Harnesses- the bondage of the dog world?

For a fun Friday, let’s talk harnesses friends! But I can hear you saying ‘why?’! And that’s understandable. Why are harnesses an interesting area to chat about, and one that we need to think more carefully about before parting with our hard earned cash? Well the answer is simple, we should only be using non-restrictive harnesses, and there are very many harness on the market that simply aren’t non-restrictive.

The first thing to say is that I like harnesses, they’re great for lots of situations; small dogs with tracheal collapse (stick a lead and collar on these little guys and if they pull they might pass out!), dogs that like to pull (harnesses - apparently - change the dog’s centre of gravity and so make them feel more confident. They’re therefore more relaxed and less likely to pull. I thought this a ludicrous idea when told said info as I purchased a harness, and then watched in amazement as my - then young - hooligan puller of a border terrier became nearly instantaneously better at walking to heel. Amazing. What’s better though is to train your dog NOT to pull rather than rely on a harness. As I now know!), dogs who’ve had neck surgery, dogs at risk of increased intraocular pressure (increased pressure in the eye) - there are plenty of other reasons. But when buying a harness what should we be looking for? It is critical that we use a non-restrictive harness when exercising dogs, and by non-restrictive I mean one that leaves the entire front leg free to move. The front leg of a dog is attached to the body purely by muscles, and when the dog moves the front leg moves forward with some glide over the body wall too (more glide the faster that they are moving). A non-restrictive harness looks like this:

There are plenty of good non-restrictive harnesses around, this is just one example - I've tried to show it on a hairy border terrier and a more 'groomed' Oscar in his younger years (you've got to feel for Oscar, he gets dragged outside for photo opportunities regularly at the moment. He's less than impressed by this).

A restrictive harness on the other hand restricts the movement of the front limb, often by sitting over the shoulder joint. This is a problem because it restricts the ability of the dog to move its front leg forward and after a while the dog alters its gait to restrict movement of the limb forward even when not wearing the harness- this is bad for any dog, but especially so for performance dogs. It also presses on the front of the shoulder where the biceps tendon runs, and there is some debate as to whether the increased pressure in this area may be act as a factor in biceps tendon problems. In addition, some restrictive harnesses have a strap across the back that presses on the back of the dog’s shoulder blade, also preventing the free movement of the front leg. This is an example of a restrictive harness:

(The restrictive harnesses also seem to quite like sticking the D ring for the lead right in the middle of the chest. I just cannot understand why! Are they expecting the dog to walk behind you?! Furthermore, when you then stand to the side of the dog the harness then presses right on the shoulder joint opposite to you. This is fairly well demonstrated in picture two above.)

There is also some research demonstrating that using a restrictive harness reduces step length (or the stride of your dog), and reduces the foot pressure by the dog. Interestingly, if the dog was pulling then the step length increased if they were wearing a restrictive harness.

Frustratingly, the restrictive harnesses are often promoted for training and ‘all day wear’, and often win awards in the dog literature for ‘best harness’ or ‘best new product’, which isn’t helpful for the consumer or the dogs wearing them! Another problem is that a lot of the working dog harnesses are restrictive - look at the search and rescue dogs or the police dogs that wear harnesses. Maybe this is an area that us rehab vets need to tackle……!

If you are going to use a harness with your dog then please, make sure that it is non-restrictive. Harnesses can be brilliant-  as long as you get the right one and one that fits your dog properly!