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Should I Use A Collar Or A Harness When Walking My Dog?

Taking your dog on walks is essential to their physical and mental health and is a great bonding activity for you and your furry friend. Many environments require your dog to be walked on a leash, both for their protection and the protection of those around them, such as young children or other animals. Some cities even have laws that require dogs to be kept on a leash in public areas. When walking your dog on a leash, various restraints can be used. Collars seem to be the most popular worldwide, but harnesses that attach around the dog’s body are rapidly growing in popularity. This article will explore the pros and cons of each option and will help guide you to select the best option for your dog.

Should I Use A Collar Or Harness When Walking My Dog?

Collars come in two main forms – those that wrap around the dog’s neck, or those that wrap around the dog’s head, like a halter. Neck collars can be made from various materials including fabric, leather, or even metal (in the case of choke or prong collars). The material type, collar width, and whether or not there is extra padding can all affect the amount of pressure that a dog feels when they pull on the leash or if the leash is jerked (Hunter et al., 2019). While some neck collars may be less severe than others, evidence continues to show that all neck collars have the potential to cause injury (Carter et al., 2020). The dog’s neck is home to nerves, the jugular vein, larynx, thyroid gland, and the trachea which could be damaged by the collar (Landsberg and Hunthausen, 1997). In severe cases, trauma from the collar could lead to musculoskeletal injuries (Hallgren, 1992) or even strangulation (Grohmann et al., 2013). Another, not as obvious threat to a dog’s health, is the fact that pressure from collars can increase pressure within a dog’s eye, which can be particularly harmful to those with eye conditions such as glaucoma or weak corneas (Pauli et al., 2006). It is important to keep in mind that while collars can cause harm when your dog lunges or when the lead is jerked, they can also be just as harmful if pressure is applied consistently over time (e.g., from pulling) (Carter et al., 2020). Due to these reasons, if you have a dog that pulls on walks, have a tendency to lunge towards squirrels or other dogs, is a breed with a delicate neck, or if your dog has eye problems, a head collar or harness might be a safer alternative when taking your dog on walks (Grainger et al., 2016). Some people worry about their dog’s comfort when walked in a head collar or harness, but studies show that once dogs are accustomed to them, there are no significant signs of stress or behavioral differences observed between dogs wearing collars or harnesses (Grainger et al., 2016; Ogburn et al., 1998).

What Are The Advantages To Using A Harness?

One of the biggest advantages to walking your dog in a harness is that they protect your dog’s sensitive neck. Harnesses apply pressure to a dog’s chest or body, as opposed to collars that localize pressure to the throat. For breeds that have short muzzles and breathing difficulties (e.g., pugs and bulldogs), harnesses may be a better option since it does not affect their airway. Additionally, harnesses tend to be a more secure way to restrain your dog. If a collar is too loose, dogs can easily slip backwards out of them and escape. Harnesses often have two loops around the dog, making them more difficult to wiggle their way out of. Some dogs may be easier to walk in a harness, especially if they like to pull or are prone to rapidly lunging. Dogs are slightly more likely to pull in a regular neck collar than they are in a harness (Ogburn et al., 1998).

What Types of Harnesses Are There?

Harnesses come in a variety of materials, colors, and shapes. The wide variety of options can be overwhelming when choosing the right harness for your dog. Ultimately, the most important factor is going to be the shape of the harness, or how it attaches to your dog’s body. Harness shape styles can be grouped into three main categories:

1. H-shaped style: This style of harness has two loops, one that goes across the lower neck/bust area, and one that loops around the trunk. These loops are connected along the back and or the stomach. In most cases, the leash clips along the back at the strap that loops around the trunk. This means that when pressure is applied, most of it directed towards the dog’s body, away from their sensitive neck. These harnesses are thought to be less restrictive to a dog’s movement and are recommended for small or medium sized dogs, or puppies.

2. X-shaped style: This style is composed of two semi-circles of material that loop under the dog’s neck and behind the shoulder blades and join at the dog’s back near their shoulder. The leash clips along the back where these loops meet. While this harness may work just fine for some dogs, it has the potential to place pressure on the dog’s shoulders which can affect their posture, joints, and may rub hair off in the armpit area.

3. Y-shaped style: In harnesses referred to as “y-shaped”, one loop of material wraps horizontally across the dog’s chest, and a second is secured vertically around their torso. In this style of harness, pressure is mostly exerted on the chest of the dog. This style is good for controlling dogs that may suddenly lunge (i.e., those with strong prey drives or reactive dogs) and is recommended for large breed dogs.

Some harnesses have built in padding to help reduce pressure applied to the dog’s body. Others offer leash clips in front of the dog or the top of the dog, depending on the owner’s preference. It is also good to consider how easy the harness is to put on and take off your dog. Some easily slip over the dog’s head and are secured with a clip, while others may require a bit more wrangling.  

How Do I Make Sure the Harness is the Right Size?

Many companies that sell harnesses will provide measuring guides or recommendations for breed or weight ranges to help consumers choose the best size harness for their dog. Harnesses are adjustable, so once you purchase the one closest to your dog’s size, it will need to be fine tuned to fit your exact dog. Harnesses should be tight enough that the dog can not slip out of it, but not too tight to cause discomfort, rubbing, or restriction of movement. An easy check to see if the harness is too tight is to see if you can fit 2-3 fingers between the harness and your dog’s body. Regular checks of harness fit should be performed as harnesses can loosen over time and your dog’s weight may fluctuate throughout the seasons, causing the need for the harness to be readjusted.

Can Harnesses Be Harmful to My Dog?

While harnesses offer many advantages over traditional neck collars, there are some potential drawbacks to them that should be considered. Pressure may be exerted unevenly on the dog’s body when they pull on their leash. This is especially noticeable if the dog is always walked on one side or the other, such as in the case of guide dogs (Peham et al., 2013). Harnesses with chest straps could reduce shoulder extension, altering the dog’s natural gait (Lafuente et al., 2019). A restricted gait could lead to uneven muscle gain, uneven muscle atrophy, or extra stress on their joints which could cause inflammation or contribute to arthritis (Blake et al., 2019). Wider or more padded harnesses may offer a relief in pressure, but this may come at a trade-off as they are more likely to restrict the dog’s movement. These issues can be minimized through selecting a harness that is not restrictive to your particular dog, proper training of good leash manners (loose-leash walking), and by avoiding jerking on your dog’s leash for any reason.

Should My Dog Wear Their Collar When Being Walked In A Harness?

If you made the decision to use a harness to walk your dog, you may be tempted to abandon their neck collar altogether. Even if you are not directly using the collar to walk them, the neck collar still can serve important functions. For one, the neck collar is an ideal location to keep identification tags. These can be critical in reuniting you with your dog if they get lost. Secondly, a neck collar can serve as a back up in case the harness breaks. Finally, new technology continues to hit the market including sensors that track your dog’s activity levels or location (e.g., Weiss et al., 2013). Many of these are designed to be attached to a neck collar that your dog wears all day.

Conclusion

In summary, if you have a well-trained dog that walks loosely on a leash and is unlikely to suddenly lunge, then you are likely to be alright walking them in either a collar or a harness. However, if you have a dog that pulls on the leash, you may want to consider a harness to prevent damage to their neck or eyes. Ensuring that their harness fits properly is important to avoid hindering their natural gait or causing discomfort. Thankfully, there are many options available on the market so you are bound to find a harness or collar that fits your individual dog so you can enjoy many safe and responsible adventures with your furry best friend!

Works Cited

Blake, S., Williams, R., & de Godoy, R. F. (2019). A Systematic Review of the Biomechanical Effects of Harness and Head-Collar use in Dogs. bioRxiv, 759258.

Carter, A., McNally, D., & Roshier, A. (2020). Canine collars: an investigation of collar type and the forces applied to a simulated neck model. Veterinary Record.

Grainger, J., Wills, A. P., & Montrose, V. T. (2016). The behavioral effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior14, 60-64.

Grohmann, K., Dickomeit, M. J., Schmidt, M. J., & Kramer, M. (2013). Severe brain damage after punitive training technique with a choke chain collar in a German shepherd dog. Journal of Veterinary Behavior8(3), 180-184.

Hallgren A. Spinal abnormalities in dogs. Animal Behaviour Consultants Newsletter 1992;9.

Hunter, A., Blake, S., & De Godoy, R. F. (2019). Pressure and force on the canine neck when exercised using a collar and leash. Veterinary and Animal Science8, 100082.

Lafuente, M. P., Provis, L., & Schmalz, E. A. (2019). Effects of restrictive and non‐restrictive harnesses on shoulder extension in dogs at walk and trot. Veterinary Record184(2), 64-64.

Landsberg, G. M., & Hunthausen, W. (1997). Handbook of behaviour problems of the dog and cat. Butterworth-Heinemann.

Ogburn, P., Crouse, S., Martin, F., & Houpt, K. (1998). Comparison of behavioral and physiological responses of dogs wearing two different types of collars. Applied Animal Behaviour Science61(2), 133-142.

Pauli, A. M., Bentley, E., Diehl, K. A., & Miller, P. E. (2006). Effects of the application of neck pressure by a collar or harness on intraocular pressure in dogs. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association42(3), 207-211.

Peham, C., Limbeck, S., Galla, K., & Bockstahler, B. (2013). Pressure distribution under three different types of harnesses used for guide dogs. The Veterinary Journal198, e93-e98.

Weiss, G. M., Nathan, A., Kropp, J. B., & Lockhart, J. W. (2013, September). WagTag: a dog collar accessory for monitoring canine activity levels. In Proceedings of the 2013 ACM conference on Pervasive and ubiquitous computing adjunct publication (pp. 405-414).