Advice From a K9 Officer: Don’t Leave Your Pet in the Car

Anabel Dflux

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Summer is a great time to get out and have some fun, especially with your dog. Unfortunately, our canine companions aren’t welcome inside all establishments, so it’s important to think before you set out in the car with your dog in tow. The last thing you want to do is leave your dog in the hot car while you run in to do a “quick errand.” The heat is dangerous for your dog, and you could be breaking the law.

I recently sat down with K9 officer Pete Stevens, who explained the consequences of leaving your dog in a car unattended. Not only does it put your dog at great risk for heatstroke, it could result in fines or even a misdemeanor charge for you.

Officer Stevens, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. How are you doing?

I’m doing well! The quarantine isn’t much fun, but we will get through this.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your time in the K9 unit.

I’ve been in law enforcement for a little over 30 years. The last 23 years have been with the Chula Vista Police Department, which is in the southern portion of San Diego County. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with a dog most of my career. I started in K9 back in 2000, and I’ve had four K9 partners. I’ve worked with three different breeds of dogs: a Dutch shepherd, a Belgian Malinois, and two Labrador retrievers. So I’ve been handling and training dogs for law enforcement for about 20 years.

We’ve all heard that we should never leave dogs in a car in the hot summer, but what are the actual laws in California about leaving your pet unattended in a car?PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENSPHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS»

First, let me clarify that it’s not just summertime when our vehicles can get very hot. Even though it may be cool outside in the winter, vehicles interior temperatures can easily reach the point of danger, and quickly. So it is a year-round safety concern. In fact, in California, the law covers both heat and cold. I know it sounds crazy, because we always think of California as being sunny and warm, but we have mountain ranges with snow in California, too.


It’s not just summertime when our vehicles can get very hot. In California, the law covers both heat and cold.


Penal Code Section 597.7 covers the rules for pet owners and also what others may do if they come across an animal left in a vehicle that appears to be in distress. In a nutshell, the law says that pet owners may leave a pet in a vehicle if it does not put them in danger or distress. However, I feel it’s important for pet owners to read and understand the law, so here it is:

PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS
PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS»

597.7(a) A person shall not leave or confine an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat, cold, lack of adequate ventilation, or lack of food or water, or other circumstances that could reasonably be expected to cause suffering, disability, or death to the animal.

This is just the first section of the law—there are a few more sections that are just as important, which I’ll explain later.

How is this law enforced? Is it usually enforced as a result of someone calling in a complaint?

PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS
PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS»

Violation of this section of the law is misdemeanor, so for law enforcement to be able to effectively enforce it, the violation has to occur in our presence. There are exceptions to the rule about the crime occurring in our presence—such as domestic violence or battery on school grounds—but this crime is not one of them. But the law does actually set out what a concerned citizen can and is required to do if they observe a violation. It reads:

597.7 (2) A person who removes an animal from a vehicle in accordance with paragraph (1) is not criminally liable for actions taken reasonably and in good faith if the person does all of the following:

(A) Determines the vehicle is locked or there is otherwise no reasonable manner for the animal to be removed from the vehicle.PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENSPHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS»

(B) Has a good faith belief that forcible entry into the vehicle is necessary because the animal is in imminent danger of suffering harm if it is not immediately removed from the vehicle, and, based upon the circumstances known to the person at the time, the belief is a reasonable one.

(C) Has contacted a local law enforcement agency, the fire department, animal control, or the “911” emergency service prior to forcibly entering the vehicle.

(D) Remains with the animal in a safe location, out of the elements but reasonably close to the vehicle, until a peace officer, humane officer, animal control officer, or another emergency responder arrives.

(E) Used no more force to enter the vehicle and remove the animal from the vehicle than was necessary under the circumstances.

(F) Immediately turns the animal over to a representative from law enforcement, animal control, or another emergency responder who responds to the scene.

During my 30 years of experience, I’ve learned to check to see if a door is locked before we force entry in an emergency circumstance, so be sure to try the handles first. But before you do anything, the law clearly states that you MUST contact first responders before taking action. Rarely will the pet be in so much distress that you can’t wait for a first responder to arrive. We have the tools and training to do it safely. However, there may be circumstances where you can’t wait and you need to use your judgment. If you follow the guidelines set forth in the law, you should be okay.PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS
PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS»

What rights do you have as a pet owner with regard to leaving your pet in a car alone? Are you ever allowed to leave your pet in a car?

My suggestion is just don’t do it! While you may be able to leave a pet alone in a vehicle for a short amount of time, why would you put your pet in that situation? Now, there are pet owners who have their vehicles set up for just this purpose. I’ve seen a lot of people in dog sports who have their vehicles set up just like law enforcement K9 vehicles, with very nice kennels in them. They have screens so the windows can be left down, they will have sun shades and fans going. I’ve even seen civilian vehicles with temperature monitors in them that sound an alarm when the interior reaches a certain heat level.

But if you’re out running errands and just want to take your pet along, but you can’t keep them with you all the time, just leave them at home. It’s a very selfish act to put your pet in harm’s way just so you can take them along.

What should a concerned citizen do if they see a pet in a car?

Take a look to see if they are showing signs of distress. Look for signs of heatstroke or exhaustion, like heavy panting, vomiting, etc. Call first responders immediately! Then use your judgment and follow the requirements as set forth in the law. However, don’t go thinking that every pet in a vehicle is an “emergency.” Step back and evaluate. If the dog is in a vehicle that is set up for it, chances are they are more comfortable than you are. My vehicles are equipped with heat monitors and screened-off areas for the dog, so I can leave the windows down and the vehicle running with the AC cranked. I often find my dogs asleep on their backs, snoring loudly. But I check on them often and I get real-time updates on my phone of the interior temperature of my vehicle. I don’t rely solely on the monitoring system, either. It’s important that we go check on the dogs often.

What if you determine that the pet is in distress?

Contact first responders immediately—that’s what the law says you should do. If the pet is in immediate danger and needs to be removed, then do so in accordance to the law. Wait for the first responders to arrive and turn the pet over to them. Word to the wise: While you know you are trying to save the pet, the animal may not look at you as their “hero.” You are a stranger on their turf, and they may consider you a threat. Take precautions! Do you have something that can protect your hands if the dog should try to bite you? Do you have a leash to put on the dog before you let it out of the car? These are just a few things to consider BEFORE you take action.PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS
PHOTO COURTESY: PETE STEVENS»

Are there any other laws that pet owners should be aware of when it concerns their pet being in a car? For example, do dogs need to be restrained in a car?

California does not have a requirement that a pet be restrained inside a vehicle, but pets are required to be restrained in the back of a pickup. However, the safe thing to do is have your pets in a crate or similar type of containment. If you get into an accident, your pet will be thrown all over just like a small child would be if they weren’t wearing a seat belt. Let’s say you get knocked unconscious in an accident—if your pet is contained, then first responders can stay focused on rendering aid to you, not trying to work around a pet that may be following their natural instincts to protect mom or dad who is hurt. Also, if we see an empty crate, that gives us the cue to start looking for your pet after the accident. And here is my own “pet peeve”—please don’t have your dog on your lap while you’re driving! It’s extremely dangerous for both you and the pet. If the airbag is deployed, your pet will be seriously injured, perhaps even worse.

Now for a fun question, do you have a favorite memory of your time as a K9 officer that you can share with us?

There are so many! I have a ton of great memories. Here’s a fun one: We were looking for a wanted fugitive that was armed and dangerous. He fled from a vehicle, and we were conducting yard-to-yard searches for him. I had a 90-lb Dutch shepherd named Bob at that time. We were searching this backyard when I saw Bob suddenly stop and start barking at this huge rooster in a pen. I told him to knock it off and continue searching, but he just kept barking, now more intensely. I again told Bob to keep searching. He looked at me with what I can only say was a “Dude, you’re an idiot! He’s right here!” look, and so we moved up toward the pen as a group. When we got closer, I could see the bad guy curled up in a doghouse right next to the rooster pen. And since the bad guy wouldn’t comply, Bob handled it.

Finally, I met you through my good friends in the dog sporting world. Do you engage in any canine-oriented extracurricular activities, ones that you would recommend to dog owners?

I’m very fortunate to have a job where I get paid to work/play with a dog, and I keep my K9 partner pretty stimulated. I absolutely love detection work! Scent sports are a ton of fun and have a low impact on pets, so dogs of all ages and breeds can learn it. Pets need to have stimulation of their minds, so do something with your pet that makes him think. These activities strengthen the bond we have with our pets and are honestly a ton of fun. Whatever it is, just have fun with it!

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