Collar or Harness?

Harness the Energy!

The number one piece of equipment that I recommend to all my clients for their dogs is a body harness. I think it’s really important that leashes are attached to harnesses, not to collars. There is a great deal of medical evidence pointing to pressure on dog’s neck from collars as being really damaging to lots of different parts of dog’s bodies. Damage can be done with even small amounts of pressure to necks, spines, the oesophagus and trachea, even eyes when the pressure exerted on their necks affects the intraocular pressure.

Typically, collars rest on the neck area in the front at the trachea and the juncture of neck and spine in back. These are fragile areas in dogs and can be easily damaged. Even a quick lunge at a darting squirrel can cause damage to your dog’s neck if your leash is attached to it.

From a behaviour perspective, my goal is to have any dog’s walks involve the least amount of aversive sensation as possible to try and avoid any sorts of negative associations from taking place. I don’t want a young puppy’s initially friendly lunge toward an oncoming dog, turn into a fear based reactivity behaviour becauseof pain associated with pressure from the leash/collar over many repetitions of this behaviour. Trust me, this happens more than most people realize!

Fit and Function.

Just using a harness alone does not necessarily solve the problems of medical issues or unintended negative associations. The fit of the harness is critical! I’ve seen many dogs wearing ill-fitting harnesses that look terribly uncomfortable.

I commonly see dogs wearing a popular harness that has only a front attachment for the leash, which is on the chest between their front legs. The intent of the harness is good in that it’s designed to help people manage strong dogs who pull hard. When you attach the leash to the ring in front of the dog’s chest, any pressure applied to the leash immediately results in the dog’s momentum cut in half as they are pulling themselves sideways toward you vs. full steam ahead. It’s helpful for people with strong dogs, but it’s really intended to be used as a training aid while you train your dog to walk nicelyon a loose leash. When the training is complete, you should switch to a different harness style.

Often, people don’t seem to do any training, they just keep on using the harness. This results in long-term discomfort for the dogs. These harnesses tend to be very short in the body, with the back strap of the harness coming just across the shoulders. This frequently results in the harness chafing under the front armpits of the dogs. Matting under the arms is a constant issue with dogs, too, who have any amount of longer fur or poodle- type hair. I’ve also seen this same harness style drop down so low in the shoulder that it’s literally pinning the dogs’ front legs together whenever pressure is applied from any angle.

Discomfort aside, structurally, this is far from ideal, especially when you have a puppy or young dog who’s still growing. They need free movement in their shoulders in order to develop straight and balanced bodies and strides.

I also don’t like the idea that dogs are constantly being pulled toward you in one direction whenever they pull on leash. Most people have a tendency to walk their dog on the same side all the time – rarely switching. This results in a constant, repetitive pull to one side. Again, structurally, not ideal for growing bodies or even aging bodies.

Fit is important! Some harnesses can also put pressure on the trachea if the front piece rides up too high on a dog’s chest and ends up resting exactly where a collar would.

Not every harness style is going to fit every dog body. Smaller dogs can be particularly hard to fit as not every harness has a small enough size for very tiny dogs. Do your research and take your time to find one that fits correctly. Use the measuring guidelines provided by the manufacturer and try it on for comfort when you get it. Be prepared to return it or try a different harness – don’t just use the one you thought would fit if it’s not actually a perfect fit.

You may end up buying several different sizes of harness as your dog matures from puppy to adult, but the expense of the equipment will definitely be less than your dog’s discomfort and potential vet bills from the after-affects of an ill fitting set up.

My Favourites.

I have a big dog and I’ve broken fingers and twisted ankles from a poor grasp on a leash or an unexpected lunge by big dogs in the past. I do use a harness that has a leash attachment on the front so that I can occasionally take advantage of the help at times when I need it. However, my harnesses also have leash attachments on the back, so I can make an effort to keep my dog as balanced as possible. These types of harnesses can be used with a double-ended leash (using 2 leashes works well too), so you can avoid having your dog always pulling to one side once you understand how to use the double or two leash set up.

Now that my dog has been trained to walk on a loose leash, I can keep the leash on the front attachment for safety but because there is very rarely a lunge, he can walk perfectly balanced with no pressure pulling him one way or the other. I can also continue to use the double-ended leash set up as needed.

What I look for in a harness is the fit on my dog for his comfort, the flexibility of where my leash can go and how much room for sizing modifications there are as my dog grows and changes size and shape.

Ruff Wear, Front Range Harness.

I really like this harness and how it fits on many dogs. I found it about 3 years ago when I was having trouble finding a harness with a front attachment to fit the shape of my Doberman, Jack. He has long legs and a long body and everything was just too confining and compromised his structure as he continued to grow and change shape.

This one fits kind of like a tank top and is very light and comfortable yet very durable. Jack has had his for about 3 years and it’s still hanging together extremely well despite now being faded and worn on the edges. All the important bits are solid and not wearing out. He has complete freedom of movement, never fusses with it and seems to feel very comfortable in it. When I hold it out, he will willingly come and put his head in it and wait forme to fasten the straps. He runs off leash in it, plays in it, sleeps in it and does Nosework, Agility and Obedience in it all without any visible discomfort or structural issues. It also comes in really great, bright colours, which is a nice bonus!

The harness is made in the US, which makes it fairly expensive, especially when you order it online. However, MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) has recently started carrying it in its stores, whichis a big plus although they don’t seem to carry a wide range of colours. I’ve also seen it recently it several higher end pet stores.

A downside is that the largest size is just large enough for Jack who’s close to 90 pounds, a larger dog would not be able to wear it. I’m hoping that they consider making one or two sizes larger in future versions.

TTouch Harmony Harness.

I’m currently in the process of training to become a Tellington TTouch Practitioner (more on that in future articles!) I knew about these harnesses before, but now I more fully understand how to use them, and I really like them. They are designed to help dogs walk in a more balanced and relaxed way with free movement. They can be taken on and off comfortably especially for dogs who have a hard time with things going over their heads and can literally fit pretty much any dog with a wide variety of sizing options.

You could simply put one on your dog and it would work well, but there is also a way to learn to use it with all the possible leash attachments it has for training purposes. It’s particularly useful when I’m working with reactive dogs as there are ways to set it up for the least aversive and most comfortable experience for the dog. It can be purchased with a special double-ended leash that has a swivel on it so tangling up in the leash just doesn’t happen.

Ordering online is the only option for it at present unless you find a trainer who may carry a stock of them for sale. However, the fact that the product is made in Canada, shipped locally and is very affordable is a definite bonus!

Freedom Harness

This harness was at one time my favourite as it was the first of its kind to have the 2nd attachment for the leash on the back of the harness. It resembles all the other front-only leash attachment harnesses in look and style but it does have a much better fit and design overall.

This harness is much longer in the body than similar ones I’ve seen which means under arm chafing is kept toa minimum if properly fitted and sized. They have also added a velvet-type material to the bottom (armpit) strap which makes it seem much more comfortable for the dog. It has well-placed adjustment buckles to help change how it fits within each harness size so that it does tend to fit quite a number of different dog shapes.

I ultimately found that it just dropped too low on Jack’s shoulders to continue to fit him well as he matured and grew, but we did use it for many months very successfully before I switched to the other 2 harness options above. I have also seen it for sale in many pet stores locally at a reasonable cost.

A downside of this style of harness is that dogs can slip out of them reasonably easily if you apply too much pressure on the front – so if you’re trying to pull your dog along or they’re backing away from you. However, because the Freedom Harness has 2 leash attachments, and the back one has a cinch-style loop of fabric, this rarely happens when you’re using it as designed – with a double-ended leash.

A Word About Collars

I think that every dog should wear a collar. I have tracked down too many stray dogs with and without collars to have any other opinion. If they have a collar, they are easier to catch and if they have ID tags on that collar, they are easier to return.

Collars have also become a popular fashion accessory and statement. Lots of companies make very interesting and fun styles of colors that really let you express you or your dog’s personality – fun and funky, high-end designer, or elegant and refined. Collars are available in a variety of materials too – leather, nylon, man-made and water resistant. The variety is seemingly endless and you could spend hours online looking at them all.

Making sure your dog’s collar fits well is just as important as a well-fitted body harness. Ensure that your collar isn’t too heavy or too light for your dog and that it fits reasonably snugly, but not too tight. It’s also important to ensure that ID tags are appropriately sized for your dog’s neck and not too heavy. If you have a tiny dog and the city you live in has large ID tags, consider fastening city ID to their harness and getting a smaller, lighter ID tag for their daily collar. Collars should ideally be buckle or snap style.

No Collar Training!

Collars should never be used as a piece of training equipment in such a way that there is any sustained or sudden pressure on your dog’s neck. The old-style method of training using collar “corrections” is simply painful, unnecessary and frankly just mean.

Being an educated dog trainer, I am against the use of choke (or martingale partial choke), prong and shock collars (and all of their counterparts like anti-barking collars, electric fencing systems, citronella or air collars). These collars are intended to cause pain and discomfort with the use of punitive training methods. I still see an alarming number of these things on dogs and I’m continually astonished that people still buy them, still use them and continue to use trainers who recommend them.

They are not magic – they have to hurt to work – plain and simple. Please don’t go down this path – it just isn’t necessary and they can be very damaging. Make a more educated choice.

The Martingale Collar.

A martingale collar is made with two loops. The larger loop is slipped onto the dogs neck and a leash is then clipped to the smaller loop. When the dog tries to pull, the tension on the leash pulls the small loop taut, which makes the large loop smaller and tighter on the neck,

thus preventing escape. The smaller loop is either made of chain or a strong fabric.

The Martingale has unfortunately become a popular collar for all the wrong reasons. In fact, the Martingale collar originated as a way to keep a collar on sighthounds – dogs like greyhounds who have very small heads in comparison to their thicker necks and can easily slip out of standard buckle collars. Greyhound fanciers couldn’t easily keep a standard collar on their dogs so this collar evolved.

The Martingale is a good choice for any dog who has a thick neck or any dog who has become skilled in the art of escaping standard equipment. Keep in mind, though, that until pressure is applied, the collar is essentially hanging loosely so a clever dog can still escape from it. However, be aware that when this collar is under pressure, there is no way to release it from your dog’s neck until the pressure is removed. Like any choke collar, it’s a very bad choice to have on your dog when he’s playing with another dog or attached to a leash.

Unfortunately, the Martingale has become known as a “training” collar in that it resembles a choke collar but is considered a “humane choke” (what an oxymoron that is!). People seem to think that it is designed to be used as a choke collar – think yank and jerk to suppress behaviour like pulling – but because you can control where the choke stops, it’s a “nicer” collar to use. Of course this is assuming that you know how to fit it properly and choose to do so otherwise, it’s just a choke collar that maybe just looks a little nicer! As mentioned above – no training method advocating yanks and jerks on the collar is necessary or appropriate so it’s not a great collar choice for most dogs.

A Cautionary Note.

Many dogs each year are injured and even killed when playing with other dogs while wearing equipment like collars and harnesses. You should always monitor your dog’s play with other dogs for many reasons but particularly when they’re wearing any kind of equipment. It’s very easy for a dog’s tooth or foot to get caught in another dog’s collar or harness and when it does, bad things can happen very quickly.

Both dogs immediately feel trapped or pinned down, perhaps even “under attack” and begin to panic and fight

back. Even if you’re right there to help, it’s pretty difficult to separate panicking dogs who may be attached by the mouth and neck. It’s also extremely difficult to unbuckle or unsnap a collar when it’s pulled really tight.

You can get collars that have a breakaway clasp or a plastic fastener that you can quickly reach in and snap open. The Breakaway Collar clasp is designed to break open under pressure to hopefully prevent this type of situation from escalating. Of course it’s important that you have the proper size of collar for your dog’s size and weight. You may be limited in the fashion sense, as I don’t think these kinds of clasps are very common in all collar choices.

If it’s safe to do so, it’s always a better choice to remove equipment before letting dogs have a play together. Of course, this isn’t always practical. In our group classes, we often give our parents some practice time with the “leash dance” – learning how to have your dogs playing very briefly with another dog while still on leash. It’s good for the dogs to learn that the pressure from a leash andcollar isn’t a reason to immediately become alarmed, and parents learn how to easily intervene when necessary and to prevent play from escalating.

Another good tip is to keep interrupting play between dogs every few minutes – even between dogs who know each other. Interruptions keep adrenaline low so escalating play just doesn’t happen. It also gives you a chance to evaluate how the play is going and whether the dogs need a break from each other.

In summary – please seriously consider using a body harness for your dog’s daily walks. Take the time to find a properly fitting body harness and do some thoughtful, positive training so you can both enjoy your walks. Then have some fun expressing your personality and your dog’s personality by choosing a fun collar or two for his ID to hang from. There’s even fun “jewellery” that you can hang from collars and funky ID tag designs to further express yourself.

Always keep is positive and put some effort into making it comfortable!