Whether it's a new puppy harness or a step-in or overhead harness for your adult dog, you may have trouble figuring out how to put a harness on a dog correctly. Harnesses for dogs are coming out in many new flashy designs. Not every dog is eager to have one slipped over their head, nor do all of them want to stand still long enough for you to buckle them in.
We created a step-by-step guide for putting a harness on and checking that it fits correctly to help with this problem.
How to put on a dog harness (step-by-step)
If your dog has never worn a harness before or has had a bad experience with one, it's best to start putting the new harness on through a step-by-step process. This method will help your dog associate the harness with something positive and learn to accept it calmly and happily.
- Put your new harness on the ground for your dog to smell and become aware of.
- Use clicker training to reward your dog for going near the harness or simply throw treats around it.
- Keep your dog calm. Do not over excite it. A dog that learns to become over-excited when it sees the harness will probably not stand still when you try to put it on. Therefore, reward for calm behavior.
- Gradually stop rewarding your dog just for going straight to the harness and start rewarding them for standing quietly over it.
- Once your dog has learned to approach and stand quietly when they see the harness, you can start putting it on.
- If it is a step in harness, your dog should now have learned to stand over it. From here, you can either move the paws to stand inside the harness or to continue to lure your dog with a to teach them to stand in the correct place themselves.
- When the dog is standing in the harness, simply lift it up and clip it over the back. Reward them. Allow them some time to become accustomed to the feeling of wearing it. You can make it positive by distracting them with a favorite game of tug or fetch.
- With an overhead harness, loosen the girth buckles and lure your dog's head through the hole for the neck with a treat.
- When your dog associates having the harness over the neck with a treat, buckle the body part on and reward. Again, take time to allow your dog to become used to the feeling of wearing it while distracting with a fun game or favorite toy.
- Once your dog is comfortable, leave it on for a while around the house.
- As soon as your dog is accustomed to the harness and has been trained to stand still while you slip it on, clip on your leash or seatbelt if you are traveling, and go out for your first walk.
Why choose a harness instead of a collar?
When the collar is the most common accessory a dog usually has, you may be wondering why you should consider a harness at all.
Collars often cause damage to a dog's trachea either through pulling or in the case of accidents that jerk on your dog's neck. In extreme cases, this can also damage the neck vertebrae or causes ear, eye, and nerve damage.
Veterinarian Peter Dobias even argues that collars can cause hypothyroidism in dogs. This is an endocrine disorder that can result in weight gain, skin issues, lethargy, and even behavioral problems like aggression.
A good harness distributes weight across your dog's shoulders and back, so it prevents damage to the dog's sensitive neck area.
Types of dog harnesses
As the pet industry grows, you may have noticed an increase in the types of harnesses available. Some are highly specialized, such as harnesses for weight pulling, sledding, or bikejoring.
But unless you are taking part in a specific sport, you may be wondering which of the more typical harnesses to choose from. The most common types you will come across are:
- Step in
- No Pull
- Seat belt
Choosing the right harness type for your dog
Choosing the correct harness for your dog depends on several factors, including their size, behavior on a leash, personality, and health.
Standard Dog Harness
The standard dog harness is the most common type you will find in stores. It usually has a D-ring on the back to clip the leash on. It is typically made up of two attached and adjustable nylon straps that fit around the dog's neck and girth.
Some can be adjusted only around the girth, while others can be adapted around both the girth and neck.
Most owners will use the standard harness as an overhead by keeping the neck clips fixed and slipping them over the head. Then they will follow the straps underneath the legs and clip them closed over the back.
Check that the straps don't get twisted at any point.
It's usually a simple kind of harness. You only need to make sure that it fits correctly by checking that you can slip two fingers between the straps and the dog.
The standard harness is usually a good choice for smaller dogs or dogs trained to walk quietly beside their owners. On the other hand, it can encourage bigger dogs to pull and make it harder to control them if they have behavioral issues such as leash reactivity.
The step-in harness is a good choice for dogs who don't like something going over their head. You can simply train or encourage your dog to step into the holes for the legs and then clip the harness shut over the dog's shoulders.
Like the standard harness, they are usually made from nylon and good for well-mannered dogs and smaller ones. However, they may make it more difficult to control dogs who are bigger, reactive, or tend to pull.
Some dogs also learn how to put their front legs up like a child pulling their shirt off to escape this harness, so be sure to try it out at home before going out with it. It can also be tricky figuring out which side is the front and which side is the back.
To fit this harness, you will need to measure your dog's neck and girth and then check with the manufacturer's guidelines to ensure the right size for your dog.
This harness is typically used by owners training larger dogs or any dog that has an issue with pulling. There are different types, but one of the most widely used by trainers is the front clip no-pull harness.
The idea is to use a double-ended leash that clips on both the front and back of the harness so that the dog can be pulled off-balance if it becomes unmanageable. This helps avoid the choking and health issues that come with a collar while still giving the owner significant control of the dog.
It also works with the opposition reflex, which is an animal's instinct to pull or push against something that is pulling or pushing on it.
It can come in different designs and fit according to whether it is a standard, overhead, or step-in harness.
Overhead harnesses come in a wide range of designs and typically have more padding around the chest and back area, which distributes a dog's weight more comfortably than simple straps.
You can also get no-pull overhead harnesses for extra-control and safety, so this is a good choice for a variety of dogs.
Be sure that the material is breathable, as dogs can't sweat and are prone to overheating.
To fit this harness:
- Unbuckle the chest straps, and loosen the neck opening.
- Slip the hole over for the neck over the dog's head.
- Buckle in around the girth and use the two-finger test to check that the harness is loose enough not to dig into your dog's skin but not so open they can wriggle out of it.
Seat Belt Harness
Like the harnesses, the seat belt harness should fit snugly but not too tight. They should cover a wider area of your dog's chest, shoulders, and back to distribute the force in case of a crash or sudden stop.
They should also come with a clip for a seatbelt, naturally.
Seat Belt harnesses can come in different designs and should be fitted accordingly. Always measure your dog and check the brands sizing guidelines before purchasing.
How to Measure Your Dog for a Harness
To correctly measure your dog for a harness, you usually need two measurements.
The first should be of the neck. In this case, you wrap the measuring tape around your pup's neck just below where their collar usually goes or slightly above the shoulders.
Be sure not to measure too tightly. Allow for two fingers width between the tape and your dog's neck, but no more than that.
For the second measurement, you need to get the circumference of the girth. For this, you measure from the back, behind the shoulders, around the deepest part of the chest. Usually, this is an inch or two behind the elbows.
You may also want to weigh your dog. If you happen to own a micro breed like the Teacup Min Pin, you can probably weigh them on a kitchen scale.
If your dog is bigger, but you can still pick it up, you can use your bathroom scale. Simply weigh yourself, then get on the scale again, this time holding your dog.
Deduct your weight from the total of you and your dog together, and you will have your dog's weight.
For those giant breed lovers who own dogs like the Saint Bermastiff, the best means of weighing your dog without damaging your back is simply to take them to the vet and weigh them on the specialized scales there.
Harness Sizing Chart
After measuring your dog, make sure to check the manufacturer's guidelines, as each company will have its own chart for determining sizes. Just like human clothing stores, sizes can differ quite widely depending on the brand.
For instance, this is the size chart of the Pawsafe no-pull harness:
You can get a general idea of what size might fit your dog using a dog harness chart by breed. But be sure to check the individual weight chart. If in doubt, or if your dog is unusually proportioned, make sure to call the manufacturer first to make sure.
How Should a Dog Harness Fit?
- A dog harness should be snug but never so tight that it constricts movement, chafes, or digs into your dog's skin.
- At any point on the harness, including around the neck, girth, and shoulders, you should be able to slide in two fingers between the strap and the dog.
- But make sure it is only two fingers! More than that and your dog will easily be able to wriggle out of it.
- Check your harness when your dog is standing, sitting, and lying down to ensure it fits in all positions.
- Make sure that the girth strap fits behind the elbows but does not touch them. It should also not fall behind the ribs. A poorly fitting harness digs into the elbows or sits too high on the dog's neck.
A final word
A harness is a worthy investment for your dog. It saves them from unhealthy pressure on their neck or the dangers of whiplash. When fitted correctly, it should be comfortable, lightweight, and breathable.
You can also pick your harness based on functionality, whether for traveling safely with your dog buckled in or a no-pull harness to check our overeager pups.
Once you've chosen your harness and made sure it fits correctly, you can get out there and enjoy the world with your pup safely at your side. Happy trails!
Gibeault, Stephanie MSc. “Mark & Reward: Using Clicker Training to Communicate With Your Dog.” American Kennel Club, 24 Dec. 2019, www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/clicker-training-your-dog-mark-and-reward. Manteca, Xavier, and Jaume Fatjó. “Difficulties in The Diagnosis of Dominance Aggression in Dogs - WSAVA2002 - VIN.” VIN, www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=11147&catId=29492&id=3846176#:%7E:text=Hypothyroidism%20is%20one%20of%20the,only%20symptom%20is%20aggression%20itself. Accessed 20 Mar. 2021. Miller, R. M. “The Opposition Reflex.” ScienceDirect, 1 Aug. 1996, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0737080696801390. Tina. “Be Careful – How Dog Collars Are The Hidden Cause Behind Injuries.” Citizen Canine, 14 May 2014, www.citizencanine.net/be-careful-how-dog-collars-are-the-hidden-cause-behind-injuries.
Gibeault, Stephanie MSc. “Mark & Reward: Using Clicker Training to Communicate With Your Dog.” American Kennel Club, 24 Dec. 2019, www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/clicker-training-your-dog-mark-and-reward.
Manteca, Xavier, and Jaume Fatjó. “Difficulties in The Diagnosis of Dominance Aggression in Dogs - WSAVA2002 - VIN.” VIN, www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=11147&catId=29492&id=3846176#:%7E:text=Hypothyroidism%20is%20one%20of%20the,only%20symptom%20is%20aggression%20itself. Accessed 20 Mar. 2021.
Miller, R. M. “The Opposition Reflex.” ScienceDirect, 1 Aug. 1996, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0737080696801390.
Tina. “Be Careful – How Dog Collars Are The Hidden Cause Behind Injuries.” Citizen Canine, 14 May 2014, www.citizencanine.net/be-careful-how-dog-collars-are-the-hidden-cause-behind-injuries.