Is it practical to expect that we would never leave our dogs in our cars? I don't think so. I'm an advocate of taking your dog with you during the day as much as you can, of getting her out in public as much as you can, and training her in as many different places as possible. If you recently adopted a dog, the first few weeks run the highest risk of your new dog escaping from your yard, and taking her with you in the car (in a crate) keeps her safe and gives you many more opportunities to interact and bond and train during those first few weeks.
This means then that there will be times when you need to leave your dog in the car while you're inside a place that doesn't allow dogs. Here's what you need to know:
1. It's not illegal to leave your dog in a car, despite what you may have heard. It IS illegal to leave your dog in unsafe conditions, like enclosed in a hot car, (even if the windows are down a bit-- if it's hot in there, it's not appropriate. I hope I don't have to tell you that!). Animal control officers will get called out by someone complaining about a dog "locked in a hot car" and it's their judgment call whether the situation is dangerous for the dog or not. (Often people will call without knowing if it's unsafe for the dog or not-- many people think it's illegal to have a dog left in a car at all). If the officers have any concern for the dog they are authorized to break into your car and take the dog. They don't do this lightly, don't worry. So have your cellphone number on the crate so if they have a concern they can call you. (They will also use your license plate number to look up who owns this car). Your strategy should be to make it obvious that the environment inside the car is not hot, and to make it easy for someone to contact you if they are concerned. Having a large thermometer showing the temperature in your car is not a bad idea. That way, anyone can look and know it's all OK. You can even post a card that says "this dog is comfortable and cool". If people realize you've gone to great lengths to ensure the dog's safety, they're less likely to think they're witnessing an unsafe situation.
2. There are tremendous advantages to having your dog ride in her own crate while in your car. I recommend having a a wire open-air crate, to be left in the car permanently.
3. When your dog is safely crated in your car, you can leave every window wide open while you run inside the store to provide adequate ventilation and comfort.
4. You can padlock the door so no one can steal your dog (and you can link a bike lock through the crate to attach to an inside part of your car, to prevent someone from lifting out the entire crate and stealing your dog).
5. Many people who are not well educated about dogs will become needlessly alarmed when they see a crated dog, and they're the people you need to be concerned about. They wrongly think that anyone who crates a dog must be a sadistic animal hater. Their heart is in the right place, but they can cause problems for you. This is why it's wise to lock your crate. In addition, it's wise to buy inexpensive "crate fans" for your crate, and make a label for it that says "cooling fan" so they'll know what it is. You can these excellent devices here.
6. Obviously, if you can park in the shade or in a covered parking spot, do so. Obviously, you must remove anything worth stealing from your car if you're going to leave the windows wide open.
7. Even when the windows are wide open, pay attention to the direction of the sun, and if it's hitting your dog crate directly, throw a cloth over that part of the crate to provide additional shade inside the car for your dog.
8. You can also provide some water in the crate for your dog with this kind of water dish which clamps onto the inside of the crate door. I keep a gallon bottle of water in my car to refill the water bowl as needed, and I bungee the bottle to the side of the crate so it won't spill over in the car.
9. If you ever have a car accident, your dog is infinitely safer being in a crate than being loose in your car, even with a "dog seat belt" on. It's helpful to have a small leash clipped to the crate so if there IS an accident and you're unconscious and are being helped by an ambulance, they can safely remove your dog from the car without having to manhandle her and panic her even more.
10. If you are out and about with your dog in the car and it's hot and you need to leave the car, you can leave it running with the air conditioner on, closed up and locked. If you also use one of those intimidating-looking steering wheel locks, it will help discourage someone from breaking your window and driving off with your car and your dog. There is always the remote chance that your A/C will fail or that your car will run out of gas, so if you do this, check on your dog frequently to make sure all is still well. (I always check on my dogs frequently when they're in my car).
11. When you have a dog that is happy hanging out in her crate in the car, it makes it really easy to go on vacation with her. You can stay at hotels that don't take pets, because during the day you can be out and about with your dog, and when it's time to go back to the room and sleep, your dog can happily sleep in her crate in the car. She'll snooze in her crate while you dine at a nice restaurant. We've done this in Carmel, and Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. It's great.
12. Dogs that are crated in the car are less anxious than dogs that are loose in the car (or confined to the back part of it with a barrier), and are less likely to bark aggressively when someone walks by the car.
We actually reconfigured our minivan to accommodate our dogs, taking out a row of seats (to make room for the crates) and building a little wooden platform for the crates with some storage space underneath. I hope these tips help you enjoy more time with your dog, and help you take her with you as much as possible! The more time your dog gets to spend with you and the more gentle exposure she has to the larger world, the happier she'll be.
What have you found that works well for you in this area? Please leave a comment and share your experiences too.