My two dogs love the freedom that our fenced-in backyard offers to them, but in my opinion, nothing beats a daily leashed walk around the block. Not only does going for a leashed walk remind my dogs of their obedience training and reinforce good manners, but it also offers mental stimulation, as a walk permits my dogs to smell new things and interact with new environments. Before I can take my dogs on a walk, though, I need to make sure they are wearing the proper gear for such a venture. That’s where choosing the right harness, collar, and leash comes into play.
There are a variety of choices on the market for taking pets on walks, and it can be a little difficult to sort through all of them to choose the right product for you and your dog. Below are five steps you can follow to help you pick out a collar, leash, or harness for your dog.
1. Determine Your Purpose
The first step is to determine the function of the product. Are you going to take your dogs on brief walks? Are you going to be using leashed walks for training? Are you trying to train your dog not to pull against the leash? Your answers to these questions will determine what exactly you should look for in a collar, harness, or leash.
I personally primarily use collars for holding my dogs’ identification tags, not for leashes, because I worry about putting pressure on my dog’s trachea. Dr. Amber Andersen, a veterinarian and Certified Veterinary Journalist with Point Vicente Animal Hospital, agrees with this choice. “Harnesses are preferred over collars for almost every activity, as they distribute force evenly throughout the dog, rather than placing stress around a dog’s neck and trachea,” she said.
However, collars do come in handy when it comes to training dogs, and some trainers recommend collars for teaching a dog to behave on walks. Amy Robinson, a professional dog trainer and creator of Drool School, recommends martingale-style collars with chain closures for most dogs. “This collar is kind, and the limited closure prevents injury, but gives the owner a little more leverage,” she said.
Of course, when using these collars, dog owners should take care not to apply too much pressure. “Ideally, all training collars should be used with little pressure,” Robinson explained. “It’s better to give a couple of tug-and-release moves than to hold tight. Holding tightly only teaches the dog to pull against you.”
When choosing a collar specifically for identification tags, Robinson recommends buckle collars over nylon collars with plastic snap-in closures. “Snap-in closures can break, and also don’t release if there is a lot of pressure on the collar,” Robinson explained. She gave the example of two dogs that are playing, with one accidentally getting a tooth caught in the other dog’s collar. In this situation, “a buckle collar allows the owners to grab the end, pull, and release the dog.”
For dogs that are in the habit of pulling during walks, or for individuals who have back problems, face collars like the Gentle Leader are an option, but owners must be careful when using them. “The dog must be acclimated slowly, and the handler must be very careful to pull gently to turn the head first,” Robinson said. The body then follows the dog’s head. However, being too forceful with face collars can lead to neck injuries, and Robinson warns against jerking face collars for that reason.
Harnesses, on the other hand, are great for walks, and Robinson recommends them for nature hikes as well. “They allow your dog to investigate new smells, but still stay close to you,” she said. Small dogs with delicate throats can also benefit from harnesses, she explained, as they avoid putting pressure on the neck.
In addition to choosing the right collar and harness to fit the activity, choosing a proper leash is important as well. “I like the classic, six-foot leather leash for most purposes,” Robinson said. “I also use long lines for training the ‘come’ command.” Long lines give dogs the freedom to wander before their owners call them back, but also prevent the dog from walking too far away.
Retractable leashes may offer greater freedom to roam, but they teach dogs to associate pulling against the leash with getting rewarded with more freedom, which in turn encourages dogs to pull. In addition, the owner has less control with a retractable leash, and due to the fact that it’s difficult to reel a dog in if there is trouble, retractable leashes can be dangerous. If used at all, retractable leashes are best for older dogs and dogs that have good obedience and recall.
2. Determine Your Dog’s Size
The best way to determine your dog’s size is to bring him or her with you when you shop for collars and harnesses. Even if you know your dog’s measurements, or if your dog traditionally fits into a certain size, products can vary and fit differently. The best way to determine if something will fit your dog is to try it on ù just like you would if you were trying to determine whether an article of clothing will fit you properly.
But sometimes it isn’t that easy. Some stores, especially the kind you find in a mall, don’t allow dogs inside. Also, some dogs are excitable and better left at home, or maybe you want to buy your dog’s collars, harnesses, and leashes from an online retailer, where there is often a wider selection of prints and materials than there is in stores. In these situations, you have to determine your dog’s size ahead of time and use that information to make an informed decision on the size of the product you’re purchasing.
When it comes to collars, Andersen suggests using a tape measure to measure your dog’s neck, and then to add on a couple of inches for the collar size. If you don’t have a tape measure, Robinson suggests measuring the neck with a ribbon or string, and then using that to determine the collar length your dog needs.
For harnesses, you’ll need to measure by chest depth, Robinson explained. “Start the ribbon between the dog’s shoulder blades (withers) and circle under the chest and back to the top,” she said. Then, add a few centimeters. That’ll give you the measurement you need to correspond with the size of the harness.
3. Determine How the Product Fits
Figuring out your dog’s size doesn’t mean you’ll have an instant-fit with the collar or harness you purchase. Both collars and harnesses are made to be adjustable to accommodate growth and variances in body types. That means that you’ll probably need to adjust them to make sure they fit your dog appropriately.
“A traditional dog collar should be snug and ride high on your dog’s neck,” Andersen said. If it slides down to your dog’s shoulder blades, it’s likely too loose. However, if it’s too snug to permit two fingers between your dog’s neck and collar, it’s probably too tight.
“The same principles apply to a harness ù it should be snug, yet still allow two fingers to slip easily beneath it,” Andersen added.
A harness that is too loose can lead to an escape, so make sure that there isn’t room for a third finger to fit between the harness and your dog’s body. “Clever dogs can put their elbow in the leg hole,” Robinson said. Making sure the harness is snug will keep you from having to chase down your escape-artist dog.
4. Practice Safety
Making sure that a collar or harness fits your dog isn’t the only way to ensure comfort and safety. In addition, you should never leave your dog in a collar or harness without supervision. “It is so important to take the collar off if the dog is to be confined or crated,” said Robinson. “Many dogs have suffered injury and death from a caught-up collar.”
Not supervising your dog when he or she is harnessed can also lead to other mishaps. When my Shiba Inu, Mitsu, was a puppy, I left her in her harness after doggy daycare one day. It wasn’t long before the harness, which fit snugly at first, had been chewed off and left on the floor while Mitsu went to go nap more comfortably without it.
5. Optional: Vary Your Routine
It isn’t necessary to vary your walking routine, but it isn’t a bad idea either. “For training, I use three different collars on my dog, Mac,” Robinson said. “This mixes up the routine, and he doesn’t get too used to any type. The variety helps me gauge when he needs more work, or when he is just perfect.”
Though I prefer using harnesses for walks and leaving collars for identification purposes only, I have worked with both of my dogs to make sure they have some experience being led by collars. To me, it is important to vary our walks like this because it ensures that my dogs are versatile and can be led using either type. That way, if they attend doggy daycare or need to be boarded, they won’t be surprised if someone tries to lead them with their collars. And if there is an emergency situation and no time to harness my dogs, I’ll be able to lead them by their collars, which can be put on quicker than harnesses.
Finally, varying your routine and teaching your dog to adjust to new things will help keep your dog’s mind sharp.