Whether you’re the sole provider of walkies or your furry little mate also enjoys some quality time with a lovely Rover dog walker while you’re at work, you’ll want to ensure that your dog’s appropriately outfitted each time they head out into the world. Though it’s a classic look, the collar and lead option isn’t necessarily the best one when it comes to walkies. A dog harness can be a much more comfortable and humane option, and if your dog tends to pull on their lead a harness may just become your new best friend.
If you’ve never used a harness before and don’t know much about them, the options can seem a little overwhelming at first. But don’t worry, we’ve got you. We’ve compiled this handy guide to tell you everything you need to know about dog harnesses. We’ll cover:
- Are harnesses better than collars?
- What to consider before buying a harness
- 5 types of dog harness and how they work
- How to measure a dog for a harness
- How to get your dog used to a harness
- How to put on a dog harness
- How to make sure a dog harness fits properly
Are harnesses better than collars?
We asked professional dog trainer and pet lifestyle expert, Nicole Ellis, what she thinks of harnesses. Here’s what she said:
“Harnesses are always my favourite choice for walking a dog. Attaching your lead to a collar puts unnecessary tension on the neck which, especially for little dogs, can lead to health problems like a collapsed trachea. A harness evenly distributes weight across your dog’s chest, whereas a collar does not.”
Safety is, of course, the number-one reason to use a harness—using a collar can restrict breathing and damage the tissues in a dog’s neck if they pull too hard—in addition to your dog’s comfort, education (obedience training), and mobility. Harnesses have all these advantages:
- They offer better control on walks and make it easier to manage your dog on a lead.
- They discourage pulling by redirecting your dog.
- As most harnesses have a handle on the back, they allow owners to assist dogs who need a little help standing up, getting into cars or crossing barriers on walks.
- If your dog has a habit of backing out of their collar, a harness can be a literal life-saver.
- Brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds like pugs and Frenchies sometimes have trouble with collars that put pressure on their necks. A harness (like the Gooby Choke-Free Step-In Comfort Dog Harness which was designed to eliminate stress on small dogs’ necks) can help redistribute this pressure, making it easier for them to breathe.
Despite all the advantages of harnesses, some dogs still do better with a collar. In particular, if your dog loves to pull from the chest a flat collar may be just fine. But for many dogs, the right harness can make a world of difference.
What to consider before buying a harness
Harnesses come in a variety of styles and are designed for various uses. Before buying a dog harness, consider the following:
- Safety and durability. Will it hold up to extensive use? Can you adjust the fit? It’s important that the harness you select can be adjusted in several places, because all dogs are built differently. At minimum you should be able to adjust the harness around the neck and chest.
- Comfort. Is it designed to keep your dog feeling comfy while in use? Does it avoid putting pressure on their throat and neck?
- Cost. Is it affordable? A harness is an investment, so don’t go for the easy bargain. But you should be able to find a good option at a reasonable price.
- Style. Your dog may not care what they look like, and utility should be your primary goal in selecting a harness. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look for something pleasing to the eye!
Whatever kind of dog you have, there’s a harness to suit them!
5 types of dog harness and how they work
We asked professional dog trainer and pet lifestyle expert, Nicole Ellis, to give us a rundown of the different types of dog harness available. Here’s what she had to say about them:
1. The vest harness
The vest harness is my favourite for dogs that don’t pull. If your dog is a puller, skip this section and go straight to the one on anti-pull harnesses. I prefer the vest style, like this cute vest pictured from Puppia, over the webbed harnesses because they fit comfortably like a piece of clothing and will be less likely to chafe under the armpits.
2. The webbed harness
If you’d rather use a webbed harness like the Umi DogHarness pictured here, it will work best if your dog isn’t a puller. Really, there’s no one brand that’s all that much better than any other. Regardless of what you choose, the harness should be snug but still allow you to fit the width of two fingers between it and your dog’s body.
3. The anti-pull front-clip harness
Most harnesses clip to a lead at the back of your dog’s neck or further down their spine. This works well for some dogs, but if you have a puller, clipping your lead in the back will cause the dreaded “opposition reflex” to kick in. This natural reflex causes a dog to want to push against any pressure he feels pulling him in the opposite direction. A harness that clips at the back, such as the vest harness above, encourages your pup to get in touch with his inner sled dog, which does not exactly result in a nice, relaxing walk. Clipping the lead at the chest helps to get around the “opposition reflex.”
Now instead of feeling a pull, the dog feels a sort of barrier when he tries to push forward, which slows him down. I find this to have a downright magical effect on a pretty large percentage of dogs; you put on an anti-pull harness and suddenly your dog walks beautifully on the lead. Some examples include the SENSE-ation, and the Easy Walk.
4. The no-pull harness with front and back clips
Some harnesses, like the Ruffwear Front Range Harness, have clips on both the front and the back. Because these harnesses are webbed (vs. a soft vest style) you’ll want to watch carefully for any chafing or hair loss that may occur under the armpits. Always remove the harness when your walk is over.
The anti-pull harness can fit awkwardly on some dogs, hanging down low at the front of the chest even after you’ve adjusted the straps. To get around this, hold the loop of the harness to the loop of your dog’s collar, then clip the two together with your lead.
5. The head halter
The head halter—like the Halti or the Gentle Leader—is a great option for reactive dogs, very strong or large dogs, dogs being walked by children or adults with limited strength, or dogs that pull but for whom the anti-pull harness didn’t make much of a difference. The head halter works on the same principle as the halter of a horse: when you have control over the most sensitive part of your dog’s body, you don’t need to use much force.
The head halter slides over the nose, fastens behind the ears, and attaches to a lead beneath the chin. It is not a muzzle! Your dog will still be able to open his mouth and even carry a ball.
There is one major flaw with the head halter, however: very few dogs actually like the thing when they first encounter it, because it feels awkward and restrictive. Read our section on “how to get your dog used to a harness” below to find out how to make them feel comfortable wearing a head halter.
And if you like to take your dog in the car with you and want to keep your best friend safe, check out our article on the best harnesses with seat-belt features.
How to measure a dog for a harness
Once you’ve decided to get a harness, the next thing to figure out is how to get the right size for you dog. It’s no secret that dogs come in many different shapes and sizes. Different breeds (and even dogs within the same breed) have different body shapes so taking a few measurements is the way to go. You can’t rely on weight alone as obviously a 25kg British bulldog will have a different fit than a 25kg greyhound.
Different harnesses require different measurements for a proper fit but the following measurements will be useful to start with (use a flexible cloth tape measure for best results):
- Chest. Measure around your dog’s body starting at the bottom of the rib cage at the widest part just behind the legs, and going up and over the back and then back down to where you started.
- Neck. Wrap the tape around the thickest part of your dog’s neck—right on top of their shoulders, not the narrower part where the collar sits—and take that measurement.
- Weight. A lot of harness brands use weight to guide sizing. If your dog’s reluctant to get on the scales, weigh yourself first, then pick up your dog and get on there together. The difference will be the weight of your dog.
How to get your dog used to a harness
A harness, to dog owners, can seem overwhelming, but to dogs it can seem downright scary at first! You’ll have a much easier time getting your dog to comfortably wear a harness or a head halter if you introduce them to it slowly, desensitising as you go. If you put the harness on from day one and attempt to walk your dog with it, they’ll most likely spend the whole time trying to get it off and, once they dislike it, it’ll be much harder to get your dog to change their opinion.
Instead, start by teaching your dog that wonderful things happen when the harness or halter appears (i.e., pulling it off a shelf or from behind your back and immediately rewarding them with praise and treats or play). Allow your dog to smell it—you can also put a treat on the harness and let your dog eat it off of it. If the harness has a buckle, you can open and close the buckle, giving the dog a treat when it clicks. When they start to enjoy the appearance of the harness gently touch your dog with it, praising each time it makes contact. You can then begin to slowly place it on them, beginning by sliding it over their nose and rewarding them over and over until they’re comfortable, then progressing to fastening it behind the ears, attaching the weight of the lead and, eventually, taking your dog on a walk.
Most dogs who don’t like wearing a harness typically have sensitivity to certain areas being touched. To help combat this, stroke your dog on the areas that the harness will be touching. For some dogs, it can take a few weeks for it to begin feeling comfortable. If your dog backs away or nips at you, it’s a sign you’re moving too fast and need to slow down.
How to put on a dog harness
Harnesses can look difficult to put on your dog at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. Here’s how to put on your dog’s harness.
How to put on a vest harness
- Slip the harness loop over your dog’s head so that the vest section of the harness is resting on your dog’s chest. The D-ring is now located on their back.
- Pull the rest of the vest between their front legs and clip in the straps on both sides. For some brands, there will only be a clip on one of the straps.
- Clip the lead to the D-ring on the dog’s back.
Rover tip: There are many different styles of vest harnesses, including those that have padding on the chest and back. Make sure to put the longer section of padding on their chest, and the shorter section on their back.
How to put on a front-clip harness
- Slip the opening of the harness over their neck.
- Adjust it so that the connector rings sit above and behind your dog’s shoulder, and the D-ring is positioned in the centre of the chest.
- Pull the long strap under their belly behind their front legs and clip shut.
- Make sure that the harness is not inside-out and that all labels are facing outwards
- Fasten the lead to the D-ring on the front of the dog’s chest. Some brands may have two attachment rings, one in the front and one in the back.
Rover tip: Make sure the long strap is fastened underneath their belly behind both front legs—not in between their legs.
How to put on a step-in harness
- Place the harness down in front of the dog’s front paws, making sure no straps are twisted.
- Place one front paw into each opening.
- Pull the harness up so it fits securely around the dog’s chest and shoulders, and clip the harness on the centre of their back.
- The lead clips through both rings on the dog’s back.
- These rings should be positioned above the clip, not beneath it.
How to make sure a dog harness fits properly
Make sure that the straps are adjusted to give a snug fit but still allow you to fit the width of two fingers between them and your dog’s body. An ill-fitting harness will not only make your dog very uncomfortable, but it will also make training more difficult. Signs of a poor fitting harness include:
- Fur loss or chafing around the harness area.
- Your dog is able to wriggle free.
- Your dog is strongly resisting walking.
- The back piece of the harness is rotating from side to side.
Different dogs need different types of harnesses, so don’t worry if it takes a little time to choose the right one. Once you’ve found the perfect harness for your dog, you and your Rover dog walker can look forward to exploring the sights and smells of your street, dog park, and beyond with a happy dog in tow.
Featured image: Ruffwear on Amazon