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Alex Wilson from Xtra Dog looks at Dog harnesses and how different harnesses suit different dog activities.
I am sitting in a mini-bus owned by Kris Hoffman, an American dog musher based in Steamboat Springs in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, heading to his ranch 10 miles north of town to enjoy the opportunity to mush (driving sled dogs) an eight dog team of Alaskan huskies over a 12 mile trail. As we approach, I can see Kris preparing the team that I will be driving: the dogs are jumping about in the snow whilst having their harnesses put on, obviously very excited in anticipation of pulling the sled.
Recently in Pet Product Marketing I read that harnesses do not stop dogs pulling as they are used for sled dogs that are trained to pull in harness. This is both true and false. There are many different harnesses on the market, all of which are designed for different jobs. My company, Xtra Dog, not only designs walking harnesses, but also imports from the USA working harnesses designed to encourage dogs to pull; we in fact stock a range of six harnesses, all of which are designed to do a different job. I have no intention of using this article to plug our own range, but to give retailers, dog trainers, behaviourists, groomers, etc., who read this magazine, some information about different types of harnesses and what they are used for.
A working or sledding harness is designed to encourage the dog to pull: for sledding, scootering, tracking, cani-X (cross country running with a dog), skijoring, bikejoring or roller blading it is essential to have the dog leaning forward and pulling into the harness. Pam Beckstrom from Adanac Sleds in the US, whose company designed the X-back harness (a standard for sledding sports and commonly used harness for cani-X ) over half a century ago, explains:
“It was over fifty years ago that Mel Fishback Riley, former Californian and, at the time of her death, a true Montanan, started designing and making the X-back harnesses for racing, training with skis or bike, lead dog training and pleasure use. She started out making five types of X-backs and laboriously hand stitched freight and weight pulling harnesses. In the beginning, Mel did not have access to fleece padding so she used airline blanket seconds and mattress pad scraps on all her harnesses. She insisted on acrylic woven blankets because she said they held up better.”
The X-back fits snugly around the neck of the dog and forms an “X” across the dog’s back. The point of contact is at the base of the tail so it will encourage the dog to pull into the harness, thus making it ideal for any dog involved in pulling sports, as explained above. An X-back is totally unsuitable for pet application, as they should only be used when the dog is going to run and not as an everyday harness. Our dogs are both pets as well as sledding dogs – they know when they see the X-back come out that we are off to pull – they start jumping about with excitement. However, they also know that when they wear a walking harness the job in hand is completely different.
Walking into my local pet shop, the choice of dog harness seems endless and many of them make claims that they will stop dogs pulling, but how many pet shop owners understand the principles of pulling dogs? I spoke to TV personality, dog trainer and TellingtonTTouch instructor, Sarah Fisher, who explained:
“Any equipment used on a dog has an impact on his posture and as posture and behaviour are linked it is important that the equipment used is of benefit to both the dog and the handler. Harnesses relieve pressure on the neck and can reduce common problems such as pulling, lunging and lead frustration, but if there is only one point of attachment on the back of the harness these problems can be exacerbated. Dogs that are walked regularly in harnesses with just one point of attachment on the back often learn to brace through the shoulders and tighten the back which can have a detrimental effect on the dog.
“A dog has more than 60 per cent of his body weight over his fore quarters and can naturally out walk a human. Having two points of contact (i.e., a back and front ring) is key to teaching dogs to move in balance by their handler’s side and many owners are stunned at the instant effect two points of contact has on their dog’s posture and behaviour when on the lead.”
There are a number of harnesses on the market specially designed with a front connection ring as well as a standard top ring. At Xtra Dog, we have a fleece lined walking harness with this in mind. This harness is designed by Marie Miller, who is recognised as one of the UK’s leading dog behaviourists and a TTouch practitioner, and Sindy Ratani, a designer of dog sledding equipment. They came up with the idea based on the front end of a sledding X-back harness. It sits on the shoulder of the dog, and goes under its front legs with two connections on the top and the front (breastbone).
Marie explains more: “There are a number of ways to help a dog to learn to walk in balance on a loose lead. The TTouch Balance Lead technique requires the use of a 6ft training lead. The simple action of looping the lead to form a containing barrier on the dog’s chest can be really helpful to teach him to walk in balance and can help the dog to regain self control if he becomes over excited. If he leans into the lead, briefly meet the pressure and then melt by relaxing again, giving the dog nothing to lean against. He may immediately lean again, so repeat until the dog stops leaning into the lead and stands/moves in his own balance. This is a smooth movement, not a jerk. Meet the pressure and then melt away.You can use the Meet and Melt technique when the dog is wearing a harness. You need a lead with a clip at either end so that you can have two points of contact. Your harness might have two clips, e.g., a ring on the back and a ring at the chest or you could clip onto the back ring of the harness and the flat collar.”
I have heard scepticism of this technique for stopping dogs pulling and even though I have personally worked with several hundred dogs with a more than 80% success rate, not everyone believes that this will work.
Tessa Wakeling from Klewagin Huskies (who breeds, shows and races Siberian huskies) was a sceptic about this method for working dogs. When I first met Tessa, she challenged me to convince her that it would work. They have around 18 dogs, one of whom, Shnice who is a racing dog, Tessa found impossible to walk on a loose lead. I fitted a front ringed harness onto Shnice and Tessa took her dog with a double-ended lead. Shnice immediately changed her on-lead posture and started to walk quietly along-side Tessa – this continued for a quarter of a mile. Tessa became a convert and tells everyone about this approach to dog walking.
The Xtra Dog harness is not the only harness on the market that benefits from a front ring to stop dogs pulling. Sarah Fisher’s TTouch harness, also distributed by Xtra Dog, is specifically designed for this purpose as well as other aspects of Tellington TTouch. More information about TTouch can be found at www.ttouchtteam.com, and there are others on the market too.
An important point to think about when selling harnesses is the fit. There are too many dogs wearing harnesses that do not fit them correctly. Many manufacturers sadly do not make harnesses in enough sizes and unfortunately pet shops often tend to sell harnesses that do not fit correctly. A harness should fit snugly, with space for two fingers all the way around, but not tight. If the harness has a front ring then it is essential that that ring sits on the breastbone of the dog and does not move when the dog is walked. It is also worth considering that some dogs, particularly some cross-breeds may not fit a standard fit harness, and some companies including Xtra Dog offer a custom fit service based on measurements of a dog.
Remember, whatever dog activity you take part in there may be a harness for that job. A harness designed for sledding will not work for loose lead walking or flyball. There is nothing worse than going home with a nice new harness only to find that it is either the wrong size or not suitable for the job intended. For example, we have had many customers who have bought our fleece walking harness and asked if it can be used for Cani-X. The problem with this scenario is that a walking harness will balance a dog and stop it pulling whilst a multi-sport type of harness or an X-back are both ideal for Cani-X and will allow the dog to lean forward and pull.
There are a number of companies like ourselves who specialise in designing and marketing harnesses for specific uses, so please talk to us before ordering a harness. The first harness that you find may not be right for your needs, and could cause an unhappy customer or, worse still, an injured dog.
Kindly Supplied by: Alex Wilson, Xtra Dog