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Why you shouldn’t let your dog put its head out the window

A dog hanging its head out the window is as American as apple pie — and it may be one of the worst things you can do when you take your dog on a ride.

I’m going to be honest. Until recently, this favorite doggie behavior was something I didn’t give much thought to whenever I took my dogs on a road trip. One of my Chihuahuas is terrified of the window, while the other loves the thrill of the open road. Every time he gets the chance when we travel without securing him in a crate, he scratches at the window until we roll it down, so he can put his head out.

What’s wrong with that doggie in the window?

A dog hanging its head out the window isn’t just cliché, it’s genetic. But just because your dog was born to be wild doesn’t mean it’s even close to a good idea, according to Los Angeles dog trainer David Wright, founder of iWorkDogs and resident dog trainer for Zingy. “Even though it’s almost a biological instinct for a dog to stick his head out during a car ride, it’s not particularly a good idea. Allowing your dog to stick its head out of the window will leave him exposed to all sorts of debris moving at a high velocity. Pretty much anything that is flying around like dirt, rocks and even bugs can sting or significantly hurt your dog.”

“There is a reason why cars have windshields,” says Wright.

I totally understand the argument — a dog hanging its head out the window at high speeds isn’t safe. But my dog’s been doing it for years, and a pebble in the eye hasn’t stopped him yet. Part of me wonders if we’re overreacting, and part of me feels even guiltier after hearing what Kristen Levine, Pet Living expert and popular columnist, has to say: “A pet can fall or jump out of an open window, too. My father’s dog actually did this while at a stop light. She saw another dog across the street and jumped out the window, spraining her foot. My dad had to take her to the vet for a costly emergency visit. She could have been hit by a car!”

If that’s not enough to get you to roll up the windows on your next Sunday drive, consider the fact that dogs don’t blink, making an open-air joyride even more dangerous for man’s best friend. Demario Valmon of Demario’s Pet, a dog walking and pet sitting service, says, “Hanging out of a window can dry a dog’s eyes out, which can also cause ulcers.”

Beyond the obvious health risk, Dianna M. Young, author of Think Like Your Dog and Enjoy the Rewards, says this bad habit can lead to bad behavior. Getting your pooch amped up on a high-speed ride is only going to bring out the animal in it. “All dogs have prey drive to a greater or lesser extent. The process of traveling in a fast-moving vehicle and watching things pass by repeatedly only increases a prey-driven response. For the dogs that naturally have high prey drive, riding in cars with their heads out the window helps build and create frustration. It is the frustration that leads to poor behaviors,” explains Young.

How to cure your dog of its window addiction

So now we’re all on the same page here, and I, too, solemnly swear not to let my braver Chihuahua ride shotgun the next time we take a car trip. But as all pet owners know, dogs are nothing if not persistent — Pavlov’s dog comes to mind. You know and I know that a dog that has felt the wind in its fur has been conditioned to expect an open window on any car ride.

Wright suggests a compromise that could keep both man and beast happy on a road trip: “Crack the window enough for the dog to take in the wind and the smells.”

Dr. Denise Petryk, director of veterinary practices at Trupanion pet medical insurance, says, “Pets belong in the backseat, not the front seat, and especially not in the driver’s lap. Pets can be very distracting to the driver, raising the risk of accidents. In the event of an accident, pets riding in the front seats can face severe injuries from airbags or hitting the windshield.”

Levine believes all pets should be kept comfortably restrained on a car ride, though she does offer a helpful solution: BreezeGuard screens can be installed in back windows, so they can be rolled down safely while keeping pets protected inside. Levine says, “Pets can enjoy the breeze and smells but be kept safe from road debris.”

Forget about dogs — we humans are the real creatures of habit. I know that for myself and my need-for-speed Chihuahua, the window routine is going to be a hard one to break. But the next time I’m tempted to give in to those puppy dog eyes, I’m going to remember Levine’s wise advice: If you wouldn’t let your child hang his or her head out the car window, why would you let your dog do it?

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