The Hot Car Epidemic: How to Appropriately Handle Dogs in Hot Cars | The Collared Scholar


August 12, 2015Meagan Karnes48 CommentsDog Health and Safety

I drove to the store for some groceries. My K9 laid lazily in the back seat, accompanying me on my errands as was typical for us on a daily basis. At least one of my K9s is by my side nearly everywhere I go. After all, what good is a security K9 if you are constantly leaving them at home? 

I pulled into the lot. My K9 rested her head on the window, surveying her surroundings quietly from the comfort of the back seat. Although it was early morning in San Diego and the ambient temperature wasn’t even 70 degrees, I still opted to find a shady spot in the large lot adjacent to the grocery store. I cracked the window, gave my dog a pat, told her to “Watch the car.” and headed into the store.

I spent about 15 minutes gathering my groceries. As I checked out, my gaze shifted through the sliding doors and out to the parking lot. I scanned the lot for my car, spotting it in the distance, still shaded by the large tree I had strategically parked under. But my car wasn’t alone. There was a woman pacing around it, the car shaking as the Malinois inside protested her presence. The dog barked and slammed against the window as the woman periodically peered in, pressing her face to the glass as she did. As the dog threatened, the woman didn’t budge – her hand remaining pressed against the car as she seemingly tried talking to my dog.

Distracted by the scene, I rushed myself through the checkout process to confront the stranger that was agitating my dog and repeatedly touching my car, which certainly wasn’t hers to be touching. 

As I exited the store, she turned toward me, her cell phone pressed to her ear, her face flushed with anger, and her brow furrowed. I approached calmly, summoning all of my resolve to simply control and contain my irritation.

“Can I help you?” I asked as I closed in on the parked car. My dog quieted when she saw me but still watched the woman intently. 

Instantly, the woman began berating me, finding the most offensive ways she could muster to inform me that she believed my dog was in distress as the car was obviously too hot. She told me I was an awful dog owner, that I lacked compassion, and that I obviously had no idea how to properly care for a dog. She peppered every sentence with a number of obscenities, further adding to the effect of her rage. 

My irritation turned to anger as she repeatedly called me names, informing me that animal control was on the way.

“Look…” she nearly shouted as she thrust her pointed finger towards my car. “That dog is panting”. 

I chuckled, which she did not find amusing. 

“She’s panting because you wouldn’t leave her alone.” I retorted.  “You were touching the car she has been trained to protect. Couldn’t you see her frustration with your presence?” I asked.

“The only reason she’s upset,” she argued, “is because she was too hot, and she wanted out of that car!”.

Frustrated, my poker face failed me as I rolled my eyes and met her absurd accusation with sarcasm. 

“I’m glad you know my own dog better than I do…” was my response. 

I hadn’t diffused the situation. I had, instead, made it worse. 

She launched into a tirade, “schooling” me on proper dog care. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and frankly, I didn’t want to. There was no sense in arguing. 

Positioning herself next to the car, she immediately grabbed the door as I climbed into the front seat, shouting loudly as she did. 

“Don’t touch my car.” I warned calmly. 

“Don’t you dare roll down those windows!” she blurted, “I want Animal Control to see exactly how far down they were when you left that poor dog in there!”

Again, I chuckled. Apparently, according to her, my car was too hot for my dog to remain inside, but this self proclaimed martyr now had the nerve to tell me not to roll the windows down? Some animal lover she was….

As she continued yelling at me, her rage bordered absolute belligerence as I repeatedly expressed a complete and utter lack of concern, instead meeting her tirade with cool and calm sarcasm and quiet undertones of irritation. With a cooling unit and a temperature gauge, coupled with the fact that it wasn’t hot outside in the least, I knew my dog was suffering from nothing more than anger at this woman who wouldn’t heed her warnings to stay away.

In the distance, I saw the large, white animal control truck round the corner. Finally my reprieve had arrived. 

She caught sight of the truck moments after I did and immediately stopped her yelling, stepping behind my car to flag the officer down. 

The truck squeaked as it slowed to a stop directly behind us. The uniformed woman then slid out, notepad in hand, flashing a warm smile as she approached. 

“Ma’am,” she said to me, “a complaint was filed that your dog was left in your car for an extended period of time and was in distress.” I could tell she wasn’t terribly concerned as she spoke – that this visit was simply a protocol she had to follow. 

My accuser immediately launched into her tirade again, emotionally explaining the “incident” to the officer who quickly shushed her frantic banter. 

The officer turned to me. 

“May I approach the vehicle?” she asked. 

“Sure,” I responded, “but it isn’t too hot. She is a trained security dog and was agitated because this ‘concerned citizen’” – I said that with sarcasm –  “kept pressing her face against the glass window.” 

The officer approached my car. My dog was quiet but suspicious. 

“May I reach my hand into the car to test the temperature?” she asked.

“No,” I flatly responded. “But I am happy to pull the dog out, and you can sit inside of the car, doors closed, to see if it’s too hot”. 

She agreed. Apparently, she knew Malinois well and wasn’t about to take any chances with this one. Smart girl…

I opened the door and the previously agitated, seemingly ferocious K9 hopped out, came to my side, and laid down as I gave a quiet command. The officer complimented her training to the dismay and disgust of my accuser. She then sat down in my car, flashed me another friendly smile as she spotted the cooling unit and temperature gauge, and then hopped out. 

My accuser’s face went white as the officer informed her that the interior of the car was perfectly comfortable and the dog was well protected. She then thanked the finally speechless woman for her concern and shifted her attention to me as I released the dog to say hello. The dog happily trotted over to the officer, nuzzling her for pets as she and I began chatting about Malinois, training, and security K9s, my accuser looking horrified as the officer and I became instant friends. After some choice words, her continuing to judge my decision making even after the officer had found my dog to be “perfectly cared for”, the woman huffed off, filled with anger that her martyrdom didn’t work out as she had planned. 

In the years following that incident, I have found myself repeatedly concerned about the intentions of self proclaimed animal rescuers who regularly run around breaking car windows, stealing pets, and violating basic rights and laws in an effort to “save” a dog that, in most cases, doesn’t need saving.

Fact of the matter is, at least one of my K9s will ALWAYS go everywhere with me. They are my partners, my protectors, and my best friends and I have taken every precaution to ensure their health and safety. In fact, I probably take better care of my K9s than I do myself! 

Yet still, I worry. 

I find myself rushing through the stores when I elect not to take them in, or regularly peering through glass windows checking on my truck, which I take ages to park, driving in circles until I find a spot that is visible from the inside of the store. 

But I’m not checking on my dogs. They are fine. I know this because they have water, a cooling unit, and a temperature gauge that rings my phone if something malfunctions. When it comes to my dogs, I spare no expense. Instead, I am peering out the window and checking on my truck because I am concerned about “dog rescuers”….. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught them  pacing around my truck. 

I’ll tell you honestly, if someone broke into my truck, first and foremost, they’d suffer a nasty bite. No amount of baby talk or coaxing with treats would be able to lure my trained security dog into accompanying them in a friendly manner. Instead, they would end the encounter severely injured. And then what? If my dog lets go, she could run into traffic. If she stays on the bite, the person’s injuries will be severe. By “rescuing” my dog, that I guarantee doesn’t need saving, they would inevitably put her, and themselves, in harm’s way. And if they did put her in harm’s way, they’d have me to deal with…. and I think I’d fear my bite more than that of my dog. When Mama Bear comes out, especially when it comes to the safety of her dogs, you’d better run. 

What to do if you have concern for a dog in a car

Now I’m not saying that some owners do not behave irresponsibly and cause their dogs to suffer because of it. As tragic as it is, there are dogs that die every year in hot cars. Not as many as animal rescuers will have you believe, but then again, they’d probably claim that’s because they gallantly stepped in to save the day. 

So how should you handle a situation where a dog is left in a car and you are concerned?

  1. Educate yourself on the signs of distress – Every dog pants. Panting is not a sign of distress. If the dog is listless, in a stupor, if there’s vomit present, or if the dog can’t stand, immediate action is necessary. Familiarize yourself with the signs of heat exhaustion, and don’t take drastic measures unless it is a true emergency. 
  2. Step away from the vehicle – Regardless of how convinced you are that every dog loves you, by standing near the vehicle, you are likely either agitating or exciting the dog which can further overheat the pup. Instead, back away from the vehicle so you are out of sight. 
  3. Attempt to find the owner – Walk in neighboring stores and try to find the owner before taking action. Head to the service desk and ask them to make an announcement over the store’s loudspeaker. You might be able to track down the owner and save everyone quite a bit of trouble. 
  4. Be kind – If you find the owner, berating and belittling them while calling them names isn’t helpful. By being rude, you will only incite an argument. I promise they won’t learn anything from you yelling at them, and I promise you will not have done hardly as much good as if you were to approach the situation with kindness. A better tactic is to approach them from a place of caring and concern, and to help educate them kindly on some steps they can take to keep their pet cool. If you are kind, they will be more apt to listen and more apt to learn. Regardless of how you feel about the situation, you’ll have a far better shot at changing future behavior if you are kind and compassionate. 
  5. Engage the authorities – If you are concerned, unless it is a severe emergency, it’s critical that you do not take the law into your own hands. By prematurely breaking windows, you put yourself and the dog in the car at very serious risk. A fearful dog can take off, and an aggressive dog can bite. Call animal control or your local police department and wait for them to handle the situation. They will be able to tell if it is a true emergency and what legal action is necessary. But remember, by engaging the authorities, you are potentially taking them away from other calls and emergencies so be sure the situation is critical and requires immediate intervention.

How to Travel Safely with Your K9

If you’re like me and you take your dog everywhere, be sure you are taking the proper precautions to keep your dog comfortable and safe, especially on hot days. Park in the shade and purchase and use a sun-shade to keep your car cool. They also have retractable sun shades for your side windows that can help. Make sure your pup has access to plenty of cool water, and make sure your vehicle is well ventilated. You can purchase window guards so you can keep your windows rolled down without concern that your K9 will escape. To further help, you can purchase a cooling unit and install a temperature gauge, which will notify you as to any extreme fluctuations in your car’s internal temperature. By taking the necessary precautions, you can ensure your pup’s excursions with you are enjoyable and worry free.

In order to combat the actions of “well-intentioned animal rescuers”, you can take an extra step and leave a note on your vehicle with your contact information. I regularly leave a note on my window stating that the dogs are executive security dogs trained to protect my vehicle, and that if an individual is concerned, they can call or text me. Shockingly, this note has thwarted every single person from circling my truck, and we haven’t had an incident since it’s been in place. 

Sadly however, regardless of the precautions I take, I still worry when I leave my dog in the car to run errands. I’m not worried about him – I’m never worried about him. I know he’s safe. I worry about the concerned citizens that regularly violate laws and basic rights under the guise of rescuing dogs. But their efforts will never thwart me. My dog will continue to go with me everywhere, and I’ll continue to face the judgement from people who know nothing but think they know it all. I guarantee that my dog is happier to be with me than he would left in my non-air conditioned home.

Chelsey Montgomery