My name is Bryan and my dog is a jerk.
Support Group Circle: Hi, Bryan.
Phew! It feels good to say that out loud.
Admitting your dog is unruly on leash can be embarrassing.
Nobody wants to have "that dog" that jerks them all over the sidewalk in pursuit of every squirrel while lunging at passersby.
But you don't need to be embarrassed. Admitting there's a problem is the first step to fixing it!
What you need to do is find the right harness or collar to control your crazy canine.
But finding the right gear can be overwhelming. I mean, have you ever walked down the leash aisle at PetSmart? It's a multicolored sea of straps stacked to the ceiling!
Why are their so many different contraptions and what do they all do?
This guide makes it easy to find the right collar or harness for your dog by breaking down 9 types:
- Flat Collars
- Martingale Collars
- Choke Chains
- Pinch Collars
- Electric Collars
- Back-Clip Harnesses
- Front-Clip Harnesses
- Dual-Clip Harnesses
- Head Halters
Let's get started.
5 Types Of Collars
No collar or harness will instantly fix an undisciplined dog that doesn't know how to behave on leash, but having the right equipment can make all the difference as you work to correct the problem.
Before we explore the many complicated harnesses available these days, let's start with the 5 types of collars:
- Flat collars
- Martingale collars
- Choke chains
- Pinch collars
- Electric collars
A flat collar is the typical around-the-neck collar every dog has. Your dog should wear a flat collar at all times to display their tags, which include their name and address in case they get lost. (And, depending on where you live, perhaps rabies or other vaccine tags as required by law.)
Well-behaved dogs can be walked with a standard leash attached to a flat collar. If your dog constantly pulls, lunges, or generally misbehaves on leash, you'll need to explore the other types of collars and harnesses in this guide.
Martingale collars have a small loop in the collar that tightens when your dog pulls. They offer two advantages:
- Tightening action prevents them from slipping off when your dog pulls.
- Pressure from tightening is uncomfortable for your dog and encourages them to stop pulling.
They're especially useful for dogs with narrow heads to prevent the dog's head from slipping out of the collar (like Greyhounds, Whippets, and Shelties).
They're also great for dogs that are minor pullers, as Martingale collars put instant pressure around your dog's neck when they begin to pull. This signals your dog to stop.
However, Martingale collars are not suitable for strong or persistent pullers. For these dogs, look into a properly-fitting front-clip harness or dual-clip harness (both described below).
Choke chains work on the same principle as Martingale collars — instantaneous tightening pressure when your dog pulls — but they're different in two major ways:
- There's no "maximum tightening" with choke chains, which will just keep tightening.
- The narrower metal chain causes more pain and discomfort than thicker Martingale collars.
Choke chains can be used by trained professionals with strong, large breed dogs, but in almost all cases it's probably better to use a Martingale collar or pinch collar.
Also known as prong collars, pinch collars are lined with either metal barbs or triangular points that pinch your dog when the collar tightens.
Pinch collars are controversial because of their potential to harm your dog if not used properly. There's also the question of whether it's better to train your dog using positive reinforcement or discipline-related deterrents. I'll talk more about this in a minute.
Electric collars have two electrodes in the front and, usually, are controlled by a handheld remote. When you press a button on the remote, your dog feels a sensation.
Like pinch collars, electric collars are controversial. However, I actually think there's merit to them when used properly. What does "properly" mean?
- Always use the lowest possible setting to get your dog to pay attention.
- Use them as a proactive means of communication and not as a reactive, punitive form of punishment.
I've held these electric collars in my hand with the electrodes digging into my palm. The sensation is less of a "shock" and more like a forced muscle contraction, almost like a TENS unit. I spoke with a trainer who supports their use, and he said the key is to use the collar like it's a long-distance way of touching your dog to communicate an action.
I'd rather use other reward-based forms of training first, but some dogs are so easily distracted that using an electric collar may be a good option.
Positive Reinforcement vs Discipline-Based Deterrents
Quick timeout from our chat about the different types of collars and harnesses to talk about the two major types of training:
- Positive, reward-based reinforcement
- Punitive, discipline-based deterrent
Dogs learn by associating specific commands or actions with positive or negative outcomes. If you have a dog that barks excessively at other dogs on walks, you can do one of two things:
- Reward your dog with treats and pets when they don't bark.
- Discipline them with scolding or physical pain when they do bark.
Ultimately, both approaches will probably achieve the same result: Your dog stops barking when they see other dogs. However, the reasons they stop barking are completely different.
My sweet girl, Olive, has severe leash reactivity. She freaks out at the sight of another dog, even 300 yards away. She reacts this way because of either a lack of socialization or past traumas she's suffered (probably both) and has learned to be afraid of the other dog. When dogs are afraid, they react aggressively.
A discipline-based deterrent approach, where corrective force is used to deter Olive's barking, doesn't help the underlying problem: Olive's fear. Instead, it compounds more fear (the threat of corrective force) on top of her already existing fear of new things. Maybe she'll learn not to bark at dogs, but this learning likely is short-term (until fear of punishment subsides) and could be specific to the types/sizes of dogs, locations, or handlers.
A reward-based approach, where Olive is gradually desensitized to her triggers by rewarding her for positive reactions, teaches her to associate the things she's scared of with good outcomes (extra pets, toys, or treats). Over time, her fear will lessen until Olive can walk past another dog without reacting because she knows nothing bad will happen. This type of training is more powerful, longer-lasting, and will extend to all sorts of fear-based triggers and behaviors because we're resolving the root cause and creating a confident dog.
Let's Talk About Harnesses
Harnesses give you more control while walking your dog and can be a game-changing tool for three types of dogs:
- Young dogs just learning how to walk on leash.
- Older dogs who weren't taught proper leash walking etiquette as puppies.
- Stubborn, selfish dogs that want to make your life harder, seemingly for no reason at all.
Before we explore the different types of dog harnesses, there are two "sub-categories" or features of harnesses to cover.
Straps vs Vests
All harnesses wrap around your dog in various ways to give you more control while walking on leash. Some are made of multiple straps that loop around your dog's chest, back, or belly. Others are more vest-like with material (usually some sort of mesh) covering whole portions of your dog's body.
Which is better? It's entirely situation-dependent.
Straps are more minimalist, less cumbersome, typically weigh less, and don't cover as much of your dog's body (keeping them cooler in hot weather). The downsides of strapped harnesses are twofold: Increased chafing for dogs that are big-time pullers, and they can be confusing to put on (which side goes under Olive's belly again?)
Vests reduce chafing and can make skittish dogs feel more secure (the hugging sensation makes many dogs feel calmer). The downsides of vests mostly center around how bulky they can be, and some dogs don't like feeling so contained.
Again, this stuff is all personal preference.
Tightening (Martingale) Harnesses
Like Martingale collars, some front-clip harnesses have a Martingale system that increases pressure on your dog's chest when they pull. This sensation is slightly uncomfortable for your dog and can help correct minor pulling problems. Serious pullers may feel significant pressure from Martingale harnesses, which can exacerbate their reactions. These dogs may be better suited for non-Martingale harnesses.
4 Types of Harnesses
The scope of this guide is limited to finding the right type of collar or harness to best walk your dog. (Because some dogs are wicked pullers and can't be controlled with flat collars or certain types of harnesses.) As such, I'll exclude car harnesses, assistance dog harnesses, and harnesses for dogs with disabilities.
That leaves four types of dog harnesses:
- Back-clip harnesses
- Front-clip harnesses
- Dual-clip harnesses
- Head halters
While they all look similar, each type has crucial differences and specific use cases (except head halters, which are a whole category on their own).
Back-clip harnesses position the D-ring (where the leash connects) on top.
Advantages: More control over your dog compared to a flat collar. The leash is kept up and away from your dog's legs, preventing tangling. The D-ring is further down your dog's back and away from their neck, reducing the risk of injury.
Disadvantages: By far the biggest disadvantage is that back-clip harnesses can make pulling problems worse. Dogs move in the opposite direction of where force is applied, so if you're pulling on top then they're pulling forward. This is why sled dog harnesses are designed to connect on top. It makes the dogs want to pull even harder!
Front-clip harnesses have a similar design to back-clip harnesses, except the D-ring is positioned on your dog's chest. If your dog is a puller, you probably want to try one of these harnesses first. As your dog pulls forward, they feel increased pressure in front. Their natural instinct is to oppose that pressure, so they slow down.
Some front-clip harnesses come with Martingale loops on the front for additional anti-pulling pressure, but there's still no guarantee a front-clip harness will correct your dog's pulling problem.
You may be able to find vests with front clips only, but almost every vest-style harness I know of is either a back-clip or dual-clip harness (next on our list).
Advantages: Attachment point in the front discourages your dog's natural pulling instinct. Some have Martingale loops to exert additional pressure, further discouraging pulling. You can lay the leash to either side of your dog, giving you directional control. You have more control over your dog than with collars.
Disadvantages: The leash gets tangled in your dog's legs more easily and it can be difficult to swing it from one side of your dog to the other (their snout gets in the way). Can cause a lot of chafing, especially if not fit properly.
Let's look at two different front-clip harnesses, each with a slightly different design:
- Easy Walk Harness
- SENSE-ation Harness
The Easy Walk Harness has two notable features: a Martingale loop in the front and multi-colored straps so you can tell which clips under the belly and which clips over the back (seriously, this is so helpful).
The SENSE-ation Harness is very similar to the Easy Walk Harness with one big difference: no Martingale loop. If your dog is a big-time puller, it might be best to go with the SENSE-ation Harness instead of the Easy Walk because the Easy Walk's Martingale loop might do more harm than good.
Dual-clip harnesses give you the most flexibility, allowing you to clip to either your dog's back or their front...or even both if you have a double-ended leash (image below). If only one D-ring is used, the harness will act like either a back-clip harness or front-clip harness. If you use the double-ended leash and connect to both D-rings, you can enjoy maximum control over your dog, though it definitely takes some getting used to.
Advantages: Versatility to be used as either a front-clip or back-clip harness, or even both.
Disadvantages: Most of these harnesses are bulkier or more expensive, and you'll need a double-ended leash in order to attach to both D-rings at once.
The Wonder Walker Body Halter is the most basic of the four dual-clip harnesses here. It only has three straps (chest, back, belly), no Martingale loop, and no state-of-the-art dog walking technology. Essentially, it's the Easy Walk Harness with a back clip and no Martingale loop. This harness is best for light to moderate pullers. You can start them on the front clip (or both clips) and hopefully train them to only need the back clip. It's also the simplest to put on and adjust.
The Freedom Harness by 2 Hounds Design is a step-through harness that has separate loops for each of your dog's front legs and a Martingale loop on the front. (By comparison, the Easy Walk Harness above isn't a step through. It just connects under the belly and over the back, not between the legs). The Freedom Harness also features a patented control loop on the back of the harness, which tightens gently around your dog’s chest to discourage pulling behavior.
The Walk In Sync Harness has front and back clips like the Freedom Harness, but this harness doesn't have a Martingale loop. It does have an extra small strap that spans a few inches along your dog's back for additional control. It also adds reflectors for safety and more adjustment points for a perfect fit, but that means more complexity.
The Babyltrl Big Dog Harness (yeah, I don't know how to pronounce that either) is a rugged, durable vest with a front-clip design intended for strong breeds.
Head halters are a great option for extreme pullers, because you can exert the most control over your dog with the least amount of force. When our 52 lb dog hulks out at the sight of another dog, she can be tough to hold back with any of the above harnesses. When using her Gentle Leader head halter (which we've nicknamed her "face leash" or "fleash") we stand a chance at correcting her.
Head halters look like muzzles, but they aren't. Your dog can still eat treats, drink water, bark, and bite. If your dog has aggression problems and is a danger to people and other dogs, you'll need to combine one of the above harnesses with an appropriate muzzle.
Advantages: You have the most control over your dog as they can't throw their entire bodyweight behind a lunge. Perfect for smaller people with bigger dogs. The halter targets a pressure point under your dog's jaw for maximum effectiveness. Doesn't cause pain and only minimal chafing.
Disadvantages: Out-of-control dogs are at risk of hurting their necks. Some dogs don't respond well to wearing head halters, so it may take several days/weeks to acclimate them to it. Can leave marks on your dog's face if they're super pullers. Looks like a muzzle, which can be off-putting around other people who may think your dog is crazy (ultimately, not a huge deal).
There are several types of head halters with these two the most popular:
- Gentle Leader
The Gentle Leader is a basic head halter that fits over your dog's snout and behind their head, attaching under the jaw. This attachment point gives you maximum control over your dog's movements, even if they're massive. The snout loop has some padding, but not much.
The Halti head halter has more padding than the Gentle Leader and a better below-the-jaw design to prevent the snout loop from slipping down the nose or over your dog's lips. But my favorite feature is the dual loop under your dog's jaw that allows the entire halter to connect to both your dog's flat collar (not included) and a standard leash (also not included). This offers better security in the event your dog slips free.
How To Properly Fit Your Dog's Harness
If your dog's harness doesn't fit, it's ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. After all, your dog is probably wearing one of these harnesses because they're undisciplined on leash. You definitely don't want them slipping out.
Measure Before Buying
Because fit is so important, and because dogs come in all shapes and sizes, it's important you measure your dog for the type of harness you want to buy. The measurements you need will depend on the specific harness you're buying, so research their sizing guides online.
Pro Tip: If you don't have one of those vinyl tape measures tailors use, try a piece of string. Measure your dog with the string and then hold the string against a tape measure.
Check The Fit Using The Two-Finger Method
Snugger is better. Not only does a snug fit ensure your dog stays in their harness, but it also prevents chafing. A good rule of thumb is to make sure you can fit two fingers between your dog's body and the harness's straps (stacked, not side-by-side). For collars and harnesses with a Martingale loop, measure when the loop is pulled tight.
Watch For Wetness
Wet conditions and pulling pups equals tons of chafing and discomfort. If your dog's harness gets wet, take it off to let it dry.
Harnesses & Collars: Final Thoughts
Walking into your local pet store and strolling down the leash, collar, and harness aisle can be an overwhelming experience.
So. Many. Straps.
The reason there are so many contraptions is because no two dogs are exactly alike, and they range from drill sergeant disciplined to "you're not my real dad!" rebellious.
But, armed with the right equipment, you can tame even the toughest Terrier or contain even the craziest Collie.
If you're still deciding which type of harness or collar is best for your situation, I'll leave you with this:
- Flat Collar: Standard collar required for all dogs but only suitable for walking the most controlled.
- Martingale Collar: Has a second loop that tightens under pressure to dissuade basic pulling.
- Choke Chain: Stereotypical "junkyard dog" collar that can cause pain and injury if not used properly.
- Pinch Collar: Lined with spikes or points that pinch under pressure for behavior correction.
- Electric Collar: Dual-electrodes, usually controlled by a remote, to give your dog an uncomfortable sensation. Not necessarily a shock collar and not always an inhumane option if used properly, though not my favorite.
- Back-Clip Harness: Clips to your dog's back for easy, tangle-free walking but not for pull-happy pups.
- Front-Clip Harness: Clips to your dog's chest to help correct pulling. Some have Martingale loops.
- Dual-Clip Harness: Versatile, clipping to either back or chest (or both).
- Head Halter: Clips under the jaw, looks like a muzzle, and can be uncomfortable, but is a pain-free way to control large, very undisciplined dogs.
Most dog owners will have a small stockpile of various collars and harnesses for different situations, so make sure you factor that into the cost of owning a dog.