With summer upon us, many dog owners are excited to get their dogs out and about more.
Whether you’re looking forward to afternoons on the water, evening strolls around parks, or Sunday picnics, summer is a time where many of us take our dogs out and about much more often than in the colder winter months.
Even when we don’t plan on leaving pups in the car, it can happen occasionally, even in the summer. We’ll explain when it is and isn’t OK to leave your pooch in the car, and some options to keep everyone safe!
Quick Picks: Tools To Keep Your Dog Cool In The Car
- Reflective Window Shades: AmazonBasics Sun Shade. Car windshield sunshades can reduce the temperature of your car significantly.
- Aluminum Car Cover Cloth: Cool Puppy Aluminum Shade Cloth. Basically an aluminum tarp you can put over your car, reported to reduce your car’s temperature by up to 14 degrees!
- Pet Cooling Pad: Green Shop Pet Cooling Pad. This cooling gel-infused pad can keep your dog cooler for up to 4 hours – no ice or water needed!
- Dog Cooling Vest: Ruffwear Swamp Cooler. This cooling gel vest can be strapped to your pup to cool them down (and they don’t need to sit in one place as they do with the pad).
- Portable Water Bowl: The Ruffwear Quencher. Ideal for providing your pooch with water in the car.
- Metal Window Grates: BreezeGuard Window Screens. Custom (and pricey) metal window screens let you keep windows rolled down without danger.
- Temperature Monitoring: Waggle Temperature Monitor. Digital temperature monitoring device that can alert you via text or email when your vehicle is outside the set safe temperature zone.
The Benefits (And Dangers) Of Bringing Your Dog Along For The Ride
I’m a huge advocate of bringing your dog with you – both for longer road trips and for shorter excursions.
The more your dog comes out and about with you, the more opportunities your dog has to learn about behaving nicely in the world. And the less time your dog spends at home alone, in general, the better!
All of these benefits, of course, assume that your dog is well-trained enough to be in public and well-adjusted enough to enjoy it. A shy, untrained dog isn’t ready to join you on your errands!
That said, bringing your dog along poses some additional problems in the summer heat. This article aims to help you understand both the dangers of leaving your dog in the car, and the how-to for doing it as safely as possible.
The fact of the matter is, if you travel with your dog, you’re probably going to have to leave your dog in the car at some point (unless your dog is a service dog or you’re breaking service dog access laws). And if you enjoy dog sports with your dog, you’re going to have to leave your dog in the car while you wait your turn or compete with your other dog.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- When you might want or need to leave your dog in the car
- How to tell if it’s safe or dangerous to leave your dog in the car
- How to make your parked car as safe as possible for your dog
- How to tell if a dog is in heat distress and needs immediate rescuing or not
- What to do if you find a dog who needs rescuing from a hot car.
Dog-In-Car Hysteria and Window Smashing
In this article, if I defend leaving your dog in the car, I’m not talking about the times where someone irresponsibly leaves their dog baking in Arizona heat for hours. Nor am I defending the times that someone forgets their dog. There have been numerous tragedies related to dogs dying in hot cars.
But assuming that leaving a dog in a car for any amount of time in any weather is irresponsible and dangerous is going a bit too far. There’s a bit of hysteria surrounding dogs in cars these days, and I’m trying to bring some measured conversation to the forefront.
This article has been partially inspired by an article from DoggyU called “It’s Almost Window Smashing Season,” and a corresponding podcast from Cog-Dog Radio – and I want to give those two resources a shout-out before getting into my own analysis and experience.
The Risks Of Leaving Your Dog In The Car
No matter what gadgets you buy to keep your dog cool in the car, you need to be careful. Temperatures in your car can rise quickly and be dangerous for your pup.
There aren’t any well-collected statistics out there about how many dogs die per year in hot cars, but at least 46 police K-9s died inside hot cars between 2011 and 2015. Keep that in mind – these dogs generally had hi-tech AC systems and temperature alerts that failed.
A few stark statistics regarding dogs in hot cars include:
- If a dog’s core temperature reaches 106 degrees Fahrenheit, heat stroke can occur and is quickly fatal
- When it’s 72 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside your car can heat up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit within an hour. This is especially true on sunny days versus cloudy ones.
- When it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature inside your car can heat up to 99 degrees Fahrenheit within 10 minutes. While 99 degrees probably won’t kill your dog if it’s for a short period of time (ask all the dogs who live in Arizona in the summer), it’s certainly not comfortable and could kill a dog if the high temperatures continue for long – especially if the dog is long-haired or brachycephalic.
- Temperatures can rise by 40 degrees Fahrenheit inside of a car within just one hour, easily reaching deadly levels of heat even if it’s only 60 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
- Dark-colored small cars heat up more quickly than large white cars.
- Interestingly, one study by the American Association of Pediatrics suggested that the interior color of your vehicle is the biggest factor – not whether or not you crack the windows. Light-colored interiors are much better for hot days than dark interiors.
Is It Legal To Leave Your Dog In The Car?
When thinking about leaving your pooch in the car, you also need to consider the laws in your area.
Some states have made it illegal to leave your dog in your car after tragic stories of dogs dying in the heat. Some states have even made it legal for people to break your windows to rescue your dog.
In California, for example, it’s illegal to leave a dog in the car if it’s “extremely hot or extremely cold.” On any day in California, the dog must have access to water and cracked-open windows.
The law also states that the dog must have access to food, but I’m not sure how you’re supposed to measure that, since many dogs will scarf down any food given to them within mere seconds.
All of these laws are well-intentioned, and you need to be aware of them to protect yourself from smashed windows and expensive tickets!
In fact, when I’m traveling with my dog (which I do a lot of), I’m usually more worried about smashed windows and tickets than I am about my dog’s temperature (since I’ve taken the precautions detailed below to keep him safe and comfortable).
Ideally, Bring Your Dog Out Of The Car With You
Leaving your dog in a car should generally be a last resort option – especially in the summer.
Taking your dog out of the car with you should always be your first option if at all possible.
If you can find a dog-friendly patio for lunch, that’s obviously preferable to leaving your dog in the car while you eat.
My international road trip has revolved around attempts to link up dog-friendly patios and dog-safe hiking spaces. But that doesn’t mean that every single time we put the car in park, Barley can come along with us.
The easiest solution is to simply not bring your dog in the car during the summer if you’re likely to need to leave your dog in the car for a long period of time.
However, in some situations that isn’t an option, and you’ll need to leave your dog in a car – even a warm one.
Sometimes You Need to Leave Your Dog In The Car
Sometimes you will need to leave your dog in the car.
The fact of the matter is, it’s nearly impossible to go on a summer road trip with your pup without leaving her in the car at some point, even if you’re just pumping gas or going to the bathroom.
Luckily, there are plenty of precautions you can take and strategies you can use to keep your dog cool in the car.
I live out of my car these days, traveling around the North and South American continents and working as a freelance writer. My dog Barley has joined us for the whole trip. This means that I spend a lot more time in the car with my dog than your average American.
Some situations where I’ve had to leave my dog in the car include:
- Pumping gas and taking a bathroom break.
- Stopping for lunch during a full day of driving.
- Waiting outside during a nosework trial, agility class, or herding lesson.
- Filling out permits and paperwork to go hiking or backpacking.
- Waiting for our appointment outside of a veterinary clinic that doesn’t allow animals in the waiting room to reduce the stress of patients.
- Crossing international borders, where we frequently have to leave the car to fill out paperwork.
In short, even if you do everything you can to avoid leaving your dog in the car, sometimes it’s unavoidable.
When Being In The Car Is Better Than Being Left Alone At Home
There are also times where leaving your dog in the car is actually better for your dog than being left behind:
- Separation Anxiety. Many of my separation anxiety clients find that their dogs are calmer when left in the car. The clients can use the car as an excellent stopgap measure during training to teach the dog to be alone.
- Many Hours Spent Alone. If I’m going to be gone for a 12-hour day, my dog would generally rather join me and hang in the car (with appropriate cooling devices and walks every hour) versus spending 12 hours alone at home with a bursting bladder! Of course, a dog walker is a good solution for those long work days in many cases as well. But when I’m traveling internationally, Rover isn’t an option!
- When The Alternative Is A Kennel. Some dogs would rather tag along for multi-day trips than be boarded in a scary, unfamiliar kennel. My dad’s 15-year-old lab, for example, has criss-crossed the United States countless times because she’d much rather avoid the boarding kennel. My dad is able to check on her often in the car and walk her frequently, and she isn’t exposed to kennel cough or stressed by being around so many unfamiliar dogs.
As you can see, sometimes bringing your dog in the car with you actually helps improve your dog’s life, even if that means that he’s a bit warm inside of a car during a 10-minute rest stop or left alone in the car parked in a covered parking garage.
Some Dogs Are At Greater Risk Than Others
Not all dogs tolerate heat the same way.
It’s fairly obvious that a super-fluffy Siberian Husky, bred for the Arctic, won’t do as well in the heat as a Mexican Hairless dog or a nearly-bald Whippet.
Also remember that short-nosed dogs like Pugs, Bulldogs of all sizes, Boxers, and Pekingese aren’t able to cool themselves off with panting as well as other dogs.
Be extra-careful in the heat if your dog is long-haired, short-nosed, or both!
Some medical conditions may also hinder your dog’s ability to regulate temperature. Your dog’s age can play a role as well. My dad’s 15-year-old Lab just isn’t as tough as she once was, so we’re much more careful with her on road trips now that she’s well into old age.
When Is It Way Too Hot For Your Dog To Be In The Car?
As a good rule of thumb, remember that your car’s temperature can rise by 19 degrees Fahrenheit in just 10 minutes, and by 43 degrees Fahrenheit in 60 minutes, according to a study by the American Association for Pediatrics.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that after 3 hours, your car will be 126 degrees if the ambient temperature is 0. Nor does it mean that a 50-degree day will necessarily turn your car into a 93 degree hotbox!
The intensity of the sun, your type of car, where you’re parked, and many other factors will influence how this math actually works out.
This test was done with a small blue sedan parked in 72 to 96 degree Fahrenheit days.
The car temperature graphs from this study are very helpful (see below).
We made a handy reference for caring for your pup in the car.
You’ll Probably Be OK When:
- You keep your absence short (5-10 minutes or less)
- You can park in the shade
- Your dog has water
- You’re dealing with moderate temperatures (under 80 degrees Fahrenheit). If it’s 40 degrees and overcast, your dog can probably hang in the car comfortably for quite a long time!
- You would be comfortable hanging out in the car. If you’d be comfortable napping in the car, your dog probably will be, too!
Examples of this situation include:
- Gassing up on a road trip
- Bathroom breaks while driving
- Waiting outside the vet’s office if you can’t be in the waiting room
- Filling out paperwork for a camping or hiking permit
- Cool days or moderate temperatures with overcast skies
REMEMBER: Take extra care with any dogs that are long-haired or short-nosed, as these dogs can’t cool themselves off as well. What would normally be considered safe situations with these dogs may be higher risk scenarios.
Make Frequent Check-Ins and Use Cooling Devices When:
- You’ll be gone between 5 – 20 minutes per absence and temperatures are under 90 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s considerably cooler, your car is in the shade, and you have cooling devices, you can push the check-in frequency closer to every 20 – 30 minutes
- You can easily check in on your dog
- You can park in the shade or a covered garage
- Your dog has water
Examples of this situation include:
- Getting fast road food during a road trip (do the drive-through if you can, instead)
- Running quick errands on your way home from a dog-friendly activity.
- Waiting outside of a dog sport competition
- If your car doesn’t feel hot upon return in this sort of weather, your dog might be OK longer in here – but use caution if you don’t know how your car and the weather interact!
Find Another Way (AKA Don’t Leave Your Dog Without Serious Cooling Help) When:
- Ambient temperature is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit or it’s over 70 and sunny – blazing sun can make more of a difference than ambient temperature!
- There’s no shade available
- Your car is dark on the outside and/or inside
- You’re going to be gone for more than 5 – 10 minutes
Examples of times where it’s unacceptable to leave your dog in the car with these conditions include:
- Leaving your dog in the car while you’re shopping or running errands. Just leave your dog at home instead.
- Leaving your dog in the car while you’re eating a sit-down meal.
- Any time where your dark car will be in full sun, no matter how cool it is outside.
- If it’s extremely cold outside – coming from northern Wisconsin, I know that full sun on a -30 degree day still won’t make your car warm enough for most dogs (though the Huskies might love it).
Many all-day dog sport competitions also require that your dog can wait in the car because having dogs that aren’t competing inside the ring is very distracting for the dogs competing. Only one dog is competing in a given area at a time.
If you’re competing in multiple rounds or have more than one dog to compete with, you’ll have to find a place for your dog that is not inside the ring.
The good news is, companies that work with dog professionals have recognized that there’s a need for gadgets that keep dogs cool and safe in the car in specific situations.
Your first line of defense for keeping your dog cool in the car is to avoid leaving your dog in the car in the first place.
This is kind of an obvious one, but yes – your best option is to simply not leave your dog alone in the car at all!
This might mean having your partner walk the dog while you take a bathroom break or go shopping. You can also attempt to make lunch stops at dog-friendly outdoor cafes, or grab a quick drive-through meal.
But let’s say you’re alone and none of the above options are possible. What next?
Basic Strategies To Keep Your Dog Cool in the Car
Before going out and spending hundreds of dollars on cooling gadgets, you need to cover your basic methods of cooling down your car and keeping your pup safe.
If you know that you’ll need to leave your dog in the car, even for a very brief period of time, ensure that you have these basics:
Provide Plenty of Water. Giving your pup water won’t technically cool her off, but keeping your pup hydrated will keep her safer.
Since your pup cools herself by panting, and panting loses a lot of water, your pup needs to have water available if she’s hot! Just remember that dehydration and heat stroke are not the same thing, and your pup can suffer from heat stroke even if she’s drinking plenty of water!
I keep a one-gallon jug of water and a Ruffwear collapsible water bowl in my car at all times. They’re a lifesaver when my dog is thirsty after a hike or if I need to leave him in the car while I go to the bathroom!
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Open Windows. We all know that putting down our windows can help our pups out a bit – especially when there’s a breeze. The more you can open your windows, the better. That said, according to a study by the American Association of Pediatrics, cracked windows have been shown to have little effect on the temperature inside of cars. You’ll really need the windows to be cranked pretty far down to be helpful.
Window Shades. Getting a reflective windshield shade can help keep your car cooler if you’re unable to park your car in full shade.
Exterior Shade. Parking in the shade is far better than getting a reflective windshield shade. Whenever possible, park your car in the full shade of a tree, garage, or building.
If this means walking the extra block or two, it’s worth it! Especially if you’re in drier parts of the country, parking in the shade can make a huge difference in temperature.
Check on Your Dog Frequently. There is no substitute for checking on your dog regularly. Even if you spend thousands of dollars on gadgets to keep your dog cool in the car, you need to check in on your pup regularly and minimize the time that your pup is left in the car.
Tinted Windows. They can help keep your pup a bit cooler by reflecting more light away. That said, it’s not cheap to tint your windows after purchase ($100-$400 for your car depending on the size of your car and quality of the tint), and each state has a different rule on how tinted your windows can be.
Tinting your windows with a highly heat-reflective tint can save you a few degrees in the sun, but this won’t be enough on its own.
Leave the AC On. If you live in a safe area, leave your car running with your AC on and car unlocked. If you’re not comfortable with that, leave your car running with a steering wheel lock on.
A final option is that some new cars allow you to lock the car and leave the AC on with the help of an app. Tesla recently announced that some new models will have a full-on “Dog Mode.” If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a Tesla, this is a huge bonus! Dog Mode keeps the AC running and shows a monitor to help passers-by understand that your dog is safe.
There are plenty of other cars designed specifically for dog owners that offer handy features similar to this.
Check into your options for leaving your AC on. This option is likely much more reliable than external AC systems!
Leave a Note. While this won’t help keep your pup cool, a note that states the time you left your dog and the time you’ll be back will help calm onlooker’s worries. You can even mention the cooling gadget that you’re using and leave your cell phone number so that Good Samaritans can reach out to you if they’re worried.
Include Visible Car Thermometer. Leaving a visible car thermometer will help soothe worried passers-by that your pup is doing ok, especially if paired with an informative note. At the same time, this visible thermometer can also help let an onlooker know that your pup is not ok in the event of failed cooling systems, allowing them to save your dog in case of emergency. Also, consider purchasing a temperature monitoring device like Waggle, which is specifically designed for RV-ing pet parents and will alert you via phone text message or email when your vehicle has reached unsafe temperatures.
If you are considering purchasing a car and know that you have a lifestyle where your dog might be in the car a lot (like I do), consider purchasing a white car. I’m constantly surprised how cool my white Saturn Vue stays in the cool compared to my old black Honda Civic.
A study done on car colors in relation to heating found that white cars remain as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than black cars (with an average of more like 7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit).
This option is far from free, and I’m not saying that you should go out and trade in your car tomorrow. But if you’re looking at a new car anyway, the temperature difference between car color is staggering.
Gadgets to Help Keep Your Dog Cool in the Car
When I first left my apartment in Denver to drive to South America with my Border Collie, I quickly realized that I needed more than the basics to keep him cool in the car. We just kept running into hiccups along the road where Barley would be left in the car for up to an hour in Las Vegas or Mexico City.
No matter why you need to leave your dog alone in the car, it’s smart to look at different options. Here are our top picks for gadgets to keep your dog cool in the car:
Gadget 1: Monnit Wireless Temperature Sensor
While technically not a way to keep your pup cool in the car, this temperature sensor is a great way to keep track of your pup’s temperature in the car. You can set up temperature parameters and get a text to your phone if the temperature exceeds a certain threshold.
This is great if you’re not sure whether or not your cooling mechanisms are up to the task on a hot day. It’s not cheap, but a temperature monitor is a great way to keep your pup safe and give you peace of mind.
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Gadget 2: BreezeGuard Vehicle Window Screens
A great low-tech option is the BreezeGuard Window Screen. This welded half-inch screen is sold in pairs, allowing you to create a crosswind for your dog. Leave your windows fully rolled down without fear of your dog escaping or people reaching their hands into the vehicle.
While they’re not cheap (they’re custom made after all), the BreezeGuard is less likely to break or malfunction than any other option on this list. That said, if it’s an extra hot day with no breeze, the BreezeGuard is unlikely to help much.
Alternative: Mesh Window Curtains
Another more affordable option are mesh car window curtains. Made of outdoor camping netting, these are basically mesh sleeves you pull over your car window.
These are a great resource, as they’ll also help reduce the car’s temperature. However, they’ll only work for more gentle dogs, as a determined dog could probably scratch these out easily.
- Made from high quality polyester mesh fabric which is machine washable and extremely durable, Must...
- Prevent overheat of the temperature and keep the car interior in a comfortable environment. Enjoy...
- You can easily roll windows down letting the breeze in since no suction cups are needed.
- Quick and easy to installation, high elastic sunshade fits most of the car windows GTCOOCUREPTL.
Gadget 3: Cool Puppy Aluminum Shade Cloth Panel
One of your most affordable options for keeping your dog cool in the car is the Cool Puppy Aluminum Shade.
This shade comes in a variety of sizes, allowing you to fit the shape of your car. Though it’s big enough to cover your car, it also folds down like a blanket and isn’t very big, which allows you to just keep it in your trunk. It will keep the interior of your car as much as twenty degrees cooler than the outside of your car.
You can use paracord to secure the shade, as it comes with brass grommets every foot. Manufacturers recommend using a stuff sack to keep the Cool Puppy Aluminum Shade from snagging and ripping when you’re not using it.
Keep in mind that not all aluminum panels are the same – ensure that you’re purchasing a shade panel specifically made to keep your car cool!
- The best shade cloth product available, Cool Puppy Shade Cloth Panels are lightweight.
- They should be stored carefully to prevent the fabric from snagging on sharp objects.
- Finished binding on edges and brass grommets every 12".
Gadget 4: The Green Pet Shop Cooling Pad
This cooling pad will keep your pup cool for up to four hours with pressure activated gel technology.
This mat rolls up and is great for crates or sitting on the car seat. It’s perfect for 30 to 50 pound dogs. The mat holds up surprisingly well and is easy to wipe clean if needed.
Buyers noted that the gel inside of the cooling pad will shrink and harden over time, so you may need to purchase a new mat every year or so. That said, this mat is a much smaller upfront cost than many other options on the list, so it’s a valid solution to consider.
- THE ORIGINAL SELF-COOLING PET PAD - our patented pressure activated gel dog pads cool and soothe...
- NO WATER, ELECTRICITY OR REFRIGERATION REQUIRED - it really works, the pet cooling pad features a...
Gadget 5: Ruffwear Swamp Cooler Cooling Vest
Similar to the cooling pad above, the Ruffwear Swamp Cooler works using gel technology to keep your pup cool.
Rather than expecting your dog to lie in one place, the Ruffwear Swamp Cooler straps onto your dog’s chest, keeping her cool no matter where she sits. Keep in mind that this vest works best if you pour water on it, so don’t use this if you don’t want to have a damp dog in the car!
As a bonus, the Ruffwear Swamp Cooler is a great way to keep your pup cool on hikes or walks in the summer. It’s fully compatible with other Ruffwear harnesses and has a reflective strip. I’d say this is your best multi-purpose option for keeping a canine cool.
- Cooling vest: A vest that provides sun protection and evaporative cooling, keeping your dog cool;...
- Three layer cooling: Outer layer reflects heat and facilitates evaporation; Middle layer absorbs and...
- Maximum shade: Vest style provides good coverage and UPF 50+ protection; Side-release buckles make...
What To Do If You Find Someone’s Dog In a Hot Car
If you’re worried about someone else’s dog inside a car, look for notes, cooling devices, and thermometers inside the car.
If you’re still worried:
- Be observant. Does the dog actually look like he’s in heat distress? If he’s lightly panting, sleeping, barking at you, or just hanging out, he’s probably fine. Leave him alone. But if he’s barking frantically, panting heavily with a huge lolling tongue, lethargic, or otherwise in distress, it’s time to get help.
- Take down the license plate number and information about the car.
- Go into any nearby businesses and ask the employees to make an announcement looking for the owner.
- If you can’t find the owner or if the dog is showing signs of distress, call the local non-emergency police number for help.
- If the situation is dire and your state allows it, consider breaking into the car to rescue the dog. This should be your last resort.
If the windows of a car are cracked open, make sure to never attempt to pet a dog or give it food or water through the windows.
Many dogs are easily overwhelmed when they feel cornered, and it’s easy to scare a dog or get bitten doing this. There are better ways to get help for a dog in a hot car.
Even lurking near a car with a dog in it can stress the dog out. My own dog happily naps inside our white SUV while I run errands, but will stand at attention growling at people who strike him as “off.”
This can set off a chain of events where you think the dog is stressed because of the heat (because he’s barking), but he’s actually stressed because you’re too close and making him nervous!
There are some other options out there as far as external air conditioner units for your car and solar-powered fans, but my research showed that none of these methods are highly rated by users.
Do your research carefully before spending your money on those gadgets – nothing is more disappointing than spending big bucks on a cooling solution only to have it fail you.
How do you keep your dog cool in the car? Do you have any certain rules or practices when it comes to dogs and cars? We want to hear your tips and tricks!
Disclaimer: All of these methods for cooling your dog can fail. This article is written based off of personal experiences and discussions and is not meant to be a definitive safety guide. K9 of Mine and Kayla Fratt do not take responsibility for any harm or danger that may come to a dog based off of the information in this article.
July 1, 2019
I found your site because I was searching for info since I received a ticket yesterday. Usually my husband and I switch off to go in the store while one of us stays with our dog, but on this occasion we both needed to go in. While in the store someone called animal control. Normally I would never have left her without leaving the a/c on, but she had a cooling pad fresh from the freezer and we were going to be quick. The ticket placed on our white car with windows down 1/2 way said that they were responding to a complaint, but when the officer arrived she said my dog was sleeping comfortably in the backseat. (On her cooling pad, but the officer didn’t know that) But the ticket went on to say that if we did it again we would face criminal charges. I am a Veterinarians daughter and usually so careful, but I felt really bad about this. Even though my dog was fine, I felt like scum. So reading your article has made me feel better and to realize there are varying degrees (no pun intended!) of handling dogs in cars. Of course I would never do anything deliberately to hurt my dog, and all of your advice is so helpful! Thank you!
July 1, 2019
Glad it was helpful Lorre! 🙂