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In search of the perfect harness

By Sally Hopkins

Visit the website for more informationTHERE are many reasons why dogs pull when on a lead - many of them originating from high levels of long-term stress caused by the pain and choking sensation around the dog's throat and neck. Pulling on a collar and lead is a rewarding behaviour for many dogs because the pain always goes when the lead is taken off, and the quicker the dog gets to its destination the sooner the painful ordeal will be over.

A harness overcomes these problems as it removes the unpleasant sensation around the dog's throat and neck so that the dog feels less inclined to pull. It also allows the dog freedom to use its head to explore its surroundings, and use calming signals and "polite" body language to the humans and dogs it meets (see www.dog-games.co.uk/calm.htm for more details).

Therefore, over the past year or so I have been doing research into finding kind and effective harnesses that I can recommend and/or sell. Some of my most useful findings were at the Pet Dog Trainers of Europe AGM in Germany in 2003 when I was able to discuss with the delegates the drawbacks and merits of a variety of different designs of harnesses, and the different types of materials that their harnesses were made from. Here are some of our findings:

This dog is calming himself by licking
This dog is giving the calming signal of lip licking as the harness is placed over its head.
* Neck Hole. The neck-strap needs to be able to come undone so that there is no need for a dog to cope with having a harness put over its face. Many dogs become fearful or stressed when a harness is placed over their head (see picture). Some designs have made the neck opening larger to overcome this problem but this also means that dogs can wriggle out and escape from the loose fitting harness.

* Leg holes. There should be two clip-buckles on the girth-strap, either side of the lead ring so that the dog does not have to lift its leg(s) in order to have the harness put on - yet another stressful and unpleasant experience for some dogs.

* Design. The angle at which the neck-strap comes off the dog's back should be approximately 90 degrees so that the harness fits comfortably on the dog's shoulder blades. Some harness designs are so impractical that they hinder the dog's natural gait and movement, and in extreme cases can actually cut into their body.

* Materials. Many harnesses are being made from hard-wearing materials that actually rub and irritate the dog's skin, either with their hard, sharp edges or from the build up of static electricity as they rub against the dog's coat.

* Padding. A few harness manufacturers have tried to overcome these drawbacks by sewing padding into various parts of the harness (eg around the neck, chest, or across the dog's back.) Unfortunately, padding cannot be used on straps where the adjustment buckles slide up and down. At the AGM a great deal of thought was given to overcoming this dilemma, otherwise harnesses would have to be individually made for each dog.

* Buckles and clips rubbing. Plastic clip-buckles or adjustment-buckles are often found to be rubbing against the dog. This is because they have been placed near the top of the dog's legs where there is constant movement. These plastic fittings should be carefully placed so that they do not rub against the dog and also have padding underneath them so that they do not rub.

* Stretched when pulled. Most harnesses are made in such a way that they are supposed to fit a wide variety of shapes and sizes of dogs. However, this means that the dog can stretch and distort the harness as the adjustment buckles gradually become loose and the straps lengthen so that the dog can slip out of the harness, or get its foot caught in it as it runs.

* No slipping. Both the girth-strap and the neck-strap should be securely fastened to either each other or to the back-strap to prevent them from twisting or slipping when the dog pulls sideways.

* Different sized dogs. Some breeds of dog are particularly difficult to find harnesses for due to their deep chest, large skull size, and the length of body etc. in proportion to the rest of their harness size. How do you make a universal harness to suit these dogs?

* Ease of putting on & taking off. It is not only the dogs that get stressed and irritable when some designs of harness are being put on or taken off. Handlers can become confused and frustrated at the complexity of some of the designs and can even have difficulty finding and attaching the lead to the harness due to the small size of the ring clip.

So what was the solution to all these problems? Well, I worked closely with a Finnish dog trainer and her team and came up with a revolutionary new design of harness that addressed all these problems.

Neck piece Whole harness

Stomach strap
Left is the harness ready to put on.
Right, the neck and front pieces clipped together.
Below left are the stomach straps.
Blow right the whole harness clipped together.

Harness

The Happy Dog harness comes in three pieces. The top piece lies across the dog's back near the base of the neck. Each of the four clips has padding underneath them to prevent them rubbing against the dog's body. The two clips that form the V are where the front Y piece is attached, while the other two clips are for the girth.

The front Y piece - the V section clips either side of the dog's neck to the top piece, while the straight part goes between the dog's front legs and clips on to the girth piece underneath the dog. Note the padding running almost the whole length of the strap, with a small amount of adjustment at each end near the clip. This design prevents the need for a dog to put its head through a neck hole. Instead it is like putting a collar on your dog.

This dog is much more comfortable without his collar Happy in his new harness

This dog is wearing a small top, small front and medium girth.

This dog is wearing a medium top, small front and medium girth.

The girth piece is padded to prevent the clip at the bottom (which the front Y piece is attached to) rubbing against the dog's chest, and this padding also prevents the edge of the strap rubbing or causing friction in the dog's armpits as it moves. The girth also has a small amount of adjustment at each end for the buckle to slide up or down to provide a snug and secure fit for the dog.

Because each piece can be bought individually the harness can be clipped together so that the correct size of top, front or girth piece is used, making it a tailor-made harness for almost any shape or size of dog. Should the dog grow or a piece need replacing, a replacement piece can be bought for very little outlay and this results in the Happy Dog harness becoming a "harness for life". - Sally Hopkins.

For further details about Happy Dog Harnesses log on to: http://www.dog-games.co.uk/shop/ or info@dog-games.co.uk

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