When Does Your Dog Need A Harness?

While getting Honey ready for her vet follow-up visit, I hesitated.

Should I put her in her harness? Or should I simply attach her leash to her collar?

In other words, when does a dog need a harness? And when is just a collar fine?

Honey the golden retriever in her harness at Rehoboth.

I know you want to keep me under control at a busy tourist spot. But can’t you see this harness ruins my lines?

Honey Goes To The Vet

In the end, I decided to put Honey’s harness on her, although it was trickier to manage with the soft cone she wore.


Because in her excitement about going to the vet (yes, excitement), I might need a little more control. And I was right.

Honey practically pulled me in the door to the vet’s office and rushed excitedly up to the first person sitting in the waiting area.

She started spinning and dancing while we were waiting.

We practiced some simple training moves to calm her down: sit, down, touch, high-five. But she was very distracted.

When a woman came in with a dog Honey’s size who looked quite sick, I realized Honey was too excitable for me to trust her 100% not to make play overtures to the other dog.

So I cued, coaxed, bribed, and pulled Honey to the other end of the room.

By the time we walked past the sick pup to go into the examining room, Honey had regained some focus. But I suspect if I had attached her leash to her collar, she might have at least tried a subtle sniff as she walked by.

Honey the golden retriever with friend.

I’m perfectly calm around this pup. What makes you think I’d cause a fuss at the vet’s office?

So when does your dog need a harness?

When Your Dog Needs A Harness

Based on my experiences, I’ve found five times when a harness is superior to just attaching a dog’s leash to her collar.

And one when it might not be as useful as we’d hope.

1. When you need extra control over your dog.

No, I don’t like the idea of pushing and pulling your dog around by the leash. In fact, I once asked who was using their leash like a steering wheel instead of like a tool for communicating.

But just because I prefer to teach Honey to take cues from me instead of pulling her around, sometimes it’s helpful to be able to pull her around if necessary.

Sometimes, the stakes are higher.

Like when I took Honey to a busy vet’s office. Rude behavior on Honey’s part could have serious consequences in a place where so many animals (human and otherwise) are under stress.

I also use Honey’s harness when we go to a busy place (like a festival) or somewhere we might meet strange and unpredictable dogs.

Honey the golden retriever sits and stays on a crowded sidewalk.

You’re just afraid that without a study harness to hang on to me, I might walk away with one of these other nice people. I bet at least one of them has hamburgers in his pocket.

2. When your dog is an escape artist.

Is there anything worse than that sick feeling when your dog pulls his head through his collar and takes off?

Supposedly dogs don’t have higher reasoning abilities. But have you ever met a dog who didn’t know exactly how to pull out of his collar?

I fostered a few beagles who would do anything to get to the scent they wanted to explore. They’d be particularly tricky because they were short and subtle about their escapes.

Honey the golden retriever leads the walk.

By the time we finish putting on the beagle’s harness and coat, the snow’s practically all gone.
Well, I said practically.

One moment you’d be talking to your neighbor, the next moment you’d be looking at your beagle buddy sniffing something he couldn’t possibly reach attached to his leash.

Good thing their noses slow them down.

It didn’t take me long to realize I should always use a harness with a nose-driven foster dog.

3. When your dog could hurt herself with a regular collar.

My first dog, Christie, was an extreme puller. I mean she was Iditarod-ready.

Using a collar and leash alone, Christie would pull so hard she’d nearly choke herself.

People would look out their windows when we walked by to see who was being killed, her choking sounds were so loud.

This was before the multi-billion dollar pet industry existed. We met a trainer who told us to get a loop harness to put around her muzzle—at the time they were only available from vet pharmacies.

It very nearly saved her life.

How much easier would it have been to pick up a harness at the local pet store to help us manage her choking while we worked on training her not to pull?

4. To manage behavior while training.

We had Christie before the world wide web and before positive training techniques had made their way into the public consciousness.

At the time, the only option I knew of was to manage her pulling through a head halter.

But today we have access to all kinds of training help with issues like pulling. Even so, it’s helpful to use a management tool, like a front fastening harness, to keep us from getting hurt while we’re teaching our dogs not to pull.

You think I’m being extreme?

Well you should have seen me trying to train my last dog, Shadow, not to pull on icy sidewalks.

Shadow the mixed breed dog has a pretty smile.

You’d never know this dog was so dangerous to see her here. Shadow looks so calm and composed.

Most walks found me coming home with blood on my hands and bruises on my body. I’d be willing to say that Shadow’s front-fastening harness probably saved me some serious injuries while I worked on clicker training her.

5. To give you more handling options.

If your dog’s biggest adventure is walking around the block, you might have trouble imaging needing more ways to handle her.

But what if you go bouldering or kayaking with your dog?

Honey the golden retriever naps on a sailboat.

Honey’s life jacket functions like a safety harness with two sturdy handles for grabbing her on the top.

Having an extra secure handle to grab her might be very useful.

I hope I never have to do it, but if I need to fish Honey out of the water, I’d rather have a harness with a couple of sturdy handles to grab her by than just her collar.

When A Harness Is Less Useful Than You Think

I see more people worried about their dog’s safety in the car. They take time to strap him or her in.

It’s a great idea. You and your dog will be more safe if he’s not jumping into the front seat or otherwise distracting the driver. So definitely strap your dogs in to keep them in one place while driving.

Honey the golden retriever sits in the hammock.

If I had my way, I’d be sitting on your lap while you drive.

But even most sturdy harnesses are not strong enough to keep your dog from flying in an accident.

The Center for Pet Safety has only approved one harness for safety during a crash test.

So once again, I’m not telling you not to click your dog in when driving. But know that pet safety is decades behind testing for humans and driving is very, very dangerous.

Drive defensively. And don’t rely on your dog’s harness to keep him safe in the car.

Shopping For A New Harness

I’ve found having a harness for Honey to be quite useful.

She inherited her current harness from my last dog. It’s black and grey (not the most flattering colors on a golden retriever). Part of the plastic clip broke. And it’s made to prevent pulling, which is not a major issue with Honey.

Honey the golden retriever on a tire.

Well the harness matches the tires. But it’s not very pretty. Don’t you think I deserve better?

I’ve been looking for the perfect harness, that’s:

  • cool
  • comfortable to wear
  • with strong attachment points if I need to grab her for safety
  • doesn’t cause her fur to mat under her legs
  • and is pretty

Pretty tall order, huh?

I’ll need to decide soon. And if you have a favorite harness (particularly one that doesn’t cause mats on your silky-coat dogs), please tell me about it in the comments.

But if you don’t have a favorite harness, today is your lucky day.

Will You Be A Kurgo Harness Winner?

Welcome to another great group giveaway that we’re co-hosting with DogTipper! Along with some other super blogs, we’re giving away a dog harness in the winner’s choice of style from Kurgo.

Win a Kurgo Dog Harness.

Whether you want a harness for one of the reasons I suggested or to make an internet star of your dog (one of Kurgo’s harnesses comes with a camera attachment), you might win one of your very own.

Click on the picture to see all the different harnesses Kurgo offers.

Enter using the widget below. One winner will be selected at random; Kurgo will ship the prize directly to the winner. This giveaway is open to readers in the USA and Canada. Good luck!


Disclosure: This giveaway prize is sponsored by Kurgo; the company will ship the prize directly to the winner. All opinions and statements are entirely my own.

Your Turn: Do you use a harness for your dog? Why or why not?




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  1. I always put Bailey in her Easy Walk. On regular walks she does really well, but when she sees her new best friend in the distance she will start pulling. Keeping her calm and focused is an ongoing struggle with a super friendly Lab. We use a Lupine roman-style harness for hikes because it can be clipped in the back or the front. We clip in the back while we hike so she doesn’t trip over it and we clip it in the front when we need a little more control.

    I actually just dropped $80 on a Sleepy Pod ClickIt Sport, which is the one harness approved by CPS that you mentioned above. I spent more than an hour watching the crash test videos in order to write up an article for work and bought one almost immediately after we get home. I anticipate that it will replace the Lupine harness for hiking and maybe even her Easy Walk for when we jog. I’m not thrilled that it doesn’t have a clip in the front since she’s more likely to pull with a clip in the back, but it’s a good opportunity to continue working on her leash skills.

    • The Easy Walk is the first and only harness I’ve ever used. And it really helped. But now, as you point out, there are so many more kinds of collars available.

      I wonder if you could get someone with a heavy duty sewing machine to add a ring attachment to the front of your Clickit Sport? I wouldn’t rely on it in the car. But it might be useful on walks.

  2. My girl does not have a harness at this time because I have not been able to find one that I thought would be best for her. We walk many miles each day and a comfortable harness would certainly be a useful item. I would also love to have a harness for when we do not-typical things, such as going to the vet and on vacation, which are more difficult to train and prepare for. Great post with lots of useful info, thanks!

    • It’s great that many stores have good return policies. Because you’re right, finding the right harness is tough.

      I once thought of starting a company where people could rent dog gear to try out before they decide to buy it. Harnesses are one example of something you’d hate to spend lots of money on before seeing if it’s a good fit for your dog.

  3. We use a harness for Ike because he’s a strong puller, but just a regular collar for Kelly because she doesn’t pull when we go for walks. Once in a while, however, something distracts her and she pulls and then the collar does absolutely no good.

  4. I am a firm believer in harnesses. Prior to knowing much about dogs, I had an aussie that was a puller too. She kinda got over it, but she would still choke herself on walks sometimes. Roxy can not be walked on a collar, she escapes, plus she won’t go anywhere. It’s more comfortable for Torrey. She doesn’t pull anymore, but we do have the occasional “Hey I want to say hi” moment when she does pull.

    • Yeah, my ideal is to teach Honey to never pull either. But like Torrey, her friendliness is part of who she is.

      So if a harness can help me keep her close, I’m all for it.

  5. Small dogs need harnesses more often than not; their smaller tracheas are easily bruised. Frankie was the exception. He always walked behind me so a harness put the leash in an awkward position. I wouldn’t consider walking Madeleine without a harness; she’s a tugger — my walking coach, she always sets a fast pace — and an escape artist.

    • I never really thought about the effect of all that pulling power on a small dog’s throat. I guess I assumed their pulling power would be necessarily smaller than that of a big dog.

      But I forgot about the big human at the other end of the leash. And that’s why I majored in history instead of physics. :)

      Good luck in the giveaway.

  6. We currently only have harnesses the pups wear on car rides ~ the ones that attach to the seat belts. I was not familiar with the crash test approved ClickIt Sport harness. Thank you for sharing that information.
    Missy & Buzz get walked on a Halti (gentle leader version with padded noseband). Although they don’t pull, I like to be in control should we come across distractions with the potential of them acting up ~ such as stray/loose dogs here in our rural neck of the woods in NC.
    A few of my dog walking clients have the easy walk harness ~ it works very nicely, and I have considered getting our pups one of those.

    • Honey’s harness is an easy walk and we really like it. But some people complain that it’s hard to adjust.

      Choosing the right harness for an individual dog has got to be as hard as finding the right bra.

  7. Christine Aiello says:

    I would love for her to wear a harness walking but I haven’t found one that she likes. I put it on her and she just sits there. I guess she isn’t comfortable with it. I have one for the car though that she will wear with no problem.

    • Honey did the same thing the first time we tried her life jacket on her. Your pup may have adjusted faster to the car harness because she loves car rides so much.

      Perhaps if you pair a working harness with a car ride, favorite treat, or toy your pup will figure out that the walking harness isn’t so bad.

  8. My pup wears her harness when she comes to work with me, and when we go to the park. When she sees the harness, she knows something fun is in store, and that she has to be on her very best behavior.

  9. Yup, we’re definitely fans of harnesses. The first time I put a leash on Nala’s collar, she became an immediate slave to her opposition reflex and dragged me around the field. We’ve tried three harnesses (our first was a hand-me-down), and they all have their benefits:

    Freedom Harness: probably saved my life when we first adopted Nala. The back attachment has a martingale (like the front on the Easy Walk) which tightens when your dog pulls. Not my favorite no-pull mechanism, but it brought Nala’s pulling to a dull roar at a time when I couldn’t expect her to walk on a loose leash because she had no skills and was stressed by the environment. If you want to use the front attachment, anchor it to the dog’s collar for mechanical control. Comes in pretty colors!

    Comfort Flex: instead of nylon, it’s rolled–great for double coated dogs. Seems comfy. Easy on and off. Has a great handle! Con: no front clip.

    Balance Harness: my favorite! Doesn’t sit under Nala’s armpits or ride up over her shoulder blades or block her front leg movement. The front attachment is sufficient for mechanical control over a dog who already has some loose leash walking skills. The back clip is perfect for hiking with a long line or running. Con: must pay a little extra for a custom order to get it in pretty colors; not widely available in stores; probably would not have spared your life with Shadow on ice, or mine the time that Nala and I crested a hill and then saw a deer at the bottom.

    Sorry for the long comment; I like to be thorough. 😀

    • I love your thoroughness. Thank you.

      I’ll check out these harnesses for myself. I like the idea of the rolled straps in the Comfort Flex because I think the Easy Walk (which is web straps) promotes matting.

      Yeah, I know that’s not a problem GSD people relate to. But it’s awful for a golden. :)

      • The Comfort Flex, and a lot of similar models considerate of long haired dogs like border collies and goldens, is available at Clean Run. The customer service there is really fabulous, too!

        Surprisingly, I can relate to the matting! Nala almost never wears a collar in the house because we both got so tired of brushing mats out of her thick, luxurious neck ruff. And I always have to ruffle and brush her fur after I take her Balance Harness off.

  10. Love this post! Boca most often walks in her collar alone as she is not a puller, but for long walks or hikes her harness goes on. Before I got Ruby’s travel crate, I used to clip her in to the seat belt. I didn’t have any illusions that this was accident-safety-rated, but liked the added security that prevented her from jumping out before I was ready once we got to our destination.

    • Just curious, what do you feel are the benefits of walking Boca on a harness when you go for a long hike as opposed to a regular walk or errands?

      Is it to have control over more risky situations? Or something else?

      • I apologize for the tardy reply, Pamela.

        The reason I use a harness for longer walks/hikes is because I think it’s more comfortable for Boca. We use the back-clip since she is not a puller but I feel the back-clip does allow the dog a little more freedom, and I admit to not minding if she pulls uphill on a hike! The martingale collar is so quick and easy to slip on, it’s my preference for short neighborhood walks.

  11. I agree that harnesses are especially appropriate for small dogs. Richie wears a collar with his tags, but I use a harness anytime he is on leash. He even manages to choke himself slightly in the harness sometimes, so I can only imagine what he would do if the leash was on his collar. Luckily I don’t have a problem with him pulling, most of the time, so I use a simple step-in harness.

    • You call it a simple step-in harness but I remember pet sitting a chi mix and I couldn’t figure out the step-in harness to save my life. Poor little pup was so frustrated waiting for me to get a clue. :)

  12. A harness was recommended to Sampson when he had his ACL surgery to prevent him from injuring his leg. I started Delilah on one this year. I worry about the pulling and strain on the neck with a traditional collar. Some dogs (labs in particular) are susceptible to Laryngeal Paralysis which I think it probably not helped if you use a collar and have a puller. I’ve also hear of neck strains and shoulder injuries. My only regret is I didn’t start it sooner.

    • The lab I lived next to in Ithaca got LP. Now you have me curious about whether an injury brought on from leash pulling exacerbates it.

      Has having Sampson and Delilah on harnesses made any difference in their walking styles or behavior? Or is it really just about keeping them healthy.

      • When I use the leash/harness system I have now CORRECTLY, it absolutely helps with the pulling. Just this morning Delilah was taxing me, so I hooked her up and she walked beside me with no issues.

        I got it to help with the pulling, the health benefits (IMO) is a bonus. :-)

  13. I use a harness because I have a breed of dog prone to disc disease and I don’t want any unnecessary stress on their necks/spines.

    I can’t believe Honey is excited to go to the vet. Classic Golden I guess. Both my guys have to be DRAGGED in the door…..another reason to use a harness 😉

    • Because of their long backs it makes sense to me that corgis would be subject to spine problems. But the ones I know are so athletic it seems hard to believe. I guess the athleticism is one of the best ways to protect against future problems.

      As for the vet thing, I’ll get Honey to tutor your boys in having fun at the vet if you can get Wilson to give her some swimming lessons. :)

  14. I’ve never had a dog harness. Does this make me a bad dog owner?

    • Only if not having one makes your dog miserable. Somehow I doubt that’s the case.

      So enjoy the extra $25-$80 in your pocket per dog if you don’t need them. :)

  15. We don’t have any daily harnesses, but we have tracking harnesses, nose work harnesses, and our seat belt harnesses which will hold a dog in a crash as they are TUV approved for the autobahn in Germany, made in Germany and have only been available here for a short time. Nothing is perfect, but Germans are all over quality and if they say they are safe we will believe it. Katie’s held her 80 lbs over the side of the car when she jumped out while driving one day when she was young and couldn’t wait for the car to stop so she could greet her friend. It was just long enough for her to get her body over the door in the convertible. Mom was going slow and thankfully, no harm was done.

    • OMD, the thought of Katie jumping out the window and being held their by her harness is the kind of thing that inspires movies.

      So glad she was okay. Your Mom must have been amazed.

      And yes, I’d trust the Germans on safety too. And the Swedes.

  16. I should’ve had a harness for Haley when she was young and learning to walk nicely on the leash. Yes, she was one of those pups that would want to pull so hard that sometimes she would start hacking from choking herself.

    • I think of dogs as smart enough to understand self-preservation. But apparently when they see something tempting on a walk, they’re willing to risk their health to get to it.

      And yes, having management tools to help during training help a lot. But when Haley was young we didn’t see as many of these things around. The dog product world is really exploding now.

  17. I always view a harness as an extra safety feature. I have had dogs slip their collar. Fortunately I had good voice control and they stopped in their tracks. If I am going to travel or go for a walk I always use a halter.
    In the car I use a large a Veri kennel. It fills the entire back seat. Over the years I have heard too many horrible stories about car crashes and lost/injured dogs. MIM Vario cage ( I just Googled it) is an expensive (well over a grand) crate that is supposed to be crash proof. If I could afford one I would probably buy one.

    • Impressive that you were able to stop your pups after they slipped their collars. Because they usually do that when they’re excited by something. Good job!

      And yes, cars are death traps. Safety measure are so much better for humans (are you old enough to remember when we only had lap belts?). But pet safety lags.

      I predict we’ll start seeing some car makers including more safety features for pets in future models. I’d put my money on Subaru.

      • The only command my dogs always obey (past and present) is SIT. Why? It comes with a treat. At the time they wanted to chase ducks. They bolted and slipped their collars. I hollered sit and they stopped in their tracks. They came back and sat for me expecting their treat.
        My mothers dogs only knew park it. It was her version of sit.

  18. Edie Chase says:

    I would like to use a harness when we go for a walk.

  19. I use a weight-bearing/pulling harness when we run. It’s more comfortable for him and gives me a little boost when I’m dragging. 😉

    • What an interesting idea. I didn’t think about getting a harness specific for pulling.

      But I do remember relying on Shadow to pull me up a mile long sledding hill more than once. Now I’m sorry I didn’t have an actual musing harness for her. :)

  20. On walks, I always use the harness with her, I find it a lot easier for both of us :)

  21. Ever since we got our beagle Kobi I have always used harnesses for walking. I could not stand the hacking when he pulled on his leash with just a collar. Plus he’d get so excited when he saw other people or dogs, and the harness made it easier to hold on to him and calm him down. Ultimately, the Gentle Leader was the only one that helped us with his pulling.
    However, I’d hate to think how much money I’ve spent on harnesses, and I still don’t think I’ve found the perfect one!
    I’d also like to start using harnesses to secure the dogs in the car.

  22. Lady Girl would wear a harness in the truck for safety. If we were to go on a long walk, it would come in handy to keep her from dragging me after her and a rabbit.

  23. Both of my dogs have snub noses, so I really resist walking them with collars. The extra pressure they could put on their necks on a pull could be really hard on their eyes. So when would I use a harness? All of the time!

    Jean from Welcome to the Menagerie

  24. Baby has a collar, but it’s only for her tags, it doesn’t even have an attachment point. She wears a harness always (except for in bed, because that wouldn’t be very comfortable) and we rotate which one she wears based on how dirty she’s gotten them. (Very.)

    I don’t know what we’d do without one.

  25. I’d really like to get Ducky wearing a harness all the time, especially one I can attach a car seat belt to.

  26. I’ve got to get Jax back in his harness when we’re in the car. I’ve been bad about consistency. Never used a harness when walking either of them. In crowds I have been known to use a gentle lead on Jax so he doesn’t pull too far ahead of me. Nicely written post.