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How to Choose the Right Harness For Your Dog

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A dog wears a red harness across his chest. Learning how to choose the right harness for your dog can help with walks and preventing injury.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, meaning that Embark may receive a small commission if you make a purchase. All linked products have been reviewed by a veterinarian. 

Pet stores and online retailers offer modern dog owners a dizzying array of training and walking tools. Collars, harnesses, leashes, and other equipment keep your dog close and safe during walks and other adventures. With so many options available, however, it can sometimes be a challenge to select the right tools for your dog. 

A well-fitting harness has many advantages for dogs and pet parents. These tools come in several styles to accommodate dogs of all sizes and suit different training needs. Read on for tips on how to choose the right harness for your dog. 

Three benefits of dog harnesses

In the past, the default equipment for walking a dog was typically a flat buckle collar and a leash. However, dog harnesses have grown in popularity in recent years. They offer several significant benefits over other walking tools, making them a smart investment for dog lovers. 

1. Improve your dog’s manners on walks 

Poor leash manners can make walks unpleasant for dogs and humans alike. No one enjoys walking a dog that lunges at passing joggers or tugs incessantly on the leash. Bad behavior can also be dangerous if your dog pulls you down or yanks the leash out of your hands. 

Fortunately, a harness can help you train your dog to walk more politely. A proper harness can improve security and control and be much more comfortable than a collar.  More confident and engaged dogs will be easier to train to walk at your side. 

Additionally, a no-pull harness that attaches with a front clip will pivot the dog back to the owner when they pull. This feature prevents forward motion without causing pain to the dog. By making tugging on the leash less rewarding, this tool helps extinguish unwanted behavior. 

2. Manage leash reactivity

Some dogs will bark or lunge at passing dogs, humans, vehicles, and other triggers during a walk. Known as leash reactivity, this behavior occurs when dogs overreact to everyday situations while on a leash. 

Because this type of leash reactivity is a true behavioral issue, veterinarians recommend working with a certified trainer or veterinary behaviorist to implement a positive training program, as well as using a front-clip harness. 

A harness gives you greater control over a reactive dog than a buckle collar. A front-clip harness will spin the dog back to you if they jump or lunge, preventing them from making contact with their trigger. Also, dogs cannot easily slip out of a properly fitted harness, so you can be confident that your dog will not get loose and charge at another animal or human. Using this tool when walking a reactive dog will help keep everyone safe and allow you to focus on training your dog. 

3. Protect your dog from injury

Flat-buckle collars and aversive tools like prong collars can injure your dog. A 2020 study tested a variety of collars and slip leads and found that all of the tools applied enough pressure to injure a dog’s neck. The risk of injury compounds if the dog pulls hard enough on the leash to choke or if you yank back on the leash in an attempt to control your dog. 

Pressure from a collar can worsen underlying medical conditions, such as a tracheal collapse  or an injured neck or back. Tracheal collapse refers to a condition where the cartilage in the trachea (windpipe) weakens. When the trachea weakens, it decreases normal airflow and becomes so severe that it prevents breathing. Toy and small breeds like Maltese and Yorkshire Terriers suffer from collapsed tracheas more frequently than larger dogs. Added pressure from a collar can cause discomfort, coughing, and further decrease airflow. 

As well as decreasing pressure on the neck, harnesses can also offer back support that collars can’t. Harnesses wrap around the dog’s chest and rib cage and help to distribute force. Dogs who have a history of or predisposition to neck or back injuries due to intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) may benefit from a harness for safer handling and mobility assistance

Consider routine use of a harness for walks, especially if your dog is a small breed, a breed at risk for IVDD, or in general to prevent collar-related injuries. 

Types of dog harnesses 

There are several common styles of harnesses that serve different purposes. Knowing how to choose the right harness for your dog will allow you to select the optimal walking tool based on their behavior and size. 

Classic harness

A classic harness is a device made out of nylon straps that wrap around the dog’s neck and chest. This harness is generally more affordable than other styles due to its simple design and lack of padding. 

Typically, you will put a classic harness on your dog by pulling it over their head and having the dog step into the leg holes. The leash attaches to the harness by a ring located on the back strap. 

The classic style evenly distributes the tension from the leash across the dog’s chest and back. However, this harness may make it more difficult to restrain larger or more exuberant dogs. It would not be a good tool for a dog who is still working on leash manners (i.e., not pulling).

We recommend the Red Dingo Classic Dog Harness, an excellent classic harness that comes in a variety of bright colors. It features five adjustable straps, allowing you to fit the harness securely to your dog’s body. The Red Dingo Classic Harness stands out in part due to its stainless steel D-ring, which is sturdier than the plastic alternative, and for its overall durability. This harness is rated 4.4 stars for durability, 4.4 stars for sturdiness, and 4.2 stars for comfort. Some customers note that the sizing tends to run small, so it may not be the best option for larger dogs, and we don’t recommend this harness for any dogs who tend to pull on walks.

Back-clip harness

A back-clip harness has a D-ring that allows you to attach the leash to the center of the dog’s back. This popular style is easy to use, and many versions come with padding to prevent chafing around the dog’s armpits and neck. However, a back clip harness can give your dog extra leverage to jump and pull, so it should only be used for well-trained dogs with good leash manners. 

Some versions do not require you to pull a loop over your dog’s head, making this style ideal for animals who have handling sensitivities. 

The Ruffwear Hi & Light Harness is a durable, lightweight back-clip harness. It has four points of adjustment for a comfortable fit, and is available in a range of sizes, from XXXS to XL. Because it’s lightweight, this harness is ideal for dogs who don’t like wearing bulky gear. Like the Red Dingo Classic Harness, we don’t recommend the Ruffwear Hi & Light Harness for strong pullers.

Front-clip harness

A front-clip style is the best harness for large dogs or dogs who pull on the leash. This harness resembles the classic type, but it includes a D-ring to attach the leash to the front chest strap. Like a horse halter, this harness gives you more control by turning the dog back to you when they try to pull ahead. 

Some front-clip harnesses also include a back clip, allowing you to switch between the two attachment styles during your walk. You can also attach a leash to each connection point for extra security if you are worried about your pet potentially breaking free. 

The PetSafe Easy Walk Harness or the PetSafe 3-in-1 Dog Harness are our top picks for multipurpose front-clip harnesses. Both of these harnesses are ideal for strong pullers. The reflective nylon material will keep your dog visible during early-morning or late-night adventures. In addition to the same safety and durability features of the Easy Walk Harness, the 3-in-1 Harness includes three leash attachment options, including dual front and back clip options and a seat belt loop that you can use to secure your dog in the car.

Soft-vest harness

A soft-vest harness slips easily over your dog’s head. The fabric material will keep your pet comfortable during long walks. Look for a mesh material to prevent your dog from overheating

The PUPTECK Soft Mesh Dog Harness is ideal for small dogs. The harness comes in several vibrant colors, and it’s made out of breathable mesh fabric to help keep your dog cool. The PUPTECK Soft Mesh Harness is rated 4.4 stars for value for money, 4.3 for sturdiness, 4.3 for comfort, and 4.0 stars for durability.

How to measure a dog for a harness

You can easily measure your dog for a harness using a few simple guidelines. You will need to use a tape measure to take two measurements: 

  • Chest girth: Measure the circumference of your dog’s rib cage at the widest spot, typically right behind the front legs. 
  • Neck girth: Measure the dog’s neck from the ridge just behind the shoulder blade to the top of his chest and then back to the shoulder blade. 

If one of the measurements falls between two sizes, you should opt for the larger size.  

Ideally, you should be able to place two fingers between the harness and the dog’s body. If you can’t slip both fingers beneath the fabric, the harness is too tight and can injure your dog. By contrast, if you can fit three or more fingers, the harness is too loose. Loose-fitting harnesses can be very easy for dogs to slip out of—especially if they pull backwards. Adjust the straps or exchange the harness for a different size that will better fit your canine. 

Dog harness safety tips

A harness is a useful tool that can make your walks with your dog more enjoyable and help avoid unwanted behaviors. However, there are several important safety tips to keep in mind when using a harness: 

  • Always use the two-finger rule to ensure that your pet’s harness fits securely. A loose harness can end in disaster if your pet slips free. A tight harness can hurt your dog or cause them to develop negative associations with the equipment. 
  • Know how to put on a dog harness safely. Most standard harnesses will slip over the dog’s head. You will then gently guide your dog’s legs through the holes and secure the buckle behind the dog’s head. However, some versions may also require you to secure a strap under your dog’s belly. Always make sure that all straps are properly buckled before heading out with your dog. 
  • Reflective material will provide greater visibility for you and your dog during early morning or evening walks, keeping you safe from vehicles. 
  • Use a back-clip harness for maximum comfort when jogging with your dog. 

For more information about exercising with your dog safely, check out our guide to hiking with your dog and some tips for the dog park.

Writer Dr. Brianna Anderson smiles at the camera while standing in front of a lake.

Brianna Anderson, PhD Contributor

Brianna Anderson is an educator, editor, and freelance writer. She teaches writing classes at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She received her PhD in English from the University of Florida, where she specialized in children's literature, digital writing, environmental literature, and popular culture. There, she served as the managing editor of the academic journal ImageTexT. She also holds a BA and MA in English.

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