Dog & Driver

How to find the perfect car for your perfect pup
By Maureen McDonald, July 2009, Updated February 2015

The forthcoming Honda Element

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.


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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.)

So, what is the best vehicle for dogs? The answers are as varied as the budgets and lifestyles of the their owners, particularly in this economic climate. Indeed, it’s not always a brand-new car. For Jeff Frelich, director of research and development for seating products at Lear Corporation outside Detroit, it’s two: the venerable Chrysler Town and Country minivan and a newer Chrysler Pacific sitting in his driveway. “These vehicles have enough cargo space to haul four kids, a dog and hockey gear around to competitive meets in Michigan,” Frelich says without hesitation. “Cleanability is also a big factor, whether it’s dog drool or spilled juice boxes.” Both cars have leather interiors he can wipe clean, and removable third-row seating to accommodate luggage and a crate for a 75-pound dog. (Considering that for some 2009 makes and models, leather upholstery adds as much as $3K to the cost, an investment in sturdy dog-proof seat covers could provide achieve the same cleanability for fewer dollars.)

And, like many consumers concerned about both unpredictable fuel prices and the environment, car buyers also want more economy for every mile traveled—in some cases, opting to scale back on vehicle size. Barbara Barefield, a Detroit-based graphic artist, shuttles Devo, her St. Bernard, in the back seat of a Toyota Prius because she wants to leave a smaller paw print on the planet. “Devo adapted,” she says. According to reviews, the 2010 Prius is even more eco-friendly; the third-generation model, which was launched in January at the Detroit Auto Show, has an optional sliding-glass moon roof with solar panels powering an air circulation system that prevents the interior temperature from rising while the car is parked. In fact, many automakers now offer hybrid alternatives, so those who need a bigger ride are likely to find one that combines greater fuel efficiency and the space they require.

Honda has a hybrid model—the Insight—but its most high-profile “dog car” is the Element, which is advertised as “man’s best friend’s best friend.” The company may have a point: The urethane-coated floors are simple to wipe down, wide-open cargo doors on both sides (plus a clamshell dual tailgate mechanism) allow for easy entry, and it’s one of the least costly sport utility vehicles available. Auto critic Mark Phelan says these features make the Element among the most frequently seen models at dog parks. When Ace romped in the river and then climbed, mud-soaked, into the Element, Phelan washed it down, wiped it dry and returned it to the manufacturer no worse for wear. At April’s New York Auto Show, Honda premiered the prototype for their Element EX Dog Friendly™ option package. While details were still being worked out at press time, the package will include, among other things, a cushioned dog bed with an elevated platform, water bowl, load-in ramp and rear ventilation fan.

Honda isn’t the only one paying attention to the wants and needs of dog owners. The Toyota Venza, with its roomy cargo area, has a rear hatch that allows easy entry and exit and is also equipped with a pet ramp. Taking dog-friendliness a step further, Toyota paired up with Kurgo and played a leading role at Global Pet Expo 2009 in mid-February, where the company’s show booth featured pet-friendly accessories available for this new model, among them, Kurgo’s waterproof Wander Hammock, seat covers, Auto Zip Line, backseat barrier, and Skybox booster seat.

Subaru’s two stalwarts, Forester and Outback, continue to please dog lovers. Also at Global Pet Expo, the ’09 Forester display car, which has wider door openings to facilitate loading, incorporated seat covers from Bergan pet products. The sturdy Outback station wagon ranks high with many canophiles, including Jeannie Oldham, who teaches pharmacy technology at St. Catherine College near Harrodsburg, Ky., and transports rescue dogs in her spare time. Oldham appreciates the Outback-specific pet barrier that keeps her pup passengers safely confined to the cargo area, as well as the fact that the car comes with three keys—just in case someone’s paw hits that door-lock button while she’s outside and the car is running, she says with the voice of experience.

How does one decide? Here are some tips from those who’ve recently made the rounds. “Take your time shopping,” says Mannion, the professional dog trainer. “Be clear on what you need.” As Mannion did her research at San Francisco area dealerships, she learned that the Toyota Highlander has wider wheel hubs that restrict the size and number of crates one can haul, and that its rear seat cup holders get in the way. Though the Honda Element and RAV4 were well configured for crates, there was no room left for extra human passengers, and the Toyota FJ Cruiser looked mighty cool but the fuel economy wasn’t as high as the Honda Pilot’s.

She also likes the Pilot’s extra-dark tinting on the back windows, the moon roof that opens wide to ventilate the dog quarters after a swim, and several climate-control zones to keep her dogs comfortable on a long journey. The hatchback has a double gate, so when she reaches a dog park, she can open the upper section and lower the windows, increasing the airflow for the dog waiting in the crate while she puts the other one through his paces.

What else entices a dog-owning customer? Oldham, the happy Outback owner, was gratified that, through its cause-related marketing campaign “Share the Love,” Subaru made a $250 donation to the ASPCA when she bought her car. (The campaign ran from November 24, 2008, through January 2, 2009; in mid-February, the company announced that they had donated a total of $4.6 million to five charities, ASPCA among them.) In an e-mail, Oldham also describes the advantages of an onboard navigation system: “It automatically senses shopping areas after the dogs are dropped off!” These days, when more than ever, every dollar counts, smart shopping is a definite plus.

Chart of Dog-Friendly Cars
Because one size definitely doesn’t fit all, we’re including a sampling of good “dog cars”—those whose designers have built in features that many of us look for when we start thinking about replacing our current fur-covered model. Depending on your needs, many others could also fill the bill. At, Gina Spadafori and Keith Turner give you the lowdown on the dog-friendliness of more than two dozen carmakers’ offerings. To find out how your prospective “good ride” stacks up in terms of fuel economy and greenhouse-gas emissions (along with other useful info), visit the U.S. Department of Energy’s site; for safety data, see the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety sites.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 54: May/Jun 2009

Maureen McDonald, teacher, veteran journalist and dedicated Detroiter, writes regularly for the Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business, among others.