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What is the best type of dog harness?

Approx. 8 minutes read

It’s your dog’s most impawtant time of the day – walkies, of course! – which means getting him into his dog harness, clipping on his leash and heading out the door. But as you trundle down the road with your dog, the little voice in the back of your mind starts chiming in:

Are you sure your dog’s harness it the right one for him?

Are dog harnesses bad for dogs?

Do harnesses hurt dogs that pull?

You’re snapped back to reality when your excited pup lunges after the neighbourhood cat, pulling hard against his harness – his behaviour is case in point. So, let’s unpack these questions and get to the bottom of whether dog harnesses are helpful or hurtful to your furry friend.

Which is better: a harness or a collar?

If you haven’t read it yet, our previous article unpacks all the details on why some dog owners walk their dogs in a collar and why others walk their dogs in a harness. The article elaborates on the features of collars and harnesses as well as the pros and cons of both.

What is the best type of dog harness?

Which is better: a harness or a collar?

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Given this information, we now need to take a closer look at the fact that no two harnesses are the same, and answer the question: which is the best harness for your dog?

The best harness for your dog

A well-fitting harness that gives you and your dog a comfortable walking experience (and doesn’t hurt his back, shoulders or hips) is surely the best harness for your dog. Unpawtunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to dog harnesses. Buying the right harness will depend on a few important factors:

  • your dog’s size
  • your dog’s shape
  • your dog’s physical ability (old, recovering from surgery, potential for hip dysplasia, etc.)
  • your dog’s built-in behaviour
  • your dog’s level of training

Finding the right harness for your dog’s size

This criterion for dog harnesses is self-explanatory. Using the extremes: a harness for a Great Dane is not going to fit a Chihuahua. Harnesses come in generalised sizes like extra small, small, medium, large and extra-large, but there are too many variations in sizes between the various brands, so these sizes are just guidelines. XL sizes will be most suitable for really big dogs like Danes and Boerboels, but what about the inbetweeners like spaniels, GSDs, border collies, Staffies and the like?

This means you’ll need to know your dog’s measurements. How do you measure a dog to fit a harness? The most important measurement is the chest measurement – or the girth of your dog at his widest part. Secondly, his neck measurement (the thickest part of the neck, near the shoulders); also measure how far the neck to chest distance is at the back of your dog’s neck, and lastly, the bit through your dog’s front legs – the distance from the neck to chest below your dog.

What is the best type of dog harness?

Most harnesses are not made to fit every dog’s exact size, and will have adjustable straps and buckles that cater to fit dogs in a range of sizes.

Finding the right harness for your dog’s shape

Why does the shape of your dog matter? Since the harness is meant to fit your dog’s whole body (not just his neck, like a collar does), your dog’s shape will affect how well (or not!) the harness fits. The type of harness and how well it fits will depend on if your dog is barrel-chested (think bulldog), deep-chested (think whippet or boxer) or has a slightly tapered chest (think Belgian shepherd). A well-fitting harness will support your dog’s body without creating pressure points or chafing, especially if he were to pull. It shouldn’t be tight in some areas and loose in others, but should be comfortable all ‘round.

Since harnesses are not meant to pull around your dog’s neck, make sure you buy the right harness for his shape – it mustn’t put any pressure on his throat or around his neck, nor should it chafe under his front legs.

Finding the right harness for your dog’s physical ability

Your dog’s physical ability matters a lot when trying to find the right harness. If your furry friend is big on pulling, but has hip dysplasia, it’s perhaps best to not put him in a harness with a back attachment – as this tends to encourage pulling, which puts strain on his hind legs and hips. A front attachment is better suited, as this discourages pulling, but it also depends on your dog’s level or degree of training.

Dogs that have neck and back issues or are recovering from surgery should NOT be walked with a collar. Always listen to your veterinarian’s advice on aftercare: if your dog is encouraged to exercise to improve mobility, find the right harness to support his recovery and healing.

Finding the right harness for your dog’s instinctual behaviour

Huskies, Malamutes, Inuit dogs and Samoyeds are some great examples of dogs that were bred over hundreds of years to work in subzero conditions. They were originally sledding dogs, so you can’t blame them for pulling on the leash the moment you clip a harness on them! Their instincts are immediately triggered to pull forward the instant they feel the slightest bit of resistance on their harness (this is called opposition reflex and is one of the general, completely natural reasons why dogs pull on the leash). They were trained to pull against that reflex, so you can’t expect them to suddenly not pull just because they’re house pets!

Sighthounds (such as greyhounds, borzoi, saluki, whippets, and Italian greyhounds) were bred to hunt and course – at SPEED – and will bolt at the mere sight of a small animal running away. They are notoriously bad at recall and need expert training to curb their instinct-driven enthusiasm. They need a type of harness that offers fully-body support, as well as a very strong leash. When you walk a sighthound, he needs to be very securely strapped into his harness and you need to be aware of your surroundings and his body language. Loose-leash training is imperative for a well-behaved sighthound out in public, but on the off-chance that your dog should chase after a small animal, you need a recall command, a high-value reward, as well as a very good hold on the leash to maintain control of your dog.

Finding the right harness for your dog’s level of training

If your dog is an extreme puller, you need to consistently practice the loose-leash walking techniques mentioned in our previous article. There are also some no-pull harnesses and halter tools to help you during your dog’s training. However, these harnesses are just tools that are meant to be used during training and are not designed for long-term use as a solution to your dog’s problem behaviour.

What is the best harness for a dog that pulls?

Dog harnesses that prevent dogs from pulling use a restrictive design that puts pressure on your dog’s shoulders and chest to discourage the pulling action. This restriction makes pulling uncomfortable for your dog and the theory is that he will feel discouraged to continue pulling.

But: a lot has been said about dog harnesses that restrict a dog’s movement and how these may be terrible for the dog’s physiology. No-pull harnesses that have a front strap across the shoulders have taken exceptional flack from the dog owner community, but before these types of harnesses are written off as hurtful to dogs, the context of these tools needs to be explained.

A no-pull harness is only bad if it doesn’t fit correctly and it’s not being used correctly.

The correct fit of a no-pull harness is one that doesn’t impede a dog’s shoulders. The correct usage of a no-pull harness is as a temporary tool while you train your dog to improve his loose-leash walking skills. A no-pull harness or a harness that restricts your dog’s full range of motion is meant to discourage and retrain your dog. It is not meant to be used indefinitely, nor is it to be used for extended periods of walking.

A no-pull harness is not a shortcut to ensuring your dog doesn’t pull on the leash. It’s not a substitute for loose-leash training. If your objective is to ensure your dog doesn’t pull on the leash, you need to train him to change his behaviour – not merely to restrict his movement. When he’s learnt that pulling doesn’t get him anywhere, you will not need to use a no-pull harness anymore.

Similarly, head collars are also training tools that are meant to redirect your dog’s attention to you every time he gets distracted on a walk. This gives you the opportunity to reward him for returning his attention to you. When this becomes your dog’s natural habit, you will not need the head collar anymore. The training tool has done its job.

So, are harnesses bad for dogs?

No, harnesses are not bad for dogs. The way harnesses are used may be bad for dogs – meaning that it’s up to you, dear pet hero, to:

  • ensure you find the right harness for your dog
  • ensure the harness fits correctly
  • ensure that you’re using the harness correctly

No-pull harnesses are not the only restrictive harnesses. An ill-fitting harness can also be hugely restrictive, but the problem doesn’t lie with the harness – it’s just not the right fit for your dog. For example: there are some lovely Y-shaped and H-shaped harnesses, some of which are even padded for more comfort. The intention is good, right? But – if you buy the wrong size or shape, the padded section could sit against your dog’s shoulder blades or come up and press against your dog’s throat.

Why do dog trainers not like harnesses?

It’s not universally accepted that dog trainers don’t like harnesses. It’s more likely that dog trainers are not against harnesses, but against dog owners relying on harnesses to do the work instead of training their dogs to walk with a loose leash. Some positive dog trainers prefer dog owners to use a harness instead of a collar, since a collar is more likely to hurt their dog’s neck.  A harness, however, encourages better training, since it doesn’t rely on aversive methods to communicate what the handler/owner wants from the dog.

Some trainers rely on corrective methods like prong collars and sudden turns that yank on a dog’s neck to teach them to pay attention. These methods will not work with a harness.

Do vets recommend harnesses?

Vets recommend harnesses for small dogs, since collars can hurt their necks. Small and toy breeds are more susceptible to collapsed trachea, so absolutely no pressure should be placed on their necks and throats. Also, dogs with neck and back problems should wear a harness instead of a collar.

If you’re unsure about your dog’s comfort and physical health in a harness, ask your vet to recommend the right harness for your dog and also to help you fit it.

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