What is the best harness design?

Not all harnesses are created equal. Find out which style is best for your dog.

By M. Christine Zink, D.V.M., PH.D.
Dog World magazine, September 2011 issue

In recent years, harnesses have become popular attire for dogs. Harnesses with straps made of nylon webbing, leather, microfiber and denim, with all sorts of colors and patterns are designed to crisscross your dog's body in just about every direction. It's difficult to know which design is the best for your dog, or even whether you should use one at all.

Here are some reasons people switch from a collar to a harness for their canine companions:

  1. Upper airway problems. Many small dogs and some large dogs have congenital or acquired abnormalities affecting the trachea or larynx that cause them to cough, choke or experience difficulty breathing when wearing a collar.
  2. In some canine sports, such as mushing and weight pulling, the dog requires a harness to accomplish its job. In other activities, such as flyball, a harness helps owners hold their wiggling mass of canine muscle at the start line.
  3. Many working dogs are required to wear harnesses so the public can recognize that they have a specific function to perform. This includes guide dogs for the blind, police dogs, canine assistance companions and bomb-sniffing dogs.
  4. Dogs that have thick necks and relatively small heads, such as Greyhounds, can sometimes slip out of a collar, a potential danger for the dog.

What is the best harness design?

If you use a harness because a collar restricts your dog's breathing, it doesn't make sense to use a harness that restricts the dog's body in another way. In addition to being easy-to-use, safe and durable, a harness must allow the dog's legs to have full range of motion. Many of the newer harnesses on the market miss this critical characteristic and impede full forward movement of the dog's front legs.

For a harness to be non-restrictive, no part of it should cross over the dog's shoulder blade (scapula) or upper arm (humerus). The front legs should be free to extend forward and reach backward, with the natural full movement that occurs when dogs walk, trot, canter and gallop.

Unfortunately, many popular harnesses that clip the leash to a ring in front of the dog's chest restrict front leg movement. Some harnesses have an adjustment buckle that lies directly over the dog's shoulder joint. The shoulder joint is not a tightly fitted ball-and-socket like the hip (in fact, the front legs are attached to the body only by muscles and tendons), and shoulder injuries are common, especially in performance dogs. Because the shoulder is already a joint at risk of injury, it is best to avoid exerting additional force on it by using a restrictive harness.

The best harnesses feature straps that fit tightly around each side of the dog's neck, almost like a collar, and meet a third strap that runs under the dog's chest. The point at which the neck and chest meet forms a "Y" that sits right on the manubrium - the part of the sternum (chest bone) that is closest to the front of the dog.

If the harness is designed this way, the majority of the pressure from the harness is placed on the manubrium, which is a very stable bone that supports the entire dog's body. The manubrium is attached to the ribs, which in turn are attached to the spine. There is no possibility for damage to moving parts when a harness is designed to put pressure on the manubrium. It's critical, however, to fit the neck straps tightly. If they are too loose, they slip back and put pressure on the dog's shoulder blades.

With many non-restrictive harnesses on the market, you have ample opportunity to purchase one that is ideally suited to your dog's size and shape. Most websites that sell non-restrictive harnesses list instructions for how to measure your dog to find the best fit, and many manufacturers will custom make harnesses for the difficult-to-fit dogs.

Harness tips

For dogs that pull, or are aggressive or overly friendly with people or other animals, a harness might not be ideal because it does not afford good control of the dog's head and neck. In addition, if you are planning to allow your dog to run loose (especially with other dogs) or use agility equipment while wearing a harness, make sure it fits snugly to reduce the risk that it will get caught on something. Ideally, remove the harness before letting your dog engage in roughhousing or performance sports.

Keeping these tips in mind, harnesses can be a valuable tool for your canine friend. Once you have chosen a well-fitted, nonrestrictive harness, you and your dog will be good to go (and go and go).