It can be tricky when it comes to sifting through all types of dog harnesses on the market. Plenty of us are tempted to get the first strap harness we find without really considering if this is the best harness for our puppies or dogs.
The different types of dog harnesses have their own pros and cons and are built for different activities, so dog owners must understand what each harness is made for before purchasing. Remember, it’s important to choose the right harness rather than relying on dog collars which can cause significant neck damage.
So let’s look at the main types you may come across.
Types of Dog Harnesses
While we look at the various kinds of harnesses, keep in mind that many features can overlap. So a no-pull dog harness can also be a step-in and a tactical harness usually also features a vest rather than straps. So while these are broad categories for harnesses, there can still be plenty of overlap between them.
Perhaps the most common and easiest harness to find is a basic step-in or back-clip dog harness. This is a harness that you can lay on the ground and help your dog to step into the loops for their front legs. You then simply lift the straps over the shoulder and clip it closed with the buckle at the back.
This is also called the chest strap type harness as it has loops that go in front of the shoulders and around the girth. These are connected with a chest strap. This kind of harness was first developed in China, in roughly 150 BC. It is not a good harness for any kind of weight or sled pulling, since it doesn’t allow a dog to properly use their back legs. However, it is a great harness for everyday walks.
This is usually a good option for puppies, seniors, and small dogs, as it removes the pressure from their neck and distributes it across their torso. Many of these harnesses are quite simple with minimal straps, but some have a vest option that allows for more padding and comfort. It usually has a D-ring at the back where you can attach a leash.
Keep in mind that if your dog is pulling on the leash, you want to have a clip on the front area, which allows you to turn this harness into a no-pull harness.
No Pull Harness
A no-pull pet harness usually has a dual or front clip option. That is, you can attach the leash to a D-ring on the dog’s chest area. This means that if the dog lurches forward or pulls, the harness forces them to pivot toward you and away from the direction they want to go in.
This kind of harness gives you more control over your dog, and together with positive obedience training, you can use it to teach your dog proper walking etiquette. This is a good choice for dogs who have not yet learned to walk quietly at your side on a leash.
There are a couple of other variations of the no-pull harness.
Head Halter Harness
The head harness for dogs is a no-pull harness that looks similar to a horse halter. It usually has two straps that fit over the dog’s nose and behind the ears. The idea is that it gives the dog owner more control over the head and they can prevent pulling this way.
However, this can be a very uncomfortable and unnatural harness. A pulling dog may try to keep pulling, despite their head being held at an unnatural angle. This could possibly result in injury.
Tightening No-pull Harness
Another version of the no-pull harness dog harness is one that tightens around the chest the more a dog pulls. While this should not hurt a dog, it can be restrictive and uncomfortable. Some dogs also learn to simply ignore the tightening around their chest area, which is not ideal for unrestricted movement and breathing.
A tactical dog harness is the harness of choice for police dogs and the military. They are usually easily modified for different activities such as tracking, bite work, and even parachuting or abseiling. But even so, this is a great choice for highly active dogs that go on long hikes, runs, or even for sports such as hunting.
This is usually an extremely durable and versatile vest harness. It is made from strong nylon to protect a dog’s torso and comes with military-style MOLLE carrying systems. This means there is velcro for morale patches and ID and hook & loop attachment points so that your dog can carry items. This may include water bottles, dog food, and treats.
Carrying extra weight on walks is a great way to tire out an athletic dog.
Tactical harnesses are usually for large dogs, but you can get versions for a small breed.
Car Safety Harness
As more pet parents and states become aware of the hazards of driving with a dog loose in the car, more harnesses for car safety are becoming available. These types of harnesses are typically made with a soft vest so that the force from a sudden stop is distributed as evenly as possible across the chest. They are also made to fit with customized car seat belts.
Rehabilitation harnesses are made for dogs who have had surgery or are suffering from some type of injury or disease. This could include spinal injuries or severe hip dysplasia.
There are different kinds of rehab harnesses, some that attach to doggy wheelchairs, and most that come with a handle to allow a dog owner to lift their dog.
Another common type of harness is the Roman harness. This is usually a basic strap-type harness with a loop that fits over the front of the dog’s shoulders, and another that clips shut with a buckle around their ribcage.
This harness looks similar to step-in dog harnesses, but to fit it onto your dog, you need to slip the neck loop over the head rather than letting your dog step into it. You then clip the girth strap shut. Since this is a strap harness, make sure you fit it carefully to avoid chafing.
A Y-harness gives a dog the most range of movement so it is sometimes used in sledding sports. However, it can still be suitable for everyday walks. This kind of harness loops over the front of the shoulders at the base of the neck.
The straps fit between the neck and the shoulder blades, giving it a Y-shape when you see it from above.
There are a large variety of harnesses designed for specific dog sports. These include harnesses that attach to swimming life vests for swimming sports, or specialized weight-pulling harnesses.
A sled dog that enjoys sports such as sled racing, bikejoring, or skijoring can choose between various specialty harnesses, including:
- The X-back harness for short and middle-distance sledding or mushing.
- Half Harnesses for covering longer distances
- Weight-pulling harnesses with thick padding and well-lined straps
- H-Back Harnesses
- Bar Spreader Harnesses.
Hunting dogs often have their own vest with high visibility gear.
Service Dog Vests
Service dog vests and harnesses adapt to the type of service a dog provides. Naturally, traditional guide dogs have their own vests with handles for their owners.
Therapy or emotional support dogs wear vests that identify them in public. For instance, a diabetic alert harness typically has a patch that reads “Medical Alert Dog.”
Rescue dogs also have their own equipment, usually with harnesses that come with saddlebags. These saddlebags are great for storing medicine and first-aid kits.
Dogs that help their owners with mobility and balance have specialized Brace & Balance/Mobility Support Harness. Similarly, many dogs have a pulling harness made to pull wheelchairs.
Young service-dogs-in-training often wear cape vests with straps around the belly and chests. Like most therapy and service dogs, these vests identify the dog as a working dog and often ask onlookers not to interfere with or pet the dog.
The cape harness is perhaps the most common among the many types of service dog vests. It is designed to be an ergonomic and multi-purpose harness with a handle. They often have D-rings positioned on the side of the harness to double as a pulling harness.
Vest vs. Strap Harness
Most of the harnesses listed above can be either vest or strap harnesses. Straps are the most lightweight option, but they are more prone to chafing. On the other hand. if you choose a vest harness with fabric that covers sections of the dog’s torso, make sure the material is breathable and durable. A heavy nylon vest made from non-breathable material can restrict airflow and cause a dog to overheat.
A vest does have a few advantages. It spreads the weight of any pulling more evenly across the dog’s shoulders, back, and chest than straps. It allows for more comfortable padding and can have more add-ons, such as reflective LED strips and ID patches.
Back Clip vs. Front Clip Vs. Dual Clip Dog Harnesses
Another point that differentiates harnesses is where the clips are placed. A simple Roman or step-in harness with only a back clip where the leash is attached is fine so long as a dog is trained to walk politely at your side.
A dual-clip dog harness is usually a better bet because it has both a front clip or D-ring on the chest area and a back clip. This gives you the option of clipping the leash onto your dog’s front area and creates an immediate no-pull harness. When a dog lunges forward, the leash swings to the side and the dog is pulled around to face its owner.
Of course, service dog vests often have additional side clips for dogs that need to pull wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
We often forget how many functions dogs fulfill in our society, and we can help them do their jobs by providing them with the best possible gear. This includes harnesses chosen not only to fit your dog’s unique size and shape but also to help them in their daily activities. For sporting dogs, this means the right harness for their sport. For service dogs, it means capes that identify them and customized additions such as saddle bags and handles.
But even our pet dogs need the right harness for their daily activities. Whether it’s a simple step-in or Roman harness for walking around the block, a no-pull harness to encourage good behavior, or a tactical harness for long hikes, the right harness for your dog can make your life much easier.
Shih, H.-Y. et al., 1AD. Dog pulling on the leash: Effects of restraint by a neck collar vs. a chest harness. Frontiers. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2021.735680/full [Accessed September 8, 2022].
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.