Blasphemy

I’m going to jump right in and make some waves today.

I don’t like front clip harnesses.

To backpedal, slightly, I’ll say that I think they’re much better than any other mechanical means of teaching good leash behavior. Even if you’re a fan of prong or slip collars (which I am not) you have to admit that almost everyone who uses one is using it wrong. I mean, I saw a dog on a prong collar and a flexi-lead last weekend. Huh?

My problems are three-fold. First, I think they’re naturally a bad harness design. We’ve had two models, and on both of them you have to be ridiculously attentive to keep the leash out from under the dog’s legs. Maybe with taller dogs that’s less true. Second, on every one I’ve seen (and trust me, I’ve looked at a lot of them) the belly strap sits right behind the dog’s front legs. If you have a short-haired dog, your dog is going to experience a lot of friction on the tender skin under his front legs. And, while we’re at it, that harness construction is very easy for a dog to back out of, especially if the leash is clipped to the front. If you have your dog in a front-clip harness because he tends to panic, you’d better be using a backup connector of some kind.

I also don’t think they work all that much better at teaching good leash behavior than any other method. We used one with Silas when he was a puppy, and it taught him to walk exactly at the end of his leash. This put us in a bad training situation. He technically wasn’t pulling, but he was obviously not doing what we really wanted, either. Obeying the letter of the law, if you will. To get right down to it, no training aid is a substitute for actual training. Loose leash walking is a sign of a human and a dog who are on the same page, and you can’t fake it. If that’s what you want, you’re going to have to work for it.

Now, to really scandalize all of the positive-only trainers out there who promote front clip harnesses. I think front clip harnesses are more aversive than people realize. They’re no prong collar, and they’re better than letting a dog choke and gag pulling against a collar. Still, they aren’t comfortable. They chafe your dog’s underarms. Some models buckle very low in the front, which can inhibit your dog’s natural gait. And, what was really the last straw for me the last time I used ours, the heavy leash clip slaps against your dog’s chest every time he takes a step. Unless he’s pulling the leash tight, that is, which is a conflicting training message if I’ve ever seen one. Not to over-anthropomorphize, but how crazy would that make you? Have you ever backpacked with a poorly-fitted pack, or hiked in pants that rubbed? Did you have a good time?

I’m not saying that they’re wrong for every dog in every case. Some of the problems Silas has with his harness wouldn’t even be noticed by a dog with thicker hair, which is almost every dog. Small women who walk large or strong dogs may really need the extra leverage you get with a front-clip. It takes monumental patience to teach a dog wearing a back-clip harness not to pull. I know. I did it, and I had many an internal temper-tantrum doing it. There are many poorly designed back-clip harnesses out there, too. I’m really uncomfortable with front-clips becoming the “no brainer” default recommendation, though.

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21 thoughts on “Blasphemy

  1. They’re not for every dog, that’s for sure — but have you tried the Freedom No-Pull Harness? It can clip in front or in back, and the straps that go under the front legs are padded velvet (yes), so there is no rubbing or chafing. http://2houndswholesale.com/No-Pull-Harness/ Our dogs use these harnesses, and we love them; we’ve never had a problem getting the leash caught in front of their legs (but it may be because they are tall, as you mention?).

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    1. That’s the one we have right now, and I do (as far as these things go) like it. I also like that you can use one harness for both short leash and long-line work. (Because you should never put a long line on a front clip.)

      I’d say that with a reactive German Shepherd, you’re in the class of people who really *do* probably need the front clip.

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  2. Ugh, I so agree with you! I started out with the Sense-ible harness for Ruby. The people at my local pet store insisted it fit her correctly, but there was so much space across the chest that the whole thing would shift over, causing her to walk in this crooked way that can’t have been comfortable. I switched to a Halti, which she does quite beautifully in, but since those have become the latest no-no in the R+ community I experienced a lot of guilt for using it. She pulls like *crazy* in a back-clip harness. I switched back to the front-clip, but as she once nearly got out of it I now clip it to her collar with a tiny carabeener. This eliminates the side-pulling somewhat, and allows me to leave the belly/chest strap underneath loose enough that it doesn’t rub. It’s the best set-up I’m found so far, and I’m not abandoning the Halti entirely – I actually think it’s good to switch things up. Sometimes if we’re just walking to get the mail I clip her leash just to her collar – GASP!

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    1. I guess because I’m a Susan Garrett fan, I haven’t seen a lot of head halter backlash. (She’s a huge fan.) I think they work beautifully for some dogs. The most important thing you get with a head halter is that you can very easily redirect the dog’s attention. Some dogs do really hate the head halter–I’ve never tried one, because Silas is really fussy about things like that–but as long as you do the work to get the dog used to it, I don’t see a big problem.

      If Ruby and Silas are as much alike in person as they are in their photos, you have all of my harness fitting sympathies. The Freedom harness that Abby linked to up above fits Silas much better than his Sense-ation model did.

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      1. Ruby really doesn’t seem to mind the halti, although if we’re surprised by something and she has a really over-the-top reaction I can tell that it just adds to her frustration. I’ve seen more and more people saying its considered aversive, but honestly, if they’re pulling? Anything pulling back on them on any part of their body is not all sunshine and rainbows. I had great success with the halti with my elkhound and had no idea, since they were once as popular and oft-recommended as the front-clip harness, that they’ve become looked down upon. It’s hard to keep up with the trends.

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  3. I also meant to say, the leash getting under their legs with a front-clip is so aggravating. I’ve actually taught Ruby “fix your leash” and she will lift her front leg to let me flip the leash back into position.

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  4. I completely agree. I would have my own internal tantrums and not obvious melt downs when I used a front clip harness – it felt like every 5 feet I had to get it out from underneath Blueberry’s front leg. After the time she saw a rabbit and lunged for it and then flipped herself over with that harness – I retired it for good. I struggled for a while on whether or not to even start using a back-clip harness because I know a lot of people view the harness as simply “giving up on leash training”. Thankfully, B and I have a pretty good system of loose-leash walking/hiking. Of course, the training does not work 100% of the time – coyotes and bunnies running right in front of her can make her forget.

    I just read an article on the benefits/reasons for harnesses (although the author does propose her own front-clip harnesses). She does make some good points about why a harness does work better and doesn’t actually cause your dog to think he/she is in a sled-pulling competition. Some of the things in the article I disagreed with (an example would be exercising your dog BEFORE walking them – total hogwash as far as B is concerned. She’s not a ball/toy/stick chaser at all and seldom lets loose even in the yard to race around. Her main idea of fun IS the hike and/or walk).

    Anyway – here is the link if you’d like to check it out. http://positively.com/2014/01/14/why-does-my-dog-keep-pulling-me/

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    1. Will read!

      I don’t see the back clip as giving up at all. We bounced around through a few teaching methods, but I honestly, truly, taught Silas how to loose leash walk on a back-clip. What it requires is PATIENCE. And I mean EPIC patience. Dog pulls. Stop walking. Wait for eye-contact. Resume walking. Repeat 80,421 times per walk. I assume it would have gone faster if Silas was more willing to take treats on walks, but at the time he wouldn’t.

      If your dog is going to periodically pull anyway (reactive, high-prey drive, really loves people), I think ANY kind of harness is preferable to letting them pull on a collar.

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  5. YEP. Cooper quickly learned that, to combat the crooked walking problem that resulted from pulling, he needed to lean as hard as he possibly could to the opposite side to keep propelling himself forward. Epic fail. As Abby pointed out, they’re not for every dog!

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    1. Which I guess is what I was trying to say, albeit in a more curmudgeonly way.

      Of all the things that *could* be passed out as a panacea, they’re far from the worst. Some dogs really do thrive in them. But they really aren’t a panacea.

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  6. Yeah. I am in complete and total agreement with you. Elli, as you know, has similar fur to Silas and I dealt with way too many chafing incidents to deal with it any longer. I also am pretty much anti-tools to teaching behavior – harnesses, halters, prong or pinch collars, blah. They are all very much the same quick-fix type of solution. I adopted Elli so that I could learn with her, work through problems with her, not expect them to be solved in a single instance. I wish everyone could see it that way… but we live in a culture of fast-food and fast service. We have no patience and no work ethic. It diminishes the value of training by itself. It’s quite sad when you think about it. :/

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    1. I just find that it’s such a very, very fine line between “training tool” and “coercion.” I don’t like to see any kind of mechanical aid being promoted as a perfect fix.

      That said, some dogs couldn’t go out at all without one training tool or another, and I think it’s more important to be able to go for a walk than to split ethical hairs. They should be used *with* training, though, not *as* training.

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    1. Eh, I am being a crank and overstating my case a little. Look around and get the one that fits your dog the best. If you have a short-haired dog, the Freedom Harness is the only one I’ve liked, because it has a soft velvet belly strap. Use it *in conjunction with* good training, like consistency and giving rewards for walking along side you. When your dog has gotten the concept, switch to a more comfortable back-clip harness.

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  7. You’re so right that if someone recommends something as a great solution for every dog they’re probably just selling something.

    My foster dog Ginny came with a easy walk harness and she continually walked sideways. I wondered if it worked against the rehab we were going for her hip injury.

    That said, a front fastening harness (and before that the gentle leader snoot loop) made walking two severe pullers even possible. My first dog, Christie, pulled so hard people would come over to us to see if we were killing our dog based on her choking sounds.

    And Shadow pulled so hard my hands would be bleeding after every walk.

    In Christie’s case, I didn’t know enough about dogs to do anything but keep her from choking on a walk. But by the time Shadow came alone, I learned about clicker training. The harness helped me walk her so we could get to the point of training.

    I always walk Honey on her collar unless we’re going to be in a highly arousing setting, like a big parade or festival with lots of other dogs. Then I find the harness useful for extra control. Just in case. Maybe I should try to find a top fastening harness for the reasons you mentioned. You got me thinking.

    But all of my dogs have had thick fur. I can’t even imagine what kind of torture implement it would take to chafe Honey with all that fur.

    I’ll just say that you have the kindest cranky rant I’ve ever read. πŸ™‚

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    1. I do try to be cheerful and thoughtful . πŸ™‚ Plus, I can always see multiple sides of the case.

      I will say, about switching to a back-clip, that the ones I like best are much harder to put on and off. I go against the conventional wisdom a little and say that the “Roman” style harness, conventionally made for very small dogs, is really THE harness for short-haired dogs of any size. Step-ins will, in my experience of what seems like every one on the market, always rub behind the front legs. Some of the front-clip harnesses are just so handy, because you just drop them over the dog’s head and clip.

      Good harness fitting is, unfortunately, deeply individual, and it can be an expensive proposition to find the ONE that fits your dog the best and works for your life.

      I should post my leash-blasphemy next week–this post really got everyone thinking.

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      1. I’ve had a business idea percolating in my head. I don’t think I’m the person to do it but I figure if I share the idea enough someone will take it up.

        Anyway, I’d love to see a dog product rental company. Instead of spending $40 on a Thundershirt or $25 on a harness without knowing it will work for your dog, rent one and try it out. If it works, you can buy the rental one for a discount or a new one.

        Am I the only person who thinks such a company would be useful?

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  8. OMG. DO NOT get me started on the choke/prong + flexi leash combo. I do not get it! So frustrating!
    Even on a collar around the neck, Moses can still get his leash between his legs, so I think that problem isn’t reduced based on dog size.

    “No training aid is a substitute for actual training” = YES. This Γ— 100.

    We’ve only used harnesses on Moses and Alma when they’re pulling a cart or sled. Being a working breed with it in their genes, it’s amazing how instinct takes over once they’re hooked up. Both naturals right away. But there are specialized harnesses for that. We’ve never tried walking harnesses on regular walks, because the training and expectations draughting vs. walking are so different and we’d like to keep those things separate and not confuse the dogs.

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  9. When Koly was a puppy, his front hook harness was about the only thing that kept me from killing him. O also LOVE the complete and total lack of pressure they put on the dog’s trachea, but when Luda came along? That little bugger could get out of that harness in a single wild twist.

    Funny that you mention the side walking issue. LOL, Koly still does that when he wants to pull, even though we abandoned the front clip harness years ago!

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  10. We use slip collars. That is all we use and it is precisely because the dog can’t really back out of them. Old show dog trick…to control the dog, you must control its head. In my opinion most harnesses just don’t give enough control. 4 days of dog show. 1,800 dogs each day including obedience, show and agility and I saw no harnesses and little pulling. πŸ™‚

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