Over the years I’ve tried harnesses (and other equipment) but always went back to a simple buckle collar. It wasn’t until my beloved Irie was headed for a long recovery from TPLO (a massive knee surgery) that I changed my mind. Imagine having a dog that had both shin bones sawed, rotated, and bolted back together and then imagine what it must be like taking your dog out for each walk. It hit me like a ton of bricks that she absolutely must not pull on the leash. Because she was in such a delicate state, I wanted to eliminate any unnecessary force. This led me to learn more about harnesses.
I know a couple of the recommended brands from the conditioning world. I also knew that you could hurt a dog’s spine with force on the collar. What I didn’t know is that, as a result of a dog pulling or getting jerked around, a dog can suffer damage to the nerves that effect the forelegs, eyes, and ears, even the thyroid organ can suffer! I felt horrible about all the jerks on the collar I’ve issued in my lifetime and felt it is my responsibility to make a different choice now that I’m aware of the damage that can be done.
Don’t just run out and by any harness that you can find. There are a lot of poorly designed harnesses on the market and you have to search to find a “correct” one. But, instead of disclosing a couple of brands, I want to further examine harnesses because I’ve been very interested in figuring out exactly what type of harness to use for a couple different pulling sports: carting, mushing, and possibly weight pulling (to do some resistance work to build strength, not to play in weight pulling sport). Do you need a different harnesses for each of these sports or can you have 1 harness that works for them all?
Given what I’ve heard, read, and observed, I think the key is to get a harness with a Siwash style neckline. That’s basically a Y or X shape that puts the pressure onto the dogs chest up to the breastbone and then splits from the breastbone and distributes the weight ABOVE the shoulder structures to allow for as complete of movement of the shoulder as is possible. The harnesses that cut across the chest horizontally should be avoided (this includes your no-pull harnesses). If your next question is, “How do I keep my dog from pulling?”…well, your answer never was the harness that pinches the front end together to try and limit the pulling.
Horizontal passes on the chest put undo pressure on tissues, tendons and ligaments, prevent the dog from moving naturally (which can lead to an altered gait and injury long-term). Coincidentally, I have a foot injury myself that allowed me to learn first-hand the pronounced differences in limited range of motion vs freedom to move naturally that has convinced me about how very important it is to provide for maximum mobility in the equipment we use for ourselves and our dogs. I walk my dog in a harness rather than a collar almost all the time.
So, what harness should you use? Probably a Y-shaped half harness from a mushing company or the Original Fleece-lined Harness. I actually had an Original FLH fall apart while watching a young puppy for someone. They are a little lighter than a lot of the mushing options, so, you might want something stronger for a dog that might pull hard sometimes. You can also make one pretty easily if you have a sewing machine, some skill, and a little time. Lori Stevens created the balance harness, and others have variations of it. It does allow for a lot of mobility and I have a student who likes them, but I don’t love the way it fits my dog.
For sports, from what I can tell, a carting siwash harness will attach lower than your mushing X-back is designed to, so that’s what I’m starting my dragwork with with the intention to attach to lightweight carts (a jogging stroller to start) to train the skill with the ultimate goal of doing low level resistance work for conditioning at slow speeds (walk and trot). The freight/weight pulling harness is designed to drag low, bringing the straps between the front legs and straight back from there with a spreader bar. The joring sports (bike/ski) require a higher angle of attachment and those straps look similar to the weight pull harness except they angle up from between the front legs.
So, it looks like you can’t just have 1 harness that does it all because the straps come back from different angles. I bought a Wilczek style carting harness from Nordkyn. For beginning ground work, it looks like it’d be good to have a spreader bar to keep the traces from converging (which can alter the action of the rear legs). I used 2 separate chains, one on each trace and called it good. I might bother with creating a spreader bar if my dog needed a lot more groundwork to become comfortable. Curious about that journey?
I think it’s pretty simple that the Siwash neckline is a must. For your heavy pulling dogs that will drag you without a thought, I think it’s imperative to train to a level of responsiveness that allows you to guide your dog around. If we can train giant animals like horses to walk with us, it can be done. I know it’s pretty impossible to steer an untrained large dog. But I also know that I have driven horses on downtown city streets in all sorts of circumstances and I wouldn’t say I could do that with a horse that hasn’t been trained to work in that environment. When we introduce a horse to that work, we have 2 people on hand for the process over a number of days. So, while a harness isn’t the magic answer to getting your dog to walk considerately on leash, it is the option that is best for your dog’s health.