Why Do Dogs Put Their Heads Out of Car Windows?

Dogs put their heads out of car windows because it feels rewarding to them. This is the short and simple answer to this question. Of course, there is a longer version and that tackles how dogs perceive the world around them. It is only by perceiving the world through a dog's eyes, and understanding all those fun and nerdy facts associated with being a dog, that we can get a closer glimpse as to why dogs do the many odd things they do.

Dogs put their heads out of car windows because this activity is perceived as reinforcing. It's a known fact that behaviors that are reinforcing tend to repeat and persevere. The next question though is: why do dogs like to put their heads out of car windows so much?

We all have seen the blissful expression of a dog's face when looking out of a car window with the wind flowing through his ears and nose. If we could provide a caption for that, it would likely entail something along the terms of "ahhhh...." or some other expression of enjoyment. So let's take a closer look at what may be going on in Rover's head, shall we?

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The World Through a Dog's Eyes

For us humans, as visual beings, a trip in the car can be multifaceted with pretty scenery, but dogs likely care less about admiring those mountain views or seascapes. A dog's sight is not as great as ours, and last thing we knew, dogs didn't seem to have much of an appreciation for going on sightseeing trips or enjoying Van Gogh paintings. 

  Interestingly, a study conducted by Jay Neitz et al. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has revealed some interesting findings on how dogs perceive colors.

For starters, a dog's vision doesn't offer all the vibrant colors our eyes perceive. A dog's color vision tends to be rather dull, although they are not color blind as they were thought to be for many years.

For sake of a comparison, dogs see the world through their eyes in a similar fashion as a person suffering from deuteranopia (the medical term  for red-green color blindness). While humans have three kinds of cones that identify the red, blue, green and yellow wavelengths, dogs instead, have only two cones, one sensitive to blue and the other sensitive to yellow.

 This means that, unlike humans, who are trichromats, dogs are dichromats, in other words, they only see two colors. So if we are admiring a rainbow we would see it in violet, blue, blue-green, green, yellow, orange and red, while dogs would see it as dark blue, light blue, gray, light yellow, darker yellow (sort of brown), and very dark gray, explains Stanley Coren in an article for Psychology Today. 

On top of not seeing colors well, dogs have less visual acuity compared to humans. According to a study, it is estimated that on average, the visual acuity of humans is three times higher than in dogs in both bright and dim light conditions. However, on the plus side, dogs appear to beat us when it comes to spotting fast-moving objects. 

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This dog seems to be enjoying all the flowing smells with gusto

A Matter of Smells 

More than admiring the scenery, dogs are attracted to the potpourri of smells coming from those open windows. With their heads out of the windows, dogs are literally "entering the breeze." They are capturing a plethora of olfactory messages that us humans can only dream of.

While we may smell the occasional and overpowering exhaust smell of car in front of us or the smell of smoke from a distant fire, dogs smell many subtleties that may be undetected by us. The may smell bread from a bakery miles away, they may smell the freshly cut grass from a lawn mower, they may smell the cows in the meadows, and possibly, they may even smell an impending storm. 

This should not be surprising considering a dog's powerful sense of smell. Dogs are equipped with a brain of which 35 percent is dedicated for the task on detecting odors, while in us humans it's just a mere 5 percent. This makes a dog's olfactory brain 7 times larger than ours.

Dogs can also sniff compounds at concentrations as low as one part for trillion, while us humans can detect concentrations as low as just one part for billion.

On top of having a nose, dogs are also equipped with a special duct on the roof on their mouths which connects to their vomeronasal organ. Also known as Jacobson's organ, the vomeronasal organ acts almost as a second nose, powering up a dog's sniffing capabilities. 

When you see dogs sticking their heads out of the car with their mouths semi-open, nostrils enlarged and a concentrated look on their face, they are likely catching scents and analyzing them courtesy of this organ.

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Although this cocker spaniel seems to be waiting its owner, it must feel good to have the breeze caress those ears

More Car Window Perks

For sure, dogs love sticking their heads out of windows because of all the great smells, but there are likely other perks that come along for the ride other than "reading the news."

Most likely, the fact that dogs can sit comfortably in the car with all these smells reaching them rather than dogs going in search of them, must feel really good: sort of like sitting comfortably at a table and being served one tasty food after another compared to getting up repeatedly at a dinner buffet.

On top of smells, dogs may also be drawn to sticking their heads out of the window for the purpose of cooling down and enjoying the breeze flowing through their ears and open mouth. 

While many dogs are more likely to be attracted to smells rather than panoramic views, there can always be exceptions to the rule. Some dogs can be very attracted to fast moving objects or animals and they may even try to chase them. In particular, sighthounds or dogs with high predatory drives may be interested in this.

Sighthounds have been selectively bred to use their vision to hunt down deer or hare running across the desert. Spotting these animals on vast open lands required special vision. Greyhounds are known for having a field of vision of up to 270 degrees, compared to humans who have a mere 180 degree field of vision. 

These dogs may be attracted to any moving objects passing by at full speed and they may even have an instinct to chase them. 

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Although there's somebody in the car with this dog, he may jump out at a moment's notice should he get suddenly excited about something

Now That You Know...

As seen, there are many good reasons why dogs may enjoy sticking their heads out of car windows! The next question is: is it safe? Should dogs be allowed to put their heads out of windows? 

Well, turns out there are several risks. One main one is the possibility of dirt, bugs, stones, sticks and debris hitting your dog's head at several miles per hour. These items may cause significant damage to your dog's eyes. Just like you would wear protective eyewear when riding a motorcycle, you want to protect your dog from ocular injuries and other possible dangers. Here are some ideas:

  • Use your judgment. There's a thin line between keeping your dog safe and making him happy. Always best to err on the side of caution and be extra safe. 
  • When driving at a leisurely speed around town or a country road, you can open the window just a crack so your dog can enjoy the luxury of sniffing the potpourri of incoming air, but can't get his head out.
  • Invest in special products meant to prevent your dog from sticking his head out of windows (or jumping out of them). Today, there are several astute inventions such as special car window gates for dogs.
  • Always remember to lock out the windows so your dog can't accidentally open/shut the window with his paws and get his neck stuck. Unfortunately, this happens more frequently than thought!
  • Even better, keep your dog restrained using a doggy seat belt or a crate. This will prevent your dog from going back and forth from one window to another, while protecting you and your dog in the case of a sudden stop (loose dogs risk becoming projectile in the case of braking too fast).
  • And of course, see your vet if your dog shows signs of something wrong after going on a car ride!
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