Which Collars and Harnesses Are Best for Your Dog?

Learn which collars and harnesses are the best for walking and training your dog.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
May 2, 2011
Episode #102

Once upon a time, there were fewer cars and more open space. Nowadays, though, we have relatively few places where we can safely and legally walk our dogs off leash. Time to choose the best equipment for your dog.

Which Collars and Harnesses Are Best for Your Dog?

“Collar plus leash” seems obvious, but then you get to the pet supply place and find dozens of choices. Collar, halter, harness? Nylon, cotton, leather? What makes one kind of leash better than another, anyway?

I started this article expecting it to wind up short and sweet. As usual, though, once I got started I found I had plenty to say. So this week I’ll cover collars and harnesses, and I’ll save the discussion of halters and leashes for next time. 

What Is the Best Equipment for Your Dog?

One important point that applies to any equipment you use with your dog: Equipment won’t do the training for you. A leash will limit your dog’s movements to the space within a few feet of you. A so-called “correction” delivered with a choke collar will briefly cut off his air supply. (What’s the opposite of “recommend,” anyway?) A front-clip harness will divert the force your dog puts into pulling. But none of them will teach your dog how to keep the leash slack as she walks with you. The best equipment just helps you manufacture behavior that you can then reward. In another article, I talked about some ways to encourage your dog to walk politely on leash. Plenty of good books on reward-based training can help, and so can a class or private lessons. Ultimately, you’ve got to do the work to get the results you want. 

Your Dog Should Always Wear a Collar With ID

Even if you wind up using a harness or a halter for leash walks, your dog should always wear a collar with her ID tags.

If you’re not attaching the leash to that collar, your only considerations are cost and looks. Some people like special breakaway collars that open if you pull at them hard enough; the idea is that your dog can’t get hung up somehow. My perception of risk runs the other way--I worry more about my dog getting loose in a fire or accident and running panicked with no visible ID. Of course, you’d never inflict a choke collar on your dog, but if you were using such a collar you wouldn’t put ID on it, because your dog would never be wearing it when off leash or unsupervised anyway. These collars are called chokes for a reason.

Should Your Dog Wear a Flat Collar or “Greyhound Collar” (Martingale)?

As for the collar that goes with your leash, two choices. One is a plain flat collar with either a buckle or a snap closure. The other’s called a martingale or a Greyhound collar. It consists of an adjustable main loop that goes around your dog’s neck and a smaller loop that tightens the main loop when it’s pulled. These collars are also sometimes called “limited slip” or “limited correction” collars, because old-school trainers would use them to deliver jerks to the dog’s neck.

Even the best equipment can’t train your dog. It can only help you manufacture behavior that you can then reward.

I don’t use or recommend them for that purpose, but only as a safety measure for thick-necked dogs. If your dog has a thick neck relative to his head, a regular collar that’s properly fitted can slide right off when he lowers his head or backs up. Greyhounds are a prime example--hence the name “Greyhound collar”--but the same goes for many dogs. Pits and Pit mixes, Bull Terriers, and a lot of plain old mutts, such as my late, beloved Izzy, can have builds that make them safer in martingales. You fit the martingale so that when it tightens, the big loop is just barely too small to slide over your dog’s head. Of course you’ll be using food treats and other rewards to teach your dog to walk nicely on the leash, so most of the time the martingale will rest comfortably loose. If it’s chronically tight, polish up those leash-walking skills.

How to Choose a Collar for Your Dog

When choosing a collar for your dog, choose a fabric or leather collar, and go for wide rather than narrow. Even a well-trained dog may hit the end of the leash hard when a squirrel leaps out in front of her, for instance. And many behavior problems involve lunging and barking. The force of the lunge is more concentrated with a narrow collar, so it hurts more and even risks bruising your dog’s trachea. That won’t do your behavior modification program any good.

When Should You Use a Front-Clip Harness With Your Dog?

Given adequate exercise, a reasonably skilled handler, and a generous supply of morsels of appealing food, most dogs can be walked on leash with a plain collar even early in their training. But sometimes a dog has to be walked on leash regardless of whether he’s had a chance to burn off steam first. In this situation, you might need more than a plain collar. A harness with the leash ring in front, in the middle of the dog’s chest, will gently turn him toward you and take much of the force out of his pulling. You can then reward your dog with both treats and forward motion while the leash is slack.

Since they lessen the force of a dog’s forward pull and help you manufacture the behavior you want, front-clip harnesses also come in handy when there’s a big mismatch in size, speed, or strength between you and your dog. And we reward-based trainers have been impressed because few dogs seem to find the harness unpleasant at all.

Should You Use a Harness With a Small Dog?

Many small dogs are best walked on a harness because their tracheas are easily bruised if they lunge or pull. The typical small-dog harness has a clip at the dog’s back, not in front. That makes sense because a leash clip at the height of a small dog’s chest puts the leash close to the ground, so the dog often winds up stepping over it. However, with a clip at the back, the dog can throw her whole weight into pulling, and often does. If you don’t want your little harness-wearing Zippy to make like a sled dog, plug away at the leash skills every time you take a walk.

What Kind of Front-Clip Harness Should You Use With Your Dog?

Front-clip harnesses are fairly new to the market, but several brands are available.

The one most commonly found in brick-and-mortar stores is the EasyWalk, made by Premier. It’s a good product for many dogs, but people with deep-chested breeds such as Pit Bulls often report chafing behind the dog’s elbows as well as trouble getting a secure and accurate fit. Other brands, such as the Sense-ation and the Wonder Walker, are available online or at select retailers and are well worth investigating. The Freedom Harness deserves special mention because it has two points of attachment. You can use either or both; using both gives you excellent leverage with a powerful dog.

Front-clip harnesses are great not only for strong, fast dogs but also for dogs who bark and lunge at bikes, other dogs, skateboards, or whatever upsets them. If you’re using a harness with a single point for leash attachment, you can make the harness even more secure by clipping your leash to the small loop of a martingale collar as well as to the harness attachment. The collar works as a failsafe if you’re very unlucky and your twisty dog Houdinis her way out of the harness.

Remember, ultimately the point of any equipment is to make it easier for your dog to offer behavior that you can then reward. Never take the behavior you like for granted--reinforce it with clicks and treats, with permission to go sniff that fire hydrant or say hi to a person your dog likes, and always with warm praise. Next time, halters and leashes; meanwhile, though, spring has finally come to North America, so please do go walk your dog.

I welcome your comments and questions – email dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. And you can talk to me on Facebook, where, amazingly enough, I’m The Dog Trainer. Dogalini is me on Twitter. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.

Dog in Harness image courtesy of Shutterstock