In a perfect world, our dogs would accompany us on every adventure off leash, wild, and free. For a variety of reasons, this is not always practical or safe. Many trails have leash regulations and many dogs have incomplete training resulting in a variably reliable recall. These situations often make it necessary to utilize a leash. And this leash has to be attached to something. At this point, there are three main options: traditional collars, harnesses, or head halters. There are pros and cons to each restraint device, but many hikers choose to outfit there dogs in a harness. This week’s blog post will take a look at harnesses and give you some research behind our 3 tips for choosing the best harness for your dog. Scroll to the end of this post for the 3 tips.
First a note on head halters. These items can be very useful in providing restraint and extra guidance when training. Both Glia and Sasha wear Gentle Leaders, a brand of head halters, in crowded spaces and on neighborhood walks. However, these are not our first choice for long hikes. When we are in more remote hiking locations, the dogs love a little more freedom on a longer leash. (Don’t pair a head halter with a long leash as it can create a whiplash situation for the dogs neck if they hit the end of the leash with any speed). Additionally, when the dogs’ noses get to sniffing and there is slack in the leash, invariably the pups step over the leash and get tangled up out on the trail. This means that for us, we choose between collars and harnesses when out on the trail.
Collars vs. Harnesses
There are many articles on the internet that compare harnesses to collars. However, I struggled to find much information backed by good scientific studies. Ultimately, I came up with the following two scientific articles.
The first was a study published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association (JAAHA). the study compared intraocular (eye) pressure when dogs pulled against a collar or a harness. Not suprisingly, eye pressure was significantly increased when a dog was pulling against a collar. However, harnesses did not result in this significant increase.
The effect on intraocular pressure (IOP) from dogs pulling against a collar or a harness was evaluated in 51 eyes of 26 dogs. The force each dog generated while pulling against a collar or a harness was measured. Intraocular pressure measurements were obtained during application of corresponding pressures via collars or harnesses. Intraocular pressure increased significantly from baseline when pressure was applied via a collar but not via a harness. Based on the results of the study, dogs with weak or thin corneas, glaucoma, or conditions for which an increase in IOP could be harmful should wear a harness instead of a collar, especially during exercise or activity.
The second study I found was a behavioral study that compared dogs stress signals when walking in a harness or collar. The study found no statistical differences between harnesses and collars.
So if harnesses help reduce pressure around your dogs neck and do not cause any additional stress for your dog, you should definitely hike with your dog in a harness, right? Many people agree and you will often see dogs out hiking in harnesses. Most people choose these harness for one of the following reasons. Harnesses minimize strain on the neck if you or your dog were to pull quickly on the leash. Many harnesses have handles that can be useful in helping lift a dog over rough terrain. And for long distance hikers, many harnesses have options for attachable packs to help carry gear when backpacking.
Types of Harnesses
If you have decided to hike with your dog in a harness, one of the first questions is whether to use a restrictive or a non-restrictive harness. Restrictive harnesses have a horizontal strap acrosse the dogs chest, while non-restrictive harnesses create a Y-shape from the sides of a dogs neck to a single strap between the front legs. Both of Glia’s hiking harnesses, the Ruffwear Webmaster and the Groundbird Gear harness, are non-restrictive.
Non-restrictive harnesses, as the name implies, are thought to be minimal restrictive. They are intended to allow as much natural movement as possible. Restrictive harnesses, like the EasyWalk harness, are often used as training aids due to the fact that they are intended to restrict movement when a dog pulls against this harness. But what does the research say.
What the Research Says
A recent study by Lafuente, Provis, and Schmalz aimed to compared the effect of restrictive and non-restrictive harnesses on shoulder extension of dogs at the walk and the trot. Only 9 dogs were included, but each dog was evaluated in each harness. This allowed each dog to be its own control. Significant decrease in shoulder extension was found with both types of harnesses (except for when weights were added to the restrictive harnesses). Interestingly, in this study, non-restrictive harnesses reduced shoulder extension more than restrictive harness.
A winter hike in a Ruffwear Front Range harness.
Another research article by Carr, Zink, and Dreese sheds further light on these findings. This study used 10 healthy Border Collies and trotted them across a pressure sensing walkway. Five different harnesses ( 3 restrictive and 2 non-restrictive) were evaluated. The following variables were measured: total pressure index percentage, stance time percentage, stride length, and step length. As expected, this study also found that wearing a harness affects a dogs gait regardless of the type of harness. Harness wear was associated with longer forelimb stride length, shorter forelimb step length, greater forelimb total pressure index percentage, and a shorter forelimb gait cycle.
But which type of harnesses affected gait the MOST in this study? Well the answer wasn’t clear cut, as the greatest impact on gait was seen when dogs wore two specific harnesses. And one of these was a restrictive harness while the other was a non-restrictive harness. But what did these two harnesses have in common? They covered the most surface area of the dogs’ bodies. The harness that caused the least alterations in gait was a non-restrictive harness that covered the least amount of the dogs’ body surface areas.
Glia is pictured above in her Groundbird Gear Harness
As you can read above, the research above isn’t clear cut as to whether restrictive or non-restrictive harnesses affect a dog’s gait the most. But for many dogs there are clear differences in gait between the harness types. Check out this video of a dog walking on a treadmill without a harness, with a non-restrictive harness, and then with a restrictive harness. You can clearly see mild changes in stride length with the non-restrictive harness. And pretty significant changes with the restrictive harness.
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Choosing a Harness
Tip #1: Choose a Harness That is Highly Adjustable
When choosing a harness for your dog, an attempt should be made to find a harness that affects your dog’s gait the least. Historically, harnesses that are non-restrictive and highly adjustable have been recommended. High adjust-ability can help get a better fit on an individual dog. A better fit helps limit the amount of gait alteration.
Tip #2 Choose a Harness That Covers Minimal Body Surface Area
Based on the research above, finding a harness that covers as little of your dog’s body as possible is likely beneficial. The less contact the harness has with your dog, the more free your dog can move.
Tip #3: Choose More than One Harness
Additionally, knowing that when a dog adjusts his or her gait, they are then more prone to repetitive stress injuries, it may be helpful to rotate harnesses. Dogs with eye pressure issues or previous neck injuries may need to wear a harness a large majority of the time. But for dogs without health conditions, especially healthy dogs on long back packing trips when a lot of movement is required, make sure to remove the harness when possible. This allows for normal movement for at least part of the day.
Here Glia poses at Black Canyon of the Gunnison in her Ruffwear Webmaster Harness
To Sum it Up
Based on the research above, no matter what type of harness you choose for your dog, it will affect your dog’s gait. But for Glia and I, a harness makes a lot of sense and the pros outweigh the cons. Harnesses provide security on the trail, protect her neck from injruy, and have handles to help me aid her over difficult terrain. And when we backpack, her Groundbird Gear packs can easily be attached to her harness so she can carry some of her own gear.
Both of Glia’s harnesses cover a large percentage of her body surface area. However, it is important for us that she has a harness that she cannot back out of. We could use a martingale style collare (which is great for dogs that have a tendency to slip the collar), but GLia also has a strong prey drive. Read occasionally darting towards squirrels, rabbits, deer, etc. On our city walks we can wlak on a head halter or in her martingale collar. But out in the woods, it is nice to have a harness. That way, if we come across something that triggers her prey drive and she is one a longer leash, she doesn’t injure her neck. Both the Ruffwear Webmaster and Groundbird Gear harnesses have multiple points of adjustment. And the Groundbird Gear harness is custom made, so at least we are limiting poor fit complications.
Do you know of any other research articles that evaluate the effects of wearing a harness on dogs? Or have thoughts you would like to share about your own experiences? Leave a comment below.