Tips for dog owners planning a road trip with their pet
As any canine enthusiast will vouch for, dogs are a delight to have around. They're great to take places and make you want to be the person they think you are. They can also be wilful, nervous, needy, aggressive and uncomfortable to be around if they don't like where they are. Which is why it's absolutely essential that they feel safe and comfortable in your car when you're driving them around. This will ensure that they aren't restless in the back seat and won't tend to distract the driver by jumping to the front.
It's absolutely essential that the pets feel safe and comfortable when you're driving them around
While we've tried to represent various classes of vehicles in this feature, your choices will essentially boil down to three things: space, stability and security. Depending on the size of dog you wish to go road-tripping with, you'll need an appropriately sized vehicle that can provide these three. In practice, however, people buy the cars they want and rarely consider the consequences for the family pet. Still, you can make the best of it with some common sense.
Acclimatising: The only way to ensure this is by acclimatising them and encouraging proper behaviour from puppyhood. Treat your pet on car rides to reinforce a positive association. If you use the car just to take your dog to the vet, she's not going to grow up liking it. One can gradually extend the length and time of car trips as the dog grows.
Treat your pet on car rides to reinforce a positive association
Back seat manners: While it helps to have someone else at hand for safety, it is absolutely essential that the animal be in the back seat, and secured in some way. If you haven't been around enough to train this behaviour and you now have a restless dog that's a pain to travel with, you may need some professional help.
It is absolutely essential that the animal be in the back seat, and secured in some way
Leash: Unless your pet is perfectly behaved and will sit like a good doggy all the way, there will be times when she wants to stand, go to the window, change position or take the wheel. So whatever you do, make sure the dog is secured by his leash to the car in some way.
Harness, no harness : Prevailing wisdom dictates that dogs wear special car harnesses that can be clipped to seatbelt moorings for safety. Animal behaviourist Manoor Sachdev believes that this may well work in the West, but is impractical in our conditions. It also forces the dog to remain seated in one position for extended periods of time -- no good for joints, spines. We say use your judgement, but ensure a distraction-free environment for the driver. A regular dog harness secured to the car would work as well. Aneesha Rai, owner of the Dawgz Grooming N More pet store recounts, "a well-heeled customer discussed the need for a car harness with me for his puppy and decided against it. He celebrated his new Mercedes-Benz purchase with puppy in tow and ended up distracted by the excited puppy and damaged his car." An expensive lesson in securing your pet.
Picking a car for your pet
Hatchbacks make ideal cars for couples with small pets
Despite being the 'small cars' in this feature, hatchbacks are anything but when it comes to doggy's day out. Most premium hatches allow split rear folding seats, while all, including entry-level hatches will have rear seats that fold flat for massive cargo capacity. Folded seats make an ideal, stable platform to carry your pet or pets. If your pet is a small breed and you don't need all that space, use the rear seat as is and carry the pet paraphernalia in the boot. Hatchbacks make ideal cars for couples with small pets. Larger families or larger dogs may want to look elsewhere.
We'd recommend the Swift for small to medium-sized dogs only
Absolute space and headroom will be key metrics to look at if you are considering an A-segment hatchback like a Maruti Suzuki Alto or a Hyundai Eon. Both allow you to tumble the rear seats down and have usable boot space as well, adding up to a decent platform for your small dog. The Alto, however, is a little more hard-edged on the inside, compared to the softer touch interiors of its competition. The Tata Nano would be a winner here thanks to the immense headroom but the rear seats don't fold. Also, considering the engine's back there, it can get hot.
Going up a notch into the A+ segment cars, the Maruti Suzuki WagonR would be a good choice for pet owners with its generous headroom. The Hyundai i10 is a popular car and offers good headroom at the rear, but not as much as the WagonR. Other options include the A-Star and the Honda Brio, though the tiny boot on the Brio translates to smaller absolute area with the seats tumbled flat.
In a Swift, you could get two pups in the rear seat in a pinch, but that's it
The reigning champ of the premium hatch segment - the Swift - is impossible to ignore. No wonder then that our canine behaviourist Manoor owns one himself and has used it to transport pets of all shapes and sizes. We'd recommend this vehicle for small to medium-sized dogs only. You could get two pups in the rear seat in a pinch, but that's it. The Swift has a usable boot for luggage, food, bowls et al.
A more subtle advantage that the Swift has over some of its competitors is slightly more generous headroom. Manoor suggests that this is a useful feature to have in a hatch for pets that will sometimes stand on the seat. Ingress and egress are satisfactory with the well-sized rear door. However, like most Japanese cars, the doors don't open in steps but rather in one smooth motion. This makes them easy to manipulate but they won't stay open if your hands are otherwise occupied. The Swift's proven reliability, ruggedness and Maruti's stellar service network make this hatch a no-brainer choice for small families with small dogs.
The Hyundai i20, the Swift's natural competitor, makes for an even better pet carrier on account of its added space. The boot is one of the largest in the segment, as are the rear accommodations. Folded flat, the i20 would be a very comfy place for even a medium-sized dog. If you were to bring the Honda Jazz into the reckoning, however, this would be a one-sided fight. The Jazz has by far the largest boot and the most flexible seat configurations of any hatch. Not only do the seats tumble flat, but can also fold in the other direction for more floor space. And when folded flat, the headroom afforded is unbeatable. If you can live with a higher total cost of ownership, the Jazz is the pet car to buy.
Cars like Volkswagen, Skoda Fabia and Ford attaract pet owners with their relatively deep boot areas
Other alternatives in the hatch segment include the VW Polo, Skoda Fabia and the Ford Figo. These vehicles are interesting for pet owners for their relatively deep boot areas, allowing you to carry your pets in the boot with the parcel tray removed. This isn't as horrible as it sounds. On the contrary, there's plenty of room for even a medium-sized dog and the added security of the rear seat restricting movement. The European cars also have the advantage of stepped-opening rear doors, which can be a convenience if you're dealing with shopping, kids and pets at the same time. Their low ride height makes it easy for small dogs to hop in as well.
Indians like sedans, but their dogs, usually, don't
We like sedans in India. That extra boot tacked onto the back may as well be directly attached to our self-esteem. They certainly make for comfortable commuters and night flight airport haulers, but they're not particularly well-suited for species other than our own. Nevertheless, they're impossible to ignore and with some adjustments, can be comfortable pet buggies.
With a sedan, you lose the flexibility of a large cargo area with the seats folded down. Some higher priced sedans do allow this, but it doesn't really help when doggy is in tow. Your choices will be limited to the rear seat and entry via the rear door. That being said, there are some nice options to choose from. Consider the Toyota Etios and the Mahindra Verito (Renault Logan before the divorce). They're not going to give you street cred or a smarter salute from security, but they're very roomy, offer great headroom and a flat floor, which is useful for shorter dogs that will likely jump straight onto the carpet area.
Skoda is not the best option out their for a pet owner, and can be very expensive to maintain with the added wear and tear of carrying pets
The most popular sedan of its size - the Maruti Suzuki Swift DZire is worth mentioning for being almost identical internally to its hatchback sister. The marginally increased cargo space coupled with the lack of a folding seat, however, don't make this a very attractive choice to carry pets. The SX4 is another matter. Its ground clearance and headroom make for a very practical people carrier. As a four-legged ferry, it's a toss-up. The high-ride makes it difficult for diminutive dogs to hop in, but the added headroom and space is a great advantage for larger breeds.
Up in the C-segment, the Honda City dominated until the Vento came along and stole its thunder. Still, it remains a popular choice and as far as sedans go, you could do a lot worse. The cabin is roomy with good headroom, plenty of legroom and a flat floor. So much so that Veer the labrador instinctively jumped into the footwells instead of directly onto the seat. This may be useful for shorter dogs like Basset Hounds that are large in size but unable to leap over obstacles very well. The wide, stepped-opening rear door is also a convenience and is also very light.
Newer entrants in the C-segment such as the VW Vento and its corporate sister the Skoda Rapid offer near-identical interior space, but the packaging and presentation is very different, as expected, when comparing Asian and European cars. The stepped-opening doors are a convenience and build quality is excellent. Large boots are practical and at least on the Skoda, equipment levels are good. They will, however, likely be more expensive to maintain with the added wear and tear of carrying pets.
Larger sedans in the luxury segment such as the Skoda Superb, Honda Accord and VW Jetta would make great pet carriers as far as sedans go, but that's probably not the intended purpose. Pets, even short-haired ones, will shed and you'll find fuzz in the most unexpected places -- in nooks and crannies, on seats, carpets and the roof. With the added acreage of a luxury sedan and the attendant cleaning bill, we'd advise against using your luxo-barge for your pets. Buy a nice premium hatch for them.
Despite the roominess and rear seat comfort of sedans, Manoor advises against using them to transport large breeds, preferring to recommend them for medium or small-sized dogs.
The space, stability and security an SUV or MUV affords is hard to match, unless you own your own bus.
Unsurprisingly, the larger the vehicle, the better it is for road trips with pets. The space, stability and security they afford is hard to match, unless you own your own bus. By nature of their size, SUVs and MUVs have larger flat surfaces for use by pets and typically offer big loading areas and cargo bays out back -- ideal for doggy and her pals, if need be. If you're looking for a family car for trips with kids and pets in tow, these segments hold your ideal vehicle.
The small SUV segment is nascent, but expected to be very popular as is evident by the slew of launches we're likely to see. The Renault Duster should be an excellent pet carrier with only two rows of seats and a large cargo area - no seat folding necessary! The Premier Rio is also a potential choice here, though with its humble dimensions it's almost a tall-riding hatchback. The seats offer split-folding, so it should be at least as practical as a hatchback.
Mahindra XUV 500 is a dream pet car. You could fit several pets in there, each secured with their own leads to the various mooring points available in the vehicle
Up in the full-size SUV segment, the Mahindra XUV500 has been a runaway success since its launch, and it's quite obvious why. The combination of big SUV space, contemporary styling and a very competitive price make it hard to match and the benchmark to beat in its space of the SUV market. It checks almost every spec box you can think of and appears to have been well-liked by our furry friends as well.
The third row of seats in the XUV500 fold down nearly flat in a 50/50 configuration providing a large, stable platform. Additionally, the second row folds down nearly flat in a 60/40 configuration, allowing for sixteen different combinations. The most interesting of these is all seats folded flat, offering nearly four feet of flat surface. You could fit several pets in there, each secured with their own leads to the various mooring points available in the vehicle. They'd be comfy too, with all three rows catered to with individual AC vents.
Being a tall vehicle, you step into the car rather than sit down into it - a very comfortable experience. Consequently, the door lip is fairly high up and only suitable for a large dog to enter comfortably. The floorpan is quite flat as well. It's worth mentioning that while the door opens adequately wide, the height of the vehicle makes it slightly awkward for pets to get in. Best to stick to the hatch with seats folded down.
A little down the hierarchy, you could also consider the Mahindra Scorpio as a comfy pet carrier. It's available in a variety of configurations, including a 7-seat model with folding seats, making it quite practical. It also has a fairly flat floor and wide, accommodating doors. The current model also has extra conveniences such as rear AC vents that should keep occupants comfy, walking erect or on all fours.
While the XUV appealed to Manoor for its cavernous size and appeal to the enthusiast, it was the humble Innova that ended up being the workhorse for the shoot. We had, at one point, no less than seven dogs and one handler in the vehicle, relaxing in AC comfort. Having received a high-spec version of the vehicle, we were pleased to find comfortable fabric seats, automatic air conditioning and vents for all three rows.
We had, at one point, no less than seven dogs and one handler in the Toyota Innova, relaxing in AC comfort.
The Innova is available as a seven or eight seater in a range of trims. Our model was the eight-seater, which is the one to get if you're considering a pet-friendly MUV. This model buys you bench seats for the second and third row. The second row tumbles down in a 60/40 configuration, while the third row tumbles and folds away to the side. This leaves a very tall cargo bay in the rear, though not necessarily as much usable square-footage for your pets. It also leaves metal brackets and feet exposed, which will need to be covered up for safety.
As with the XUV, you can theoretically configure the seats in sixteen different ways, including all flat/folded. We didn't measure it exactly, but considering the very similar sizes of the vehicles, the Innova and XUV should be evenly matched in terms of maximum flat, puppy-friendly space. The spec list isn't as long as the XUV, but you do get legendary Toyota reliability and quality. Manoor recommended it over the XUV for everyone but himself, being smitten with the butch Mahindra.
Going head-to-head with the Innova is the Mahindra Xylo, which is a popular MUV but not as practical for pet families. The Xylo is more about passenger comfort, so the two captain seats that make up the second row aren't going to provide any added flexibility. The third row, of course, folds and flips forward, so pets will be sharing that freed space with your luggage.
Up in the luxury SUV segment, you may consider the Toyota Fortuner and the Skoda Yeti. The Fortuner impresses with its size and presence, and with its second and third row folded flat, would be a very spacious vehicle for large dogs. The Yeti has a unique advantage over all other SUVs in that its rear seats can be removed entirely by the owner quickly and easily. This makes it a pricey, but unmatched, pet ferry. Still more upscale, you have the VW Touareg, Mercedes M and R-class and BMW X1, X3 and X5, but if you're in that league, might as well buy an MUV just for your pets.
While space is a premium worth paying for but there's no better investment or substitute for time spent in reinforcing the correct behaviour in your dog. A calm driver and pet make up for all the bells and whistles you can buy.
Special thanks to Manoor Sachdev (firstname.lastname@example.org) and the Canine Solutions family -- Phoebe, Joey, Ross, Bing, Veer, Maya, Rambo and Zorro; and Dr Shruti Srinath, canine behaviourist.
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