With a single command, Clutch, an American Bulldog, and Havoc, a Belgian Malinois, jump into the cargo hold of Sandra Mannion’s 2009 Honda Pilot, awaiting the surge of the engine and a trip to San Francisco Bay for a nice long swim.
“The research was an excruciating process. This is my first new car. Ever. I’m super happy with my Pilot,” says Mannion, an Albany, Calif.-based trainer and behavioral consultant who took possession after three months of shopping online and around San Francisco for the ideal dog wagon for business and pleasure use.
When Mannion was ready to retire her Isuzu Trooper, a nice square SUV that transported two large dog crates with ease, she started looking for a vehicle roomy enough to take a pair of dogs and several passengers to exercise sessions on the beach, and spacious enough for carpooling to dog sport competitions. When she found the Pilot, her search ended. “I love this car like it has a beating heart,” she says, latching the crates to the sturdy steel hooks in the cargo area.
While the way to our own dog-loving hearts may not be primarily through our vehicles, it’s certainly true that when making a purchasing decision, we’re on the lookout for safety and comfort features compatible with the needs of our co-pilots. Whether the pooch in question is small, medium or large, cargo space and good ventilation are high on our list. Space, because traveling with a dog means bringing “stuff”—bedding, food, water, towels, a few toys, perhaps a crate—not to mention the dog himself. Ventilation, because windows that provide fresh air in the cargo area—and air-conditioning vents for days when it’s too hot to open those windows—are a must. Other “handy to have” components include fur-friendly upholstery (stain- and water-resistant fabric scores high), cargo mats, places to store gear, easy-to-remove seats to create space for large dog crates, and tie-downs for leashes or restraint systems.
According to the American Pet Products Association, people with pets spend an estimated $43.2 billion caring for them, and automakers have taken note of this attractive market segment. Even an American standard like the Chevrolet Impala offers an easy-to-clean optional rear bench seat that flips up to reveal a smooth, molded surface perfect for wet or muddy dogs. As John Mendel, executive vice president of Honda America, observes, “In an interesting turn of events, cars are now chasing dogs.”
“Nothing is more fun for dogs than a ride in a car,” says Detroit Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan, who enlists his 75-pound German Shepherd, Ace, and German Shepherd-mix puppy, Nicky, to help evaluate two or three vehicles a week for dog friendliness and all-around drivability. Ace will ride in anything, any time, but since she has a weak stomach, little Nicky does well in a model like the Pontiac Vibe with its removable all-weather cargo liner that can be rinsed clean with a handy hose (just in case). He coaxes his pups into and out of the cars on the passenger side so they won’t bolt into traffic, and has trained them to sit and behave during the ride. Before cranking up the engine, he engages the child-safety lock to keep a paw from pushing on a door or depressing a handle on a four-door. He rolls a window partway down and locks it so Ace can stick his muzzle out and taste the journey without risking a leap after a tempting squirrel. (Some people use restraint systems that allow dogs the run of the back seat or cargo hold, but Phelan doesn’t keep a car long enough to make the investment practical.)