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To Harness or Not to Harness, that is the Question!

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

In the doggy world there are many debates. One debate is whether to use a harness or not use a harness. For some dog owners that is a difficult question. Whether you choose to use a harness or not, the choice is yours. Just like Tollers, no two harnesses are alike, and it may take time to find the right fit.

Originally, dog harnesses were used so that dogs could help humans in their work. Whether their harnesses helped them carry tools or pull heavy loads and sleds. Today, harnesses are primarily used to restrain or control dogs in some way. Although the primary use of the dog harness has changed, the popularity of harnesses has increased.

Dog Harness Pros

  • Harnesses can minimize neck and trachea injuries. Dogs who repeatedly pull against their collar while on leash can injure their neck. A harness can distribute any pressure more evenly. To be effective, knowing the physiology of your dog and ensuring a correct fit are key.

  • Harnesses can provide your dog a sense of security. For some dogs, the harness provides them with a sense of freedom while knowing they are safely connected to their dog owner.

  • Harnesses can be a useful support for dogs rehabilitating an injury. Dogs who have an injury or have a disability may find a harness useful in their rehabilitation or in accommodating their disability. However, all dog owners with dogs rehabilitating an injury or with a disability should always consult a veterinarian regarding using a harness in these cases.

  • Depending on the breed, harnesses may be the best option. Every dog breed has a different canine physiology. They were bred for a purpose. The result is that every dog’s physical needs differ from another breed's needs. Some breeds may be better suited to walking on harness instead of a traditional collar.

Dog Harness Cons

  • Harnesses are not designed to be worn 24/7. Generally, dogs are required to wear their identification, pet licence and rabies tags. Collars are designed for this and allow your dog to comfortably wear their identification 24/7, which is great if they slip their harness or leash and get lost.

  • Harnesses can constrain movement and impact joint development. Actions that can strain or constrain your puppy’s and your adult dog’s movement can impact their joint health and compromise their future health. That’s why all dog owners, regardless of their level of experience, should always consult your veterinarian first.

  • Training your dog, especially with a back-clip harness, may not be as effective. The design of some harnesses can be counterproductive to training. Harnesses with only a back-clip make it harder to redirect your dog’s attention towards you when you need their focus and can undermine your training efforts.

  • Harnesses can give dog owners a false sense of control. Harnesses can give dog owners a false sense of control. Some dog owners may believe that their dogs are incapable of slipping a harness, until it happens. They also may feel that they don't need to practice proper leash etiquette because all they have to do is yank on the harness and the dog responds. This is not necessarily the case. In that moment the dog may slow but they aren't necessarily coming to heel through a process or positive training.

What’s in a Harness?

Lots of design and engineering goes into dog harnesses and there are a diversity of harnesses for dog owners to choose from.

In an informal Facebook poll of Nova Scotia Ducktolling Retriever (a.k.a. Toller) owners, we found that a slight majority of respondents owned 1 to 2 harnesses. This narrowly beat out the number of owners who end up owning 3 to 4 dog harnesses. So, before you go and buy a harness or buy another harness here’s some things to consider.

There are Three Basic Dog Harness Styles

Contemporary dog harnesses can be divided into three categories.

  • Breast Strap or Chest Harnesses. With these the main body of the harness goes around the dog’s chest and comes together at the back. H-back harnesses usually have a wide padded chest band across the chest. The primary purpose of these harnesses is related to tasks where dogs are pulling a load.

  • Y-Back Harnesses. The Y-back harness is shaped as the name suggests like the letter “Y”. A vertical band or strap comes up from the dog’s chest and splits at the top making a letter “Y”. The dog’s head and neck are positioned between and at the top of the “Y”.

  • Service Dog or Assistance Dog Harnesses. These are specialized harnesses that are fitted and custom designed to include their handler’s needs. An example of these types of harnesses would be the harnesses used with guide dogs.

Harness Materials

Traditionally, harnesses were leather. Today, harnesses come in various materials and levels of padding. You can get harnesses made of leather, nylon, cotton, hemp, soy, polyester and a mix of materials.

The majority of harnesses used by dog owners are made from nylon or nylon webbing with plastic and/or metal buckles. Some harness material will chaff a dog’s skin or cause an allergenic reaction. It’s important to be aware of the harness’s material and any allergies your dog may have.

When thinking about the harness’s material, your dog’s comfort is paramount. That’s why it’s important to consider:

  • What conditions will the harness be used in?

  • Will the harness be going in the water a lot?

  • What weather conditions will the harness be exposed to?

  • How will this material wear over time?

Tollers and Harnesses

When it comes to deciding on whether a harness is appropriate for your Toller there a few things to consider. The following can relate to all dogs, but there are a few Toller specific aspects to consider.

Key Questions to Ask Before Getting A Harness for your Toller:

How old is your Toller?

Every dog breed and puppy has different needs and rates of growth. These need to be taken into consideration when debating whether or not to use a harness on your Toller. For example, some people new to dog ownership treat puppies the same way as fully-grown adult dogs. You see them jogging or bicycling with their puppy tethered to them and the puppy struggling to keep up.

While puppies are full of energy and need exercise, owners who start running with their puppies or tethering them to bicycles so they run along side could be causing permanent orthopedic damage to their dog.

That’s why all dog owners, regardless of their level of experience, should always consult their veterinarian first and/or Toller breeder first.

How is my Toller’s chest shaped?

Like many sporting and working group dogs, Tollers have a specific canine physiology. Both the Canadian Kennel Club and American Kennel Club Toller breed standards note that Tollers are:

“deep in chest, with good spring of rib, the brisket reaching to the elbow. Ribs are neither barrel shaped nor flat. The back is strong, short and straight.”

Your Toller’s chest shape and size dictates the type of harness and how the harness will fit. Harnesses are mass produced for dogs of all types. Unless you get a custom-made harness, you will not find a perfect fit.

It is critical to pay attention to your Toller’s chest size and shaping. How deep is your Toller’s chest? How are their ribs shaped? Do they have a moderate tuck-up or not?

In our informal Facebook survey of Toller owners, we asked them what harness style they felt works best for a Tollers. The majority of Toller owners felt a “Y” shaped harness worked best. Again, your Toller may be different. A chest or H-back harness may work better for your Toller’s body shape and needs.

However, the survey comments all underscored the importance of ensuring enough space for their range of motion and a design that does not compress their chest or ribs.

What activities will or is my Toller involved in?

It’s important to know what activities you and your Toller will be doing to ensure the right harness fit. Assessing your lifestyle and Toller’s activities will help you meet your Toller’s needs and also yours.

Is your Toller primarily a family companion or involved in breed specific sports?

Is your Toller a family companion who likes to go for strolls, play fetch and cuddle on the sofa with their humans, or is your Toller a gun dog, agility dog, fly ball or general super active Toller?

You need to honestly assess your Toller’s actual activity levels and sporting needs. Every dog owner knows that a harness can be a life saver for active dogs and, in some cases, it’s a sporting requirement. For example, dog owners who are involved in winter mushing sports require a harness not only to take part in the sport, but for the safety of their dog.

On the other hand, if your Toller is a trained gundog and engaged in hunting activities, then a harness, especially a poorly fitted harness, may interfere with their tolling and retrieval.

Are you camping or hiking in National Parks? If you are, then a harness may be required to control your dog and also comply with the park's or campground's on-leash bylaws.

Why Do You Really Want a Dog Harness?

Since there are a lot of pros and cons to harness use, it really comes down to identifying why, you, the human, really want a harness.

  • Do you want a harness because you just feel more comfortable walking your Toller on harness? Fine, then a design that gives your Toller comfort and you control humanely is what you're looking for. Just make sure that your harness choice will not detract from their range of motion or enjoyment of walking with you.

  • Do you want a harness because your Toller pulls? If so, then you should consider harnesses with a front clip and/or side clip. In cases of excessive pulling, it is best to work with a trainer to ensure your Toller develops proper on-leash etiquette because a harness may not be the answer to your issue.

  • Do you want a harness because it will give your harness more freedom with security in specific terrain?

Whatever your reason for wanting a harness, know that there is no one size fits all harness for your Toller.

The critical factors to ensuring your Toller’s harness fits them and your lifestyle requires:

  • honestly assessing your Toller’s and your activity needs;

  • taking a close look at your Toller’s body shape, with special attention to their chest and range of motion needs;

  • measuring your Toller with a measuring tape precisely (a minimum of two times ) and as directed by the harness sizing guidelines;

  • considering the harnesses design and the type of material used; and,

  • reflecting on the type of weather conditions and terrain the harness will be used in.

Whether you choose to use a harness or not, the choice is yours. Just like Tollers, no two harnesses are alike, and it may take time to find the right fit.

Note: Next week’s post will feature our first harness product review. Like all of our product reviews there will be a specific Toller recommendation. Make sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss it.

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