Dogs: a look at pro- and anti-harness claims

Blog post taking a practical look at pro- and anti-harness claims

Article by Canis bonus. July 2017. Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Harness zombies

Ever had an Apple/Mac zombie trying to suck your brains out to get you out of using Microsoft? The dog world is just as susceptible to product loyalties. Harness fans can be as fiercely anti-collar. Show a picture of your dog with a collar in some circles and you’ll get reported to Animal Protection.

So how much is the harness thing a fad and how much of it is serious? Here’s a sceptical look at the anti- and pro-harness wars.

The rise of the Apple zombies

This post is NOT a comparative review of specific brand models (you can find that here), a guide on getting your dog used to it (you can find that here) or fitting instructions (follow manufacturer’s guidelines).

Anti-harnesses claim: they encourage pulling through comfort

The theory: The collar can dig into the dog’s neck when the dog pulls hard, which feels unpleasant/painful. This could in theory discourage from leash pulling.

The reality: This is true for moderate leash pullers. Extreme pullers will pull to the point of choking, seemingly oblivious of the pain. Even leash jerks don’t deter them. Never mind self-inflicted choking.

Anti-harnesses claim: they encourage pulling through gravity

The theory: From a physics perspective, there is some truth to the claim. With (some) harnesses, the dog needs to work less hard to pull just as hard because the leash is attached lower, closer to their centre of gravity (the harness is clipped on the dog’s back, so (slightly) lower than the neck).

The reality: I am curious about how much (or how little) difference we’re talking here. From experience, I suspect this is a minor, imperceptible theoretical difference. Any physicists out there to quantify this?

Clear not all that deterred by the collar

I personally feel more control of the dog the more contact points I have with his body (so I am holding his back, abdomen and shoulders and not just his neck).

This, and the fact that no-pull harnesses also come with front-clip attachment, thus losing the position/lower centre of gravity argument.

Pro-harness claim: collars are a health hazard

The theory: You will have seen the Facebook memes (that great way of getting accurate information…) claiming that collars can collapse your dog’s trachea and damage his thyroid.

The reality: These claims are over-stated to say the least. Before the harness fashion, just how many dogs do you think vet clinics saw for hypothyroidy and collapsed tracheas? I asked my colleagues at the clinic and the answer is and was extremely few. Sure if you’re going to jerk violently on your dog’s collar – or kicking him in the throat, which I consider as barbaric – you might cause some damage.

Animal abuse is a far cry from the normal use of a collar. Even extremely avid pullers don’t come in for hypothyroidy (an extremely rare condition that has become one of the poster children of pseudoscience, with clients going to vet after vet until they get a positive diagnosis) or a collapsed trachea.

So do I need a harness?

Humane: My motto is LIMA: Least Invasive Method Available. If you choose your harness responsibly and get your dog acclimated to it, I consider the harness more humane than the collar for avid leash pullers.

Effective? Is it more effective at deterring pulling? I would say a little less than collars – emphasis on ‘a little.’ But I would also say that you will not solve pulling on the lead primarily relying on tools. Even prong and choke collars aren’t all that effective at deterring pulling, never mind your standard flat collar.

Combi-approach: a collar and a harness

Name tags: My dog has a collar which always stays on. It’s a thin band with his name tag/chip number/etc. on. When we’re on a walk, the leash is clipped to his harness.

Loose leash walking: We teach loose leash walking by playing the green-light/red-light game with dogs: when you pull on the leash, I’ll stop abruptly. When you stop pulling, I’ll walk again. This only works with saints who are never late for work, never walk whilst chatting to a friend or never have a bus to catch. Result? Dogs for whom pulling on the leash works sometimes (human walks along) and sometimes not.


My dog wearing his name tag collar

Solution? Go out with the dog wearing a harness and a collar. Then tell the dog the rules of the game. When the leash is on the collar, I might sometimes go along when you pull. When it’s on the harness, we are definitely playing red-light/green-light. Result? Dogs who learn a consistent rule quickly, and pull way less/not at all when on the harness.

Growing pups: I’d say don’t invest in your dog’s permanent harness before he’s fully grown. If your dog doesn’t pull that much, you have my blessing to keep using a collar (I’ll obviously be a downside less happy if you pick a choke or prong one) until he’s fully grown.

Basic features of a dog harness

At the very least, I want the dog harness to have these features:

  1. Padded linings and reasonable broad bands wherever the harness touches the dog. Nothing that will chafe or cut into the dog.
  2. Leaving the throat area free of pressure – otherwise, you might as well have a collar right? Think a deep ‘cleavage’ for the V-neck harnesses.
  3. A belly band going nowhere near the dog’s armpits, preventing chafing
  4. Steer clear of tightening harnesses that might pull into the dog’s rib or armpit area when the dog pulls. The whole point of harnesses is that they are humane. Getting a tightening harness would defeat the point somewhat, wouldn’t you agree?
  5. Reliable and solid: Get a harness made of solid material with tight stitches and solid clips.

Your ideas and comments

Are you pro- or anti-harness? Do you feel strongly one way or another?

What’s been your real-life experience with the collar/harness difference?

Illustration credits

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  1. Ann
    Posted 19 August 2017 at 20:57 | Permalink

    You might find interest in the great research done by the wonderful Anders Hallgren and a team of vets. They did research over some years and found a shocking thing about reactive dogs… i have to say sorry here – cause i am not totally sure about the right number but i belive it was as high as almost 90% dog/humanreactive – or dog/dog reactive dogs had spinal /back injuries… that study is incredible. it is available in many languages and it is a MUST to read if you work with problem dogs. It is cheap to buy. I just found your website ad i LOVE it.. i work with dogs myself and reactive dogs are the ones that needs help… hardly any dogschools in Norway that wants reactive dogs in their classes – so they have to pay a lot to get help… i try to change this ,…. but enough about me – here is a link to where you can get it.. back problems in dogs. Looking forward to follow your blog and page in the future. All the best, Ann.

    • Posted 25 August 2017 at 12:44 | Permalink

      Hi Ann.

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I am familiar with Anders Hallegren’s work. My view is, ever the scientific skeptic, a lot more independent and rigorous research needs to be done to validate these widely shared conclusions.

      With regards to training schools and reactive dogs, I personally do not think training schools should take it upon themselves to accommodate for reactive dogs. Not without the right number of staff, and qualified/experienced/certified staff. Reactivity requires a lot of individual attention and, because of sensitisation, can get worse if the dog is enrolled in standard obedience classes. We are designing ‘growler classes’ which will have reactive dogs as our only students, but these will be very small groups, and have plenty of qualified staff.

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