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Reactive Dog Care

Safe and Secure Harnesses, Leashes, and More for Hiking with Your Dog

When out hiking with our dog, if you are using “gear” like a leash or harness, it is important that your gear is safe, secure, reliable. You don’t want to end up in an emergency situation because your leash broke when you used it to help your dog up a ladder. Or find out that your dog can slip out of their harness when you use it to lift them out of the water.

And while any dog needs secure and reliable dog gear, safe and secure gear is even more important if you are adventuring with a reactive dog or a dog in the early stages of training. This post is written with these dogs in mind.

I don’t recommend using a specific harness or leash instead of training, but good gear can make adventures safer for dogs and less stressful for humans. I know that I certainly feel better when my dogs are leashed and in a secure harness along cliff edges, even if they have a good recall.

And while training/behavior modification is a crucial step in making sure a reactive dog can be a respectful user of public outdoor spaces, it is important to have good gear as a backup in case a situation arises where training and behavior modification does not prevent a reactive response from your dog. 

Today we will be talking about 3 important pieces of gear that most people with a dog should bring with them on outdoor adventures.

  • A secure harness (or collar)
  • A sturdy leash
  • An easily reachable treat pouch

We will also be talking briefly about a 4th item, a muzzle, that may be really helpful for some dogs to adventure safely.

Safe Gear is Extra Important for Dogs with Reactivity

Some of you may be wondering… why purchase all this gear. Wouldn’t it be better to just train your dog to safely adventure off-leash and to have a 100% recall when out on the trail? 

In a perfect world (and a world without trails with leash requirements), yes. But let’s be honest, you can’t train a perfect recall overnight. Especially for dogs with fear-based reactivity or high prey drive. Changing a dog’s automatic response to triggers on the trail takes time, consistency, and commitment.

Working with a professional trainer or veterinary behaviorist may help speed the process up, but for most of us it will take months to years to get enough behavior modification improvement that hiking without a good management plan would be reasonable. 

And for some dogs, off-leash hiking may never be an option. For me personally, keeping my dog with a history of reacting to strange dogs on a leash relieves a lot of stress when out hiking. I don’t have to be as hyper-vigilant about approaches by unfamiliar dogs. And stress relief is a really important part of making sure your dog has a good experience.

There is an interesting study that compared dogs’ stress levels to their humans. And mostly dogs tended to be as stressed as their people. So if you are anxious about your dog’s reactivity when out hiking, your dog is likely to be more stressed. Higher stress levels mean more cortisol release, which often results in a higher incidence of reactive behavior. 

And just another quick tip for those of you with a reactive dog: If hiking with your dog is causing increased stress for you and your dog, then you need to take a step back and make sure your dog has the right foundational skills to be able to enjoy a hike. You may also need to step back and figure out better management and training protocol to help both of you relax.

Interested in learning more about why you shouldn’t exercise a reactive dog who is too stressed during the exercise? Check out this paper by Linda Cooper.

Alright, so without further ado, let’s dive into the gear that I use on hikes with my dogs to relieve my stress and keep my pups safe.

Secure Collars and Harnesses

There is a lot of dog gear on the market that dog’s can easily slip or back out of. I have definitely had a dog slip a collar that had loosened during a walk, had a collar buckle open up while walking, and had my dog nearly slip backward out of a harness. Over the years, I have worked to find collars and harnesses that don’t break and stay on my dogs.

Martingale Collars

The most secure collar I have found is a properly fitted martingale collar.

Martingale collars are collars that tighten when the leash attachment is pulled by a leash. They were created for dogs with smaller head circumference compared to neck circumference in order to reduce the risk of a dog slipping out of the collar.

Martingale collars can be worn loose when there is no tension on a leash attached to the collar but can snug up to prevent slipping over the head if a dog pulls backward. Take care not to fit these collars too tight. You should still be able to fit 2 fingers between the collar and your dog’s neck when there is tension on the leash. You definitely DON’T want to have this collar choke your dog.

There are many different styles of martingale collars to choose from, but I prefer fabric collars without a chain or buckle for my dogs. To learn more about martingale collars, click on the image below.

Full Body Harnesses

The most secure harnesses are full-body harnesses that have both a strap behind the armpits and around the dog’s belly/abdomen. When fitted and adjusted properly, these harnesses are nearly impossible for a dog to back out of. 

I list several styles of full-body harnesses in my post on the best hiking harnesses for dogs. But my favorite secure hiking harnesses are made by Ruffwear.

I currently have 3 Ruffwear harnesses. I used to have 4, but the Front Range harness I had was NOT secure, so I donated that harness to see if it would work for someone else. The Front Range harness is not full-body and does not have a belly strap.

So now I have a Ruffwear Web Master, Flagline, and Switchbak. The Flagline is my favorite because it is lightweight and has a solid belly panel for more comfortable lift assistance. However, the Web Master and Switchbak are more secure.

As you can see in the photos below, the belly strap on the Web Master and Swtichbak are not attached to a chest/belly panel. This means that they can be adjusted to fit behind your dog’s ribcage where the body is narrower. Since your dog’s waist is (or at least should be) narrower than their chest, it is nearly impossible for a dog to slip out of a well-fit Web Master or Switchbak harness.

Strong and Secure Leashes

The most secure collars and harnesses won’t mean much if you don’t have them attached to a secure leash. A good leash is a leash that you won’t drop, that won’t break, and that won’t unclip. 

Leashes that you are the least likely to drop are waist-worn leashes. Why not just carry a leash in your hand? For me, it comes down to my ability to multi-task. I often take photos while hiking. It can be really easy to drop the leash when moving the leash between hands and holding on to my phone. 

But if you don’t want to wear a waist-worn leash, then at least make sure you have a leash that you can loop around your wrist when needed. Leashes with hard plastic handles (like Flexi leashes) are much easier to drop if your dog pulls suddenly compared to a leash you are wearing around your wrist. 

In fact, a leash worn around the wrist can be hard to let go of. I had a client at my veterinary clinic who liked to tell the story of the time her sweet retriever pulled her over and dragged her across the street when her hand was stuck in the leash. So be careful. Don’t get drug by your dog. 

Another factor to consider is how does the leash clasp onto the harness or collar. I have had leashes before that have fallen off when my dog rolls on the ground. I have also had leashes with clasps that were easily jammed with dirt and debris. As a result, I have come to prefer leash clips with some type of locking mechanism (but that is still easy to unlock in an emergency).

I currently have 3 brands of waist-worn leashes: TuffMutt, Ruffwear, and Zouga.

All have worked well for me, but the brand that I would currently recommend is Zouga Dog Gear. I have been very impressed with Zouga’s commitment to strength testing their dog gear.

Zouga Dog Gear leashes are tested to withstand over 500 lbs of force. They don’t use any plastic buckles. Instead, the waist belt is secured with an aluminum quick connect buckle. And the leash attaches to the dog with an autolocking carabiner!

Interested in purchasing a Zouga Dog Gear leash? Scroll to the bottom of this post for a coupon code that you can use at Zouga’s online store for 20% off.

An Easy to Reach Treat Pouch

When it comes down to it, no gear can replace the security of solid training. No matter what your dog is wearing, if they don’t listen to you out on the trail, there are going to be safety concerns.

Whether you are sticking to a positive reinforcement style of dog training or are using a balanced training style, treats are an important part of training. Treats can help you reward the behaviors that you want to see more of. They can also help counter condition your dog to triggers. 

I have a few treat pouches that I use when out walking and hiking with my dogs. Originally, I put food in baggies and carried them in my pocket. Then I upgraded to a simple small treat pouch that I found on Amazon. But after I lost a treat pouch while fording a river, I switched to a fanny pack style that I bought at Wal-Mart for $6. 

You don’t need the same fanny pack I have, but I do recommend using a fanny pack with more than one compartment. It’s nice to be able to store more than just treats in the fanny pack. I use the main part of the fanny pack for my phone, sometimes carry dog bags in the outer pocket, and carry treats in the flap/lid of the pouch. 

And if you have done the work on finding your dog’s favorite treats, then you already know what kinds of treats to fill your treat pouch with for the best success. 

Winter Treat Administration Tip

In the winter, it can be difficult to pick up and administer treats with gloves or mittens on. If you don’t want to have to hold treats with your gloved fingers, consider a spray tube or squeeze tube. You can buy re-useable squeeze tubes (often found for backpacking purposes or to hold baby food). Or you can buy already filled squeeze pouches of peanut butter or spray cheese that you can operate with gloves on.

I recently purchased some re-useable food pouches from Wee Sprout to fill with wet dog food to give to Glia on our winter walks and hikes. I will let everyone know how they work over the next couple of months.

Muzzles

A post about safe and secure hiking gear for dogs wouldn’t be complete without a quick mention of muzzles. I will be working on a full article about muzzles in the near future, but even if your dog isn’t aggressive, training your dog to wear a muzzle can be a great lifelong skill. 

Many dogs will bite when scared or injured. And it is much easier to carry a hurt dog out to safety if you have muzzle trained your dog and have some type of emergency muzzle with you in a crisis situation.

For dogs that are reactive, have a high prey drive, eat everything off the ground, or have other behaviors that could improve with wearing a muzzle – wearing a well-fitted basket muzzle while hiking can help keep the dog and everyone else safe. If you do muzzle your dog for a hike, make sure the muzzle is well fitted and that your dog can drink and pant while wearing their muzzle.

Dog Gear Review has some wonderful review articles of various muzzle styles if you want to browse her reviews.

Alright, it’s time to get out and adventure with your dog!

Alright, go out and get some gear. You don’t have to spend a lot but make sure the gear that you do purchase is of good quality and won’t break on you. This gear will help keep your dog safe for years to come. 

Below is a list of the gear I recommended in this article. Most of these links are affiliate links, which means that I may earn money from qualifying purchases. Specifically, I am an Amazon Associate and earn from qualifying purchases on Amazon.com.

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