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  • Christine Geschwill, CPDT-KA

Travel Safety: Safety Restraints, Crates and Reality

My dogs are not just my dogs, they are my family. Most of you know that. Hopefully yours are too. And when I travel, most of the time, my girls travel with me. Travel safety has always been a priority for me. Like most of us, I never thought I'd ever need it, but I use my seat belt when I drive, so why wouldn't I make sure my precious girls are also secured, just in case. On Sunday, April 8, 2018, I learned just how important it really is. Grace, Clover and I had spent the weekend in Orlando at a Training Seminar. Knowing rain was coming our way, I tried leaving the seminar after lunch, hoping to miss the majority of the rain on the three hour drive home. Both girls were secured. Grace in her Sleepy Pod Clickit Utility harness I purchased in 2012, and Clover in her crate in the cargo area .

As luck would have it, we didn't manage to get ahead of the rain. In fact, about 45 minutes or so into our drive, we hit heavy rain. The turnpike was busy, but traffic was moving at a steady pace. I wasn't speeding, but I was probably cooking along at a solid 65 mph when I hit a dip in the road. Before I knew what was happening, we were hydroplaning. I did everything I could think of, took my foot off the gas, tried to drive out of it, but the truth of the matter was, there wasn't anything I could do. I was traveling in the outside lane, the truck veered to the left, crossing the inside lane and hitting the guard rail, head on. It felt like forever, but it only took a matter of seconds. My last though before I hit the guardrail was "OMG, I killed my girls". I don't really know how fast I was going when I hit the guardrail. I had taken my foot off the gas, but in my panic I wasn't looking at the speedometer. Why would I? After I hit the guardrail, I was dazed. I may have even blacked out for a second. I remember hitting the guardrail, and spinning. When I finally came to a stop, I was facing into traffic. Miraculously I hadn't hit anyone. It was pouring. Some good Samaritan helped me move the truck out of the travel lanes and onto the shoulder. I thanked him for his help, but I was in no state to drive anywhere at that moment. He left. I sat on the side of the road for a few minutes. I checked on Grace in the back seat. She seemed fine, but it took me a few seconds to realize I needed to check on Clover.

She was alone, in her crate, in the cargo area. I tried opening my door. It wouldn't open. Clearly the frame or the body was bent preventing the door from opening. I almost panicked, but crawled across and tried the passenger door. It opened. I jumped out in the rain. I walked to the back of the truck, opened the rear door and looked in her crate. She was sitting at the back of the crate, looking very confused. Luckily, there was a very deep, soft cushy bed in her crate. I suspect, she was asleep, lying on her side when the accident happened. I opened the crate door, and she just sat there, looking at me. Thanks to the very soft cushy bed, she probably just rolled on her side toward the wall of the crate. If she had been in there without that cushion it's likely she would have been thrown around. I realized she was fine, closed the door and walked back to the front of the car. I still wasn't thinking straight. As I went to climb back in the passenger door, I realized I couldn't leave her alone back there. I climbed in the back seat; unhooked Grace from her restraints, and then brought Clover out of the crate and put her in the back with Grace. It was then I decided to look at the front of the truck. The rain had slowed a little. When I looked at it I realized I was leaking radiator fluid. Thankfully I hadn't tried to drive.

I put a lot of time and effort into deciding what is safest for my dogs when traveling. In the beginning, that was a safety harness for Grace and a crate for Clover. Clover traveled in the crate quietly and had been used to it since puppy-hood. A few years back I had been sitting a a red light one morning, when the car in the lane next to me was rear-ended. Clover was in her crate in the cargo area of my car that morning. I couldn't help but think about what would have happened if that had been us instead of the car next to us. I had tried transitioning her to a harness after that, but she was young, and managed to get herself completely twisted. I was worried she'd strangle herself. She was used to being able to move about in her crate unrestrained. I still had a nagging worry about the crate, but I let it go at the time. In the back of my mind I thought “I have time, I can transition her later”. And so years went by, and I never did. I still shudder to think (and yes, I have nightmares about it) what might have happened if we had hit another car, or another car had hit us; or, had the truck veered to the right instead of the left. Had we gone into the ditch, it's likely we would have rolled. It was a miracle that all three of us walked away from that accident completely unscathed. But then, I don't really believe in miracles. The truth is, I had done all the right things to make sure we were all unharmed that day. Grace was appropriately secured in her crash RATED safety harness. Clover was secured in her crate which was appropriately tied down, with a soft cushy bed to absorb any impact. The crate was not only tied down, but the rest of my luggage was arranged in the back to minimize any possible movement. It was no miracle. It was planning ahead and taking safety seriously that had protected my girls.

As with all things, since the accident, I have been an even more fervent advocate for travel safety. Grace continues to travel secured with a new Sleepy Pod Clickit Sport harness and Clover has now transitioned to one too.

Remember that nagging concern I had about the crate after the car next to us was rear ended. Well, after the accident, I did some additional research on crate safety and this is what I learned. When you have an automobile collision, there are three stages of a collision. Stage one is when your vehicle collides with an object, another car, a guard rail, a wall, whatever. Stage two is when your body collides with some interior surface of the vehicle. The steering wheel, or dashboard, or the back of the seat in front of you. Your seat belt prevents that 2nd stage collision from becoming an issue, but as it would have it, your seat belt also helps minimize a Stage 3 collision. Stage 3 is when the organs inside your body, collide with other internal surfaces or each other. Your heart and lungs might collide with your rib cage, or other internal organs like your stomach, spleen, liver, etc. could collide with each other. This third stage often goes unnoticed and is what often leads to injuries that don't show up until later, and often those injuries can be severe, and even life threatening. Our dogs also experience all three stages of a collision. And just like us, a safety restraint minimizes both 2nd and 3rd stage collision injuries. When crated, however, our dogs are not protected from 2nd and 3rd stage collisions. When your vehicles comes into contact with an object (Stage 1), your dog is thrown against the inside of the crate (Stage 2), and subsequently, their organs are thrown around inside their bodies (Stage 3). In my accident, without realizing what I had done, the addition of the soft, cushy dog bed inside the crate acted as an agent to absorb that impact and help minimize the potential damage. But is that the safest place for my dog to travel? That was the question I had to ask myself.

Considering the danger associated with being rear-ended that had always been nagging in the back of my mind, and recent research release by the Center for Pet Safety and Subaru, I decided not. In the end, an appropriately fitted safety harness is the BEST choice for my dogs, and I suspect for yours as well. According to that research, as recently published in Forbes magazine, dogs 20 lbs. and under are safest traveling in the back seat, in an appropriate crash rated safety restraint. If you have a vehicle with a third row of seats, dogs over 20 lbs. are safest traveling appropriately restrained in the third row. This is to prevent the dog from striking the back of the front seats, possibly endangering the driver or passenger in the front seat.

What's an appropriate safety restraint? That is less complicated than you might think. The Center for Pet Safety has a list of Crash Test CERTIFIED crates, harness and carriers here. It's not complicated. There aren't many. If you have a dog 18-20 lbs. or over Sleepypod makes two great harnesses that are certified. The Clickit Sport that my girls wear, and the Clickit Terrain.

Both are excellent choices. For dogs under 25 lbs. there is only one harness choice, and to be honest, despite its certification, it has caused quite a stir on social media. I don't know if I would choose it for a smaller dog. Most likely I would go with an appropriately certified carrier such as one of the Sleepypods or the Gen7 Commuter. I really like some the the Sleepypod carriers, but the Gen7 is a more affordable option. Why not some other safety restraint? There are lots of them out there. Some pretty inexpensive. Some, just as expensive as the certified ones. So what's the difference? In the end, this is research that you have to do yourself. The Center for Pet Safety website has lots of video of tests performed on their certified products and those they have tested that didn't make the cut. Take some time out to watch those videos. It should be self explanatory. CPS has great information on what to look for in a safety restraint. Crash testing is expensive. Harnesses go through vigorous pre-testing assessments to determine if they are even worthy of putting through the actual crash tests. Many harnesses failed simple strength and buckle tests during the initial assessments. Those products are immediately eliminated from the testing pool. Many manufacturers will claim their harnesses are crash tested. Crash tested DOES NOT mean crash certified. In many cases, they were tested by the CPS and failed. In some cases they were tested privately. That being the case it's difficult to know what the standards for testing are, and what standard is being upheld. In some cases, as with the Ruffwear restraints, the harnesses at some sizes did pass CPS tests, but in others it did not. Therefore the product as a whole did not gain certification. Lastly, as with human crash testing, these tests are performed at 35 miles per hour. I don't know about you, but I can tell you I rarely drive at 35 mph. And we certainly weren't going 35 mph when we had our accident.

But what about crates you ask, aren't those safest? Considering what I now know about 3rd Stage Collision injuries, the answer is no. That being said, l understand that many of you need to transport your pets in crates for a variety of reasons. So for you guys, here are some tips on crate safety. First, make sure you are using the best quality crate you can afford. Truthfully, cost alone is the difference for me between using a certified safety restraint and choosing a certified kennel. A safety restraint is about $100. A certified kennel starts at about $350, and it just goes up from there depending upon size. However, if I could afford one, I MIGHT consider one for Clover. If you are choosing a crate, and you aren't getting a certified Gunner Kennel due to cost, there are still some general precautions you can take. Firstly, do not use wire crates. If you haven't seen what can happen to a wire crate in an accident, you need to. Here's one blog post on it from the Gunner Kennel site, but truthfully, I've seen enough horror story posts on social media from friends and friends of friends who have had accidents while their dogs were traveling in wire crates to give me nightmares. The long and the short of it is, wire crates are likely to tear apart and become a serious danger to your dog. They can impale themselves on the wires or simply escape from the vehicle when the crate comes apart. That can lead to additional nightmares. So ruling out wire, you want to get the safest crate you can afford. While in my personal opinion nothing competes with the crash certified Gunner Kennels, the Ruff Tuff Kennels and some other very sturdy kennels will do the trick. Do not get a kennel that is too big for your dog. Remember those 3rd stage collisions. You want your dog being thrown around as little as possible during a collision. While you may think a nice BIG crate is more comfortable for your dog, it isn't safer. And sometimes we need to choose safety first. Make sure the crate is well secured to the vehicle. If the crate is unsecured and able to slide around in the back of the vehicle, you are definitely increasing your chances for injury. And although I have not seen any data on this in any studies, I am certain that having that nice cushy bed in the crate made a huge difference in absorbing some of the impact. I'm not talking about a thin crate pad. I'm talking about a nice thick mattress. Something the dog can really settle down in to.

River & Clover are fastened in and ready for a trip to the Keys.

In the end, it is your choice as to how you protect your pets while driving. Whether you choose a safety restraint, carrier, or a kennel. None of us EVER believe we are going to need to take this precaution. I know I certainly didn't. I admit, there were many times my dogs rode unrestrained in the car because I was in a hurry and didn't take the time to fasten them in. And I got lucky. But no more. And if your dogs are riding unsecured in the car, and nothing bad has happened, so have you. In the end, I had my accident on the right day. The day my girls were safely restrained. On which day will you have your accident?

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