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The "H" Word

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

So you've got a new member of your family. A beautiful, two-coloured eyed husky, or maybe an adorably fluffy malamute, and would love to tap into their lineage and train them to tow the neighbourhood kids around the block on their toboggans during the winter. Oh wait, you don't own a sled dog? I'm sorry, the h*&%#@@ really threw me off for a second there.

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This week's blog post is dedicated to a 7 letter word starting with 'H' that seems to be dominating the streets and our local dog parks of late. You guessed it. We are talking about the Harness.

A quick Google search of the words "dog" and "harness" and you'll find a vast array of harnesses, from the simple three strap systems, to the intensive kevlar police-vest type mechanisms. Most of these systems claim to be a cure for your dog's various predicaments, with tag lines reading "No Pull", "Easier Training", or our personal favourite here at CompleteK9, "Ultimate Control". Well I'm sorry guys, but we're calling baloney.

"I've been thinking of trying a harness?" or "Whats your opinion on harnesses?" are two of the most common questions we get during our trainer/walker led community group walks. Second only to "how do you get your dog to walk like that?!". So I'll tell you what we tell them. We don't like 'em. I don't care about the size of your dog, the colour of its ears, or if it can do the can-can.

So how did these things get so popular anyways? Almost every second dog you pass on the streets has some version of a harness on, and yet I think back to countless family and friends' canine companions and I can't recall ever seeing a single harness. The short answer is fear. Somewhere along the line, someone started researching the damaging impact collars have on dogs necks and respiratory systems.

Most of the articles you'll read citing the cons of collars, reference the possibility of collars damaging your dogs throat, restricting their breathing, or even increasing the likelihood of glaucoma in commonly affected breeds. And we agree with this!

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We've all seen those dogs; stretched out at the end of their leash, collar digging into their neck while the owner struggles desperately to keep up. Some of them even have to take a quick break to hack and cough.

This is improper use of a collar. So YES, obviously these dogs have a much greater chance of damaging their necks, and potentially damaging the poor human's arms and shoulder that has to hold onto the wee beastie.

Is a harness going to fix this? NO! You're strapping material to the strongest part of a dog's body, hooking a strap to it and expecting the dog not to pull as hard. For anyone who remembers their grade school math skills, you've basically just created a lever. And what do levers do? They make lifting and pulling a load EASIER!

Harness's original purposes were for dogs and other animals to pull sleds and materials, so why would we expect them to function any different on a dog?

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But what about the one's that are "designed" to help stop pulling you ask? Still calling baloney.

Most of these harnesses work on the front clasp system by either steering you dog off kilter when they pull or tightening the dog's front legs together causing discomfort. First off, if your dog has any sort of decent weight or muscle behind it, it'll continue walking, regardless if it's being "steered" to the side via a front harness. Dogs aren't dumb. They'll adapt and learnt how to angle their body to counteract the pulling of the harness/leash, and then continue to pull you down the road.

As for the tightening harnesses. If you're concerned about a collar damaging your dog's neck, why would you ever put a device on a dog thats going to squeeze and force its legs and shoulder blades into an unnatural position? I don't even want to think about the potential health problems these things can cause for dogs after years of use. This includes the face harnesses that they sell off under cute names like halti, or "gentle leader". It's a harness on your dog's face, and it's doing the exact same thing as the front clasps harness only now it's cranking your dog's face and neck to the side at awkward angles, or teaching your dog to pull through it, simply walking with its head at an unnatural angle. These are the definition of potentially neck damaging tools.

There are even "no pull" harnesses now that are designed to trip or make your dog lose their footing when they pulls. Putting aside potential health and injury risks associated with this, you aren't even teaching your dog to stop pulling. It is simply masking the problem. If you try to walk your dog without this specific device on it, its going to pull because it doesn't have anything to stop it anymore. If you need to hand your dog off to a friend or your kid wants to walk the dog and they don't use the harness the exact way you do, the dog could easily pull them right of their feet.

Now, what about the dogs that "don't pull" you ask. Yes, these dogs do exist. They are few and far between, bless your heart if you hit the jackpot and have a dog that doesn't pull on leash, I truly envy you. When most people say their dog doesn't pull though, they are referencing to their small dog who runs around at the end of an extendable lead and is easily managed due to their size.

To jump off topic for a minute here, please throw out that flexi-lead or whatever extendable leash you are using! They offer no control over your dog (hitting the button and desperately yanking the line back into the handle doesn't count!) which opens up opportunities for them to run into the road, pedestrians, other dogs/animals if you aren't watching them 100% of the time. They are also EXTREMELY dangerous -- on small dogs and large -- to yourself, your dog if they happen to get into a sticky situation, and to other dogs and humans. I have countless burns and cuts on the back on my legs, and most recently my fingers due to dogs wrapping their leads around my legs or around my dogs body. But this is a blog post for another day, so keep an eye out for that.

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Back to the 'H' word. For those dogs who "don't pull", I really, really, REALLY can not stress enough the lack of control you have when your dog wears a harness. I've seen them slip off. I've seen them get caught in other dogs leashes and harnesses, trees and sticks, and all sorts of debris. I've seen dogs getting into scuffles while people are desperately trying to pull their harness-wearing dog away and yet have no ability to do so. Every time you go out on a walk you could potentially be finding yourself in a situation where you need to get yourself and your dog away, and fast. You'd better be confident that the tools you are using and your dog's training allows you to do that, because I've seen so many situations where a harness has not.

For those people who are managing to train their dogs not to pull using a harness, they are basically using the same systems people use with collars. The stop and wait method, turning around/switching directions, obstacles, etc. All of this can accomplished with a properly fitted collar. Here at Complete K9 we LOVE the martingale. When it's fitted properly it's nearly impossible to slip out of. ( I say nearly because we've met one or two crafty dogs that have learnt how to slid their paw up under the collar and remove it. These dogs were basically geniuses).

Teach your dog to walk properly with a proper tool, and a good collar will do wonders for you. If you are slamming back on the collar hard enough to cause damage to your dogs neck, you are doing it VERY WRONG. The pressure used to correct a dog and teach them not to pull is based on the size and build of the dog, NOT the strength of the human. We can teach packs of seven, nine, 12, even 25 dogs to not pull on leash at the same time so trust me, you can teach one. Just stick to your guns, and be consistent. You don't need a harness or some gimmick to train your dog. You just need a good collar, and some patience.

image source: CompleteK9 Inc.

(This post is an opinion piece based on experience and research. If your dog has specific health concerns or you have been recommended to use a harness by a vet based on your dog's specific ailments, use your own discretion.

Have questions or concerns, or are interested in learning more about teaching your dog how to walk wonderfully on leash? Pop us a message!)

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