4 Things You Need to Know About People Who Leave Dogs in Hot Cars

We’re in the middle of the Dog Days here in the Northern Hemisphere. It feels fitting to share some thoughts about people who leave dogs in hot cars in the summer.

A brown lab looks sad at being left in the car.

He’d look even sadder if he realized his person went into Pet Smart without him.


What You Should Know About People Who Leave Dogs in Hot Cars

Let’s start with the good news.

1. There are not many of them.

Really. I know it feels like you’re hearing many stories each day about dogs dying in hot cars while their people cluelessly shop, dine, or go to the movies.

No one is keeping hard numbers of how many dogs die in hot cars. Some reporters estimate thousands.

But do you know how many dogs die in car accidents? 100,000. And those are rarely if ever reported.

Many more dogs are killed in shelters.

Of course one pointless and preventable death is too many. So let’s see what else is true about people who leave dogs in hot cars.

2. Some of them know quite a bit about dogs.

Linda Wilson Fuoco of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shared stories of a dog trainer, veterinarian, and several K9 police officer whose dogs died of hyperthermia in a car.

What? A veterinarian!?!

So knowledge isn’t always enough.

This little corgi loves riding in the car.

If you’re going to take your dog in the car on a hot day, keep moving.


3. They love their dogs.

Yep, the folks whose dogs die in hot cars are not your typical abusers or nut cases.

They love their dogs. They enjoy their company. That’s why they take them along to do errands.

But people love their cars, houses, and boats. Love isn’t enough.

And that’s why one of my biggest interests on Something Wagging is the relationship between dogs and their humans.

People claim to love objects. But we empathize with those creatures we have relationships with.

4. If their dog is rescued before in extremis or dead, people react badly.

I can relate to a defensive reaction.

I remember, as a young woman, bumping a car in a parking lot. As the car’s owner had an anxiety attack in front of me, I became very defensive.

I shouldn’t have. It was my fault. I hit her car. Her reaction was extreme, in my mind. But I was still in the wrong. And embarrassed. Which is why I reacted the way I did.

I’ve worked hard to own up to my mistakes, apologize, and move on. But I’m not perfect.

And neither are some people mortified with embarrassment to find a cop and a crowd of spectators around her car thinking of her as a dog abuser.

There are also people who just hate being told what to do. By anyone. On any subject.

Usually I’d call them cats, two-year olds, or libertarians.

Don’t take them personally.

Their motto is “If someone wants to take my gun (dog, television remote, truck, Big Gulp, bacon strip, fill in the blank–they’re interchangeable), they’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead hand.”

You won’t get very far trying to persuade one of these folks they’ve done anything wrong. But I have a few thoughts on intervening when you see a suffering dog in a hot car.

The dalmatian waits patiently for her person to return.

If you’re going to leave your dog in the car, at least remember to give him the keys so he can turn on the air conditioning or go for a short drive while he’s waiting.


Quick Tips For Dealing with Dogs in Hot Cars

    • Know if your state has laws about dogs in hot cars. You can check out a table of laws that protect animals left in parked vehicles. Some states protect certain officials (including store security guards in some places) from prosecution if they rescue an animal in a hot car.
    • Understand that you may be prosecuted if you rescue a dog from someone’s car. You might be willing to take that risk to save a life. But it is a risk.
    • Keep water with you. I suspect the penalty for pouring water into someone’s cracked window is probably less than breaking the window with a brick and taking their dog. Of course, I’m no lawyer.
    • Remember point #3 when you confront someone who has left a dog in their car. No one will respond to “You idiot. You left your dog in the car to die” by rethinking their actions.
    • But you might get through to one or two people by pointing our your shared love of dogs and stating that you were sure they would want to know their dog was showing signs of distress while they were gone.

Luckily for me, I have not had to use any of these tips in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I saw a dog waiting in a hot car. Instead, let me leave you with a story about the last dogs I saw waiting in a car.

Dogs Left in a Hot Car Happy Ending Story

It wasn’t a terribly hot day. The cloud cover kept the sun from beating down on this summer day.

But I noticed something unusual as I rode my bike out of the grocery store parking lot.

A man perched on the corner of a truck’s tail gate. He had a bottle of water in his hands and a bowl. As I looked into the back dark corners of the covered truck bed, I saw two German Shepherds lying on some straw.

The man was talking to his dogs and asking them if they wanted a drink. They didn’t seem interested so he just sat there keeping them company while whoever they were waiting for did the shopping.

I assumed they were probably camping in the area. No campgrounds I know of allow you to keep your dogs there when you go off-site.

That was over a year ago and the last time I saw dogs in a vehicle on a summer day.

So maybe the word is getting out. People are learning. And hopefully, fewer dogs will die unnecessarily of heat stroke because of it.

Note: Thank you to everyone who shared the 10 Funniest Reasons to Not Let Your Dog Go Along in Your Car This Summer. Because of you hundreds more people clicked through to see Dr. Ernie Ward’s video demonstration of how hot it gets in a parked car. You’re awesome.

Your Turn: Have you dealt with a dog left in a hot car? What was your experience? Do you agree or disagree with my description of people who leave dogs in hot cars?

photo credits: (Chocolate Lab)rulenumberone2 via photopin cc. (Corgi) Nisa Yeh via photopin cc (Dominoe the Dalmatian) cogdogblog via photopin cc.Click images to learn more about the photographers. 

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  1. I think you may be right. Why else would they take their dog everywhere with them if they didn’t love them? But sometimes we love too much and sometimes we love without fully thinking of the consequences. Take those who overfeed their dogs and/or give them too many treats (same as those who do so with their children). And you’re right about your fourth quick tip, which goes along with your point #4. People tend not to listen when they are confronted with accusations. All your quick tips are great. Perhaps you can also slip an informative flyer into the car.

    • Good suggestion about the flyer. Much of what I’ve seen looks good online but wouldn’t translate so well into print.

      Please share if you have a suggestion.

  2. I think something else to mention is that people have a horrible sense of how long it takes them to do things. Last week I called 911 to report a dog in a hot car. When I confronted the girl (a huge step for me since confrontation makes me very anxious), I informed her that I had called animal control. She claimed she was only in the store 2 minutes. This was untrue since the dog was in the car when I pulled in the space. I had entered the store, picked up a prescription and the dog was still there when I returned. I called 911 and at least 15 minutes passed before she came out. She drove off before animal control got there. I think, in her mind, she thought she was in store for 2 minutes, not 20. Like most people i don’t think she really knew how long she was doing something. I should have handled our exchange better, but maybe she’ll think twice about doing it next time just because some random person might actually call animal control.

    • You’re right that very few people have a good sense of time. You’d think that everyone who just wanted to glance at FB for a few seconds and finally looks up an hour later would know better. :)

      Good for you stepping out of your comfort zone to say something. Hopefully you had some impact on that woman.

      BTW, love your Tumblr. :)

  3. I think you are spot on. I take my dogs frequently when I run errands – they love going for car rides. We live fairly close to the ocean so it never gets too hot here, but there are some days when I’ve been caught out with the dogs and the temperature has risen more than I like it to be. I usually cut my errands short and just take them home, but I would reckon there may be some times it’s been too hot for me to run into the dry cleaners. Unfortunately, I leave them home more often now. Wish there was air conditioning I could run in the car when I’m not in it like at home.

  4. I think most people that do that really don’t think about how hot it gets and how fast. They are the same people that leave their kids in the car. I don’t know how you cannot know the danger these days unless you live under a rock, as it is even on the news to not leave kids and pets in cars. People are just people and I don’t think the problem will ever go away. Very sad since it is so very preventable!

    • For most of the years I owned a car, we didn’t have air conditioning. It’s hard not to realize how hot it gets.

      I suspect that people whose cars are air conditioned (probably everyone nowadays) are especially ignorant of how quickly that cool air dissipates when they leave the car.

      Yes, you’re right. People are people. But even if the problems won’t go away, maybe at least a few people will learn better. After all, we all had to be taught things too, right? :)

  5. Callie, Shadow, and Ducky's Mom says:

    Excellent post this morning, Pamela! I believe you have hit the nail on the head so to speak. I know that even when Sam rants and raves at me about something, my tendency is to either shut down & clam-up or to rant & rave back at him. Either way, it gets us both nowhere except “p-o’d” at each other for a while. And that’s with my best human friend.
    And, as Emma said, people just have no perception of time when they’re busy running around, trying to get things done. I know I don’t. Which is why I leave my girls at home when I have errands to run. Sure, they like to ride in the car with me — even when I put their seatbelt harnesses on them and buckle them in on the back seat — but the air conditioned house is a lot more comfortable than the back seat for any dog, but especially one with a long, flowing, full double coat of fur. Heck, most times in the summer I’d rather stay home than have to run errands! I love having my dogs with me, but unless I know for certain they can be with me inside the buildings I go to, I just leave them home so they can relax. And on hot days, they don’t need to be walking on hot pavement anyway.

    • So true. And the hot pavement is something I’ve become much more sensitive only lately as I’ve started walking barefoot around town. The last time we walked our kayaks to the creek, my feet were burning on the hot asphalt (the lighter colored sidewalks were much cooler). Ever since then, I’ve tried to encourage Honey to walk on the grass in the berm if we have to be out when it’s hot.

      I’m sure Callie, Shadow, and Duckie are glad you’re looking out for them so well.

  6. Callie, Shadow, and Ducky's Mom says:

    Sorry, Ariella, it was you not Emma, who mentioned the time perception. But Emma had a good point, too. Everyone who replied made good points.

  7. I see your point Pam but have to admit it’s really hard for me to be sympathetic…With all the warnings out everywhere I go, how can people still leave their dogs locked in hot cars? Really, why do they do it? Have you ever seen an interview with someone explaining their actions?

    • I thought you might appreciate this article that won a Pulitzer prize. It’s about people who have left their children in hot cars, accidentally killing them: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2009-03-08/news/36840402_1_courtroom-tissue-class-trip

      And here’s a short interview I was able to find: http://www.wric.com/story/21942820/woman-charged-after-2-dogs-die-in-hot-car

      Something I’ve thought is how many times I’ve done terribly stupid things that I didn’t pay the price for: driving when I had too much to drink, not paying attention to the road and running through a stop sign, taking out smoke alarm batteries because I’m sick of setting them off, and the list could go on and on.

      When we hear about horrible tragedies, it’s human to try to make sense of it by looking at all the ways the person brought their problems on themselves. It makes us feel like we’ll come out ok because we’d never be so stupid.

      But few of us do everything right all the time. And, while I have never left a dog in a hot car, I’ve done plenty of other dumb things before I learned better. I was lucky.

      So that’s where I’m coming from.

  8. It’s true that there are so many warnings out there that people should know, but still, not everyone watches the news, or is on Facebook. I just think there are still a lot of people out there that just don’t know any better. Years ago, our elderly neighbors used to care for our beagle when we were at work….our other dog had died and Kobi simply could not be left home alone. Imagine my horror when I found out they had been taking Kobi to church with them, and no, he wasn’t going in the church! They just didn’t know any better, and they did always leave the car in the shade and luckily nothing bad ever happened.
    I’ve seen dogs left in hot cars, but I’ve been lucky in that the dogs weren’t in distress and when we just waited a couple of minutes the people have come out, and really weren’t gone that long. I hope I never have to see otherwise.

    • You’re right that some people aren’t just getting the news about the dangers of hot cars. (So glad Kobi didn’t suffer while your neighbors were in church!)

      In doing research, I see one statistical anomaly–lots of these stories take place in WalMart parking lots. I’ve never shopped in a WalMart so it’s hard for me to realize that nearly everyone else does.

      Maybe the best thing we could do is ask WalMart executives (local managers make very few decisions; even the store temperatures are set in Arkansas) to allow signs to be posted on their doors warning of the dangers of leaving pets in cars.

      That might do more to prevent deaths than anything.

      • Interesting that Walmart plays into a lot of these. I’ve been thinking maybe next year before it got hot to see if it would be okay to leave flyers on Walmart customers’ cars telling them about the dangers coming up with summer heat. I was thinking Walmart because I figure not only would you reach a lot of people, but you’d reach a lot who don’t go to pet stores because they can buy what they need there. Maybe even set up a table to aid in educating. We only reach so many people through the Internet, this might reach the rest.

  9. It’s the deaths of police dogs that really get to me. I’ve known so many dogs and handlers. With all the training and protocols they have, it is incredulous that they could cause the death of their partners, their best friends and a really valuable piece of equipment all in one body.

    • Agreed. But even highly trained people can get distracted or make huge mistakes.

      It’s one of the reasons I’m never happy to see less-trained people thinking they’re responsible enough to carry guns in public. :( If police officers can screw up, with all the training and practice they get. What makes a regular Joe think he can do better?

  10. I think we have to realistically add mental health issues to this discussion. Of the deaths I have heard about recently, mental instability has been in play.

    • Interesting point. I can definitely think of mentally ill family members would would not see the risk in bringing a dog along for company on a hot day.

  11. I have an eloborate system to keep my dog safe. She is a senior rescue and does not do well alone at home. It baffles me to see people freaking out when it is cooler in the car than outside. A car with windows all half down, reflective shades on the sun side, my phone number clearly posted, fresh water, and parked in the shade is safe. There is something wrong with people’s logic sometimes. Cars are not magical deathboxes. Any enclosed space in the sun without airflow is unsafe. Remove those conditions–remove the threat.

    • Hi Jess,

      You’ve certainly laid out all the precautions everyone should take if they are leaving their dog in the car. And, obviously, if you don’t feel that even in the shade it’s cool enough for your dog, you would not leave her in the car.

      But the situations everyone gets so upset about aren’t usually under trees with reflective shades in the windows, water out for the dog, and a posted phone number. They’re dogs in cars baking in the middle of a parking lot with lots of solar gain from the windows and the hot asphalt.

      The big reason people think of cars as death boxes is because the reflective surfaces retain a lot of heat. And, most people, don’t remember that.

  12. I waited an hour not so long ago for the police to come and they didn’t. When the woman finally came out of the cell phone store, she was angry at me for calling the police and insisted her dog was fine. Whatever. It took a lot for me to confront her because I prefer not to, but for a dog. Yeah, I’ll get in your face. Hopefully she was incredibly embarrassed and will think twice about doing it again.

    I have no answers, but Leslie is right. Mental health has got to be added to this issue, as with most of the other issues in this country.

    • Interesting that the police did not come and that CT is one of the states that don’t have protection laws regarding animals in hot cars.

      I read recently that NC is currently voting on a new law to make it illegal to leave dogs in cars. CT better get busy or they’ll end up being one of the last to take this simple step to protect animals.

      Truthfully, it sounds like an easy way for a politician to get some attention for relatively non-controversial lawmaking in the middle of the summer.

  13. I saw a huge dog in a work truck on Monday. Handsome dog. With his head stuck out of the half open window. He looked like he was a regular passenger and was fine with it. I didn’t think twice, since the day wasn’t too hot and he wasn’t panting and the window was open a good deal.

    I do the same thing with my dogs, actually. I don’t take them places when it’s going to be over 95, but I do take them places. I leave all the windows open at least halfway, enough to get their heads out, but not enough to jump out. They love going places in the car.

    • I’m sure that the dogs being able to stick their head out makes quite a difference. If you watched the video where the vet sat in the hot car for a half hour, he mentioned that although he could see the trees blowing in the breeze, he felt no air moving in the car.

      If he could have stuck his head out the window, he would have found the whole experience far more tolerable.

      I also take Honey with me when I run errands. But I walk everywhere. :)

  14. You are always so good at putting what is in my head into words! Are you living in there too? I have spent so long working with people and their pets and it took awhile to learn that there are no perfect pet owners, even me(that was a hard realization:>). I try real hard not to call someone stupid anymore because we all take risks with our pets whether it’s leaving them in the heat, letting them run off leash or even letting them loose in the house when no one is home. Fortunately most of us never see the bad side of that risk.

    It can be hard to be calm and patient when a pet is in danger, but I’ve become better at it due to becoming a positive reinforcement training. Maybe we need figure out a way to do that with people as we educate them on the dangers.

    • Interesting connection between becoming a trainer and learning to be more patient with people. First off, that’s really important if you work with people and their pets.

      But secondly, you’ve gotten me thinking of how you would positively reinforce people making safe choices for their animals.

      And I’m very flattered that you think I’ve put your thoughts into words so well. But I think you should be very worried. :)

      • Starbucks gift cards! Okay I wouldn’t find Starbucks reinforcing,maybe one for my local pet supply store. Scoop your dog’s poop while out on a walk- here’s a gift card. Take your dog into the store with you- here’s a gift card. Ask if you could pet my dog instead of just grabbing for her- here’s a gift card. It would be a slow movement, but hopefully get people talking.

        Becoming a positive reinforcement trainer has made me aware of what goes into a behavior. When I used to use negative reinforcement, I just reacted. Now I think about all the things that might influence a behavior and how I might change them to get the behavior I want. I’m not sure that makes sense, but it has made me more understanding of why animals and people do things.

  15. Great post, Pamela. (I especially enjoyed the part about cats, two-year olds or libertarians. đŸ˜‰ )

    You’re so right about the love thing… I had a friend who would bring her dog everywhere, and I later realized she was occasionally just leaving her in the car. She really did love that dog – I think she just didn’t realize the potential danger. I like the way you differentiated between love and being able to empathize – the relationship really is key.

    Although, on the other hand… part of me thinks that everyone should know by now!

    • So glad you enjoyed my favorite line. I had that one in my head for two days before I found a place to put it. :)

      My reply to Gizmo above had an interview from someone who was charged after her dogs died while she was in Walmart. It shows that people just don’t know.

      And, in my reply to JanK, I suggested that perhaps the best thing we can do is petition WalMart to put warning signs on their doors. Apparently that’s the venue of choice for shopping while your dog waits for you in the hot parking lot.

  16. I take Rita with me sometimes, as she likes to ride along. Or sometimes I need to make a quick stop on our way home from the beach. But… I live by the coast, and we’ve been having some pretty cool summers lately. (Like today, even though it’s late July it’s low 70s and overcast and the breeze is actually a bit cool!) If I have to leave her in the car for a quick run into the store, I lower the windows, park in the shade and look at my watch and note the time. I don’t leave her for more than 10 minutes. If there are big lines in the store, I turn around and leave.

    I would never leave her in the car in the summer if I lived in, say, Vegas. Just last night my friend told me about a run-in she had with 3 people who left their dog in the car while they went in to WalMart. It was over 100 out at the time. She yelled at them that it was illegal (which it is) and they still ignored her. She could see the dog was already distressed after just a few minutes, so she went into the store and made a stink until they finally came out. If there are 3 of you, why can’t one stay with the dog? Run the a/c, or sit in the shade somewhere??? This story really makes me want to add a “#5) Sometimes they’re really being stupid.” to your list. But I’ll be nice and not add that. According to my friend, they definitely did #4.

    Happily, I will say I’ve never seen a distressed dog in a hot car here, so I’ve never had to be in the position of “what would I do.”

    • Let’s hope you never are in the position of seeing a distressed dog.

      And again with the Walmart. It keeps coming up. As I’ve noted in an earlier comment reply, it sounds like the best way to save lives is to get WalMart to post warning signs on their doors.

      I’ve never shopped at WalMart. But it’s so huge I certainly understand someone going in and getting lost for longer than they expect.

  17. I work at an auto parts store and I see dogs left in cars quite frequently. I ALWAYS offer that the owner bring the dog inside. I am very polite about it and non confrontational. Only ONCE did I have a man dumb enough not to accept my offer saying his small dog was fine in his truck with the window cracked on a North Carolina July afternoon. I kept a watchful eye on that dog and watched it panting. I was ready to take action if needed, but the man finally left. I only hope he went straight home with no more stops.

    I wish more businesses/managers would offer owners to bring their dogs in to avoid any incidents.

    Great post!

    • Good for you, welcoming dogs.

      I used to work in an auto parts store in high school which was also dog friendly. After all, what could a dog possibly break in an auto parts store (although I do remember one waggy German Shepherd knocking over a tower of STP). :)

      Perhaps if you have someone immune to reason, you could offer a small discount or giveaway to the next person bringing his dog into the store with him? :)

  18. Absolutely. I think you’re spot on. I’ve never actually encountered a dog trapped in a hot car (thankfully – though I think that speaks to the rarity you mentioned!) but I’m going to check that table you linked to because it never hurts to be prepared.

    • It appears Louisiana has no such protective laws on the books. :(

      • Thanks for the update. The more I look into it, the more I realize that Louisiana doesn’t have many animal protection laws. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since we’ve heard cats repeated referred to as “alligator food.”

  19. I agree with you completely. I like to see the good in everyone and believe that they are not heartless when it comes to their pets. Sometimes, I think people truly do not know any better. Like my grandfather who’s pretty old. I’ve caught him leaving his dog in the car in the past. I don’t remember how hot it was, but I’m always explaining the simplest dog care tips with him that he honestly had no idea about.

    #2 is pretty spot on too! The vet I used to work for was very good friends with another vet in a different city. That vet actually forgot her 2 dogs in the car and it didn’t end well. I think she may have went inside thinking it would be quick, but then got distracted. Sad but true.

    • Truth be told, a lot of older people wouldn’t follow modern child care practices either. Times change and not everyone keeps up with the knowledge.

      What a terrible story about the vet. I can certainly see how someone comes into an office getting dozens of questions and forgets those two dogs.

  20. Great post and goes over and beyond the usual reaction to these types of people (ie “you idiots!”) – I think it helps to empathise with people, who often do these things due to ignorance rather than cruelty. We just need to keep putting the word out.

  21. This is a great post! So many times we assume WE are right and we don’t stop to see things from the the viewpoint of others, no matter how illogical their reasoning may be.

    • And, in truth, we may very well be right. But rightness isn’t usually what sways someone’s opinion. It’s having a personal experience that challenges their old thinking.

      In that sense, maybe that’s the benefit of hearing so many news stories on suffering dogs in hot cars. When people hear stories from their town or the store they also shop in, it probably starts to click in.

      There you go again, RD. You always get me thinking. :)

  22. Great post Pamela. I read it the other day on my phone but leaving comments from my phone are too hard…so I am back. I am glad that the majority of pet parents are aware of the issue and do not leave their dogs in a car when it is too hot. I also strongly agree that negative confrontation or insulting is not going to change anyone’s mind about the issue. It is a challenge though, when you are very passionate about the issue, to find a positive, educational, calm way to approach the dog owner. I admit that I usually take the road of no confrontation at all if the pet is not in serious distress (I stick around to watch if I am worried). Perhaps keeping flyers on hand to put on a person’s windshield would be the way to go for me.