If you are a trainer, when you see a dog on a leash your attention may go to gait, ease of movement, equipment worn, and the handler’s use of the equipment. It is deeply satisfying to see an animal’s comfortable stride, with a handler enabling that stride. But often what you see is less than wonderful: a roached back, constant tension on the leash, leaning-away from the handler, blocking of the animal’s joints, and more. The wrong choice of equipment or a bad fit can be responsible for these problems. Careful equipment choices and equipment fit, especially the fit of a harness, can eliminate these issues.
Read on for suggestions for making informed decisions about equipment and fit. What your dog wears for walks is your personal decision, but the information that follows will help you decide what is best for your dog and for you.
Some concerns about collars
Many excellent trainers leash-walk with the leash attached only to the dog’s collar. They do this for a variety of reasons, including:
- It’s easier—the collar is always on the dog, ready for attachment.
- The dog resists or seems uncomfortable in a harness.
- The dog is involved in a sport that requires a collar.
- The trainer has heard that harnesses do more harm than collars.
- The trainer hasn’t found a harness that works.
Here are some of my concerns with collars:
- The dog can’t breathe normally when there is tension on a leash connected to a collar. There is always the potential of discomfort for your dog when there is something around her neck and tension from the leash.
- When there is tension, the collar is likely pushing on important organs that can be damaged, such as the trachea, thyroid, and esophagus.
- Collars can damage cervical vertebrae.
- Certain collars can get caught (for example, on a dog’s tooth) and choke the dog.
- Discomfort and pain can affect the behavior of your dog (this goes for incorrectly fitting harnesses as well).
You don’t have to have pulling in order to create pressure or injure your dog via the collar. It just takes one instance of accidentally stepping on the leash. Try this exercise: Wrap your hands and fingers around your neck with your thumbs at the front and center of your neck. Now push in with your thumbs and try to breathe normally. It’s not comfortable for humans, so why would we think pressure on the neck is comfortable for dogs?
Well-known veterinarian Jean Dodds has also been concerned about collars, and answered a question on her blog about collars damaging the thyroid.
“This is an important question that we’re all trying to pay more attention to, because the thyroid and salivary glands are superficially located just under the skin in the upper part of the neck. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped organ just in front of the larynx and trachea, and the mandibular salivary glands are found on the side of the face just below the ears. Thus, they can be easily injured by trauma and sudden pressure forces (like could occur from the slip ring and chain of metal collar, and a metal prong or hard braided leather collar).”
I no longer use collars, even for tags; there are identification (ID) tags for harnesses that stay put and don’t get caught on things. I recognize that there are some especially soft collars and collars with lovely designs that might be used for ID tags, fashion, or connecting a leash to. Of course, prong, choke, and electronic (remote) collars can harm your dog and, therefore, are not recommended at all.
Like collars, ill-suited and ill-fitted harnesses can cause harm, both physical and behavioral. Harnesses that rub under the legs or restrict movement, or otherwise make your dog uncomfortable, should be ruled out. Some dogs are uncomfortable with anything touching their ears or slipping over their heads. While some people want padded or fleece harnesses, I think this is because they have experienced some of the many harnesses that rub dogs and aren’t soft enough where the harness is in contact with the dog’s fur or skin. A soft nylon harness is perfectly comfortable as long as there are no rough or cut edges that can rub against the dog.
Here are some tips for what to look for in a harness and for fitting one:
- The harness should not be tight while the dog is standing or sitting. There should be no areas where the harness can rub. Run your fingers on the inside of your dog’s harness; feel for any areas that are rough and may rub your dog’s skin raw or otherwise cause discomfort.
- The girth strap needs to be behind the elbows while the dog is standing. It needs to be far enough behind the elbows so that in sitting the girth strap does not push into the dog’s elbows (the back of the front legs). Also, straps that angle into the dog’s elbows can cause discomfort and rubbing, and can change posture and gait.
- The harness should not be so far back that it is behind the rib cage. I recommend that a harness sit two to three inches behind the elbows.
- The harness should not rest across the front of the legs or over the shoulders. This provides sensory feedback that can change the dog’s gait or the ability to move freely and with ease.
- The harness should not block or discourage any movement in the joints. Pay close attention to whether the dog is able to do full shoulder extension (front leg reaching forward) and shoulder abduction (front leg out to the side) and that the harness is not impeding movement in any way. When the dog performs these motions, the harness should not be in the path of the movements.
- Keep the harness loose enough so that two to three flat fingers can go under the girth and neck straps easily. The harness should not be loose enough to “hang” from the dog. It should look like it fits but isn’t tight.
Look for a harness with both front and back rings to connect to the leash. I often teach a handler to attach a leash to both the front and back rings while handler and dog are learning to partner on leash. This requires a leash with two snaps, not two leashes, and can be done with one hand easily. Once the team communicates well while walking (no pulling matches are occurring), the handler can move the leash to the front or back ring only.
I prefer to use the ring that is between the withers rather than the front chest ring. Given that dogs often walk in front of us, we can too easily pull them off balance if we are behind them and using only the front ring.
Measuring your dog’s girth for harness fit, be sure to measure where you’d like the harness to fit (assuming you are using a fully-adjustable harness like the Balance Harness). Once you get the harness, use your own eyes, hands, and the dog’s reaction to the harness to tell if it is a match. The dog should be completely comfortable in the harness.
If you are using a harness that slips over the head, once the neck strap is adjusted to fit over the dog’s head you will get an idea of how much the girth strap needs to be adjusted. Remove the harness and adjust it. The chest and top straps (Balance Harness only) can be adjusted last. By adjusting these straps, you can decide where the girth strap fits best on your dog’s rib cage. I usually adjust a harness so that this strap is two to three inches behind the front legs and elbows.
Teaching your dog to love his harness.
Teaching your dog to get dressed
Take the time to introduce the harness so that it’s a positive experience for the dog. Invite your dog to put her head through the neck opening on her own and reinforce her for doing so. You can use a nose-to-hand “touch” cue that starts with your hand near the opening of the harness. Gradually move your hand so that to touch it she has to put her head through the harness. This should be easy for your dog and reinforced often (refer to detailed steps below). Take your time before using the harness as a cue. Hold off until it predicts that good things are going to happen. It’ll be worth it in the long run. If your dog is sound-sensitive, gradually get her used to the sound of the neck buckle closing.
Follow these steps to teach your dog to slip her head into a harness. You may need to repeat the steps several times, over several training sessions, before actually putting the harness on the dog. You are teaching the dog that the harness predicts good things will happen.
- Teach a nose-to-hand touch and add a cue, e.g. “touch,” then
- Present the harness and reinforce.
- Put your hand through the harness and ask for a nose touch (the dog is touching your hand but not putting her head through the neck opening). And reinforce.
- Gradually decrease the distance between your hand and the neck opening until your dog is touching your hand by putting her head through the neck opening. Reinforce each incremental step.
- Practice nose-to-hand touches through the neck opening, then buckle up the harness. Reinforce.
- Practice loose-leash walking skills with the harness on and plenty of reinforcement.
- Enjoy taking your pup for walks in her well-fitting harness.
Before you head out…
Selecting leash-walking equipment means making an important investment in your dog’s health, performance, and behavior. Take the time to make the choice that “fits” you and your dog perfectly.
What is also important, and closely related to leash-walking equipment, is training loose-leash walking. This kind of training pays off big in building your relationship with your dog and cementing an activity that you can do together with ease and in sync. With your equipment set, you’re ready to head out. Before you do, read How to Teach Loose-Leash Walking and watch the DVD Tellington TTouch Techniques: Walking in Balance With Your Dog.