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Harness or collar?

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Blog post reviewing claims about dog harnesses and collars written by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele
Re-issued from older post by same author

Harness zombies

Have you ever had an Apple/Mac “zombie” trying to get you to join the anti-Microsoft ranks? The dog world is just as susceptible to extreme product loyalties. Harness fans can call you an animal abuser for even considering putting a collar on your dog. Are we going too far? 

Here’s a sceptical look at the pro- (and anti-) harness claims.

Apple zombies

This post is neither a comparative review of specific brand models (you can find that here), nor a guide on getting your dog used to it (you can find that here), nor does it provide fitting instructions (follow manufacturer’s guidelines).

Harnesses would encourage pulling (comfort)

The basic claim: Your dog will pull less on the collar because it digs uncomfortably into his neck when the dog pulls. Therefore, harnesses encourage pulling.

Let’s put it through a critical thinking lens:

  1. It’s not so much that a harness ENcourages pulling, it is that a collar can DIScourage it. Subtle difference, but some people will have you believe the harness comes with a ‘please pull’ button on it. 
  2. Many dogs will pull through the pain and discomfort of a collar. Listen to the spurting and choking of pulling dogs if you don’t believe me. Not much of a deterrent. 
  3. Even if it does take the edge off pulling, I refuse to use pain or discomfort as a deterrent. Falling down the ‘effectiveness is everything’ slippery slope, why not use a choke or prong  collar, then? 

Harnesses would encourage pulling (gravity)

The basic claim: With harnesses, the lead is often attached lower and closer to the dog’s centre of gravity (often on the dog’s back) then with a collar (on the back of the dog’s neck). Therefore, the claim goes, gravity helps the dog pull. 

Let’s put it through a critical thinking lens: What makes the dog pull is his desire to move forward – preferably much faster than what the slow primate at the end of the lead has in mind – not some imperceptible difference in gravity. It’s not like you’re lifting the dog with the harness/collar. He has legs, he.

Oh, and, what of front-clip harnesses then? The point of attachment is BELOW the dog’s neck. Are the dogs then leaning even more into it? 

Honestly, this one doesn’t much pass the critical thinking sniff test. 


Collars systematically and severely damage the trachea/thyroid

The claim: You will have seen the Facebook memes (you know, that great platform for getting reliable scientific, fact-checked information…) claiming your dog’s trachea will collapse from wearing a collar or that it could cause irreversible thyroid damage.

Let’s put it through a critical thinking lens: These claims are over-stated to say the least. Before the harness fashion, just how many dogs do you think vet clinics saw for damage to the thyroid gland or the trachea?

I asked my colleagues at the clinic and the answer was: huh?! Sure, regularly choking yourself on your collar isn’t a great idea but it’s not like dogs are being admitted to clinics for severe collar injuries the whole day long.  

Pinch of salt moment here: jerking violently on the lead or having your dog on the collar in combination with a flexi lead IS dangerous and could absolutely cause severe damage. But there is quite some wiggle room between that totally irresponsible behaviour and having your dog wearing a collar. 

All harnesses are more humane. Are they?

The claim: All harnesses are more humane.

Let’s put it through a critical thinking lens

  1. Some harnesses have a front clip that can impede your dog’s natural gait because it keeps banging against your dog’s front legs, depending on your dog’s size.
  2. Some harnesses require you to lift your dog’s front leg, to pass thick material over your dog’s head or to make a loud ‘clipping’ sound right next to your dog’s skin to secure it. This is scary to many dogs. You’d at least need to get the dog used to this gradually. 
  3. Some dogs HATE wearing a harness and will wriggle and rub the entire walk. 
  4. Some harnesses have thin ropes in direct contact with the dog’s body. Some are even designed to shrink when the dog pulls, with thin rope material digging painfully under the dog’s armpit.

So no, not every harness is necessarily more humane than any collar.  


So what should I do? Collar and a harness

Honestly, I don’t mind as long as your dog doesn’t suffer from it. 

A harness is great provided:

  • It is a good fit with your dog’s build
  • It is comfortable – even if the dog pulls
  • Your dog feels OK when you are putting it on/when it is on
  • You can afford it (good ones are much more expensive than collars). Don’t go feeling guilty because your dog doesn’t have a harness for that reason. 

A collar is perfectly fine for a dog:

  • Who doesn’t pull like a buffalo 
  • Who can’t wrangle himself out of it 
  • Who is not on the flexi lead 

At home, we have both: we put the name tags on a thin collar and use the harness for clipping the lead. 


My dog wearing his name tag collar

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. No band of tissue goes anywhere near the dog’s armpits
  4. Steer clear of tightening harnesses that might pull into the dog’s rib or armpit area when the dog pulls.
  5. Reliable and solid: Get a harness made of solid material, including the clips and other attachment structures.
  6. Be sure the dog can’t get out of it. 
  7. The right size: not so tight that there is constant pressure on your dog but also not so loose that the dog can step out of it whenever he wants. 

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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