If your dog spends their entire on-leash walk choking against their collar, you might be considering using a harness. Maybe your dog already wears a harness, but it’s rubbing their skin or they don’t like putting it on. Although there are many potential benefits to using a harness, it can do more harm than good if it doesn’t fit properly. Selecting a well-fitting harness means your dog will be happier wearing it, less likely to Houdini out of it, and won’t suffer from related musculoskeletal problems.
Benefits of a Well-Fitting Harness
There are lots of reasons you might choose to use a harness alongside a collar. These include:
- To have a better connection and better control of your dog
- To reduce pulling, using a front and back attaching harness with two points of contact (one end of the leash snaps to the front ring and the other end snaps to the back ring), while you work on loose-leash walking training
- To reduce the risk of neck injuries, such as laryngeal paralysis or tracheal collapse. A harness distributes the pressure across a larger, less delicate area of the body.
- To minimize problems and discomfort for dogs with respiratory issues
- To prevent high impact jolts to the neck if your dog is on a long line or jogging with you on a leash
- To provide support for dogs with limited mobility or those recovering from injury or surgery
- To avoid putting unnecessary intraocular pressure on dogs prone to eye conditions such as glaucoma and thin corneas.
- To stop your dog from getting loose on a walk. Broad-necked or narrow-headed dogs are less likely to slip out of a well-fitting harness than they are a collar. Three-point harnesses (such as the Ruffwear Webmaster model that has a neck, chest, and belly strap) are ideal for escape artists.
- To make identifying working dogs easier
- If your dog has neck or cervical disc issues a harness is better than a collar
What Problems Can a Poorly Fitting Harness Cause?
Lori Stevens, the owner of Seattle TTouch, is a professional dog trainer, certified animal behavior consultant, small animal massage practitioner, and certified canine fitness trainer. She explains that “an incorrectly fit harness can do a lot of damage both physically and behaviorally.”
Stevens has seen “fur and skin rubbed raw, and plenty of dogs with odd movement patterns that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was due to a poorly fitting harness and/or leash handling techniques.”
“I can’t tell you what problems it might cause for you to tie something around your legs above the knees that makes you take small steps,” she says. “What I do know is that you would likely be much more comfortable walking, running, and moving if you could move your legs without restriction.”
Dr. Chris Zink is one of the world’s top canine sports medicine and rehabilitation veterinarians and researchers. She explains that a poorly fitting harness could cause “overuse soft tissue injuries due to abnormal pressures or compensatory muscle overuse from using an unnatural gait.”
As well as discomfort and gait problems, your dog can more easily slip out of a harness that isn’t fit well, and you may have issues with getting the harness on your dog if they don’t like wearing it. “I’ve seen quite a few dogs absolutely refuse to put on a harness after being forced into one several times, and I can’t help but wonder why,” says Stevens.
What To Look For in a Well-Fitting Harness
Where possible, take your dog for a fitting rather than ordering online, unless the company has a video and written instructions for fitting the harness. There are many styles and sizing options, and what suits one dog may not offer the best fit for the next.
Stevens recommends selecting “a harness that is highly rated and from a reputable company.” She outlines fitting tips in great detail on her website, focusing on ensuring the harness does not affect your dog’s gait. “Pay close attention to the dog being able to do shoulder extension (front leg reaching forward) and shoulder abduction (front leg out to the side) without the harness impeding movement,” she advises.
Some other key considerations include:
- Ensure the harness is not tight or pinching anywhere on the body when standing or sitting—you should be able to fit two fingers under the straps
- Ensure the girth strap is not sitting behind the rib cage towards the stomach or squeezing into the back of the front legs (elbows)
- The neck opening should ideally be adjustable and sit closer to the top of the sternum rather than around the throat.
- Where possible, with front attachment harnesses, use the attachment at the withers too. Using a double-ended lead for this helps to keep your dog balanced.
- Fleece-lined harnesses are beneficial for thin-coated breeds like Greyhounds
How to Help Your Dog Feel Comfortable Wearing a Harness
If your dog has been wearing an ill-fitting harness or they aren’t keen on having one put over their head, you may need to help them feel comfortable. Never force the harness over a nervous dog’s head—you’ll only make them less enthusiastic about heading out on a walk, and they may become distrustful and could even start snapping out of fear.
Where possible, select a harness with a neck strap you can unclasp before putting it on. If your dog has to put their head through the neck opening, encourage them to do this voluntarily and reward them with a tasty treat whenever they do so.
For dogs that are very nervous, help them feel relaxed when the harness is near them first, before attempting to fit it. Before putting the harness over their head, start with individual training sessions where you reward them just for sniffing it, then for putting their head close to it, then for putting their head in it. Building it up like this creates positive associations, and most of all, if the new harness fits well, your dog will enjoy putting it on and going for a walk.