Who's a Good Dog?


Monday Mythbusters: Will a harness encourage my dog to pull?

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Arlo out for a walk.

Have you heard the one about how wearing a harness will teach your dog to pull? Me too. I mean, it kind of makes sense, right? Harnesses make it more comfortable for your dog to lean in, so your dog continues pulling you down the street, or toward another dog, or maybe into the grass to sniff a discarded pizza crust.

The truth is that humans, and not harnesses, teach dogs to pull. How? By letting dogs pull us. Dogs pull because it works to get them where they want to go. Some equipment is designed to make pulling uncomfortable—choke and prong collars, for example. And you can also buy no-pull harnesses. But I bet that, like me, you’ve seen dogs on all of these devices pulling their humans down the street, sometimes at the expense of choking and coughing and, in some cases, incurring serious physical damage. They are pulling, because it’s still working for them, and the discomfort caused by the collar or no-pull harness does not override their desire to explore their environment.

I prefer a harness precisely because it is more comfortable for the dog, and not because it encourages or discourages pulling. In fact, when I’ve got a strong puller, I want a harness so that the dog isn’t choking himself.

Once I’ve got a properly fitted harness (Balance Harness is my current fav), I start teaching the dog to keep a loose leash. In other words, it’s not the harness that’s teaching the dog to pull or not. It’s me.

For years I have successfully used the method demonstrated in this series of videos by Helix Fairweather.  Try it and see what you think. Again, I prefer to use a harness, but you could use this approach on a flat buckle or martingale collar. There is, in fact, a lot of good information available about how to teach leash manners (there is also a lot of terrible information). If you need help, hire a qualified positive trainer, or join a class. Most basic manners classes include instruction in leash walking.  You might even be able to find a class devoted solely to leash walking.

But don’t be fooled by someone who tells you harnesses teach pulling. It’s simply not true. If that person is your neighbor or your cousin, nod and smile. If that person is a trainer, you may want to take your business elsewhere, especially if his method of choice is anything aversive. You don’t need to hurt your dog to teach him to walk politely on a leash (or to teach anything else).

Last, here’s a screen shot from a video I took last week on a walk with Franz and Maria, both of whom are wearing harnesses.  (Maria has a Balance Harness, and Franz has a Hurtta.)  Maria spotted a dead bird and wanted to investigate. We weren’t close enough for her to make contact, but that didn’t stop her from being curious.  I stopped and waited for her to check back in with me.   I was also reinforcing Franz, the ultimate good boi, doin me a voluntary check-in.  In the bottom right, you can see the loose leash on Maria, even though she is super interested in that dead bird.

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Further Reading

“The Best Harnesses” Whole Dog Journal. 3/9/2017.

Larlham, “Is it Harmful to Attach a Leash to your Dog’s Neck?”

Bekoff, “Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked or Pronged?”