I spend a fair amount of time skulking around in the background of various dog-based facebook groups. It’s not that I’m obsessed (well, OK, maybe a little bit), but it’s a great way to see what sorts of things pet dog owners are concerned about. This question, or something similar, is one of the most common questions that comes up both in breed specific and more general groups:
“What’s the best harness to stop my dog pulling?”
Now, I am a huge advocate for harnesses, and always recommend one, even if the dog is not a puller, but I’m here to tell you the truth. There really is no harness that will prevent pulling in all cases. Yes, for some dogs, some harnesses will have the affect of reducing the pull and amending their behaviour. But if I’m honest, a reduction in pulling then is probably due to the dog becoming subdued at finding the contraption unpleasant or odd, and I’m willing to bet that even some of those dogs revert back to pulling once they get over the initial aversion.
Depending on the reason your dog pulls, there’s every chance they will pull just as much, or even harder with a harness.
Millie, my collie bitch is capable of taking on the most uncomfortable looking gait, even in her very well-fitting harness, clipped front and rear. No doubt very damaging if she were to do that on every walk, every day. And the reason is that in some circumstances (such as places with lots of traffic or people) she is extremely alert and hyper-aroused just trying to take it all in.
Comfort is not on the list – safety is the goal, and pulling harder is her attempt to achieve that. Adrenalin has a lot to answer for! (Let’s just say she’s a work in progress 😉) For Millie it’s not about more contraptions, a stronger harness, a different lead – it’s the environment she finds herself in, and the coping strategies she has developed that work for her. Needless to say, we’re working on building better strategies in environments she can cope with. Meanwhile we just don’t do ‘town’!
So, if a harness doesn’t prevent pulling in most cases, why bother?
Simply put, attaching the lead to a harness rather than a collar prevents the dog throttling themself.
There are so many delicate structures just below the surface of the neck and there is lots of evidence about the damage that collars can cause when leads are attached directly to them. (For example, this study carried out at Nottingham Trent University)
We also know neck pressure impacts on breathing and restricts the flow of oxygen to the brain. For bracyaphelic breeds who may already have compromised breathing, a further reduction in available oxygen can be catastrophic. But for any dog, limiting oxygen is going to do little to help him think clearly and make good choices, and for dogs who already have behavioural challenges, I want to give them the best chance possible to think and learn!
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that dogs who walk nicely on a loose lead are fine. Every dog is capable of suddenly lurching forward to access a desirable scent, or in response to that pesky squirrel that just shot up a nearby tree. (And don’t even get me started on the topic of dogs on extendable leads suddenly reaching the end of the line while the owner is busy chatting on the phone!)
OK - hopefully I've convinced you that a harness is right, even if it's not about preventing pulling. The next step when thinking about a harness is to wade through the myriad options available and come up with the right one for your dog.
There are too many variables for me to give the definitive guide here, but a couple of things I would encourage you to consider:
- Whichever harness you buy – it is essential to train your dog to wear it. The key to introducing any new piece of equipment is to help them to become accustomed to it and develop a positive asociation, rather than chasing them around the living room wielding the harness until they either submit, or you lose a finger. If you want to learn more about how to do it, this video by Chirag Patel shows a good method of training.
- Look for a harness that goes on over the dog’s head, rather than one he has to step into. It’s simply easier to get on, and accustom a dog to, especially if they are not particularly happy being handled. Admittedly a lot of dogs do not like things above their head – but that’s back to the first point about helping your dog slowly learn to love his harness.
- Ensure the harness you choose has a y-shaped chest piece that comes down between the front legs. Avoid one with a horizontal strap across the front of the body, as these have been shown to restrict shoulder movement and affect gait.
- Additionally, ensure the part of the harness that sits on the dog’s back does not restrict the shoulder blades from above.
- A harness with d-rings on the chest and back can be helpful in many cases. Having a lead attached to the chest ring can reduce lunging behaviours and help you to redirect the dog to position their body where you would prefer – but this comes with a warning. It can help with training the right position, but there is also evidence that long term use of the front clip alone can also affect the dog’s gait and posture.
- Whilst I'm all for colourful harnesses, your dog probably won't care that much! Take your time to research the best fit. If it comes in your favourite colour too, that's a bonus 😀 Every harness fits and adjusts slighly differently, but most good manufacturers produce guidance on how to measure your dog for their product, and what a 'good fit' looks like. Many will allow you to return a harness if the fit is not quite right.
Now that we've explored my reasons for advocating the use of harnesses, it’s time to reconsider the opening question about pulling. Let’s be honest, for most humans, the question is really “what can I buy in a 5-minute transaction that will make the problem go away?”
Since we’ve ascertained that harnesses in the main do not prevent pulling, the obvious next question is “What will stop my dog pulling?”
In your heart of hearts, you know the answer.
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