Harnesses are for pulling

Military style training went out awhile ago (thank goodness) as we learned to apply basic principles of animal behavior to our training. Positive reinforcement became, and remains, a staple of our toolboxes, and our dogs have benefited. As harsh training techniques were ushered out, we developed an aversion to aversive conditioning. Not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it can be taken too far.

Aversive conditioning is using an unpleasant sensation or stimulus to reduce the likelihood of an unwanted behavior. It sounds really bad. “Unpleasant” is…well…unpleasant. We don’t like the sound of it. But unpleasant doesn’t need to be nasty or painful. Spraying bitter apple or other bad-tasting substances on the plant your dog keeps chewing is an example of aversive conditioning. It doesn’t harm the dog, but keeps her from eating the poisonous philodendron. Even the word “no” or “unh-uh” (or any other negative) is mildly aversive.

One problem with our dislike of anything perceived as aversive, is that often our perceptions of what is aversive and what the dog experiences as aversive don’t align. We avoid anything that seems aversive at all costs, adopting equipment that is ineffective or even harmful without fully understanding the implications.

If you take nothing else from this post, take this: no device will stop a dog’s behavior without being aversive. It’s a simple fact. You have two options to change a dog’s behavior. One is to reward behaviors you want to see more. The other is to remove behaviors you want to see less, through aversive means. Any anti-pull device is aversive to the dog, or it would not stop them from pulling. Put simply, we are often choosing devices that make us feel better but make our dogs feel worse.

Harnesses are for pulling. That’s it. Period.

Meet Maggie. Maggie is a twenty-seven pound border collie who loves weight pull more than anything. When she pulls, she wears a carefully engineered harness designed to distribute the weight properly and not cause injury.

In this photo Maggie is pulling 756 pounds, but her highest pull is almost double that at 1469.

Think about that for a minute. A twenty-seven pound dog can exert enough force against a harness to pull three quarters of a ton, the same as an average pickup truck. What chance do you have against a dog wearing a well-designed harness? The answer is none at all. If the harness is designed properly, you will have absolutely no control over your dog. If the harness is not designed properly (i.e. an anti-pull harness), it is aversive to your dog. This is usually done by pulling the dog off balance or exerting painful pressure against sensitive joints. Both lead to chronic injuries.

The next question we might ask ourselves is can I train my dog to walk on a well-designed harness through rewards? The answer is yes, it’s possible, BUT that doesn’t mean you should. A harness designed for pulling is meant to be used only during the pulling event (sledding, weight pull, or skijoring as in this article’s featured photo), not every day and every walk.

I’m sure many of you are protesting in your minds right now, but this is science. With the rise in popularity of harnesses, researchers decided it’s time to investigate the impact of harness use. It turns out it’s not great. Multiple types of harnesses have been studied and all of them significantly restrict the dog’s range of motion. Interestingly, harnesses designed to avoid restricting motion actually restrict the range of motion more.

Restricted range of motion has a number of health effects on dogs, including shortening and stiffening of the muscles, which in turn impacts circulation. Poor circulation causes a host of other problems with muscles and soft tissues, including loss of range of motion and chronic pain. You can read more about this here. Of particular concern are young dogs. It’s not yet known, but speculated that the restricted range of motion could also cause problems with proper growth plate closure and growth and development of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. In other words, there is serious concern that your dog’s musculoskeletal system won’t develop properly if they are walked in a harness frequently. This is supported by the observation that with increased harness usage there has been an increase in musculoskeletal disease, particularly degenerative joint disease.

This may be unwelcome news for many of us. We thought we were doing right by our dogs, but science is telling us otherwise. It may not make us feel as good about ourselves, but it’s time to put the harnesses away and do what’s best for our dogs. If you want your dog to stop pulling, there is just no alternative to training.