Many PDTE members use and recommend harnesses when it comes to walking dogs. There are many reasons for this, but in a nutshell:
Harnesses don’t put any pressure on the delicate neck area. There is evidence to suggest that continued pressure on the neck and throat can lead to back and neck problems, as well as issues linked to thyroid damage and eye problems. Swedish behaviourist Anders Hallgren conducted a study of 400 dogs in 1992, in which he found that 63% of the dogs had neck and spinal injuries. Of those dogs, 91% had been exposed to jerks on the lead or had a long history of pulling and straining on the end of a lead. He found that "pulling and jerking on the leash affect especially the neck and throat of the dog...the muscles that absorb the pressure are situated mostly at the sides of the neck. The neck and throat are almost unprotected."
If a dog lunges or accelerates quickly, there is no risk they will give themselves whiplash while wearing a harness. Even if a dog ‘never pulls’, there is always a chance that something might catch them off guard or the human might fall over and jerk the lead themselves!
Due to the strain and discomfort a collar can cause, many dogs start to walk in a more relaxed manner just by switching to a harness.
‘Handler error’ has less of an impact. When people are nervous, in a hurry or even just new to walking dogs, they will naturally tighten and/or pull on the lead. With a harness, the impact of this tension on the dog is reduced significantly.
For dogs to learn, they need as much oxygen going to the brain as possible. Pressure on the throat from a collar compromises this. Additionally, if they are worried about something and their reaction (lunging, running away etc.) becomes paired with the feeling of the collar tightening, this discomfort can become associated with the thing they originally feared.
When we influence a dog’s head movements, we influence their ability to communicate with other dogs effectively. Harnesses are more ‘hands off’ - they allow the dog to look around, investigate and use calming signals just that little bit more easily. The lead is also less likely to get caught around the dog's feet when using a harness.
Harnesses make it easier to get out of a sticky situation! It is much easy to grab onto a harness than risk choking a dog by grabbing its collar - if you wanted to get your dog out of a situation very quickly, think about which piece of equipment is going to be preferable. One of my clients experienced this recently when her puppy fell into a freezing cold pond - apparently it was a big relief to be able to pull her out by her harness rather than yanking her out by the throat!
It is worth bearing in mind that not all harnesses are created equal - some designs are uncomfortable for dogs and restrict movement. The gait of the dog should not be affected, and shoulder joints in particular need to be able to move freely. A Y-shaped harness which is snug (but not tight) is ideal. And a great range of attractive colours helps as well! Harriet Alexander is a dog trainer and behaviourist in London. www.harrietalexander.co.uk