Why I don’t like Harnesses for our Dogs

There is a trend in dog training and in dog care that tells us that we should never hurt our dogs. As a result I am seeing more and more people using harnesses on their dogs. They tell me it is because when they tried to first use a collar, the dog was choking and acting as if it was hurt. Advice at the pet store was to try a harness. So even very young puppies are wearing harnesses and the truth is, they are never being trained to walk politely on a leash.

Harnesses are used for pulling. The harness encourages the dog to lean forward and pull. They are used for SLED DOGS! It is true you aren’t pulling on the neck and yes the dog is not choking. But for hundreds of years we were capable of getting dogs to not pull on their necks and not choke by training them NOT TO PULL. Suddenly we have a generation of pet owners who are afraid to ask their dogs to behave.

Harnesses are also physically harmful to the development of the puppy. The way the harness fits under the front legs of the puppy causes the elbows to spread. Finnish Spitz are a narrow breed and harnesses cause puppies to develop a wide chest. I have seen in only a few weeks of wearing a harness that the front legs can become spread causing strain on the puppies elbows and front legs. This is concern in itself. But harnesses aren’t necessary and in fact, are not good for our relationship with our dogs. They stop us from having a working relationship…unless you consider a dog pulling you is all you want from them.

Do we need to worry that we are hurting our dogs when we train them? Not at all, if we do it in a way that makes training enjoyable.

Here is what leash-training should look like. The dog has a collar which is attached to a leash and our goal is for the dog to walk nicely beside us. There are several different kinds of collars. Flat collars are a plain collar which go around the neck with a buckle or a release snap. There are chain collars which many people call “choke collars” which when used properly are the most effective collars that you can train with. Then there is a middle of the range collar called a martingale collar which is like a choke collar and a flat collar combined; it gives the tightening effect of the chain collar but does not choke.

The flat collar is the safest for the dog. It can’t be caught on anything and if it fits snuggly can’t be taken off or slipped out of. However, I see many people not put them on tightly enough and dogs can back out of them to escape if they are unhappy with a situation. Happens all the time here at my grooming shop and boarding kennel. Dog doesn’t want to come into the kennel, groomer’s or vet clinic and heads back to the car, or worse, off down the street. It also gives few cues when training. You can tug and tug (or the dog does) and the dog never gets the idea that this shouldn’t be happening.

When a chain collar is used properly (and yes dog people do call them “choke collars” and don’t think this means it is a bad thing), the collar tightens when the dog pulls and releases when it doesn’t. That means the dog gets a cue from the collar that one behaviour is good and the other is bad. So the dog is being “trained”. The most important part of the training is the release though, not the choke. The release tells the dog that the walk can be enjoyable for both of you.

The martingale works well with Finnish Spitz because it gives the cue without the choke. The dog responds to the tightening of the collar and the sound of the chain tightening. Finnish Spitz are very sensitive. Once they connect these two cues with a reward then they will work to have that reward again. So if you combine a treat with the relaxing of the collar your puppy will work to keep the collar relaxed. Picture a rambunctious, curious, exploring and willful Finnish Spitz puppy (well, that describes mostly every Finnish Spitz puppy I know) who is wanting to explore, tugging you along, taking you for a walk. What could possibly compete for his/her attention. A treat perhaps? Practice this in the home when not on leash: say “Here” and give a treat. Do it again. Do it often. “Here”, treat. “Here”, treat. Try it when he is in another room. Say his/her name then “Here”. Watch the puppy come running! So now you have made the connection between the command and the treat. Try it outside on the leash. Even with a flat collar the pup will look at you immediately when you say “Here”. So distract from tugging with the command. If you connect the treat with the command and the relaxing of the choke collar or the martingale collar then you are combining cues: “Here”, collar relaxes, puppy gets a treat. Now do it often and at different speeds. Also combine some “Sit” and “Down” commands that you have also been practicing in the kitchen with treats. Mix it up. Do some zig zags and about turns, walk fast, walk slow, say “Here” and treat when puppy gets distracted.

Some Finnish Spitz owners have told me that the martingale does not give enough of a negative cue to dogs who are particularly bad for pulling. If this is the case, ask a trainer or experienced owner to show you how to use a choke collar properly. Coupled with the “Here” command and a treat, the choke collar release IS the most effective method of training. Dragging the dog with a tight choke collar is not at all effective and that is why it is important that you are shown how to do it right.

Finally, don’t do ANY of this with a FLEXI-LEAD because that is not a training leash, it encourages exploration and does not teach good manners. The only time you should use a Flexi-leash is when you want the puppy to explore. Save that for times you would love to have him off-leash but aren’t sure he can be trusted not to run off. And even then, use “Here” with a treat every so often to remind him that coming to you has its rewards. You never know when a reliable recall will save your Finnish Spitz from running off or a dangerous situation.

As an added note, leaving a collar on your Finnish Spitz will not only cut into the coat around his neck and mar his beautiful ruff, it can also be dangerous if it gets caught on something or even caught during play with another dog. In our home, we leave the collars on the leashes by the door. When we are taking the dogs out on leash we simply put the collars onto the dogs, leash and all, and then head out the door. If you must leave tags on your dog for security or legal reasons, use a snug flat collar. A round leather buckle collar may not damage the ruff as much.

Til Niquidet

The Red Letter – December 2016Untitled-1-copy

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