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  1. Health

Take precautions to keep dogs safe during car rides

The handsome leather seats of Kevin Kelley's black Mercedes aren't exactly slobber-proof, but that doesn't stop him from hauling his two beloved dogs to the dog park several times a week.

Although Kelley said his dogs Jake, a cocker spaniel, and Baby Girl, a mastiff mix, sometimes get distracted and bark at pedestrians at stoplights, the real distractions come from the slobbery kisses they plant on him from the backseat.

"It's wet willies all the way," Kelley said. "I might have to wear my Mickey Mouse ears from Disney World to distract them while I drive."

Dog owners are bringing their favorite canines to more public places, but experts say they need to practice caution when transporting them in cars.

Kelley, a retired Hillsborough County middle school teacher of 32 years, keeps his dogs on leashes in his backseat on a canvas pet cargo liner in the event he needs to control them quickly. Experts recommend some kind of restraint for dogs regardless of size.

"Restraining dogs is a necessary practice to safeguard against injury," said Sgt. Anna Richardson of the Tampa Police Department.

Richardson said recently that a dog was harmed after being ejected from a car during an accident. The dog, which was rushed to the ER, survived.

According to a 2011 AAA survey, an unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph exerts roughly 500 pounds of pressure, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert roughly 2,400 pounds of pressure.

This means if your lovable 80-pound Labradoodle is sitting in your backseat and you slam on your brakes going 30 mph, your dog could turn into a launch missile and injure you, itself or result in a passenger fatality.

"Pet owners may not realize the amount of force a pet can generate when in a vehicle crash and unrestrained," said Michele Harris, director of AAA Traffic Safety Culture. "People often consider their pet to be part of the family but never buckle them up on the road."

If you want to keep your dog safe, whether it's a short visit to the dog park or a three-day road trip, there are a variety of pet restraint devices available.

Harnesses with tethers are preferable because they prevent dogs from being thrown in accidents. Pet cargo liners like Kelley's also are useful because the liner helps protect car seats while acting as a partition to keep dogs in the backseat.

Restraint alternatives available for smaller dogs are dog seats and booster seats. Larger dogs can benefit from metal or hard plastic dog crates, ideal for SUVs or tethering to pickup truck beds.

If you need to travel by bus, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit allows small dogs as long as they are secured in a sturdy kennel able to fit on their owner's lap. Service dogs also are permitted as long as the dog is leashed and kept on the floor.

Aimée Alexander can be reached at aalexander@tampabay.com.

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