Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Polite Leash Walking, Part III: Body Harnesses

Today, I would like to discuss my preferred type of walking equipment for dogs: the body harness.  Head harnesses are also available, but I will address those in a separate post.

There are a variety of body harnesses on the market.  Some, such as the Sporn body harness, use pressure around the dog’s body to punish pulling.  This pressure can cause a great deal of discomfort, and even actual pain (judging by the behavior of some dogs).  Just as I know dogs who run away from choke chains, I also know dogs who run away from Sporn harnesses.

I have also found that dogs tend to be more wary of harnesses that need to be squeezed over their heads (such as the Puppia harness).  Some dogs dislike having their feet touched, which makes step-in harnesses problematic, but dogs who don’t mind having their feet manipulated often do quite well in step-in harnesses.

Fundamentally, most body harnesses are either front-clip or back-clip harnesses.


Back-clip harnesses

With back-clip harnesses, the leash attaches on the dog’s back (usually between the shoulder blades, and sometimes farther down the back). Some back-clip harnesses are designed to tighten, or “cinch,” around the dog if and when he pulls (like the Sporn).  Other back-clip harnesses have fixed dimensions, so that the clip along the dog’s back does not tighten any of the straps.

I recommend against the use of cinching back-clip harnesses, but fixed-dimension back-clip harnesses can be a good choice for many dogs.  They keep leash tension out of the dog’s neck, and keep pressure away from the sensitive front of the neck (including the trachea).  The problem with back-clip harnesses is that they make it easy for a dog to “lean in and pull,” if the dog is inclined to do so, which is why front-clip harnesses are often a better choice.


Front-clip harnesses

In front-clip harnesses, the leash attaches in the middle of a chest.  For dogs that like to pull, front-clip harnesses are a good choice.  Front-clip harnesses use simple physics to prevent a dog from pulling.  When the dog pulls, the leash tightens.  Since the leash is attached in the middle of the chest, the tension on the leash pulls the dog off to the side, drawing the dog just a little bit out of balance.  This prevents the dog from leaning in and pulling on the leash.  With a front-clip harness, one can simply hold still and wait for the dog to stop pulling.  It may take a little while for the dog to give up (especially if he’s had a lot of success with pulling in the past), but in the meantime, you’re not playing tug-of-war with the dog as you would in a collar or a back-clip harness.

My personal favorite among the body harnesses that I’ve tried is the Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds Design.  There is no need to handle the dog’s feet while putting it on, and it’s relatively easy to put on and take off.  It has both back and front clips, and can be purchased with 2 Hounds Design’s special dual connection leash.  The back-clip strap tightens slightly, so technically it’s a cinch harness, but you can fit it so that it doesn’t create pressure even when tightened (see the martingale fitting instructions in my post on collars).  Victoria Stilwell has recently partnered with 2 Hounds Design to create a version that doesn't have the cinching effect at all, which can be seen here. The Victoria Stilwell harness is only available in a few sizes for now, though.

I have many clients here in Los Angeles who use – and love – the Freedom Harness.  Some attach the dual-connection leash to both the back and the front clips, to create a shorter leash length and give them a little more control during walks with a dog who is new to polite leash walking.  Once they have trained their dogs to walk properly on leash, however, most of my clients prefer to use one or the other of the clips, and give the dog the full length of the leash.  (I personally prefer to attach the leash to the front clip on a day-to-day basis, because oddly enough, I find it tends to get caught under the dog’s feet less often that way).

If you would like to get a harness for your dog, but are not sure what type of harness is best for your situation, consult a certified trainer in your area for advice.  (If you’re in Los Angeles, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to help.)

These puppies are rocking their Freedom Harnesses

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