Harnessing Potential

Harnesses are not new but they seem to be becoming increasingly  popular in the canine community. Like all tools that we put on our furry friends, harnesses can change the way that a dog moves, modify its behaviour or allow a particular task to be performed. But they are not benign and they should be selected based on the intended outcome, the dogs physique, and any underlying medical conditions.

Harnesses can be wonderful, allowing dogs to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. For example using a harness has allowed large weights to be pulled by dogs. Weight pull and sledding are both amazing sports that both humans and canines enjoy and they are able to exist because of the availability of special designed harnesses. 

Here you can see a dog reaching forward to maximise stride length. You can see how far he has been able to move his scapular and upper arm forward without a harness impeding his movement.

Harnesses can also be used instead of collars for walking and running with dogs to place less pressure on their necks, or in sports like flyball to make it easier to hold your excited dog and get the best release.

Unfortunately not all harnesses have been designed with free movement in mind. There are a lot of harnesses being used where the front of the harness is a horizontal band across the front of the dog. This band covers the scapular and upper arm, and no matter how well it is fitted it will restrict the movement of the front legs.

It is like you having a band wrapped around your arms and chest, half way up your upper arms. Think about how this would restrict the movement of your arms and your ability to move them properly. This is what these harnesses are doing to your dogs front legs, making movement harder than it should be. 

Here’s a quick example of the difference:

Here you can see a dog reaching forward to maximise stride length. You can see how far he has been able to move his scapular and upper arm without a harness impeding his movement.  The downside of this harness is how much it moves around as the dog jumps.

Compared to this dog who has not rotated its scapular or opened up its shoulder as much. The harness is restricting his ability to move to full extension. As you can imagine- when speed is the key this loses the dog a few centremeters with each stride taken which can be the difference between a win or loss. 

I have been using traditional flyball harnesses for the past decade. They have always seemed great, there is a handle on the dogs back that is easy to grab for and there are hand holds on the side of the harness for the rambunctious dog. However gaining new knowledge often changes minds and my understanding of movement has led me to decide that I won’t be using them in the future. 

The strap across the front of the shoulders on the traditional harness changes and restricts the movement of the forelimb, regardless of how well it fits. Poorly fitted harnesses that hang too low further restrict the movement of the shoulder and upper arm.

This restriction on movement both impress the dogs performance and puts stresses on their muscles and bones in unintended places, increasing their risk of injury. 

Newer model harnesses do not sit across the front of the chest and shoulders, but instead comes up the front of the chest and wraps around the neck above the scapular, giving you the benefit of a handle, without restricting their movement. 

My own dog, Abby, can only reach forward when her leg is at a lower angle because the strap prevents her from extending her shoulder forward. She has her toes splayed to maximise her grip and stability when she lands. 

While harnesses can be a great tool remember that you need to get the correct harness shape for your dog, make sure the harness fits correctly and spend some time conditioning your dog to wearing the harness before doing any rigorous activity in it.

We are in the process of testing a number of new harnesses at Primal Paws, so that we can make some solid recommendations as to which provide the best range of movement while still being secure and comfortable for the dogs. We will be reporting our findings soon and we also have a few more articles about harnesses and how to condition your dog to wearing their new harness. 

If you need help sorting through the hundreds of harnesses available in the market or would like help fitting a harness please call me on 0429 44 33 14.


Dr Jaime Jackson