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For those of you who don’t know, I’ve spent the last year of my life (April 2018-March 2019) driving from Denver to Memphis to Wisconsin to Vancouver to Los Angeles to
My dog Barley has joined us for that whole trip – 7 countries, an estimated 13,000 miles, and over 200 hours in the car.
Guess what? We leave him in the car.
We’ve left him in the car in Las Vegas, Texas, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and more. As a professional trainer, I sometimes left him in the car while I grabbed dinner on the way home from herding class or while I prepped a client and their aggressive dog for an introduction to him.
We’ve left our dog in the car on hot days in seven different countries. And you know what scares me the most? It’s not the desert heat in central Mexico or the oppressive humidity of coastal Costa Rica. It’s the idea of a well-meaning American trying to “save” my dog from the hot car.
The thing is, it’s ok to leave a dog in the car – if you do it right.
Of course, forgetting your dog in the car can kill your dog. And being irresponsible or unreasonable about a dog in a hot car can kill your dog.
I’m obviously not advocating for leaving your brachycephalic, obese, geriatric pug in a black car in full sun in Florida for hours.
But I think there’s a bit of unhealthy hysteria about this topic online, and I’m jumping in (after DoggyU broke the ice) to share my tips and tricks for leaving a dog in a car.
Why Not Just Leave Your Dog at Home?
I’d actually like to echo the arguments made in a recent article, “It’s Almost Window-Smashing Season,” and a corresponding podcast, “Dogs in Cars:” most dogs would probably rather be a little bit warm than be left home alone with an overfull bladder. This podcast and blog combination inspired me to write this post – so kudos to them!
I’m NOT arguing that you should leave your dog alone for two hours in a black sedan in full sun. OF COURSE NOT. I love my dog far more than you love my dog, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep him happy and safe.
That means that I leave my dog in a warm car sometimes.
Barley gets to come to training classes, competitions, long hikes, and road trips ONLY because I’m able to leave him in the car unattended. His life is richer, fuller, less boring, and less potty-dance-full because he tags along in the car.
He doesn’t love being left alone. Taking him in the car means he’s left alone less. I travel a TON – not just for this one big trip, but also for climbing trips, conferences, and training. Barley gets to come. And he’s happier for that.
So far, we’ve had no troubles with any window-smashers. I’m grateful for that, but it’s always my biggest worry.
How Hot is Too Hot to Leave a Dog in a Car?
There’s a lot of fear-mongering out there about the temperatures inside of hot cars.
Yes, cars can get dangerously hot alarmingly quickly.
Yes, cracking the windows does very little to cool your dogs off.
Yes, when it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside your car can heat up to 99 degrees Fahrenheit within 10 minutes.
But you know what else?
- Cars with pale interiors don’t heat up nearly as fast as cars with dark interiors (check out that study from
AmericanAssociation of Pediatrics).
- There are tons of gadgets available (and we’ll list them below) to help keep your pup cool if you leave her in the car.
- Most people who are leaving their dogs in the car are acutely aware of the risks and have taken precautions.
- Many people don’t really know what heat distress looks like in a dog. Look hard before you panic.
- There are tons of ways to help rescue a dog you think is in distress other than smashing a window. Smashing someone’s window as your knee-jerk reaction is rude (and potentially illegal, if the dog isn’t actually in distress).
I’ll talk in a moment about some of the ways to keep a dog cool in a car. But first, let’s address what to do if you see a dog left in a hot car and you’re worried.
How Do I Make it Safe to Leave a Dog in a Car?
Honestly, my biggest concern when leaving my dog in the car is other people who might try to go all vigilante on me. But that’s because I’ve already taken other steps to keep Barley safe:
- Put a note out with your contact info and any safety features your car has for your dog. Don’t necessarily make this huge and obvious (you don’t want to attract prying eyes that might stress out your dog) – but make it easy-to-find and clearly written.
- Mine says, “Hi! My name is Barley. My owner, Kayla, is probably coming right back. She’s got a setup inside the car that keeps me happy and cool. I love coming with her everywhere, and I’m glad to be here. Kayla comes out and checks on me regularly. If you really want to make sure I’m OK, feel free to call her at [phone number]! Thanks for giving me space during my naptime!”
- Park your car in the shade whenever possible.
- Give your dog water – but again, remember that dehydration and heat exhaustion are not the same thing.
- Make frequent check-ins. I come out every 15 minutes or so if it’s warm out to ensure Barley is still doing well. If it’s overcast and cool, I check less often. I check the temperature in the car and walk him if needed.
- Get a light-colored car. Ok, this isn’t an easy task – but keep it in mind if you’re car shopping! Our Saturn Vue is white and it stays amazingly cool, even in the summer sun.
- Get white interior covers for the car. As I said above, there was a study done that found that the interior color of the car is the best predictor for how hot or cool it was. So if you can get white seat covers and/or white dashboard mat (you might have to make one of these, they don’t seem to make them), that might make a significant difference!
- Get reflective window shades. Window shades can really help keep the sun out. Since we know that the interior color of your car makes a big difference, keeping that sun out altogether will help a ton!
- Leave the AC on with a remote start, locked door/spare key combo, or steering wheel lock. We use the steering wheel lock option, especially at super-hot border crossings where there’s no shade!
If you know you’ll be leaving your dog in the car more frequently or for longer periods of time, consider getting some of these high-tech options for keeping a dog cool in a car.
- Consider a temperature monitor. Remote temperature sensors don’t come cheap and they can fail, but they’re also a huge help for peace-of-mind. Many connect directly to your phone for easy temperature monitoring. Just don’t rely blindly on the technology.
- Breezeguard. These are my next big purchase after I buy a new car (they have to fit your car). They’re locking and super sturdy, but quite expensive. I’m seriously considering getting these window grates instead – they’re not good for much other than keeping your dog in with an open window, but that’s all I want most of the time. A small crack in the window won’t do much, but these tools let you roll your windows down much further!
- Aluminum shade cloth cover. This car cover will really help keep your car cool with your dog inside. Unfortunately, they also draw attention to your car, which could mean prying eyes. The cover is super effective, though!
- Doggie cooling pads or jackets. You can also give your dog a cooling mat to lie on or a cooling jacket. These will really help keep your dog’s body temperature low, but only for as long as they are running. Many only last 20-40 minutes. Your mileage may vary.
- Tailgate lock. This nifty tailgate lock allows you to prop your trunk open for extra ventilation. They’re super easy to install and keep your car secure with far more ventilation than just cracked windows!
There are times I’ve left Barley in the car where he probably was pretty warm – maybe even hot. But if you’re careful and smart about it, there’s no need for hysteria about leaving your dog in the car.
I Found a Dog Left in a Hot Car. What Do I Do?
First off, don’t panic. As I said above, there’s a very good chance that the owner will be right back and that the owner is highly aware of their dog. I know I am super aware of the time and temperature whenever I leave Barley!
Second off, don’t get angry. Don’t call the police right away;
Here’s what I do when I find dogs left in a car:
- Leave the dog alone. Hovering, knocking on the windows, peering into the car, etc can all stress the dog out more. My own dog will happily nap in the car – but turns into a barking mess if people try to bother the car. If the dog is barking, odds are he’s barking AT you because you’re in his space.
- Wait it out a little bit. Even if it’s pretty hot, the owner might just be running indoors for a 5-minute bathroom break. I’ve left Barley in the car when it’s really hot – like 90+ degrees in Colorado summer – if I’m just running into a gas station to pee. He’s not gonna die during a 5-minute break! The dog was just hiking in that same heat, for Pete’s sake.
- Observe the dog from afar. If the dog is quietly sleeping, leave it alone. It’s FINE. If the dog is panting lightly but seems relaxed, leave it alone. If it’s barking at you, give it space. Then see how it looks when it’s not stressed about you. If you’re not sure, it never hurts to politely check in with the owner. But don’t be a jerk about it!
- If the dog seems incoherent, is drooling excessively, is panting with a HUGE lolling tongue, has its lips drawn super far back into a “grin,” or seems like it’s unconscious (not sleeping), THEN it’s time to get help! For sure!
- Talk to the owner (politely) first. Check the car for any phone numbers or information. Many people who travel frequently with their dogs will have their numbers and even information about their dogs (and the setup they use to keep their dogs cool) on their car. I personally leave a note on my dash.
- If you can’t find any info, take down the license plate number and head into nearby businesses. Odds are, the owner is in the closest building. Politely ask the business to page the owner.
- Remember, you are NOT more concerned about this owner’s dogs than they are. I guarantee that the owner loves their dogs more than you do. If the owner assures you their dogs were fine, they probably were.
- Don’t make a huge scene. Having 20 angry people standing around a stressed dog in a hot car isn’t helping ANYONE, least of all the dog and his owner.
- Get extra help only if needed. If you really can’t find the owner, call the local non-emergency police number for backup.
- Break windows only if legal and
- Cooling the central body temperature is far more important than giving the dog water. Dehydration is NOT the same thing as heat stress.
Every time that I’ve noticed a dog in a hot car, I’ve actually stopped at #3. I’ve waited a little bit and observed the dog, and decided that the dog seemed fine. And I minded my own business.
Dogs have better lives when they get to spend more time with us. Outfitting your car so it’s dog-friendly in the summer is a great way to improve your dog’s life!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
This was a great read! Some lady reprimanded me for leaving my dog in my car & said It more than 5 minutes and threatened to call the cops. Funny, i just ignored her because i actually recorded myself going into the store and coming out & was gone for a total of 5 minutes. My pup was fine and was not distressed. This makes me feel better about knowing this is something that happens all the time. I love my pup and obviously would never irresponsibly leave her unattended in a vehicle.
I’m so glad you liked the article!
I had a world saver moaning at me today. I popped into the shop for no longer than 5 minutes. My dog was crying, yes – from separation and definitely not from overheating. I want my dog to get used to this activity. When I returned to the car a man was looking through one of my two cracked windows. When I reached the car he told me there is a suffering dog in my car. I was proud of my response. I just said thank you. As a was getting into the car he said I shouldn’t have a dog. That statement made me REALLY angry, but I didn’t say anything back to him – just shut the door and drove OFF. Thanks for this article. No dog lovers are going to be irresponsible.
Gosh, I’m SO sorry someone was so rude to you! You are doing right by your dog and I’m sure your pup was less distressed here than if you’d left him at home for much longer. For what it’s worth, I’m on your team.
i had an interaction today with a man who, worried about my dog in my car on a 62° cloudy day, called the cops on me. thanks for your article, i was worried I had genuinely done something, inadvertently, to hurt my dog. he could have gone into Walmart and asked for the owner of my car, but he didn’t. He, an older man, waited for 2 teenagers to return to their car, and then decided to confront us about it. he swore and flipped us off when he left, despite us being polite towards him. he also called the police, leading to may parents getting a phone call from the police on mother’s day. they were worried sick. I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing, but he hurt and worried 4 people in the process.
thanks so much for your article helping me figure out that, while i was in the right, there’s still things i could do better.
sorry for the long comment. thank you.
I’m glad that this article helped you out! As I write, I’m sitting in the shade at a coffee shop with my dogs in the car (my puppy is still learning how to process the world and isn’t ready to be on a patio just yet). It truly sounds like your dogs were safe.
I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this article. I love my social life and my dog. What advisce do you have for the colder season?
Hi Mikki, unless it’s REALLY cold out, I really don’t worry about it!
Great read. I have a working GSD(protection) that stays in the truck when I cant have him in a business.
Even WITH a placard in the window saying hes comfortable and fine(and imploring the reader to not reach in to him) Ive had folks, who clearly know better, try to scold me about leaving him outside.
Then, of course, they get indignant when their demeanor triggers his guarding reaction.
Got a accosted by a woman claiming that a dog can die in a care in 2 minutes literally dog was hot but 2 minutes is excessive i was gone for a minimum of three minutes but oh god he was dying got to the car he was not in distress its 80 out today dont normally take him with but he escaped his pen great to know that she was just being a Karen
On another note: There are other reasons not to leave your dog in the car. Recently dog thieves have been breaking into cars and stealing dogs left unattended in my area. (It’s a nice area).
That’s a good point!
My 2 Pyrenees and a Newfie love to come with me. Today after being in the store for 10 minutes-78 degrees outside,6 windows open 3 inches each, a woman was swearing profusely at me and took my tag number-calling me a f’ing senile bitch. She was really angry! The van wasn’t all that hot inside
(I do leave them home when it hits 80 degrees)I might try the ac on with the steering wheel locked.
Hi Kayla Fratt.
I wanted to ask about covered parking lots. I will be going to some Home Renovation stores on the weekend, as I don’t live in a big city, I’ll be taking my Maltese for the 3 hour ride each way.
One if the stores on my list is ikea (the only one which won’t allow her to enter even in a carrier). Can I leave her in the car in the covered parking lot of IKEA for 30-45 minutes?
The weather forecast says that the temperature outside will oscillate between 69-85 degrees.
Hi Hema, that sounds like it will likely be relatively safe to me. It does depend a bit on the specifics of the area, of course.
What about night time temperatures I often go to the gym before work it’s 80 degrees or higher but it’s dark outside?
Hi Sabrina, I can’t say for sure but usually it’s safer at night.
Omg, I just ran into a Karen. I had my dog in a shade with sunroof open and 2 windows down. I went inside to pick up my prescription it couldn’t have been more than 8 minutes. She’s like good thing you came out because I was going to report you and then tells me I shouldn’t have a dog. Pluto has anxiety and that’s why I bring him with. This world is full of nut cases.
I’m sorry you had such a negative interaction! I’m glad you and Pluto are taking care of each other.
Thank you for this article. I think there is a lot of hysteria around dogs bring in cars. I left my dog in the car while I was at work today because I had several events after 5pm and would not get home til late. I preferred to have him with me than to have him alone all day and needing to pee. It was 55 degrees and he had his doggie coat on. He was in the car from 9:30am- noon, then from noon to 1pm, on my lunch break, we went for a walk, then then I worked from 1-5, while he was in the car with a cozy dog bed, water, and a bully stick to chew. He could be with me at my event from 5-9pm, which he loved. Someone left a nasty note on my dash about how I should be ashamed of myself, etc., and next time they will call the police. It made me feel bad because I love my dog and go the extra mile to keep him happy. When my dog is home alone he goes to his crate anyway, and the car is no different- he was able to stay warm with his dog bed and coat. There really was no problem.
Absolutely. It sounds like you were taking care of your dog. It’s really all about caution and planning. I’m sorry about the nasty note.
My puppy is about 3mo old. She has a nice wooden crate but one of the posts is broken from her chewing on it and soon enough she’ll learn she can fit right through the space and get out. I live in Vegas just wondering if it’s okay to go grocery shopping for maybe 30-40 minutes at night at about 50degrees with her in the car?
Hello. I’m trying to find a small, effective a/c unit to turn on while my dog is in the car. I usually leave the car and a/c running but it’s too dangerous with so many cars and dogs getting stolen. I found IcyBreeze but it’s pretty expensive. Just hoping someone has had experience with one that they like
I have a little swamp cooler, but it doesn’t work well in high humidity.