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a dog’s life

Quick: What’s the one summer activity where you can break the law, damage people’s property, brag about it on social media, and be lauded as a hero by most of the general public?

If you guessed “smashing the windows of cars with dogs left inside,” then congratulations on being in tune with the latest sport of do-gooders everywhere. In addition to proudly saving dogs, some people throw in a good dose of social media lynching, calling for the drivers to be charged with attempted murder, as well as harassing the online friends, employers and family members of the offenders.

A life and death issue

Dogs can and do die of heat-related injuries after being left in cars every year. It’s awful and it should never happen. Unfortunately, it does, and we need to examine our knowledge, attitudes and responses to this problem.

Just as public awareness made drinking and driving socially unacceptable, so too has the call to “never leave your dog in a hot car” gained massive social traction in recent years. However, partly because of the massive power of social media, the dogs-in-hot-cars issue has morphed from a necessary campaign of awareness and education to a wicked beast that fuels vigilantes and self-appointed volunteer parking inspectors, just waiting to pounce on any dog, left in any car, no matter the reason, length of time or weather.

Where the anti-drunk-driving campaigns offered real, concrete steps to stop people from getting behind the wheel after having a few drinks, the no-dogs-in-hot-cars movement has provided precious little in the way of workable, helpful, legal advice to concerned citizens who want to do the right thing.

A quick look at the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals website, NoHotPets.ca, shows an amateur-style video claiming, “There’s no good excuse for leaving a pet in a vehicle unattended.” The headline screams, “See a dog in a car? Report it!” with only a passing reference to heat exhaustion, no mention of temperature or weather, and zero information about what symptoms a dog in heat distress might actually display.

This lack of quality information has created a hysteria masquerading as concerned citizenry, and it’s left nobody wiser. So people proudly boast about carrying around baseball bats, prepared to smash in the windows of any car they see with a dog inside. Angry mobs form in parking lots, blocking the path of drivers who have returned to their cars and are trying to leave with their pets. Screaming matches are filmed and posted on social media, as drivers are confronted by well-meaning, yet sometimes judgmental bystanders.

Ultimately, the result of all this human drama is that our dogs continue to bear the brunt of our collective foolishness. Before you feel smug about your moral superiority over those “idiots” who leave their dogs in cars, understand that the well-meaning heroes that come to the “rescue” of the ostensibly suffering pets are often just as illogical.

Consider the dog's perspective first before taking action. A dog that isn't in distress will suddenly feel traumatized by an aggressive intervention. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

A dog’s perspective

Let’s examine the situation through a dog’s eyes for a moment:

You’re sitting in your owner’s car, minding your own business. If it’s a warm day, you might be panting, just as humans might be sweating – it’s your body’s built-in cooling mechanism, and not a sign of imminent heat exhaustion.

You’re startled by a sudden face at the window. A person you’ve never seen before is peering into the car, hands cupped up against the glass. They start tapping on the window, and in a sing-song voice reserved for very young infants, or worse, in a loud, sharp, panicked voice, begin speaking to you. You may or may not understand their words, but it doesn’t really matter – you’re bothered by them even being there, in your personal space, trying to get your attention.

Suddenly, this stranger tries to stick their hand in the window, which your owner left down for you a little bit. “A stranger is trying to break into my owner’s car! How can I get her to stop? Should I bark at her? Bite her? Hide in the corner and hope she goes away? This is becoming very stressful, very quickly. Where is my owner?”

A loud smash interrupts your thoughts, as tiny bits of glass fly into your face, eyes and fur. “The window is gone – completely broken. The stranger has other people with her now, and they’re reaching into the car, trying to open the door! Are they coming to get me? What should I do? ”

This is what it can feel like to a dog on the receiving end of a rescue. Dogs sometimes bite their rescuers, develop fear trauma from smashed windows, or get into situations that are far worse – like the petrified dog who single-handedly shut down Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway a few years ago after escaping from his rescuers.

How do I help a dog in a hot car?

Nobody wants to see an animal suffer. There are appropriate ways you can help the situation, while keeping everyone safe.

First, make sure there is actually a living dog in the car. There are multiple instances of animal services staff arriving at vehicles, only to find empty crates, stuffed animals or a bunched-up hoodie on the back seat. Confirm the presence of a dog from a distance – peering into windows can make a previously calm dog feel stressed, compounding any ill-effects from the heat. If there is one, check to see if there are any cooling mechanisms in place – window fans, shade protectors. Some newer cars can even be locked and left running with the air conditioning on.

Second, know the signs and symptoms of heat distress in dogs. Panting is a regular cooling activity, and shows the body is still working, meaning the dog is not in immediate distress. While observing from a distance, notice if the dog is moving around, or appears alert. If not, does the dog become more alert when you approach the vehicle (slowly and calmly)? A dog in heat distress will appear listless and unresponsive, with glazed eyes and excessive panting with lips pulled back, exposing bright red or purplish gums and a swollen tongue.

Third, make note of the time when you first noticed the dog. Write down the make, model and licence plate of the vehicle. If the dog is alert, you can go into stores to see if the owner can be found or paged. If the dog is already suffering from heat distress, send someone else into stores while you call animal services or Canadian Automobile Association – both can open car doors safely and without damage. They might even be able to offer you further assistance by giving first aid advice, such as trying to get water squirted in through an open window. Do not try to break into the car yourself.

Finally, if the dog is alert, continue to observe from a distance to see if there is any change to the animal’s condition while you wait for the owner to return. When the owner does return, stay calm. Being argumentative heightens emotions on both sides, which only results in more stress(and less learning) for everyone – the dog included. Ask questions about cooling mechanisms, express your concern for the dog, and try to keep things as civilized as possible.

If you absolutely must leave your dog in the car while running small errands, ensure there are cooling mechanisms such as fans, water bowls and window screens. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

What if I need to leave my dog in my car?

While lots of people claim that dogs should never, ever be left in cars, that advice is not helpful or realistic. Taking your pet to the park and stopping off for a bottle of water first, traveling with your dog to the cottage, picking up the kids from school before going for a family hike – there are going to be times you will need to leave your dog in the car for short periods of time. Here’s what you can do to help ensure a positive outcome:

First, do not bring your dog with you to run errands. Things have a way of always taking longer than expected. If your stop is for anything longer than a two-minute coffee or a convenience store run, it’s too long. Do your own experiments: spend 5 or 10 minutes locked in a vehicle at 10-, 15-, and 20-degree days. See how fast your car heats up, and remember that when considering your pet’s needs.

Second, plan with your dog in mind. There are several battery-powered fans that can secure in between a car’s window frame and closed window. You get safety and cooling in one. Use sun shades across your car’s windshield and side and back windows. Park in shade. Consider getting a vehicle that can be locked and left running at the same time, so that the air conditioning can be left on for your pet.

Third, if at all possible, travel with another person and leave him or her in the car with your dog. Leave both the dog and your human traveling companion in the shade.

Fourth, leave more than one bowl of water for your pet. Consider getting a hamster-style water bottle to hang over the back seat so your dog can access water without accidentally flipping a bowl over. Worried about water spilling in your car? Relax. It will dry. (And consider getting a stuffed animal next time.)

Fifth, consider getting a school locker-sized dry erase board. Write down the time you left your vehicle, your name, the store you’re in, and your cellphone number. Place it in your back seat window, where people are most likely to see your dog. Yes, you run the risk of exposing yourself to phone calls and texts from some potentially unbalanced people, but wouldn’t you rather deal with a few phone calls than come back to a smashed window and a scared dog?

Finally, for warm days, learn about cooling mechanisms for your dog, whether you’re in the car or not. Dogs do not sweat, so their only way to cool off is through panting. Soaking the pads of their feet or putting cool water on their chest can help. Use a chamois soaked in water and placed on your dog’s back under a T-shirt for longer term cooling. Look for specialty items like cooling vests or neck collars. Treat your dog to ice cubes – they’re a big hit with most pups. (Note: do not give ice to a dog already suffering from heat injury. It can cool them too quickly and result in complications.) Most importantly, remember that dogs get much hotter, much faster than us. Always keep your pet’s health in mind.