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Why your dog should always ride in the back seat

Keep your dog restrained in the back of your car. You’ll avoid a fine for careless driving and keep your pooch safer too.

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One distraction I haven't seen much attention to but occurs frequently is drivers who let their pets sit in the front seat with them. One I saw recently: the pet was large enough that the driver had to look around him. Others climb back and forth in front of the driver. Not only are they endangering others, but the pets will certainly die if the airbag is released. I can't imagine how this is not an offence. – Tom

There's no law against Rover roving in your Land Rover. But a pet sitting in your lap is a serious peeve, police say.

"If I saw a driver with an animal in their lap, I'd pull that person over and charge them with careless driving," says OPP. Sgt. Pierre Chamberland. "But, no, generally speaking, letting your pet loose in the vehicle is not an offence, unless the animal's movement or behaviour causes you to drive erratically."

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Even though Ontario's Highway Traffic Act doesn't require animals to be restrained inside your car, police have discretion to charge drivers under section 162 (careless driving) or section 130 (crowding the driver's seat), says the Ministry of Transportation in an e-mail statement.

Ontario's SPCA recommends securing your pet with a car restraint, a crate or a gate to keep them away from the driver.

"It prevents the animal from jumping into the driver's lap," says OSPCA spokesman Brad Dewar. "A restraint isn't like a seatbelt, the dog is still able to have some movement and he can look out the window."

The restraint is also supposed to keep your pooch from becoming a projectile in a crash, which could be deadly for the animal – and for passengers.

"That 40 or 50 lb animal could hit you in the back of the head," Chamberland says.

Crash safety claims exaggerated?

Most harnesses on the market only offer distraction prevention, even those that say they're crash tested, says Lindsey Wolko, founder of the Center for Pet Safety (CPS), a nonprofit based in Washington D.C.

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"Many pet owners equate the pet travel safety harness with the child safety seat but there are no (government) requirements for testing," Wolko says.

Last year CPS did its own crash testing on seven products. They started with 11, but four failed strength tests before the crash tests, Wolko says. In crash tests, all but one launched the test dog off the seat and toward the front seats.

"Even though claims of safety were made by most manufacturers, most did not perform well," she said. "We do want pet owners to use these devices when travelling - but it is important for them to understand the difference between distraction prevention and crash protection."

Tips for taking your pet on the road:

- Ease your pet into a harness or crate: If your pooch is stressed by a harness, start with a five minute trip. "Drive around the block and if your dog can handle it, then give him a treat and lots of praise, then next time maybe try a ten minute trip," Wolko says.

- Don't roll the windows all the way down: "A dog can jump out of an open window and be seriously injured," Dewar says.

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- Don't let your dog stick its head out the window: He may look happy with the wind flapping his ears, but "flying gravel can cause serious, and expensive, injuries," Wolko says.

- Don't let a dog ride in the back of a pick-up: "It's illegal under the Highway Traffic Act," Dewar says. If a dog gets hurt or killed because he was in the back of your truck, you could be charged under the OSPCA Act or the Criminal Code for permitting distress to an animal.

- In a crash, your pets injuries won't be covered unless you have pet insurance.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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