What’s the Right Collar or Harness for My Dog?
Here in New York City, walking your dog presents constant challenges: dodging pedestrians, avoiding discarded pizza crusts, walking past barking dogs, and tuning out blaring sirens. But it’s not just city walking. If you’re taking your dog for a walk on the hiking trail, nature provides you with ever-present distractions, from squirrels to deer. In addition to training your dog to walk politely on leash, you can make your life easier by choosing a harness or collar that suits your needs.
A traditional flat collar around the dog’s neck is the simplest piece of equipment and an appropriate choice for dogs that don’t pull much. If your dog tends to pull or lunge, however, over time a flat collar can actually do harm to his trachea, esophagus, and potentially even his eyes. Dogs don’t think to stop pulling against the collar, despite choking themselves, so flat collars will not teach a dog to walk politely. At the same time, I recommend all dogs wear a collar with ID tags, simply as a backup in case your harness breaks.
Martingale collars are an option for dogs with small heads and/or thick necks. (For this reason, they are known as “greyhound collars.”) The collar tightens slightly when the dog pulls, so he is unlikely to slip out when he pulls backwards. But like a flat collar, in most cases, martingales don’t teach dogs to walk politely, despite the pressure they feel when they pull against it.
This is probably the most ubiquitous form of equipment, and back-clip harnesses are generally among the safest, too. With the leash clipping at the top of the dog’s back, along the spine, your dog doesn’t run much risk of injuring himself, and he is less likely to wiggle out of a harness than a collar. At the same time, back clip harnesses may actually encourage your dog to pull, as the location of the clip allows him to turn into a sled dog, leaning all of his weight forward to drag you ahead. As a result, this equipment is appropriate for dogs that don’t pull, as well as short-legged dogs that would get tangled by equipment that sits lower on the body.
Does your dog pull? Front-clip harnesses may help. Because the leash clips in the front near the dog’s breastbone, your dog can’t become a sled dog. When he pulls ahead, the tension on the leash will gently turn his body back towards you, making it easier for you to control him. The style and fit varies greatly among brands, so make sure you get a front-clip harness that your dog can’t slip out of. Or, for safety, clip the leash onto both the ring for the harness and the ring for a flat collar, giving you an additional layer of protection in case he dances himself out of the harness. On occasion, front-clip harnesses with a horizontal band across the chest can inhibit a dog’s natural movement, so you should remove it while your dog is running or playing,
A head collar (or head halter) is a good option for dogs whose pulling isn’t mitigated by front-clip harnesses, or who are dangerous sidewalk snackers. A head collar utilizes the same principles as a horse’s halter, so as you can imagine, it gives you greater control of the dog. Because you control the dog’s head, you can more easily prevent a chicken-bone-stealing fiasco and your dog has little chance to drag you down the street. But there is always a catch, and with head collars, it’s that some dogs find this equipment annoying, distracting, or frustrating. Although it doesn’t inflict pain, a head collar is not the right choice for every dog. The handler must also take great care not to yank the leash, as this could potentially cause neck injury.
Choke chains, prong collars, and e-collars have far fewer pros than cons. The potential for damaging your dog, either physically or emotionally, is just too great. If your dog’s behavior on leash is so out-of-control that you are considering using a tool to inflict pain, contact a force-free trainer to help you get a handle on your dog’s walking in a way that works for everyone.
Finding the right equipment for your dog may take a bit of trial and error, but once you’ve found a collar or harness that works for your dog, it’s worth its weight in gold.
Kate Naito, CPDT-KA, is a dog trainer at Doggie Academy in Brooklyn, NY, and author of the training book, "BKLN Manners." She draws upon her experience as an educator and dog trainer to apply positive training techniques to a challenging urban environment. Kate is a rescue advocate drawn to special-needs dogs and currently has two Chihuahua mixes, Batman and Beans.
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