Updated: Sep 10, 2022
We must admit, we don't like dog collars. We've had healthy dogs and dogs with orthopedic and neurologic issues and none of them appreciated being tugged around by their neck. We don't blame them! In general, harnesses provide better support and control, and definitely help ouchy dogs get around better.
For dogs with injuries or who have trouble getting around, harnesses are indispensable. For hyperactive dogs who want nothing more than to chase that rabbit or squirrel, harnesses are safer and provide better control. Bottom line - harnesses are more comfortable for dogs and they make handling injured or active pets a lot easier, both on them and you/your body.
Which dogs benefit most from using a harness over a collar
Collars put pressure on a dog’s neck, which can injure their neck and trachea. This is especially true for dogs that are pullers but it's also true if you're the one pulling on the dog's collar, for example, if you're trying to pull your dog away from a piece of trash on the road or holding the collar to help your injured dog walk. Though most dogs benefit from being walked with a harness, there are some where harnesses are a "must have".
Dogs that pull on their leash or that need to be coaxed away from danger are controlled better with a harness.
Dogs who can easily slip out of their collars, such as Greyhounds, are much safer being walked with a harness.
A harness is an indispensable aid for older or injured dogs and those that have trouble getting around. Most harnesses have one or more short handles and longer handles that give you options to help injured or painful pets get around easier.
Things to look for when choosing a harness
Comfort: Everyone appreciates being comfortable and so does your dog.
A harness should fit your dog snugly throughout. It shouldn't twist or slide.
Your dog's legs should be able to move freely when wearing the harness. Some harnesses can block movement at the shoulders so be mindful of this when choosing a harness for your pet.
Straps should be soft and not irritate or cut into their skin (the armpit and groin areas should be either free from straps or have straps that are padded with soft materials like fleece).
The chest and belly areas should be wider and padded since this part of the harness bears most of the dog's weight.
Job Specific: Choose a harness that's specific for your dog's needs. Is your dog a puller? Does your dog have weak back legs or a leg that's been amputated? Do you have a wide-chested dog? There are harnesses that are specifically made to handle these jobs.
Easy to Apply/Remove: This is extremely important if your dog has mobility issues. Look for a harness that can be applied without needing to lift your dog's leg and insert it in the harness.
Adjustability: Make sure the harness has adjustable straps to fit your dog safely. For larger dogs, a harness that provides a short and long strap option will give you better control and flexibility.
Durability/Easy to Clean: Harnesses can get pretty dirty since dogs might lay down in them or kick up mud. The chest and belly areas of a harness can act as a hammock, picking up dirt and debris along the way. Check to see that your harness is easy to clean. Do I dare say "machine washable"?
Style/Color: Like collars, harnesses come in various styles and colors. Once you find the right harness, choose the color and bling that matches your dog's coat and personality. This is your dog’s social look so have fun with it!
As mentioned above ("Job Specific"), harnesses are made with specific needs in mind. That's why there are so many different types. Remember to choose a harness that's designed for the job.
Since we focus mainly on helping special-needs pets and their caregivers, we'll start with these job-specific harnesses - those designed for dogs that need help getting around.
Ruffwear is a leader in dog harnesses. We really like this harness for dogs that need more help or assistance with walking. It incorporates many of the features of Ruffwear's Everyday Harness (featured later in this article) but it covers more of the trunk and belly, and has a handle and 3 points of attachment for the leash. If you have a dog that's injured or having a bit of trouble managing stairs or moving around, this is our pick.
If you have a medium-to-large size dog with significant mobility issues, it's hard to find a better harness than the Help 'Em Up. It's the ultimate, full body harness that helps you lift, move, and walk a dog with significant mobility issues. It's great for dogs that need help standing or walking either because of an injury, illness, degenerative disorder, or even after surgery. Features of this harness include:
Sturdy looped handles to help your dog stand and walk
Has both front end and hind end harness components to support the whole body
Used in many veterinary clinics by rehabilitation professionals
Personal note: We know Lindsey and Cary Zimmerman, the owners and inventors of Help 'Em Up Harness. We've seen firsthand the ingenuity, design, and quality that goes into their products. If you need this type of harness, it's definitely worth the money. Chances are, this is the harness your dog will be using for the rest of their lives.
If you have a small-to-medium sized dog with severe mobility issues, we really like this Coodeo Dog Lift Harness. It's very affordable and does a super job of supporting the entire body. Features of this harness include:
Full body support and recovery sling that helps to lift and walk your dog
Short handle and adjustable longer straps that can double as a leash
Easy to apply without needing to lift or insert the dog's legs
Very light-weight, breathable, and soft materials that are machine washable
Personal note: The photo above is of our dog, Asher, a 50-lb pitbull with severe mobility issues (neurological) in his Coodeo Harness. This is his outdoor harness and we use both the leash clip when driving with him and the long, double handles when we're walking him. The double handles help to balance him evenly - like holding a 50-lb shopping bag :-).
Indoor, All-Day Harness
Some dogs who have trouble walking need to wear a harness all day long to help them inside the home. This harness should be super soft, supportive, and ultra-comfortable since your dog will be lying down on it much of the time.
Though this EEZWalker Harness was designed for active pullers, we recommend it as an all-day wear harness for dogs that need help throughout the day. This harness is fully lined in thick fleece making it super-soft and comfortable! It is also very durable and supportive.
Features of this harness include:
Thick, wide, fleece-lined straps makes this harness comfortable enough for all-day wear
Adjustable girth strap
No pressure on the neck or throat
Large D-ring attachment
We like the D-ring attachment because it's big enough to grab on its own without needing a leash. This is useful if you need to grab your dog quickly when trying to help them move. The D-ring is large enough to wrap it with a little vetwrap, which makes grabbing it more comfortable and non-slip. We recommend this harness for large dogs with mild-moderate mobility issues and smaller dogs. Keep in mind that this harness will not support a dog as well as the Help 'Em Up Harness or Coodeo Harness, but it can be a great all-day harness to help a dog move or walk short distances.
Personal note: Here's a picture of our dog, Asher, again. He has significant neurological issues and needs help standing and walking. Here he is in his EEZWalker Fleece Harness. He wears it comfortably all day without issue and it's perfect when we need to move him from room to room or to take him out for a short walk or potty break. When we need to walk him outside, we do so using a thick, cotton horse lead rope for better control.
Top Choices for other harnesses are…
Still on a Ruffwear kick, we love this harness because it:
Supports much of the dog's trunk with foam-padded strips across the belly and chest
Is lightweight yet very durable and easy to apply/remove
Has 2 places to attach the leash for better control
Has adjustable points to give your dog a more customized fit
Comes in awesome colors!
This is a great, affordable choice for medium-to-large sized, active dogs that love to pull. The wide chest strap helps to distribute pressure for even the strongest pullers. And next is its "little sister" harness for small dogs and puppies.
These Rabbitgoo Harnesses feature:
2 leash attachment points and a handy handle for better control
No-choke, padded chest area
Easy on, easy off with 2 release buckles
Fully adjustable for a more customized fit
Reflective strips to help make your dog visible when walking at night
There are so many harnesses on the market, that we can't stress enough how important it is to purchase a harness for your dog's specific needs. For example:
If you take your dog on road trips and they're not crated, we highly recommend using a car harness for safety. We've come across so many dogs that have hurt themselves jumping out of a car window. It happens in a split second and is more common than you think. For car safety, we recommend this harness, which has also been "crash-test certified": SOLVIT PetSafe Happy Ride Deluxe Car Harness.
For small dogs and toy breeds, it's really important to get an ultra-light, ultra-soft, padded harness. Small dogs have very delicate skin that can easily get rubbed raw from nylon harness straps. Small dogs don't usually have dense fur or as much muscle and natural protection as larger dogs. Soft, padded harnesses are a "must" for these tykes, and we recommend: Puppia Soft Dog Harness.
Tip: Measure your dog carefully before ordering. Each harness has its own measuring chart, so please follow their instructions to ensure the best fit.
This article first appeared in Vital Vet