Updated: May 12, 2022
When you look into buying equipment for your dog to wear during exercise, it can be quite overwhelming due to the vast market for harnesses, leads, collars, and various accessories. But what is perhaps even more confusing is the hugely varying advice that you will come across, making it extremely difficult to know what is best for you and your dog. Unfortunately, there are still several myths which are perpetuated, making our job as guardians that bit more difficult. Let’s take a look at some of these fallacies and bust some myths!
With kind permission from Helen Warrington.
When requests for harness recommendations crop up online, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will say that putting your dog in a harness will cause him to pull; he will never be able to walk on a loose lead; harnesses should only be worn by sled dogs, etc.
However, this really is not the case at all. Wearing a well-fitted harness allows freedom of movement without pinching or chafing the dog, making pulling more comfortable, but the harness itself will not encourage pulling. Can you imagine a team of dogs being able to do their job if they were to pull into a collar?
Here’s a little analogy which I hope will help to make sense of this. Before I became a sloth-like, dressing gown-clad, tea-swilling writer, I used to enjoy running. It was really hard work initially, and an effort to find the get-up-and-go to run. However, I realised that in order to enjoy it more, I needed to improve, and in order to improve, I needed to put the training in. No amount of fancy running gear would turn me into a runner, although the addition of running tights and a sports bra would reduce the jiggle-factor significantly enough to make the whole experience a bit more comfortable. My point: it’s the training that makes the athlete, not what you wear; equipment teaches nothing, training does.
What other reasons are there to choose a harness?
Following a study carried out by Nottingham Trent University, there is scientific evidence which demonstrates that attaching a lead to even a padded or wide fitting collar poses a risk of injury to the delicate structures found in the dog’s neck, including the thyroid gland, mandibular gland, trachea, oesophagus, lymph nodes, veins, arteries and nerves. Compression and restriction of the neck area can even cause eye problems because of intraocular pressure. If you then consider what the impact may be on the neck of a reactive dog who might pull, twist, spin, or lunge, the risk of damage to the neck increases further. I’m sure that the restriction on the neck no doubt also exacerbates feelings of panic and affects oxygen flow, impeding the ability to think clearly.
You can read more about the Nottingham Trent University study here:
With kind permission from Dog Games Shop
But isn’t the dog’s neck a lot tougher than we think?
A common misconception is that the dog’s neck is tougher than our own, with a thicker layer of skin, but it is, in fact, much thinner and far more sensitive than the human neck, therefore it needs to be protected. When training recall, it is always wise to use a longline as a safety measure, but it should only be attached to a harness, not a collar. If the dog were to reach the end of the line, particularly at speed, it could really hurt them.
A couple of quotations for you:
“Canine skin has several layers, including an outer epidermis that is constantly being replaced and an inner dermis that contains nerves and blood vessels. Canine skin is thinner and much more sensitive than human skin”.
“The epidermis of a dog is 3-5 cells thick however in humans it is at least 10-15 cells thick”.
What about headcollars?
Head collars are a bit of a controversial topic, to say the least. Being a scent hound guardian, and bearing in the mind the typical nose down, tail up, hearing off scenario that many hound guardians are so familiar with, head collars are often recommended by pet hound owners as a quick fix to stop pulling, with many swearing by them. While they possibly have greater control of their dog in a head collar, the question has to be asked: why do dogs stop pulling when wearing one? The simple answer is that wearing a head collar makes it uncomfortable to pull, therefore the behaviour is punished and suppressed. Most styles of head collar function by tightening and placing tension on the dog’s face and neck until they relieve that pressure by walking next to their human.
This image of the blood vessels in a dog’s face reveals how sensitive their muzzles must truly be:
There appears to be only one study in existence which compares the physical effects of the use of a head collar versus a harness, but the data may be flawed due to a lack of conditioning of the equipment prior to use. However, the risk of damage to the body through pulling or lunging, coupled with the fact that most function by tightening on the head and face to stop pulling, is sufficient evidence for me not to consider using one.
You can read about the study here: Headcollar vs Harness - which is better for our dogs' welfare? - Dogs Today Magazine
Thankfully, there has been a recent shift in the dog training world, and there is a greater awareness now of canine emotional needs. If your dog is pulling on the lead, the first consideration should be to examine *why* he is pulling, rather than simply focussing on trying to stop it. Pulling can occur for many reasons, including:
A lack of training to walk on a loose lead.
Wanting to walk at a faster pace than their slow-coach human.
Overexcitement, frustration, or fearfulness.
Struggling to cope with their environment.
If you are having difficulty with loose lead walking, there is a great free course from the wonderful Canine Principles, which you can find here: Stop Your Dog Pulling - Free Online Workshop. (canineprinciples.com)
Are all harnesses created equally?
Selecting and buying a harness is often not a straightforward task because of clever marketing ploys and sales pitches. There are many harnesses available that are described as anti-pull or no-pull, but they are aversive due to how they function; they restrict movement and tighten on the body to stop the dog from pulling. Anything that is described as working like magic, or has instant results to help a dog walk nicely, should be a huge red flag to you, because it will inhibit and suppress behaviour through being unpleasant to wear.
Something else to steer clear of is the type of design which cuts across the chest and shoulders, as it will impede movement. This image from Canis Bodyworks demonstrates the difference between the fit of a Y shaped harness versus the straight across the chest style really well:
Photo credit: Vale Hydrotherapy
Help! There’s so much to think about. What do I need to look for, then?
Choose a well-fitting X or Y shaped harness with two points of attachment, which will help your dog to feel physically balanced. 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. There should be enough clearance behind the elbows, and no restriction to the breathing. If the harness doesn’t fit well, it could cause ongoing discomfort and mobility issues, and your dog may well avoid having it put on and will thoroughly spoil his walks for him.
With kind permission from Dog Games Shop.
If you wish, you could use a connector to couple the harness and collar together for extra security. Either a second lead or a double-ended lead with one end attached to the front clip and the other to the back clip of the harness can also provide an added safety measure and peace of mind. Use of a longline is recommended so that the dog has room to move away and have a good sniff; a shorter lead should be used for roadwork.
There are many designs available; those with a Houdini hound or a dog which is a flight risk would benefit from a harness with an extra belly strap. For those with big dogs, who may be concerned about their dog getting away from them, the addition of a hands-free walking belt can be really helpful as an anchor point. This means that if the lead is pulled from your hand, your dog will still be attached to you.
Plenty of freedom of movement, allowing Ace and Tarn to spy on the neighbours! With kind permission from Helen Warrington.
My dog hates anything going over his head! What can I do?
Choosing a harness which has a clip at the neck, such as the PerfectFit, is ideal, as it does not need to go over the dog’s head, something that many dogs struggle with. The Perfect Fit has a modular design, so individual pieces can be replaced without having to buy a whole new harness, plus there is plenty of scope for adjustment. This is particularly useful if you have a growing puppy! For further information, please contact the extremely helpful staff at the Dog Games Shop: Home page (perfect-fit-dog-harness.com)
Sam beautifully modelling his PerfectFit harness. With kind permission from Caroline Allen.
Can I use a harness straight away?
We need to condition any new equipment before use so that we can build a positive association with it so that our dog will enjoy wearing it, 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. I really love this instructional video from Dogkind, as it is perfect for those sensitive dogs who may be wary of anything new: https://youtu.be/FKjNzZmZ5fk
So, the science is undeniable; a well-fitting, appropriately shaped harness is the best option for you and your dog, but don’t forget that all-important ID tag when you’re out and about. Happy harness hunting!
With kind permission from Helen Warrington.
If you have found this useful, why not subscribe to my site to receive future blogs?
Trailie Paws For Thought now has a shiny new Facebook page! I will be sharing my blogs here too, as well as posts, studies, articles and information. Come and join me! Trailie Paws For Thought | Facebook