Are Harnesses Good for Dogs?

By Robert Cabral, dog trainer and member of the Wag! Advisory Board

Collars are almost always my first choice for dogs. As I note in my separate post on collars, they provide a safe connection between person and pet. But there are dogs who can benefit from a harness, so I wanted to explore that topic here. Check out our harnesses video, too.

When a harness is best for a dog

For frail or older dogs, or dogs that may have weak necks or spines, such as dachshunds, I don’t recommend a collar. Instead, I recommend a harness. A harness can help keep the pressure off their necks and make walking pleasurable.

The only other situation where I recommend a harness over a collar is when a dog’s head is similar in size to his neck, making it possible for the collar to slip over the head and off the dog.

The Basic Step-In Harness – This is the most popular harness you see, and besides the looped collar, it’s perhaps one of the oldest methods of tethering a dog. Harnesses were originally used to get dogs to pull. Working dogs would pull carts or even sleds with people attached.

By simply putting pressure on the dog’s chest, you usually encourage him to push into it and thereby pull whatever is on the other end of the leash, i.e. the sled. This is why dogs on harnesses are often “pulling” their humans along. Keep this in mind if you’re using a harness for the first time.

Like a collar, a harness must also be properly fitted to avoid causing injury or discomfort to the dog.

  • The harness should be snug, but never so tight as to inhibit the dog’s natural movement or breathing.  It should not ride up in the front into the dog’s neck and should not cut into the dog’s armpits. 
  • A properly fitted harness will have the pressure on the front of the chest and basically nowhere else.
  • The harness should never be so loose as to let the dog “walk out of the harness."

Are Harnesses Good for Dogs?

Easy Walk Harness – The Easy Walk harness is designed to make walking, well, easier!  The way this harness works is quite the opposite of a conventional harness in that the leash attaches to the front.

On a conventional harness, as described above, the leash is attached to the top and rear of the harness, so the pressure on the front of the dog entices him or her to push forward. 

On the Easy Walk, the leash attaches to the front so when the dog “pushes forward,” the harness causes a spinning movement — back to the human.

The easy walk harness should be adjusted to fit snugly and is then placed over the dog’s head and attached under their armpits. In this case, the harness will often fit behind the dog’s armpits.

Safety tip: Attach the leash to both the D-rings of both the collar and the harness. This offers an extra level of security if the dog happens to step out of the harness.

Are Harnesses Good for Dogs?

Head harness – The head harness is often known by its brand names, such as Gentle Leader and Halti. I don’t recommend this type of collar for strong pullers or dogs with possible neck issues because it can cause cervical injuries to a dog. If a dog lunges forward, the pressure “back to the leash” places pressure onto the dog’s cervical vertebrae (the 7 vertebrae connecting the dog’s head to the spine). 

Some dogs will accept a head harness, while others will paw at it or roll around trying to get it off.  If you have worked with a trainer and find this to be your only option, be certain it's fitted properly.  The neck strap must be very snug (only one finger should fit under the strap) and sit high on the dog’s neck — right at the base of the skull.  The snout strap should fit so that it doesn’t ride up between the eyes but not so loosely to slip off the nose.

Are Harnesses Good for Dogs?
Let’s talk about the leash

The Leash – It’s what connects you to your dog!  Leashes come in all sizes, colors, materials, and thicknesses. Ideally, your leash should feel very comfortable in your hands and be safe and secure, so no frayed leashes – they can snap!

Be sure your leash is free of distractions, such as poop bags or poop bag dispensers. The leash should remain clean, so that nothing prevents you from controlling your dog, especially in a difficult situation. You can put the bags and treats in a pouch around your waist or in your pocket. 

Make sure you have a secure hold of your leash by placing your hand through the loop and grabbing the strap.

Are Harnesses Good for Dogs?
The length of your leash is important. Some people like long leashes to give their dogs more freedom, but the walk is not about freedom, it’s about a bonding experience between you and your dog. He cannot have that experience if he’s 12 feet in front of you. I prefer a leash that is 4 feet in length.  The very longest I’ll ever recommend is six feet, and that’s for leash training.
Are Harnesses Good for Dogs?

Bonus Tip #1 – When you’re on a walk, put your phone away.  Use the walk as a meditative experience for you and your dog.  Also, talk and interact with the dog and, when the pet parent approves, have some treats to make the walk fun!

Wag! Walkers use their phones to mark where a dog “does his business.” In those cases, it makes sense to pause and use the phone quickly, keeping a tight hold on the leash. The same applies when taking a picture of a dog on a walk.

If you’re texting or otherwise spending time on your phone while on the move, you may put your dog in danger.  He could get too far ahead of you at a street corner, you could become distracted and drop the leash, another dog could run up, or your dog might pick up and eat something poisonous.  Pay attention to your dog during the walk. 

Bonus Tip #2 – When that special time comes to pick up your dog ’s poop, don’t get distracted.  It’s not uncommon for people to drop the leash in this situation. Some simple things to remember:  Use your free hand to pick up the poop as you keep a firm grip on the leash. Keep an eye on your dog — and the other eye on the poop!

Remember these dos and don’ts:

  • Do maintain a firm hold of the leash (through the loop) when picking up the poop.
  • Don’t set the leash down even if you step on it.
  • Don’t hold the leash under your arm

It’s a common temptation to want to drop the leash when you’re picking up poop. Don’t do it! Better to drop that little green bag, it won’t run away. Can’t say that about your dog. ☺