We are all used to our dogs wearing collars. Collars are convenient and important for holding our dogs’ identification tags. However, they are not always the best solution for clipping on the leash and taking a walk. In some cases, a body harness is better. However, there are many types of harnesses, and not all of them will be the right choice for your dog. How do you choose what to use?
Harnesses Take the Strain Off Your Dog’s Neck
The benefit of a body harness is in reducing stress to your dog’s neck. This is especially important for brachycephalic (flat-face) dogs such as English Bulldogs, Cavaliers, Pugs, etc., as well as for dogs on a tether or tie-out, or for dogs that are reactive, aggressive, or fearful on walks and may pull suddenly or lunge. But it can be helpful for all dogs in reducing torque on the neck. Harnesses can protect the trachea, thyroid, and the bones and tissues of the neck and back.
Also note that the harnesses mentioned in this post are humane options that do not cause pain to dogs. We do not recommend harnesses that work by pinching the dog painfully or by restricting the dog’s breathing.
There are many different types of harnesses, and harnesses are used for many different purposes. This post focuses on pet dog harnesses used for walking a dog.
I’ve divided up the types of harnesses based on where the leash attaches: on the back of the dog, the front (chest) of the dog, or both.
Harnesses that clip on your dog’s back are good for giving your dog a sense of freedom, which can be useful for some reactivity behavior modification or in scenting/tracking work. However, back-clip harnesses encourage pulling by allowing your dog to lean in with their whole body. While they can be great for around the house or if you need to tether your dog on a tie-out, they are a terrible choice for training loose-leash walking. If you want to discourage pulling on walks, choose a different type of harness!
When harnesses are designed for you to attach the leash on the dog’s chest, they are often referred to as “front-clip harnesses.” Some of these harnesses have a front attachment but don’t affect the dog’s pulling much or at all. Front-clip harnesses that are designed to reduce pulling are often referred to as “no pull” or “anti-pull” harnesses.
The Easy-Walk Harness (by PetSafe) and the SENSE-ation harness (by Soft Touch Concepts) work to reduce pulling by using the dog’s momentum to turn your dog toward you when they pull. These harnesses are often quite effective at interrupting habitual pullers. They can also offer that extra bit of leverage needed by a small, injured, or frail person walking a large dog.
The benefit of these harnesses is that most dogs are comfortable in them right away. There is very little “adjustment phase,” so they can help with pulling immediately. They also don’t cause pain or discomfort to the dog and are easy for people to learn to use.
The major drawback to these harnesses is that they affect a dog’s gait, reducing the shoulders’ range of motion. Although we don’t yet know if there are long-term repercussions to this, it’s reasonable to think it’s not healthy to walk a dog this way on a permanent basis. Because of possible harmful effects on your dog’s shoulders, these harnesses should only be worn when needed (not left on all the time) and used while the dog is being trained. I also urge caution and a discussion with your vet if you’re using them on a puppy. Their use should be discontinued after good leash manners have been established.
Front- AND Back-Clip Harnesses
The Balance Harness is designed to be comfortable for dogs for ongoing wear without affecting gait or encouraging pulling. It has both front-clip and back-clip attachment points that allow a range of leash options, including attaching a double-ended leash for “steering” the dog, often helpful when working with reactive dogs. This is my favorite multipurpose harness. It reduces pulling in some dogs but will not make a big impact on its own with a committed puller or a dog that lunges or pulls unpredictably. It’s a great option for a dog that has learned to walk nicely on leash most of the time but may “forget himself” in a moment of excitement.
Another Option: Head Halters
For many service dogs and for dogs that pull very hard or unpredictably even after training, or for pet owners who cannot risk being pulled at all, a head halter – a collar that has a loop over the nose and behind the ears – is often the best option. Halters operate on the principle that where the nose goes, the body must follow. They provide a lot of leverage to even a slight person walking a large dog.
The biggest drawback to head halters is that most dogs hate the way they feel initially, so they must be introduced slowly and positively, which can take several weeks. For clients who are training with me, I incorporate conditioning to the head collar during lessons. (Another, more minor drawback, especially for service dog teams, is that the general public often confuses head halters with muzzles. As the picture of the Golden Retriever with the ball in its mouth indicates, a Gentle Leader is not a muzzle!)
Their use also requires a caution: Head halters should never be yanked or jerked. Never give your dog a “correction” with a head halter (as you would with a choke chain). Because a head halter gives you so much leverage, an abrupt jerk could seriously harm their neck.
I usually recommend the Gentle Leader by PetSafe because it is inexpensive and available at virtually every pet store, and because I’ve had such good results with it, but there are numerous other head collars that are also good.
The key to introducing a head halter is to use slow, gradual desensitization and counterconditioning to teach your dog to be comfortable and happy in their head collar. You should spend several weeks pairing treats, then meals, then play with the head collar before you start using it on a walk. Check out one of our Gentle Leader Workshops to learn how to do this.
Which Gear Trains Your Dog to Walk Nicely on a Leash?….
None of them! The gear you use can help or hinder your training efforts, but no gear trains your dog. You have to do that.
To train your dog, reward your dog for walking nicely at your side on a loose leash, and never let a tight leash get your dog somewhere! Tight leashes stop people and dogs and make life boring. Loose leashes lead to good smells, good treats, and interesting places.
What about you? What is your favorite dog walking equipment and why?