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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
But even most sturdy harnesses are not strong enough to keep your dog from flying in an accident.
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.
I’ve been looking for the perfect harness, that’s:
- 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.
Your Turn: Do you use a harness for your dog? Why or why not?