Harnesses: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Those of you who have worked with me or poked around my website know that I am pretty consistent in recommending harnesses for dogs. Whereas harnesses used to be looked at as additional equipment to use if your dog couldn't walk on a flat collar, harnesses are now considered the new norm for leash walking by many trainers. I like harnesses because they prevent damage from being done to the dog's throat; many experts now are saying to avoid attaching the leash to equipment around dog's throats because they can damage the thyroid, esophagus, and trachea, and throw the dog's physical alignment off. Even if your dog walks politely on leash if they are startled they may pull forward, and it's natural human reaction to pull when we ourselves are startled, so it saves the dog from an accidental collar correction due to handler error.
This does not necessarily mean that all harnesses are created equal; some harnesses are designed for small dogs, some for larger dogs, and some simply aren't designed well at all. When I am looking for a harness for a dog the most important thing after correct sizing that I look for is that the straps of the harness sit far away from the dog's joints. If the straps sit on or too close to the dog's shoulders it can impede movement which at best will be uncomfortable for your dog and at worst could cause future injury and keep young dogs from developing properly. See the photo below of Phoebe in her balance harness; the straps are sitting far and away from the shoulders.
Note: There are some dogs out there who are so sensitive to wearing equipment that they will shut down completely when you put a harness on them; this can sometimes be modified with proper conditioning to the equipment, but if it cannot then this is one instance where I feel using a flat collar is appropriate.
If you have a particularly strong dog you want to make sure that the harness has both a front and back leash attachment, and may want to consider purchasing a double ended leash such as this one. Please remember, no piece of equipment (including prong, choke, and shock collars, which I do not recommend anyway) alone can teach your dog how to walk politely. If you don't teach the dog the skill first you will always be relying on that particular piece of equipment.
Recommended harnesses (the good!):
All of the harnesses listed below sit away from the dog's joints and properly fitted will not impede their movement. Most of these harnesses also have both a front and back attachment. If there's anything special to note about the harness I have listed it next to the harness name.
Balance harness: This is the harness you can see in the above and below pictures of Phoebe. The Balance Harness has multiple buckles and several adjustment points so if you have a mixed breed dog that is an atypical shape it's easy to fit this harness to them. It's also nice for dogs who are worried about a harness going over their head as there is an additional buckle for the neck of the harness. This is my new favorite harness!
Freedom harness: This is the harness I use with Regis. It has both a front and back clip attachment, but it has fewer buckles and adjustment points than the balance harness, so that's something to consider. See the picture below of Regis in his freedom harness. The freedom harness from the distributor will come with a double ended leash.
Perfect Fit Harness: The perfect fit harness is a three piece modular system from Clean Run. You purchase each piece individually depending on your dog's measurements so that it truly is the "perfect fit". This can be tricky to fit which for me would be the only con to this harness.
Ruffwear Webmaster Harness: This harness has extra straps and can prevent a dog from getting out of the harness if you have an "escape artist" who has a knack for weaseling their way out of equipment.
Harnesses I don't recommend (the bad!):
Petsafe Easy walk harness: This is probably the most widely available harness on the market which is unfortunate because it is made very poorly and not with the dog's physiology in mind. This is the go to front clip harness at most Petsmarts and Petcos. The Easy Walk sits right on the dog's shoulder blades and can rub them while they are walking. It also loosens quite a bit with use and is very easy for a dog to get out of. Last but not least, Petsafe is a company that sells shock collars as well as other punitive devices, so when I can keep my money from going to them I do so.
Sense-ation harness: This harness is definitely a step up from the easy walk harness but still not ideal. It doesn't have the additional martingale loop like the easy walk, which keeps it from loosening quite as much and makes it easier to fit properly. Like the Easy Walk the sense-ation harness sits across the dog's shoulder blades which can impede movement.
Julius K9 harness: This harness is used widely in dog sport circles. The harnesses are very well made, but like the above harnesses they sit right across the dog's shoulders. Additionally this is not a "no pull" harness, it only has a back clip attachment. I think the Julius K9 Harness is appropriate for a dog to wear in short spurts (i.e. for nosework or other dog sports on leash), but I wouldn't recommend it for every day walking or hiking.
What about head halters (the ugly?)?
When head halters (also known as head collars, head haltis, head harnesses) first came out they were all the rage in the positive circles; they were the first real management solution positive trainers had to strong dogs pulling when they wanted to avoid using prong or choke collars. Over the last several years head halters have fallen out of favor with many positive trainers (myself included). This is because recent research and anecdotal experience has shown us that head collars are uncomfortable for most dogs and can cause serious injury to the face and neck if they are mis-used. The only time I might suggest a head halter now is if the strength of the owner and dog is so mismatched that other solutions simply aren't safe, and if the owner is using the head halter they must not jerk of pull on the dog at all, which for most dog owners can be difficult. Many dogs do not take as easily to a head halter as they do to a no pull harness, and it can take several weeks of conditioning the dog for them to learn to tolerate it like in the video produced by Jean Donaldson below.
The importance of harness fit
I recently worked with someone who said they didn't want to use a harness on their dog after their initial experience using a harness; I had asked why, and they mentioned that the harness had rubbed the dog's hair off on his shoulders. The harness was a very poorly fitted Easy Walk harness, and did cause hair loss where it was rubbing. However, this is not a problem with ALL harnesses, it was an issue with the type of harness, harness fit, and how they were using the harness, pulling on the dog while on walks which added to the irritation the harness was causing. However, this is a very clear example of everything discussed in this blog. Not all harnesses are created equal, and you want to be careful when choosing the equipment you use with your dog!