What the Well-Dressed Dog Wears
We’re often asked for our recommendations as to the best collars, harnesses, and leashes for walking our dogs. This is one of our favorite topics because of the extent to which these tools can help or hinder our communication, even our relationship, with our dogs.
Our first criterion for the things our dogs wear is that they be comfortable and well-fitted. We want to avoid impingement on the natural movement of our dogs, chafing from straps, pressure that throws our dog’s gait out of balance or that triggers an oppositional response (think “tug of war” on the leash).
If a dog is inclined to pull we particularly want to eliminate pressure on the neck because of its potential to damage the throat and delicate organs, and to damage vision through an increase in intraocular pressure. With a committed puller we would use a collar simply to hold the dog’s tags, and would use a harness for attaching the leash.
Even the best harness can create problems if it is too loose or too tight. If it rolls because it is too loose, or restricts respiration and free movement because it’s too tight, walks become unpleasant in the short term and can lead to structural problems in the long. A rule of thumb is that two fingers should fit between your dog’s body and the harness.
Harnesses that free the dog’s shoulders and distribute pressure from the leash in such a way that it doesn’t impede the dog’s structure are ideal. Four harnesses that we like for this are:
- TTouch Harmony Harness
The Harmony Harness has a clip on the neck strap so that you don’t have to ask your dog to put his head through the neck band, but rather can put it on like a collar. There are two clips for the chest strap so that you put the harness around your dog instead of asking him to put his paw through the harness. It has multiple places to snap the leash on, including between the shoulder blades, a few inches further down the back, and at the chest. It’s been my experience that attaching the leash to a point between the shoulder blades avoids triggering the dog to pull.
- Petsafe Surefit Harness
The Surefit is a simple “H” style harness like the Harmony Harness, but with fewer clips so that you’ll need to teach your dog to put his head through the neck strap and his paw through the body straps.
- Balance Harness
The Balance Harness has neck and body clips so that it goes on much the same as the Harmony Harness. The body is longer than the Harmony or Surefit, so be careful that the chest strap lands on a comfortable place for your dog, rather than in a “tickle” spot. There are two places to snap your leash: on the back several inches down the body from the shoulder blades, and on the chest.
- Perfect Fit Harness
The Perfect Fit comes in three parts which you order separately, providing a very individualized fit for your dog. It has points for leash attachment on the back and chest.
A harness that we like for chesty dogs is the:
- Freedom Harness
The Freedom Harness has points of attachment at front and back, and is shaped in a way that often is a better fit for deep-chested dogs. There is some impingement on the top of the dog’s front legs, which is not ideal, but this negative may be offset if it provides a better fit overall.
For tiny dogs we recommend a step-in style, such as the:
- Puppia Harness
The Puppia has a mesh “vest” to support the dog’s body, with large armholes. When fitting be sure that the harness won’t put pressure on the neck.
There are a number of brands of harness with a single front clip, which rely on having the front strap flitted low over the top of the dog’s legs, preventing a normal stride. In addition to inhibiting the development of a proper gait by hampering natural movement, the lateral pressure put on the dog’s frame when they put pull on the lead can having a lasting effect on the dog’s structure.
We will use the front clip on a well-fitted Freedom, Balance, or TTouch harness occasionally, but in general prefer a back clip harness with the leash attached to a point between the shoulder blades, or a harness with a double-ended leash attached front and back both.
Whole Dog Journal ran an article in their June 2013 issue which provided an informed look at two sides of the debate on front-clip harnesses.
We lo-o-ove leashes, and have developed quite a reputation for our leash collection!
A leash should feel comfortable in your hands, be strong enough to contain your dog in those “oops” moments that he bolts toward that squirrel, and be sensitive enough to allow for a nuanced connection and communication. Leash walking is ideally like walking hand-in-hand with a dear one, or dancing with your favorite partner.
Choose a material that you like to hold, not just at the handle, but also up and down the leash. This would tend to exclude chain leashes, and for us it also leaves out most nylon leads which can slide and cut, especially when wet.
Some materials we like are:
- Cotton nautical rope
- Cotton webbing
- Climbing rope (check that it’s not too slippery)
- Biothane, a vegan product which is nylon webbing coated with a synthetic that makes it easy to grip
- Nylon webbing with rubber grip woven in
A Few Favorite Leashes
Here are some of our personal favorites chosen for comfort, ease of use, and (we confess) stylishness. Joyful Dog tends to prefer longer leads (8 feet or so) for neighborhood walks, because it allows us to give our dogs a little more room to roam when we’re not asking them to walk by our sides. We will let out and gather up the lead throughout the walk to let our dog explore without getting the leash tangled.
- Bold Lead Design leather 8 way lead:
This is the lead we use the most! The extra length allows our dogs a little extra room to roam. The double-snap design connects to both front and back of a harness at the same time for more control and balance when needed. In addition, one end clips onto a fixed ring to create a handle to use the lead as a traditional single-snap leash when you and your dog are having a relaxing walk.
- Bold Lead Design “Brahma” (biothane) 8 way lead:
BLD’s vegan lead has the same features as the leather version, and feels great in the hand.
- Suzanne Clothier “Quality of Connection” leather leads:
In addition to several multi-function designs (check out our favorite “Ranger”!), Clothier has traditional single-snap leather leads both with and without “awareness” lacing to provide a kinesthetic reference point for the handler. Lovely to hold, and lovely to look at too.
- Mountain Dog “Amazing Versatile Leash”:
Made from climbing rope the Amazing Versatile Leash has a second snap on the handle that allows you to use it as a double-snap lead, or as a hands-free or cross-body. The floating ring can be secured in a knot, and the climbing rope can be knotted and unknotted virtually indefinitely.
- Mountain Dog “Amazing Versatile Leash Mini”:
This skinnier sibling to the AVL has all its features, with scaled-down hardware.
- Found My Animal nautical rope lead:
The cotton nautical rope feels great in the hand. The double-snap lead has movable rings so you can create a handle or use it as a waist or cross-body lead as you like. The last time I inquired they were offering alternative snaps and custom lengths upon request.
- Julius K9 nylon webbing with rubberized threads for a good hold:
Available on Amazon, with or without a handle, in a stunning range of lengths! We use the adjustable lead for maximal flexibility, as well as longer lines for trail walking.
A Short Word about Long Lines
One of our favorite ways to spend time with our dogs is to walk some of the local farms, parks, and trails with our dogs on long lines. We always attach the lines to harnesses rather than collars. Here are some of our favorites:
- Bold Lead Designs “Brahma”
Their vegan material makes a nice tracking lead. Poke around their website for additional widths and colors.
- Palomine Biothane
Another great source for vegan long lines.
Slightly padded fabric line. Nice!
A grippy lead much like the Julius K9 above.
Last but not least: Collars!
At Joyful Dog we use collars to hold our dogs’ tags, as stylistic statements, and to attach a leash to a dog who has learned not to pull.
We look for certain features in collars:
- A quick-release buckle
- Wide enough to distribute pressure safely if a dog forgets herself and pulls. Specifically, the collar is at least a width equal to or greater than the width of two vertebrae (source: Suzanne Clothier)
- Made of comfortable materials. Some dogs seem to prefer softer or padded collars, but others seem to like leather.
Our dogs wear one of two styles of collar:
- Flat collar
The flat collar is exactly what it sounds like! A flat band of fabric or leather, wider than two vertebrae of the dog, closed with a buckle, usually a quick-release buckle.
- Martingale collar
A Martingale collar has a loop which loosens when there is no pressure on the collar, but which causes the collar to close tightly when there is pressure. It is a style which is used for dogs such as greyhounds who have narrow heads, and so can slip out of a flat collar. Note that when a martingale is fully closed the collar should not choke, but simply be firmly closed.
There are a number of wonderful collar makers. Two that we like are:
- Paco Collars
Paco makes beautiful leather collars which range from simple designs to extravagantly blinged out. Most of their collars have a traditional buckle, so we recommend you remove the collar before dog-dog play.
- Mimi Green Designs
Mimi Green has collars in a wide array of patterns and fabrics. The feature I particularly like about their collars is that they will engrave your dog’s name and contact info on their quick-release buckles in case your dog should become lost.
You may have noted that we don’t include gear that uses discomfort or pain to train our dogs. The most effective way to build a behavior is to reward the behavior we like—to make it really wonderful for our dogs to be with us. For more information read our previous blogs on leash walking, and keep an eye out for our next “Love the Leash” classes, and our upcoming class offering, “Relationship Walking”!