How to decide if a harness or collar is better for your dog

Oct 13, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. ET

A lot of people think harnesses are for bad dogs or extra-strong dogs, but the reality is, the choice of a collar or harness for walking is really a very individual decision that may come down to the dog or the dog owner.


The main purpose of a collar is to hold your dog's identification. In fact, many harnesses are meant to be used with your regular collar or come with a collar that's detachable for around-the-house non-walking purposes. You always need ID on your dog, so if you use a breakaway collar or otherwise have reason not to have a collar on your dog, talk to your vet about microchipping. That said, there are many types of collars.

Nylon adjustable collars — These are the most common and fine for most dogs for daily use, even if your dog needs a harness for walking. They're great for growing puppies because they're fully adjustable.

Head collar — A head collar looks a bit like a horse's bridle. It can be used as a starter collar for dogs that pull or for managing dogs that can't stop pulling.

Martingale collar — Commonly known as greyhound or whippet collars, they're for dogs whose heads are small enough to slip out of other collars (or just flat-out escape artists). When the dog pulls, the collar pulls taught but is more humane than a choke or prong collar.

You should be able to put two fingers between your dog's collar and neck without its head slipping through. If you can't, you need a Martingale collar.

Choke or prong collars — While these are different types of collars, they can choke or injure your dog and are best used when supervised by a professional trainer.

The problem with collars alone is that they have the potential to cause unintended side effects, either immediately or long-term. If your dog is pulling (even lightly) or lunging, you could risk injury to its throat if it has on a collar. That doesn't just apply to immediate issues, either.

Victoria Stilwell's website notes long-term damage can include: 

  • Hypothyroidism from trauma to the thyroid gland
  • Ear and eye issues from pressure
  • Behavioral issues as the result of pain or injuries

It's important not to discount your own behavior here. If your dog is collared on the leash, you should never pull back sharply. If you have a tendency to do that or if your dog commonly forces the issue, you may need a harness.


A harness fits around your dog's chest and rib cage. It gives you a little extra leverage when you're walking. Harnesses are really great for small dogs, whether or not they tend to pull. They relieve neck tension and reduce irritation, cough and chocking. Those with especially sensitive necks could experience a collapsed trachea from excess leash tension.

They can also be helpful for larger dogs that pull, especially for small or weaker people or for very strong dogs. There are several types of harnesses, too.

Back-clip harnesses — These are best for dogs that are already trained not to pull or don't pull badly. It's a good option for small dogs when you're just trying to protect their windpipes. It's also a good option for a smaller owner with a larger dog that isn't necessarily an aggressive puller.

Front-clip harnesses — These are best for dogs that are in training. They allow you to redirect the dog to face you if necessary. They also let you control issues with jumping and other bad behavior. One issue with this type is that it can easily tangle in the dog's front legs if you aren't careful.

Tightening harness — Like a choke collar, this harness tightens if your dog gets out of control. However, you should only use this if you know you need it. Some types can cause sharp pains for your pup, and it may not teach it to walk properly on a leash the way other types do.

How to know what's best

You have to know your dog. There's no bad option on this list, but no one solution is right for all dogs. There's also a bit of human preference to be counted. Just like some people prefer fixed leashes and others prefer retractable, you have a choice here, too (at least so long as your dog goes for what you want).

Personally, I'm a huge fan of harnesses. I apparently tend to gravitate toward dogs that need them. In fact, I think most dog owners who have dogs that need them will realize their virtues quickly.

But you should always consult with your vet or trainer about what's best for your dog. Just remember that harnesses usually work best when you train dogs to get into them early.

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