As you grab your dog’s leash, you might wonder if you should be using a harness instead of attaching the leash to the collar. Should you? Is the collar enough? No matter the current pet fashion trends, there are a number of reasons a dog lover might choose a harness over a collar.
Protect Sensitive Areas & Vital Structures
First, dogs who pull while wearing a collar can put increased pressure on their necks, potentially injuring areas such as the eyes, thyroid, lymph nodes, trachea and spine. Although a dog’s neck structure is said to have more muscle mass compared to a human’s, it does not mean their necks are less sensitive. Canine skin is only 3-5 cells thick, compared to humans, where the epidermis (skin layer) is at least 10-15 cells thick. The delicate structures of a dog’s neck are very vulnerable to damage. Even a flat collar can affect these areas negatively. Additionally, a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association notes that intraocular pressure increases significantly when dogs pull against a collar, as opposed to pulling with the same amount of force in a harness. (Increased intraocular pressure is especially dangerous for dogs with certain eye conditions.) All of these concerns are easily relieved by choosing an appropriate harness rather than relying on a collar alone.
Imagine wearing a necktie or choker-style necklace for 12+ years and every time someone wanted you to
walk in a different direction or change your behavior in any way, they tugged at your tie or necklace.
This could become annoying — and even painful — after awhile. Even if your dog isn’t a big puller and using the leash-collar walking system doesn’t cause obvious immediate physical injury, eventually this repetitive trauma will lead to discomfort for your dog — no matter if they are big or small. For those dogs who are more enthusiastic, a running start or display of leash-exuberance, where they hit the end of the leash with great force, can lead to a negative association with whatever they are pulling (or running) toward: All the dog knows is “When I pull toward XYZ, I get really uncomfortable.” This correlation can increase stress or fear of certain people, other animals, locations, or situations. Before long, a relaxing stroll around the block is far from relaxing for you or your pup.
For instance, let’s say you’re walking your dog when all of a sudden a cyclist comes from behind and you reactively yank your dog out of the way. Your goal was to protect your dog. Of course! However, your dog might associate pain in their neck with the cyclist. Should it happen again, this negative association could get stronger, resulting in your dog not liking cyclists. Ironically, this reactivity towards cyclists can take the form of lunging and barking at them in the future. An inexperienced, but well-meaning dog owner might pull on the leash to try to stop the lunging – causing more trauma and discomfort to the neck and further reinforcing negative associations with cyclists. It’s literally a vicious cycle!
Fewer Houdini Maneuvers
In addition to physical protection and emotional well-being, a well-fitting harness can keep the leash where it’s meant to be: attached to your dog. Often times, dogs learn how to slip out of collars that aren’t fitted correctly, which is dangerous for them and you. All they need to do is slam on the brakes and back up, pulling in opposition of the handler, and voila! Freedom! There’s nothing more scary or frustrating than holding a leash and collar, watching your dog run off — often with a huge smile on their face. Note, some harnesses will allow dogs to escape too. For instance, if the harness goes on by slipping over the dog’s head, it might be able slip off the same way. So make sure the harness you choose is properly fit, so you can overcome these issues and enjoy peace of mind when you’re out and about.
How to Choose the Right Harness
With so many dog harnesses on the market nowadays, it can be difficult to find the right product for your canine companion’s needs. The best harness will be escape-proof, yet comfortable for your dog, without restricting movement or causing chafing or rubbing, easy for you to use, and easy to keep clean.
If you enjoy going for walks, runs, hikes, or hitting the road with your pooch pal, a good ol’ harness with a D-ring for leash attachment on the back should work just fine. For dogs that would be contenders for the Iditarod (born to pull!), consider a harness that offers a D-ring on the front of the harness for leash attachment. This design takes away some of the dog’s leverage, so the action of pulling forward is counteracted, causing the dog to slow down. Some people find they need both: a front clip when pulling is an issue and a back clip for adventures or canine-specific sports, including K9 Nose Work (Read about dog's incredible sense of smell here!). There are harnesses that offer this versatility, including the Happy Harness, by TransPaw Gear, designed by a certified force-free trainer to meet the needs of both canines and humans.
In addition to multiple leash attachment options, you’ll want to make sure that whatever harness you choose is well-made and durable. If your dog is a big-time adventurer, and you love watching dogs be dogs, purchase a harness that is water-friendly and easy to clean. This way you won’t be worried about them sloshing in water, splattering in mud, or rolling in stinky stuff.
Finally, don’t settle for a harness that requires more instructions than DIY furniture assembly! Make sure that you can easily work the buckles and adjust the straps, and that you can figure out which part of your dog goes in which part of the harness. Whether you’re heading out into the big city or adventuring off into the woods, getting your dog dressed should be effortless for you both and not an epic cross-training workout.
Walks and adventures are part of the foundation of a strong bond between humans and dogs. And a harness that works for both dogs and their guardians is an easy way to bring even greater joy into these shared activities. Here’s to unleashing adventures and harnessing fun!
Bio: Joan Hunter Mayer is a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, and the owner of TransPaw Gear and The Inquisitive Canine. She offers in-person or online training and behavior modification services to help her clients learn how to get the best out of their best friends. The TransPaw Gear Happy Harness was invented by Joan to meet the need she saw among her dog training clients for a harness that was versatile, comfortable, easy to use, and escape-proof. Joan resides in Santa Barbara with her husband and their dog, Ringo Starr.