Collar or Harness?

Eloise and Wilder on rope and off
Eloise, on the right, has earned the right to be collar and leash free. Wilder, on the left, is still learning and so wears a safety net of equipment.



And which one? Or neither?

There are many types of equipment that people use on their dogs. Harnesses seem to be popular these days and many people think they should use a harness instead of a collar because of the risk to a dog’s trachea from the pressure which may be applied when there is tension on the collar. This is certainly a concern worth taking into consideration but it isn’t the only concern, and harnesses come with their own issues. One which I see more often than not is that people try to leave a harness on an unsupervised dog who promptly chews it off.

As someone who also trains horses, I am all too familiar with the promises that this equipment will solve all your problems. The implication is that you don’t need to spend time on training, you just buy this thing.  No one wants to admit that they aren’t training and it seems that someone who knows all the available options for equipment is now considered a trainer when, in fact, they aren’t training anything, they are simply tying the animal down so they have no choice.

Choice in training is what positive reinforcement trainers strive for.

This similarity in the dog world has translated into a booming market for “no-pull” harnesses. These are advertised as tools which will stop your dog from pulling on you when you take her for a walk. Various brands function in different ways. Front-clip styles  are designed to redirect your dog from being able to drag you forward. Others have pieces which tighten on various parts of the dogs body causing discomfort if they pull.

Some designers of these harnesses make an effort to educate the purchaser about how to use the harness as a training tool, rather than simply a controlling piece of equipment for the lifetime of the dog. But not everyone reads the package or insert, or follows it or stays with it long enough to be effective.

I do believe those no-pull harnesses have a purpose, but I tell everyone that it should be a temporary solution and not every dog needs one. Because of the way these harnesses work, they can cause slow but long term damage to a dog’s body, as they pull her out of her natural position. Even harnesses which don’t claim to be no-pull can be irritating to a dog.  I have met a couple dogs this year whose people said they just calmed down when the harness was put on.  This could be the thunder shirt effect but seeing the body language of these dogs, I think it is more likely that they are just uncomfortable in them, even though they’d each worn the harness for years.

It is far preferable for dog handlers to prioritize training the dog to walk happily with them, using positive reinforcement methods. A handler who provides sufficient exercise (not necessary to take them on long hikes or chase balls for hours, even though they may like to do both of those), and other enrichment activities such as sniffing and learning, creates a bond with a dog. That bond is what keeps the dog with you, so that you don’t need the physical restraint. Leashes and harnesses or collars become a backup safety net, not the primary connection.

The times I find myself recommending a no-pull harness are when someone has gotten a full grown dog from a rescue, shelter or elsewhere and the dog has no leash training. If the dog is large and has the physical capability to risk the handler’s safety or to pull themselves free and be on the run, that requires equipment as a temporary management tool to keep everyone safe. When these dogs have just entered a new home, there is no bond to function as backup.  Equipment is the only option here but the handlers should immediately begin working with positive reinforcement to build that bond and training history. If people have the experience, they can do it on their own. If not, they should consult a positive reinforcement trainer (preferably before the dog arrives!) for assistance. [Dogs who come from unknown backgrounds do not exhibit their normal personalities in the stressful environments of a shelter and a dog who appears calm may be very different when moved again to a new home. Have your support system ready!]

This fall we had a new dog join our household. At approximately seven months old, he was close to full grown and had no leash training. But as a Jack Russell Terrier, he was small enough that he could not pull me over! I chose to use the same approach with him that I used with our other Jack, who arrived at over a year with no leash training. It was an experiment with Eloise seven years ago but I was really happy with the way it worked and have recommended it to anyone with a dog who does not have the risk of an untrained large size dog.

The backbone of the plan is that dogs learn environmental cues really quickly. Visual or contact cues from us or from equipment we use is an easy way to begin communicating expectations to a dog. I use both a collar and harness for different purposes.

The harnesses I use are not no-pull harnesses, but rather harnesses with wide fabric

Wilder, temporarily tied to a barn door, shows off the wide fabric of the underside of this harness.

specifically so that the dog IS comfortable pulling on it. Why in the world would I want a dog to be comfortable pulling? Because I want them comfortable in exploring their world. The harness goes on when we are going out to play, sniff, climb, dig, hunt and have dog fun. I attach a long rope to the harness so the dog or puppy has a large radius around me to play in. They can run or chase a ball; climb a snowbank or wade in water, all while I still have a physical connection. Inevitably they go around a tree or get the rope stuck in a bush or tall grass. I want the dog to learn persistence and learn that if they get a little stuck, they can just pull or push a little harder to get free. That way, heaven forbid, if the dog does get away and stuck somewhere, they don’t just sit down and give up.

At the same time, we begin working on loose leash walking on a collar. This begins in the house and with my pockets full of awesome treats. The dog has absolutely no desire to leave me in this situation so there is no pulling on the collar/trachea. Instead, the dog learns that when the collar and leash go on, those are CUES that we are going to walk politely right next to each other for treats. Over time, I can graduate to other rooms, the garage, the barn, the driveway, all for short distances and time periods. I make sure that the puppy/dog has had opportunities to eliminate before these outdoor collar-training sessions so that full focus is on me (I might do a long harness-excursion and then pop the collar on for a couple minutes just before going back inside).

Wilder stuck on rope
with the rope stuck on a piece of frozen ground, I encourage Wilder to drive toward me to release himself.

From here, a lot depends on your future needs for your lifestyle. Do you want to take your dog into town on a leash? Do you want to take your dog hiking with you? Do you take your dog to walking trails where there are people, children, bicycles and other dogs? Whatever your plans are for your dog, you will need to slowly introduce those distractions into your dog’s leash manners. If the leash is on, and you have trained your dog to focus on you in those situations, then a collar, in my opinion, is fine to use (please be sure there is a clip you can quickly undo to release a dog who may have gotten it caught on something which is a strangulation risk). You can train your dog a cue that allows them to stop to pee on a bush or sniff in the grass, but they should be ready to come right back to you, ignoring all other dogs, people and other distractions as long as he is on that leash.

Wilder on rope down roadIf your life is more like mine: a rural existence with large spaces away from busy roads and no other people or dogs, maybe you can do off-leash walks. I know off-leash is verboten with some trainers, and I can understand that in some environments. But in our area, most people have their dogs off leash far more than on leash. Taught a rock solid recall while still living on the long rope, the training must include lots of practice being called away from distractions unique to each dog. Hounds need lots of practice being called off scents.  Terriers need practice being called off small critters. Herding breeds need lots of practice being called away from livestock or anything which moves (like vehicles!) With solid training for these situations (which should only occur infrequently), I think off leash walks with dogs are idyllic for all.

I even take it one step further and my terriers do not wear collars if there is not a leash or rope attached to it. This is because they love to go down holes after small animals and it is too easy for a collar to get caught on a root when they try to come back out. Stuck there, where no one can see them, it’s a horrible end. Microchips allow us a way to identify a dog even if they don’t have a collar on. Certainly the intention is to have your dog in sight at all times, but for those just-in-case scenarios, I feel it is safer to be without a collar than with.

Whatever you choose, the important thing is to educate yourself about the pros and cons of your choices, and that you leave choice in the life of your dog.



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