Did someone say walkies? Nothing beats exploring the great outdoors with your dog by your side! But unless your dog is an off-lead champion, you’ll need to decide what harness to use before you can embark on any adventures. Harnesses are almost always a better choice than collars, but with so many options, it can be hard to know where to start. Read on for our guide to choosing the best harness type for your dog…
Types of Dog Harnesses
There are many different harness types on the market, with designs to suit a range of breeds, temperaments and activities. Some are designed with comfort in mind for calm walkers, while others are great options for persistent tuggers. There are also harnesses specifically designed to assist with training. Below you’ll find a summary of the most common styles, to help you decide which is best for your dog.
One of the most common harness types, front clip harnesses are designed to discourage pulling, with the D-ring placed at the centre front of your dog’s chest, rather than at the back. This anti-pull design is particularly good for breeds historically used for sledging, as often the feeling of resistance that a traditional harness creates encourages them to pull harder. When their lead is attached to a front clip, however, their efforts are instead met with resistance, which can help to switch off that pulling instinct. For boisterous walkers, keep in mind that the front positioning may lead to more lead tangles.
Back clip harnesses are the most common harness type, with a simple design that places the D-ring for attaching your lead in the middle of your dog’s back. They’re easy to use and compatible with most leads. Back clip harnesses tend to be agreeable for calm walkers, but they might not be great for dogs prone to pulling as there’s nothing built into the design to discourage tugging.
No pull harnesses are another name for front clip harnesses, which feature a D-ring at the front of your dog’s chest, rather than at their back. This design is highly regarded for dogs who tend to pull on their lead and can be used as a gentle training aid to discourage straining and tugging that traditional harnesses can tend to enable. They’re particularly useful for dogs traditionally bred for sledging. Some no pull harnesses feature an additional D-ring at the back to give you more control and flexibility in terms of lead placement.
As the name suggests, a step in harness allows your dog to step their front paws into the straps before you fasten them in at the back. While they can be a little difficult to put on at first, they’re a great option for dogs who struggle with having things put over their heads or who prefer not to have their heads touched. You should ensure a good fit, as step in harnesses can easily restrict your dog’s movements because they tend to sit close to the shoulders.
Tightening harnesses work similarly to choker collars, designed to discourage pulling by tightening and applying pressure whenever your dog strains at their lead. Proponents of tightening harnesses claim that they make an easy training tool when teaching your dog to walk calmly, noting that the pressure applied should always be gentle and never enough to cause pain. However, the discomfort caused by the harness may instil long-term negative associations with walking, and there is always the risk that the tightening will cause pain without you realising it, which should always be avoided. We recommend taking a rewards-based approach to lead training, which you can read more on below.
Mobility harnesses are special harnesses designed for use by service dogs to support walkers with a range of conditions, such as impaired balance and neurological conditions. They are designed with a rigid support handle in place of a lead. Mobility aids need to be tailored to meet the needs of both walkers and dogs and are often made to order.
Vest harnesses are a great option for calm and older dogs who don’t tend to pull. They fit your dog’s chest like a piece of clothing, making them comfortable and less likely to rub or chafe than designs that rely on straps and buckles. Keep in mind that their large surface area and lack of precise control mechanisms make them less suitable for dogs who tend to tug. They might not be the best choice if you’re still in the training phase.
As the name suggests, Y-shaped harnesses form a Y shape when viewed from the front, which extends down the centre of your dog’s chest. Fans of the style claim that the shape is less likely to get in the way of your dog’s movements, as any straps are kept well away from the armpits. This makes it a good choice for longer walks or faster-paced escapades. However, it’s important to get the fit right – as with any harness, a poor fit can restrict your dog’s mobility, especially across the shoulders.
How to Choose the Right Dog Harness
Now that you’re familiar with the different types of harnesses available, how do you go about selecting the best option for your pooch? There are a few important factors to consider. While there will likely be some trial and error before you settle on your ideal model, keeping these factors front of mind while you’re selecting your options will help to narrow it down faster.
Many loving dog parents choose harnesses over collars with comfort front of mind. Since harnesses distribute weight across your dog’s shoulders and chest, rather than concentrating it at the neck, they are generally a much more comfortable – and safer – choice. However, not all harnesses are created equal. Paying close attention to the size, shape and material will ensure you find the most comfortable option to suit your dog. You should also monitor their response to wearing the harness to ensure they are comfortable while walking.
A Good Fit
While harnesses have a reputation for being more comfortable and safer than collars, that’s really only true if you get the fit right. While a collar is very simple to size, harnesses are more complex in design and have much more contact with your dog’s body, so they take a bit of extra effort to get the fit right. See our guide to fitting below for all the best tips and tricks for getting it correct first try.
As we’ve outlined above, there are many design options to choose from when it comes to harnesses. It’s important to do your research and select the right design to suit your dog’s size, shape and temperament, the activity you’ll be using the harness for, and the type of walker your dog is, to ensure they’re kept comfortable and safe and are supported to walk as calmly as possible.
It’s important to choose a harness made from quality, reliable materials, not only for your dog’s comfort but also for their safety – a flimsy, tear-prone harness is in nobody’s best interest! The material you choose will depend on a range of factors, including the style of harness, your dog’s preferences, the activities you’ll be using the harness for, and the weather it will be exposed to. A harness made from durable materials will obviously last longer, so if you can afford to make the investment upfront, it’s always worth doing.
Nylon is a good all-rounder when it comes to everyday harnesses: it’s lightweight, durable, and easily cleaned. Mesh nylon is a particularly good, breathable option for active dogs and sports, although it can be slightly weaker than other options. You should always look for a padded design, as nylon can tend to rub.
Leather and Vegan Leather Alternatives
Leather, or a quality faux leather material, can be a great option for everyday wear. It is the most durable harness material with the potential to last a lifetime, but it does require some maintenance and doesn’t do well in wet conditions. Leather can also be heavier, so may not be suitable for fast-paced sports where weight is key.
Neoprene is your best bet for wet activities, due to its water-resistance. It also tends to be very comfortable, since it’s inherently soft and padded. However, keep in mind that it’s not very breathable, so may not be suitable for very hot weather or for dogs who struggle to stay cool when exercising.
A harness is a tool to equip you and your dog to take on adventures, so practicality is key when choosing a design. Consider how the harness’s features will support your dog’s comfort and mobility, as well as how user-friendly it is for you. Can it be easily taken on and off? How easy is it to clean? Is it compatible with other items you use, like your lead or any other doggy clothing?
Alongside comfort, safety should be your first priority when selecting the right dog harness. Ensure that you are selecting a quality item made from robust materials, from a reputable manufacturer. Always match your harness to your dog’s walking temperament and the types of activities you’re engaging in. If in doubt, talk to the experts at a trusted pet shop, or seek advice from your vet.
Considering your dog’s activity levels will help you to decide which harness style is right for you. There are so many options available these days, so you can easily match your choice to your activity. For example, some harnesses are specially designed to be lightweight and give your dog full range of motion for agility activities. Others are designed for water sports. If your dog prefers to take life at a slower pace, you might prioritise warmth and padding for extra comfort, and not worry so much about a lightweight design.
Dog Age and Health
Your dog’s age and health status are important factors to consider when choosing the right dog harness. If you have a young dog who’s full of beans and loves to run around, they’ll require a very different style of harness than a slower, older dog who may be more sensitive to chafing.
Some retailers offer special mobility harnesses for dogs who are older or who have mobility challenges, designed to enable you to support some of their body weight while they walk. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re choosing a harness for your puppy, you should choose a design that supports safe walking training. You should also opt for an adjustable model while your puppy is still growing.
Proper Fit Guidelines and Measuring Instructions
Getting the fit right for your dog’s harness is vital. The wrong size can not only be uncomfortable but also dangerous for your pooch, putting them at risk of chafing, squeezing and even serious injury. A harness that is too big can also be insecure, which poses the risk of accidental escapes.
To select the right fit, you’ll need to accurately measure your dog. While it takes a bit more effort than fitting a collar, you don’t need to be an expert to measure your dog for a harness. All you need is a soft tape measure, or, if you’re in a bind, a piece of string that you can later measure against a flat ruler. Most retailers have their own measuring guide to suit their specific harnesses, which you should follow to ensure the best fit.
For most harnesses, you’ll need to take two measurements: your dog’s chest and neck circumference. To measure your dog’s chest, wrap your tape measure around the widest part of their torso, behind their front legs and over their back. To find your dog’s neck measurement, loosely wrap your measuring tape around your dog’s lower neck, at the thickest part – below where their collar would usually sit.
Some harnesses are sized by your dog’s weight. While this can be helpful as a rough guide, it shouldn’t be the only measurement you use, since dogs’ proportions vary widely within the same weight brackets.
Putting On and Adjusting the Harness
Putting on a harness takes a bit more time and effort than slipping on a collar, but the safety and comfort pay-offs make it well worth it. There’s a different method to putting on each different style of harness, so you should refer to the manufacturer’s instructions (usually found on their website) for the specific model you’ve chosen.
Generally, the steps are as follows:
- Start with the straps loose, so there’s room to manoeuvre the harness into position
- Slip the neckpiece of the harness over your dog’s head
- Get your dog to step into the leg loops, or loop them behind their legs via the chest, depending on your chosen design
- Fasten the harness at the back
- Check the fit and adjust the straps as needed
When you put on a new harness for the first time, you’ll need to check that the fit is correct and adjust the straps as needed. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to easily slip two fingers between the harness and your dog’s body. Any more room than this means there’s a risk they could wriggle out, and any tighter could cause chafing or restrict their movements. Repeat these checks periodically, as straps can loosen or your dog’s shape might change over time.
To ensure a proper harness fit ongoing, keep an eye out for the following indicators:
- Chafing: an ill-fitting harness can rub against your dog’s skin. Look for signs of redness, irritation or hair loss.
- Gait: an ill-fitting harness can impede your dog’s natural movements. If you notice their walking style changes in their new harness, it could be because the fit is not right.
- Reluctance to walk: if you usually can’t even say the word ‘walk’ around your pup without their tail going mad, and then suddenly they lose interest in joining you at all, this is a sure sign they’re not enjoying their harness. The fit should be closely examined to see if discomfort is playing a role.
- Slipping: if your dog’s harness is moving and slipping while you’re walking, that’s a sign it’s too big and needs to be adjusted or replaced. While it might not pose an immediate risk to your dog, there is the chance that they will wriggle out when excited or distressed, which can be disastrous in public spaces.
Best Practices for Walking with a Harness
The great thing about choosing a harness for your dog’s walkies is that they tend to be a safe and gentle option, especially if you’re still in the process of training an unruly walker. Follow these best-practice tips for getting your dog comfortable walking with a harness.
Loose Lead Walking
A safe, effective and humane training method, the loose lead walking method is one of the most widely recommended ways to train your dog on proper lead etiquette. It’s compatible with both harnesses and collars, but we’d always recommend using a harness for safety and comfort.
The basic idea of loose lead training is to reward your dog with verbal praise and treats whenever the lead is slack. When your dog starts to move away from you, stop just before the lead goes tight and wait for them to move closer to you again. Praise and treat, then continue walking. Keep up this cycle of positive reinforcement for wanted behaviour and gentle negative feedback for unwanted behaviour, and your dog will be walking like a pro in no time!
Training Puppies to Walk with a Harness
Harnesses are perfect for training unruly puppies to walk calmly since they reduce pressure by evenly distributing weight across your puppy’s chest. Most experts recommend lead training your puppy using a reward-based training method like the loose lead method detailed above, reinforcing desired behaviour with treats and verbal praise while ignoring unwanted behaviour, like tugging.
Your pup only has a very short attention span when they’re young, so keep your walks/training sessions short and sweet at first. It’s a good idea to wrap up your walk as soon as you see signs of their attention starting to wander: your pup is more likely to make mistakes when they’re tired, and it’s always best to end your training session on a win!
Getting Older Dogs Used to a Harness
If your older dog is used to walking with a collar, they may take some time to get used to the feeling of wearing a harness. Given the safety and comfort benefits of a harness, it’s well worth the effort to get them adjusted! Go slowly at first, keeping in mind that even putting on the harness for the first time might take some getting used to for your pooch. Have lots of treats to hand to reward your dog at every stage of the fitting process, as well as when you start to walk. The loose lead training method detailed above can be implemented at any age, so don’t be afraid to go back to basics with your older dog for your first few walks with their new harness.
You’ve strapped them into their brand-new, no-pull harness and tried all the training methods in the book, but your dog is still tugging like crazy! What’s up with that? Some dogs are hard-wired to pull against weight, so training them to walk calmly by your side can take a lot of effort. Don’t despair: if you’re still getting nowhere after going back to training basics, consider talking to your vet for a referral to a dog behaviour expert for some one-on-one advice.
Addressing Reluctance to Walk
Since your dog can’t communicate how they’re feeling to you in words, it’s very important to pay attention to their body language. If your dog is showing signs of distress whenever they have their harness on, that’s your cue to investigate. You might have the fit wrong, they might need a different design, or they might just need some more time and positive reinforcement to get used to the new feeling. If your dog is reluctant to walk or tries to back out of their harness, this is a sure sign of discomfort – first, check the fit of the harness. If that doesn’t work, consider trialling a different style or going back to training basics.
Recommended Dog Harness Brands
There are so many great dog harness brands on the market today to suit a wide range of dogs and activities! Here are some reliable options available in the UK to get you started on your search.
You can’t go far on any dog-lovers forum without coming across an endorsement for Julius K9 harnesses. They’re highly regarded for being durable and well-made and are particularly recommended for active dogs and sporting activities. The JULIUS-K9® Power Harness is the original and highly recommended!
With harnesses in a wide range of fashionable designs, styles and colours, Canada Pooch has your fashionable pooch covered. They’re also making strides to become more sustainable, with a recycled range launched in 2020!
For adventurous dogs, look no further than Ruffwear! This sustainable, high-quality company has a range of outdoor equipment for you and your dog’s cross-country adventures, whether you’re hitting the snow, beach or mountain trails.
The Ruffwear Front Range Dog Harness is a much-loved Y-harness from their range.
For dogs with more refined sensibilities, Barbour offers a range of quality, stylish, quintessentially British harnesses. While not recommended for more extreme sporting activities, they’re perfect for leisure walks.
CosyDogs are another great option for comfy leisure-wear harnesses – and they’re all made in the UK! Their padded designs come in a range of fun colours for the discerning pooch.
A Finnish brand borne from a love of dogs and all things outdoors, Hurtta has a great range of harnesses for extreme sports and weather conditions, all thoroughly tested for safety and longevity.
If you’re looking for a harness that’s specially designed to support your mobility-challenged pooch, check out Wheels4Dogs. This brilliant UK-based company provides innovative mobility solutions for dogs with a range of needs. Of course, you should always consult your vet before choosing a mobility aid for your pet.
Bold Lead Designs
If you’re looking for a harness to support your mobility while walking with your service dog, Bold Lead Designs is a great place to start, with well-made stability and balance support harnesses to suit a range of needs. While based in the US, they do ship to the UK. Again, you should always seek advice from your dog’s vet and your own care team before choosing a mobility aid.
Harness Maintenance and Cleaning
If you’ve invested in a good-quality harness for your beloved pooch, you’ll want to make sure you take good care of it – proper maintenance and storage will ensure that you get the longest life possible out of your harness.
How to Maintain Your Harness
Maintaining your harness is a preventative measure that will cut down on cleaning time and extend the life of your harness – and keep it looking fresh! The key is to dust off any hair, dirt and debris your harness may have picked up after each walk, then make sure it’s fully dry before putting it away.
How to Store Your Harness
Once your harness is fully dry, you should put it in a safe, secure place between walks – well away from any curious pups who might like to use it as a chew toy! Avoid storing your harness in direct sunlight, as this can degrade some fabric types, especially leather.
How to Clean Your Harness
Even with proper maintenance and storage, you’ll inevitably need to clean your harness now and then. The way you clean your harness will depend on the materials it’s made from, so always check the care label and consult the manufacturer’s website for tailored cleaning advice.
Most nylon harnesses are machine washable – just make sure you secure all buckles and pop the harness into a laundry bag before throwing it in the wash to prevent metal fastenings from damaging your machine. Always choose a dog-friendly detergent, as some ingredients found in mainstream laundry detergents can cause skin irritation for sensitive puppies.
Leather harnesses require a bit more care when it comes to cleaning. They’ll need to be hand washed, or ideally spot cleaned, using warm soapy water. For a deep clean, you can soak your leather harness in a soapy solution for up to half an hour. Some people recommend using a solution made from your dog’s shampoo since you can be sure it won’t irritate their skin. Air dry the harness away from the direct sun before use or storage. Again, always follow the manufacturer’s specific care instructions to ensure you get the most life out of your harness!
When to Replace Your Harness
While good care will extend the life of your dog’s harness, there will come a time when it needs replacing. It’s a good idea to inspect your harness for damage after each clean, or more regularly if you tend to leave it a long time between cleans. Any signs of fraying, tears or damage to buckles or fastenings indicate it’s time for a replacement. Take a whiff while you’re at it – if the harness has developed an odour that won’t go away with laundering, it’s time to replace it. You should also pay attention to changes in your dog’s size and shape: if the harness is no longer fitting correctly, it’s time to move on.
Is It Easier to Control a Dog With a Harness or a Collar?
It’s much easier, and safer, to control a dog with a harness compared to a collar. Many harnesses are cleverly designed to cut down on your dog’s tendency to pull against their lead. If they do still tug, you’ll be able to counteract their straining with much more ease, and without the high risk of injury that collars pose.
Are Dog Harnesses Safe for Puppies?
Harnesses are the safest choice for puppies and a great tool to help you train them to walk calmly on a lead. Most puppies start out pulling strongly against their lead; this can cause serious injury to their neck or trachea if they’re wearing a collar. A well-fitted harness is a much gentler option.
Are Harnesses Better for Older Dogs?
Harnesses are a great choice for older dogs, who tend to have frailer necks and spines and are therefore more at risk of injuries caused by collars. Some harnesses are specially designed to support mobility and ease pain. If your older dog is used to walking with a collar, you may need to gradually introduce them to their new harness.
There are countless harness styles on the market, but choosing the right option for your dog needn’t be overwhelming. Keep safety and comfort front of mind, consider your dog’s temperament, walking style, favourite activities and health needs, and always invest in the best quality you can afford. It may take some trial and error before you land on the harness that you and your pooch love best, but as long as you select a properly fitted harness from a reputable brand, you’re off to a great start!