Archive Post: Six reasons a harness will stop your dog pulling

changing dogs equipment ttouch Nov 21, 2011

These days there is an almost overwhelming choice of equipment available, all claiming to help us walk our dogs easily and safely. A wealth of different designs of collars, head collars, and harnesses. All have their proponents who feel theirs is the right tool to help you train your dog not to pull on the lead. So how do you decide what is the best for you and your dog?

As a TTouch practitioner I always want to choose equipment that will help the dog to succeed, so I start teaching loose lead walking by fitting a good harness - one that doesn't tighten on the dog and that has at least chest and back attachments - together with a double-ended lead. 

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, anyone who has seen a team of huskies, knows that dogs can pull pretty hard into a harness. But it is also the best tool I know to stop a dog pulling. Here's why.

1. It takes pressure off the neck.

A dog pulling into a collar around the neck pulls himself off balance and he therefore has to use you (pulling back against him) to balance himself. Pressure on the neck also restricts breathing, reducing the oxygen that reaches the brain, increasing anxiety and reactivity and reducing the ability to learn. Not to mention the risk of physical damage to the neck and spine and to the soft tissue in the throat from pulling hard into a collar. So the first thing we need to do if we want to teach a dog to walk on a loose lead is to get that pressure off his neck! A good harness means that we can take all pressure off the neck, connecting instead to the chest and/or back.

2. It allows two points of connection.

When you attach the lead to one point on the dog, when the lead tightens, the dog's opposition response will mean that he pulls into it. This is the case whether the attachment is to the collar or the back of the harness, which is why attaching to the back of the harness only, encourages a dog to pull. When a dog has not yet learned to walk on a loose lead, the lead will tighten simply because his natural pace is faster than ours.  But a good harness has at least two connection points, one on the chest and the other on the back, and we can connect to each of these with either end of a double-ended lead.  Then, if one end of the lead tightens, we can meet that pressure and then release it,  while taking up the other connection. Alternating between connections in this way means that there is nothing for the dog to pull against and the opposition reflex is not triggered.

3. It positions the dog naturally at your side.

If you want your dog to walk on a loose lead, the ideal place for it to be is beside you, matching your pace and direction. Attaching a lead to a collar or the back of a harness, positions you firmly behind the dog - in the perfect position to encourage pulling! But when you add that front connection to the harness, with two points of connection, the dog moves naturally to be positioned with his shoulder at your side. This is a much more comfortable position to walk in and does not encourage pulling, which brings us to our next point.

4. It is more comfortable for your dog.

Harnesses distribute any pressure across a much larger and less sensitive body area in the chest and flank, than the alternatives where pressure is concentrated in the neck or face. A well-fitted harness is therefore more comfortable for your dog than being led by a collar or wearing a head-collar. Combined with two points of connection, a fixed harness does not put unpleasant pressure on the dog, which makes the dog more relaxed and therefore less likely to pull. Note: harnesses that tighten on the dog work by creating an unpleasant sensation when the dog pulls, which is not comfortable and not recommended.

5. It gives you better influence and communication.

Two points of connection on a harness give you much more influence on your dog's behaviour than a single point, and it increases your ability to communicate what you want to your dog. It can be helpful to think of the connection at the back as your "brake" and the front connection as your "steering". If you want your dog to slow down, a gentle lift upwards (rather than backwards) on the back connection, will slow your dog without unbalancing him or triggering the opposition reflex. Direction can be communicated very clearly using the connection at the front. This allows you to use the lead gently to reinforce your verbal communication, as a cue or a signal, rather than a correction.

6. It encourages your dog to walk in balance.

Ultimately, to set your dog up to succeed in learning to walk on a loose lead, he first needs to learn to walk in his own balance, without leaning his weight against you through the lead. As we have seen, using a single point of contact on a collar works against this and encourages the dog to pull forward, putting the dog (and you!) out of balance. But using a harness with points of connection on the chest and back, encourages the dog to move his centre of gravity backwards so he is more balanced. And a dog that is physically balanced will also have better emotional balance and will therefore be better able to learn.

Once he is in that balanced position beside you, you can start to reinforce the non-pulling behaviour you want. Select what you want to reinforce - the lead being loose, your dog being in a particular position at your side - and use a clicker to mark that behaviour. You will find that it happens much more naturally and frequently using a harness in this way and he will be able to learn quickly and easily, because you have set him up to succeed. Tomorrow I will talk in more detail about the particular harnesses that work best for this.

So that is why I like to work with harnesses but what about you? Do you use harnesses? Or do you have another approach to loose lead walking that you like better? Let me know in the comments section.

ARCHIVE POST: The original Canine Confidence blog was active from 2011-2014. In April 2016 I resurrected it here but there were some posts in the original blog that are still relevant and useful. Rather than repost as new material, I am including them here as Archive Posts, along with the original publication date. This avoids the need to edit to remove references to time for instance. Each archived post will include a PDF of the original comments, where appropriate, as in some cases these include additional clarification of the post.

This post was first published on Canine Confidence on 21/11/2011.

Archive of comments from original posting.

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