How to Put on a Dog Harness…Even if your Dog is Wriggly!

All medical claims reviewed by Dr Pippa Elliott. BVMS, MRCVS.

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putting a dog harness on a chihuahua

Have you ever been confounded by putting a dog harness?

You know how it goes: The advert said this harness stops even the strongest dog pulling. It looks great in the picture. But when the package arrives, it contains a tangle of spaghetti-like straps and is more like knitting than a dog harness. Where to start?

Most dog owners have a dog walking harness that defeated them, lurking at the bottom of their pet toy box. So the ‘problem-solving’ harness is a total nightmare, but you can’t throw out because you spent good money on it. Well, don’t despair because this article is for you!

7 Problem Solving Steps: How to Put on a Dog Harness

There are two types of people in life: Those that read instructions, and those that don’t. Faced with flat pack furniture, which one are you?

When it comes to ‘how to put on a dog harness’, we suggest:

  1. Pull Up a Photo: Find a clear picture of a dog wearing that type of harness. Study it carefully to see where the dog’s front paws go, where the chest strap sits, and what happens over the dog’s back. Knowing how it should look on a real dog can help that ‘Eureka’ moment. The product ad is a good place to look for this.
  2. What Goes Where?: Compare the harness to the picture. Try to visualize which bit goes where. Get your bearings first, such as deciding which bit lies along the back, what goes between the legs, and where the lead attaches. You may find it helpful to know what sort of harness it is (For example, an ‘H’ shape step-in harness, vest harness, overhead harness, or a ‘Figure of 8’ that slips over the dog’s head, as this helps to orientate the straps.)
  3. Roughly Size the Harness: Now you’re happy with what goes where, make your best guess and adjust the size to fit your dog. Comparing it with an old harness that fits well is helpful.
  4. Read the Instructions: Yes, dull as it sounds, good clear instructions can reveal all!
  5. Practice on a Cuddly Toy: Try putting the harness on a cuddly toy. The latter isn’t wriggly and won’t try to escape while you fiddle with the straps. Unbuckle the straps and practice putting the front legs in the right place, and how the front clip works.
  6. Build Muscle Memory: Put the harness on and off the toy a few times. This builds muscle memory so you’re more confident when fitting it into an actual, moving dog. The more you practice with the dog’s harness on a toy, the easier it becomes on the real dog.
  7. Get a Friend to Help: When it comes to the real thing, have a friend steady the dog. Perhaps keep a dog collar on your pet pal, so there’s something to hold onto. This leaves you both hands-free and helps you put the harness on more slickly. Take it slowly, step-by-step just as you did on the trial runs.

How to Put on a Dog Harness: 7 Top Tips for Success

All of which sounds simple enough, but what if your dog is the canine equivalent of a slippery bar of soap?

What if it’s not the design that’s the issue, so much as having a dog that resents being restrained?

This can be the case with rescue dogs or those unused to wearing a harness. Never force a dog into wearing a harness, instead, build their confidence so that they willingly accept the restraint.

For those problem pooches, here are our top tips for stress-free harnessing:

  1. Friendly Smell: A box fresh harness smells of the factory and strange people. This can cause anxiety for nervous dogs. Get around this by rubbing the harness with one of your old T-shirts, so it smells familiar.
  2. Familiar Object: If someone came towards you with a bundle of straps, you’d rightly be pretty alarmed. The same with a dog. Show them the harness. Let them sniff it. Even leave it lying around with some toys so the dog sees it’s not a threat.
  3. Pre-size the Harness: Rather than tug and fumble with the harness on the dog, pre-size the straps first. A rough guess will do. And if you get it wrong, take the harness off the dog to make adjustments.
  4. Don’t Chase the Dog: Place the dog on a table or have a friend steady them. Avoid chasing the dog around to put their harness on, as this teaches them to run away when they see it.
  5. Small Steps: Take your time. If the dog is nervous, don’t plan on putting the harness on and going straight out for a walk. Let them get used to it first. Put the harness on for a few seconds, praise and reward the dog, then take it off. Continue the process so that supper acts as a reward.
  6. Be Slick: As suggested above, practice on a soft toy first. The more confident you are, the more reassured the dog will be.
  7. Reward with a Pleasant Walk: First time out, go somewhere nice! Don’t use a new harness to visit the vet, or the dog may make unfortunate connections (unless your dog loves going to the vet of course.)

happy dog walking through the grass

The Importance of Getting the Fit Right

Think of a dog walking harness like a pair of shoes. Badly fitting shoes rub your feet and make it uncomfortable to walk. The same for a dog and a harness. But there’s also the safety factor. A harness that’s too small, big, or doesn’t fit correctly risks the dog escaping and running free. Don’t go there…

A correctly fitting harness shouldn’t chafe or rub. Check for red, inflamed skin after each walk. Neither should it be too big or too small. A correctly fitting harness should allow you to put two fingers between the dog and the strap, but no more.

Make sure the harness sits correctly across the dog’s chest, and doesn’t limit their shoulders, causing them to take too short a step. If the harness sits around the neck, make sure the strap isn’t too tight and you can fit several fingers between the strap and the dog’s neck.

Also, before every walk gets into the habit of checking all the material, including the side straps, bottom straps, and fixing points. If the dog has chewed it or the back-clip is weakened, this could be disastrous if the dog pulls when walking your dog and something.
Remember, an incorrect fit risks the dog escaping, as does a damaged harness..

How to Fit a Dog Harness

Just as there are specialist shoes for different activities (a mountain climber would look pretty silly in ballet pumps!), so there are different types of harness. These are broadly divided into:

Choose a Fit-for-Purpose Style

The first crucial element of the fit is choosing a fit-for-purpose harness. A safety restraint isn’t going to be comfortable for Canicross, whilst a dog walking harness isn’t suitable for car travel.

Be The Body Shape Savvy

Also, take into account your dog’s build and body shape. Some styles are better suited to barrel-like dogs than thin slim ones, and vice versa. Choose a style that’s sympathetic to your dog’s anatomy. For example, the best dog harnesses for toy dogs are the vest type, whilst for a strong, unruly dog a no-pull harness is worth its weight in gold.

Measure… Don’t Guess

Check the product’s website to find out exactly where they want the dog measured. This is most commonly around the chest, around the base of the neck, and the length of the ribcage. But don’t take our word for it, check for your chosen style.

Make the tape snug, but not a tight fit and then make a note of the reading.

Each manufacturer should give a sizing guide, suggesting which size is most appropriate for which measurements.

If your dog is between sizes, chose the larger one and go up a size.

Check Reviews

Manufacturers don’t set out to deceive, but sometimes their sizing is ‘off’.

Check online reviews, on sites such as Amazon, as these are a valuable insight into the accuracy of sizing. This can help you decide if the measurements don’t give a clear cut answer.

Fit and Adjust

Make rough adjustments to the harness so the fit looks right on the dog’s body. Carefully check for tugging, rubbing, or tightness, as well as places where it’s too slack.

Take the harness off the dog to make the necessary fine-tuning. This avoids tugging on the dog and pinching the skin.

Safety First and Safety Last

And finally, once you’ve worked out how to put on a dog harness, check it regularly for chewed straps, damaged D-rings, or snapped stitching.

If the harness is damaged, no matter how new it is or how much you spent on it, then don’t use it. Your dog’s safety is a whole heap more valuable than any product.

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