine and, if all is well, move off. Ensure your dog learns to associate the car with short journeys to places that will provide especially pleasant, positive experiences where it will enjoy itself.
If at first the dog seems to have problems maintaining its balance in the back of your car, try sitting it on the back seat wearing a harness. Dogs experience fewer nauseating visual cues facing forwards while travelling, rather than looking out the side windows. If it is restless and won’t settle during the journey, try using dog-appeasing pheromone, which can be provided either in the form of an impregnated collar or sprayed on the dog’s bedding. (Read our list of the best products for calming anxious dogs.)
Make sure that your dog is able to enter and exit the vehicle easily and safely and is unlikely to injure itself in the process. If you intend using an SUV or four-wheel-drive vehicle, the dog should be able to easily jump, unaided, into the back. So the platform height at the rear of the vehicle can be an important consideration, especially at the end of a day’s picking-up and particularly for middle-aged and older dogs.
When driving with your dog in the vehicle on a public highway, the Highway Code recommends that, “a seat belt harness, pet carrier, dog cage, or dog guard are ways of restraining animals in cars”. Some car insurance companies also require you to restrain your pets properly. A loose pet in the car could break the terms of your insurance and leave you with a big bill to pay if you’re in an accident. It may also invalidate your gundog insurance if they are injured and need treatment.
The most appropriate option for working gundogs is to restrain them in a suitably robust and secure dog crate or transit box that you slot into the back of the vehicle. Not only are crates the most secure way for transporting dogs in cars, lockable boxes help to deter thieves and keep the car’s upholstery intact.
However, dogs can be daunted by a crate to start with, so try introducing them to it before using it in the car. Leave it around the house with treats or toys inside to help your dog build positive associations. The dog should be able to see out of the crate, which should be large enough to allow the dog to stand comfortably, turn around easily and lie down in a natural position.
Lintran has been manufacturing transit boxes for gundogs since 1988 and its pickup ranges have won several awards. Its owner Isobel Hopkins explains: “It’s like a mobile kennel or bed for them to make them feel safe and happy.
“However, crates shouldn’t be too big because, in the case of an accident, one that is too large will give more room for your dog to be thrown around and increases risk of injury.
“Boxes should be well ventilated and not closed in as vehicles can get very warm — in winter as well as summer — especially if the dogs have been working. Most boxes offer a mesh top and rear view or ventilation panel to help keep the dogs cool.”
As an alternative to a crate, you might consider using a harness if your dog has to travel in the passenger compartment of the car or pickup; never let a dog travel unrestrained in the open bed of a pickup, no matter how well behaved they are. Measure the dog correctly and buy an appropriate size harness; follow the instructions carefully and fit the harness correctly before putting the dog in the car. The harness then attaches securely to the vehicle seat belt system.
Other alternatives for transporting dogs in cars
“Alternatives can include dog guards and tailgates,” says Isobel, “and these offer some protection to keep dogs in the rear area. But in the event of an accident, the dogs could become loose and able to exit via doors or windows if the vehicle is seriously damaged.”
Unlike human safety devices, there is no legal requirement for these products to be crash tested, so it can be difficult to know how much protection they would actually provide your dog in the event of an accident. You might also check that pets are allowed to travel with the breakdown service you use in case of emergencies. (Read more on how to keep dogs safe from car collisions.)
If you’re travelling over long distances, don’t feed your dog for two hours prior to a journey so it does not have to travel on a full stomach. On a long journey that includes a period when the dog would normally be fed, interrupt the journey at the appropriate time, provide a light meal and allow the dog time to start digesting its food before continuing your journey. (Read our advice on car sickness in dogs).
This is also a good opportunity to allow your dog time to stretch its legs and go to the toilet. Regular breaks are always advisable, so make sure you allow extra time. Finally, if your dog is unfortunate and has developed a secondary fear of travelling in the car, your vet will be able to prescribe travel sickness tablets. In the past we usually had to resort to sedatives, but more recently anti-emetics — drugs that prevent vomiting — have become available for use in dogs and these have less tendency to cause drowsiness.
If your dog is unwell, injured or heavily pregnant, unless you are transporting it to the vet, you would be best advised to leave it at home.