Despite the overwhelming amount of information, advice and opinions out there regarding walking equipment, something which is rarely discussed is the need to condition it before use to help our dogs feel comfortable, as well as how to do this. Building a positive association with a harness so that our dog will enjoy wearing it is really crucial, rather than just expecting him to tolerate it. Anything new that isn’t introduced properly could be aversive, potentially causing fear and panic, so it’s really important not to skip this step.
It might be tempting to just plonk something new on them, but for our more sensitive souls, some work is needed before we are ready to show off our dog’s swanky new kit! Some dogs may have never worn a harness before, or might have negative experiences with certain equipment, which we need to be mindful of; this was certainly the case for my dogs. Prior to coming to live with me, Trigger’s experience of collars extended to being led out to the garden by his and then being tethered for long periods. When he came to me at a year old, he was unable to tolerate being restrained in any way, he couldn't even bear having his collar being touched, and he would bite in order to avoid this happening. It took a lot of work to help him feel comfortable, but we have now reached the point where he is happy for me to touch, remove and replace his collar. Jack was also collar-shy and had never worn a harness before, so I spent a lot of time helping him feel comfortable wearing both, as well as putting them on and taking them off.
What we choose for our dogs to wear for walkies is really important, as it can impact them both physically and psychologically. The style of harness should be carefully considered, and fit should be thoroughly checked for comfort, ensuring that there is no rubbing, no restriction of movement, and that the dog cannot back out of it. If the harness doesn’t fit well, or is designed to impede them by tightening, squeezing and pinching, it will cause ongoing discomfort, and potentially mobility issues, too. Your dog may well avoid having it put on, and this will thoroughly spoil his walks for him, which would be a tragedy.
It is such a tough job to know what to do for the best when there is so much choice, as well as conflicting information and opinions out there, which is why I decided to write a blog guide on this very topic. If you missed it, you can read it here:
Now, back to the topic of helping your hound be happy in harness!
HOW TO CONDITION A HARNESS
When introducing and conditioning a harness, you will need:
*A quiet, low-distraction environment to work in.
Please do not attempt to put the harness straight on your dog. If he avoids the harness, do not chase him; you need to make a good first impression. If your dog is wary of the harness or you can’t trust yourself not to move it towards him, sit on the floor rather than standing, placing the harness on the floor. Throw a treat away from the harness when your dog shows any interest in it, glances at it or sniffs it. Repeat this until he is approaching with confidence and you are seeing loose, happy, wiggly body language; you can then move to the next step.
Hold the harness in your hand, low down, and without moving it towards your dog. Again, throw treats away from the harness when the dog approaches, and repeat when he returns for another sniff. When he is consistently enthusiastic, you can progress to the next step.
Hold the harness away from you and throw treats away from it when your dog approaches. Continue until he touches it, then throw treats away as before. As his confidence increases, you are ready to think about him putting his nose into it.
Hold the harness up as before, hold a treat just inside the opening and give him the treat when his nose is just inside the loop, close to the treat. Then throw a treat away from you to “reset.” Repeat the process, making sure that you hold the harness still, so it isn’t moving towards the dog. When he is fully comfortable with this, it’s time to try it without using a treat as a lure.
** A note on luring. Please do not be tempted to try to speed up the training process by luring your dog towards something he is worried about. The most likely outcome in this scenario is that he will feel conflicted and will sensitise further, rather than getting over his fear.**
For further reading on this topic, check out my blog post:
When not using a food lure, make sure that you feed him as soon as he voluntarily puts his nose into the loop, even if it is just a tiny bit. Feed in position and watch for any signs of discomfort, which would signify that you’re progressing too fast. Throw a treat away from you to reset and repeat. When he can do this consistently, the next step is to wait for him to put his nose in a little further, and then feed again while in position. Throw a treat away to reset between each repetition.
Continue the process in small steps so that he gradually moves a little further into the harness. Once his head is consistently being placed into it, you can start to build a little duration by feeding in position for a few seconds before resetting. Once he is moving far enough to put an ear through, wait for that moment before rewarding, and continue feeding as you remove the harness, to ensure that part goes smoothly.
Finally, reward when both ears and head go through the harness loop. Meanwhile, if your dog tries other things to win the food, just put the harness down, have a break and try again. Continue the process of head in, feed and reset, until he is reliably putting his entire head in each time and is happy to do it. The next stage is to lower the harness onto the neck.
Hold the harness up as before, and when your dog puts his head in, gently lower it onto his neck very briefly and feed as you remove it. Throw a treat away to reset, and repeat the process until it is going smoothly.
The next part of the sequence is: head goes in, let go of the harness, touch the strap, and feed as you remove the harness. Watch to ensure that he doesn’t avoid your hand as it moves towards the strap, and remember to reset between repetitions, as before. When he is happy with this, you can progress to lifting a strap up into position, as if you are going to clip it, and then feed. If he moves away, stop what you are doing and try again. Ensure he is fully comfortable with each stage before progressing.
The next step is to lift the strap on one side and touch the clips together, let go and then feed. Repeat the process with each clip. Once comfortable with this, it is time to do one clip up, feed and unclip, then repeat on the other side. The last step in the process is to have both clips done up, feed, and then undo.
HANDY HINT: If your dog is noise-sensitive, the sound of the clips clicking into place can be loud and worrying. To dampen the sound, close your hands around each part of the clip as they fit together; it will be much quieter and easier for them to tolerate.
Gradually increase the time that he wears the harness; don’t leave it on for too long and ensure that it is always a positive experience. When adjusting the harness, start with the straps done up loosely so that he has time to get used to the feel and the pressure on his body. In order to free your hands for making alterations to the fit, either use a licki-mat to occupy him, or enlist the help of a family member to feed treats. Eventually, it should fit snugly so that he can’t slip out of it but remains comfortable, always in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. When the harness is on, enjoy some fun activities, and feed treats to continue building the positive association.
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