What Walking Equipment is Best for my Dog? A Quick Guide
Updated: Apr 2
(DISCLAIMER- I am not affiliated with any of the brands mentioned and recommendations are solely based on personal use, experience & knowledge from working as trainer and walker, an understanding of canine anatomy and most importantly, scientific research)
You walk into a pet shop with the intention of purchasing some walking equipment for your dog and as you walk in you are met with hundreds of different harnesses and leads of every type and colour. You are overwhelmed and have no idea what to choose.
Have you been in this situation? It can be a real pain, especially if you receive conflicting advice on what to choose. Even vets and other dog professionals can recommend poor designs that can be harmful. So to help you choose, let's consider the options together.
First of all, qualified dog professionals whole heartedly recommend a well fitted harness, since they are the safest and most ethical choice. As you already know, there are a wide variety of harnesses, but not every harness is created equal, so which one should you choose and why?
Harnesses with the thin rope, are often used for puppies and smaller breeds. For this design, your dog steps into the harness rather than it going over the head, and there are 2 clips on the back, either side of the lead loop (seen in photo above). These harnesses tend to be stiff, very uncomfortable and poorly fitted, as there is no padding and they are very short in the body, causing the thin strap to fall directly under the dog's armpits, which can cause rubbing and discomfort.
The horizontal strap harnesses are quite popular and look robust. They have the straight strap across the shoulders and a large clip that goes around the abdomen (seen in the photo above). The issue with this harness design, is they restrict shoulder movement due to the placement of the strap. Imagine having a rope tied across the top of your shoulders/arms and how this would affect the movement of your arms. This is how this harness design can impact your dog’s movement.
Over time, this kind of harness can cause stiffness, pain and injury. These harnesses are also very easy to slip out of, with there being only one clip, and as a dog walker, I've seen this time and time again with this type of design. (Especially with this cheeky Pug Phoebe!)
Other harness brands with thin rope or a horizontal strap across the shoulder design, are not the best harnesses to purchase, as they all inhibit the movement of the scapular in the dog's shoulder and this can cause muscle strain and pain. (see your dog's anatomy below)
Y- Shaped Harnesses
The best harness for comfort and safety are the Y-shaped harnesses. As seen in the photo above, they do not restrict the shoulder movement and are longer in the body to prevent discomfort. My particular favourite is the RUFFWEAR Front Range harnesses and the Perfect fit harnesses.
The RUFFWEAR are nicely padded for comfort and do not restrict movement of the shoulders. They also have 4 points of adjustment and two points of contact, so you can have 2 leads attached or a 2- point contact training lead. The Y shape on the chest, allows muscles in the legs and shoulders to move freely and the two large clips on the back make it a secure harness.
The Perfect Fit, as seen below, has the same features as Ruffwear, but these harnesses can also be completely tailored to your dog's body type, as you can purchase separate pieces to lengthen the individual straps. The harness is padded with fleece and as an added bonus, this harness doesn't have to go over your dog's head to be clipped on. The harness is also adjustable in 5 different places, to achieve a secure fit and have two points of contact for your lead. Of course, there are cheaper versions of these harnesses, but these are the best for comfort and quality, and they are the brands recommended by most dog professionals.
Many dog professionals also like the TTouch Harnesses. These have a similar fit to the Perfect Fit harnesses, but have less padding and are better for long haired dogs, to prevent matting. They are also lightweight, making them a good choice for small dogs or dogs with joint conditions. The RUFFWEAR also have a 'Webmaster harness', which has an extra strap across the lower torso and 5 adjustable straps. These are ideal for larger dogs, barrel chested dogs, such as boxers, greyhounds and whippets and dogs that are escape artists.
To appreciate how harnesses, influence your dog’s gait and movement, check out this video of harnesses modelled by two different dog breeds on a treadmill. While you may not recognise all the brands, the designs are the same as those I have mentioned.
Should I buy a harness for my puppy?
It is recommended that you buy a harness for your puppy. As you will already know, puppies are all over the place on their walks and they pull on the lead and lunge backwards and forwards, if they are spooked or excited around new stimuli. Therefore, they could very easily injure their neck, shoulders and/or spine if you are walking them on lead and a collar.
Understandably, many don't want to buy a harness, due to the expense and the rate of their puppy's growth. However, it is beneficial to get your puppy accustomed to a harness during the socialisation stage, so they don't develop any phobias later in life. If money is a factor, there are loads of cheap options you can try, and then you can invest in a better quality harness when your dog is fully grown.
If you do purchase a puppy harness, try to go for a padded Y shaped harness and make sure to adjust it for a suitable fit, to stop your puppy slipping out of it. I used the Doodle Bone harnesses, as these came in the Y shaped design and were very reasonably priced. The smallest size, seen in the first photo, has a Velcro fit on the back and one clip. These are a common design for a puppy's very first harness.
The next size up, seen in the second photo, had 2 clip fasten on the back. Obviously, there are loads of brands to choose from, so just ensure its a comfortable fit. When your puppy reaches their full size, you can then invest in a better quality harness, such as the RUFFWEAR or Perfect Fit.
Lead and collar
While many will choose the collar option as a quick fix or cheaper option, there are factors to consider. Firstly, repetitive pressure on your dog's throat is eventually going to cause severe damage to the muscles in their neck, shoulders and back. This is especially true if you are walking a puppy on a collar and lead, since their body is still developing. Using a lead and collar as walking equipment, very often results in serious neck and spinal injuries, leading to expensive vet bills.
Secondly, while it is logical to us, to stop pulling to relieve the pressure on the throat, dogs don't necessarily associate the discomfort of the collar, with their pulling behaviour. Dogs don't always make the connections we think they do and so they may never stop pulling, regardless of whether it's painful, increasing the likelihood of injury.
A study, on the risk of walking a dog on collars or slip leads, was conducted by a scientist at Nottingham Trent University. Their study experimented with different levels of force to pull or jerk the lead and then the pressure on the neck was recorded. This study revealed that no matter the design style, or padding of the collar, the pressure exerted on the model neck was still sufficient enough to risk injury to the dog. These potential risks included injury to the thyroid gland, mandibular gland, trachea, oesophagus, lymph nodes, veins, nerves and arteries. (Dr Anne. Carter 2020)
While it can be argued that a collar can be safe for those dogs that have beautiful lead work, injury could still occur. If you were to accidentally trip on your walk, you may suddenly yank the lead or if your dog reacts to something in the environment or puts themselves in harm’s way, you may need to quickly pull the lead in an effort to move them away. If this happens, all that pressure goes on the neck and throat, and it only takes one incident to cause serious injury to your dog. If you use a collar on your dog, it should be used to display your contact details on and not a point of contact for the lead.
No-Pull Harnesses & Aversive Equipment
When it comes to walking equipment, please don't be tempted to try magic fixes. Sadly, many aversive tools are advertised as quick fixes and these are sold in many pet stores, including Pets at Home. Unfortunately, these tools are not magic and they won't train your dog, nevertheless, they are cleverly marketed to target those desperate for a quick solution.
For instance, no pull harnesses are advertised as a training tool to stop pulling, when in actual fact there's no training involved whatsoever. A quote from a popular pet store advertisement for a no pull harness states:
"The Stop-Pull Dog Harness design uses a squeeze and lift effect that controls the dog when they pull on the lead. This will ultimately deter the dog from pulling and will return them to normal controlled walking."
The language used is clever, yet misleading. No-pull harnesses work by placing pressure under the legs and lifting the front of the body, causing discomfort. This is classed as an aversive and while people will argue it’s not unpleasant, it has to be, in order to stop pulling. If an aversive isn't unpleasant, then it wouldn't reduce the behaviour you are trying to address, because that's how an aversive works. Imagine how uncomfortable this would be on a dog with joint issues, such as arthritis.
Using walking equipment that puts pressure on the throat, such as a slip leads, choke chains (seen above), prong collars or a flat collar, doesn't actually teach your dog to stop pulling and like the collar, they can cause injury to the trachea, neck, shoulders and spine. Not only do such tools cause injury, but they also cause unpredictable behavioural fallout, including development of anxiety, reactivity and even aggression.
They can even contribute to anxiety and/or reactivity, as the pressure on the throat reduces their oxygen, potentially causing panic and a lack of engagement. After all, who can concentrate when they can't breathe? Although these so called training 'tools' make attractive promises to customers, they don't come without serious behavioural side effects and/or potential injury, none of which are included on the warning labels.
Head haltis/Head Collars
Head haltis/head collars, such as the 'gentle leader', are often used as a tool to control lead pulling and while they may reduce the behaviour, like other aversives, it does not train your dog. It is designed to tighten on the face and head, in order to stop the dog pulling on the lead. Dogs have a large percentage of touch receptors on their face and muzzle, making it one of the most sensitive areas on a dog’s body.
There is an enormous amount of blood vessels in the dogs face and muzzle, which allows dogs to successfully track but also makes the nose and face incredibly more sensitive than our own. Therefore, a head halti/head collar takes advantage of the sensitivity of the canine face, in order to stop the dog pulling.
Myerscough College conducted a recent study to compare the harness vs a head collar, in order to determine which is better for canine welfare. They, Compared changes in external temperature and behaviour to assess stress levels in 21 pet dogs, of various breeds and ages, when wearing a head collar compared to a Perfect Fit harness" (Dogs Today 2020). The study used several brands of headcollars, including Halti, Gentle Leader and Dogmatic.
The ear temperatures of each dog was measured before walking equipment was put on the dogs to establish a baseline, and then subsequent ear temperatures were measured when the dogs were wearing the walking equipment. The study discovered that the temperature of the dog's ears, fell significantly, when they were wearing the headcollar, in comparison to the harness. Since a raised core temperature causes the cooling of the extremities (such as the ears), when a dog is stressed, we can conclude that stress levels were higher when the dogs were wearing the head collar. (Gemma Grisewood 2020).
Most dogs really hate head haltis and will do their best to try and get it off with their paws. In fact, this behaviour was observed in 62% of the dogs in the study. Signs of stress, such as yawning and lip licking were also observed more frequently when the dogs were wearing the head collar.
Even though haltis place pressure on the head, ears and the muzzle rather than the throat, neck and spinal injuries can still occur. Dogs can also often escape haltis, which can obviously be dangerous. So while some may use head collars to exert more control and reduce pulling, it is often at the expense of the dog's emotional welfare. If your dog pulls, ethical training is preferable instead of resorting to a halti.
Now we have gotten harnesses out of the way, what lead should you choose?
Flexi Lead/ Retractable
Well the most popular leads are the extendable leads, such as Flexi. When these were created we were able to give our dogs new found freedom, without letting them off lead or struggling with a really long lead. Unfortunately, these are more dangerous than dog owners realise.
The locks often break, which has led to many dogs running into traffic and the handles are easy to drop, allowing dogs to run off, with the lead dragging behind them.
The cord is also easily snapped and since the lead is neatly concealed in the handle, it is rarely noticed if there is any damage until it’s too late. Fellow dog walkers/trainers have even lost their fingers in a desperate attempt to grab the rope! Many will allow their dog to walk miles away from them and then they desperately reel their dog in as fast as possible to get them to safety.
In fact, vets have seen cases where dog owners pulling their dog back on a retractable leash in an emergency, has actually broken their dog's neck or ripped open their trachea. So this walking equipment can cause serious injury to both the dog and their handler.
While I understand the convenience of these leads, they just aren't safe and as a dog walker, I refuse to use them with my client’s dogs, unless we are just walking in a field. If you choose this lead, make sure you regularly check the whole length of the lead for damage and avoid using the lead in busy areas or around traffic. If you want an alternative, I recommend a bio-thane long line to give your dog more freedom, without risking their safety.
Chain Leads & Slip Leads
Chain leads are often used on certain types of breed to promote a certain aesthetic; however these are not a great choice. They are rather heavy and usually quite short in length, which can worsen lead pulling, since dog’s walk faster than us. They are also purchased for dogs or puppies that are biting the lead, in order to avoid damage, but this can cause the dog/puppy to fracture their teeth. Unintentionally dropping the lead or swinging it into the dog, can also really hurt and spook your dog. Thus, it's far better to determine the reason behind the lead chewing and start some training with a fabric lead.
The slip lead is popular, even amongst those that work with dogs, because they are convenient. This lead stops pulling by tightening on your dogs throat, just like a choke chain. It causes pain, discomfort and can even impact breathing. Long term use causes damage to the trachea and potential injury to the neck, shoulders and spine, as seen in the above graphic.
For this reason, the slip lead should only be used in rescue situations or for transport for the dog's safety. They are not safe or comfortable for long term use. Even when many state their dogs don't pull on the lead, this doesn't stop handlers yanking the lead to interrupt their dogs behaviour or gain their attention, which could still cause injury over time.
Training and Statement Leads
My favourite lead to use is the 2 point of contact fabric lead. The Halti Long 1.8m design in particular, with the loop used as a handle. With these leads you can purchase longer versions and use the extra loops to make the leader longer or shorter.
If your dog has a Ruffwear harness or a harness with 2 points of contact, you can attach this lead to both points and hold the lead in a loop/reign fashion. (as seen in the photo above) This set up is ideal for nervous dogs and/or dogs that pull on the lead, as it creates physical balance. Any fabric lead is fine provided it’s at least 1.8m and robust enough, so it doesn't fray or snap.
Colour leads with a statement are a brilliant addition to your walking equipment. You can choose from:
- No dogs,
- My dog needs space,
- In Training
Each has a specific colour. These leads can encourage other dog walkers and strangers to be respectful of your dog's space and make walks far easier.
So hopefully this guide has narrowed down your choices. It can be overwhelming, but when you make your decision consider these questions:
- Does it obstruct your dog's movement, internally and externally?
- Does it place pressure on any areas of the body that are sensitive or vulnerable to injury?
- Does it tighten on the dog's body if they move or pull?
- Does it fit well or slide around?
- Does it effect your dog's emotional state or behaviour?
- Is it safe and comfortable for your dog long-term?
Obviously, each dog is a unique individual and one size doesn't fit all. So when making your decision on walking equipment, follow the science and prioritise your dog's health and wellbeing. If you do that, I know you will make an informed choice.
If you missed the video at the top, check it out to see the influence a harness design has on a dog’s gait. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJooWvoxUlc
Have you ever wondered why your dog pulls on the lead? Check out my next article Why does my dog pull on the lead?
Is your dog afraid of their harness? Check out my friend Emily's blog How To Help Your Hound Be Happy In Harness! (trailiepawsforthought.com)
Dr Carter. A, 2020 Nottingham Trent University, Collars risk causing neck injuries in dogs, Collars risk causing neck injuries in dogs, study shows | Nottingham Trent University
Grisewood. G 2020) Head Collar Vs Harness: Which is Better for Canine Welfare? Dogs Today Headcollar vs Harness - which is better for our dogs' welfare? - Dogs Today Magazine