Does your dog stick his head out the car window? Here's why it should stop.

Dr. Patty Khuly

husky with head out car window

There’s this calendar one of my techs put up next to her desk. It’s a cute overkill kind of calendar, the kind that depicts a breed-a-month, but instead of puppy romps through lush grass, these dogs are riding high on a car seat, inhaling the fresh air as it whips their ears back and stretches their lips into an exaggerated smile.

Tongues a-lolling, the canine glee depicted is infectious. You can't help but smile too.

Witnessing joy in dogs is one of life’s profoundest pleasures. Only the grumpiest curmudgeon would take issue with this kind of imagery, right?

Sigh… it’s why I write this post with sadness in my heart. I, too, have enjoyed watching my own dogs crane their necks out of car windows, capturing the sights and smells streaming by the lip-flapping wind tunnel created by my car. But no longer.

As a responsible veterinarian, I feel compelled to object to this addiction of ours. After witnessing first-hand the outcome of a handful of these adventures in canine ecstasy, I’ve decided that no amount of enjoyment is worth the potential for extreme harm these undeniably happy moments are capable of inflicting.

Admittedly, it’s uncommon. But it only takes one second for things to go horribly awry. A fellow driver cuts you off, an unexpected turn-off yields a lurch, a squirrel dashes across the road, a roadside cat taunts your driving buddy – the possibilities are endless. Next thing you know your dog is tumbling ungracefully out the “barely open” window or, suddenly off balance, careening into the street.

Then there’s the possibility of a collision. You can only imagine what even the simplest collision does to dogs whose heads are dangling out the window and otherwise unsecured. “Projectile” is the best word I can find to describe the physics behind their bodies’ behavior. “Concussion,” “contusion,” “fracture,” “laceration,” “avulsion,” and “degloving” are the veterinary terms we use to describe its aftermath.

“He never did that before” or “it was an accident” are by far the most common explanations we’re offered amid waiting room tears. However, the fact that they’re in a veterinary facility using the same exact words others before them did underscores one of dogdom’s most cheeky phrases, “It’s all fun and games until someone ends up in a cone.”

Finally, have you ever thought what would happen if – God forbid – a devastating crash occurred? First responders would open your car door and your dog might be set loose in traffic. Or worse, they’d hesitate to open the doors in your dog’s presence, wasting the valuable moments required to help save you and your other family members’ lives.

Seat belts, you say? Well, of course they help; they’re essential! But the fact that your dog’s head is out the window tends to indicate that you’re not using one. Or that the one you’re using isn’t doing as much as it should. After all, a seat belt should restrain a pet enough so she can’t get her head out. But you’re right, seat belts – even moderately unrestricted ones – get us 90% of the way there.

Still, the majority of popular imagery depicting obviously unrestrained dogs enjoying windy car rides idealizes this uninhibited version of canine exuberance. It normalizes the behavior enough that most people feel empowered to allow their dogs this dubious privilege.

Until we’ve internalized the dangers posed by unfettered animals enjoying the “freedom of the road,” I fear we’re unlikely to let go of the false narrative that says dogs are better served by open windows. Until we accept that letting dogs loll their heads outside of cars is akin to allowing toddlers to do the same, we’re endorsing extremely dangerous behavior.

Let’s change that, shall we?

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