Collar and Harness Options for Dogs

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

When paired with a leash or long line, collars and harnesses can be used to contain dogs properly, keep them safe, and enhance the training process.

Safety, fit, and function are the most important factors when choosing dog collars and harnesses. Learning what the device does, what it is for, and how it fits is the first step in making an informed choice about which tools will be best for your family. Some products for dogs are unsafe or can harm the relationship between dog and handler, especially when misused. Investigate options carefully before choosing a collar or harness.

"Safety, fit, and function are the most important factors when choosing dog collars and harnesses."

Every piece of equipment your dog wears should be introduced gradually and gently in a safe, quiet space. Ensure your dog is comfortable with the equipment before using it on walks or for training.

Flat Collar

How it works:

  • Sized to fit securely around the dog’s neck without constricting
  • Fastened to fit with either a belt buckle or a quick-release clasp
  • Has rings to hold identification tags and for leash attachment

Possible risks:

  • If the collar is fit too loosely, the dog could escape
  • If the dog pulls hard against the collar, it may apply too much pressure to delicate structures in the neck, resulting in injury
  • Serious injury can occur if the dog’s collar becomes entangled and twisted tightly (e.g., during play or crate confinement

Breakaway Buckle Collar

How it works:

  • Sized to fit securely around the dog’s neck without constricting
  • A critical safety feature is that it releases quickly when pressure is applied (e.g., if a dog becomes entangled during play)
  • Some models have an additional ring or a double ring system that will not break away and can be used for walks; a leash must be attached to BOTH rings when walking
  • Can hold identification tags and attach to a leash

Possible risks:

  • The dog can escape if the leash is clipped to the breakaway ring
  • If the collar is fit too loosely, the dog could escape
  • If the dog pulls hard against the collar, it may apply too much pressure to delicate structures in the neck, resulting in injury

Front Clip Harness

How it works:

  • Whereas collars put pressure on the neck directly, harnesses wrap around the torso and chest; leash attachment is near the chest, reducing the dog’s ability to pull forward
  • When the leash is clipped to the front ring, it can be easier to redirect the dog to face the handler
  • Some models have an additional clip along the back, which can be used when pulling is not a concern

 Possible risks:

  • Some designs rest directly over the shoulder joints, restricting movement and putting pressure on the delicate tissues, resulting in injury
  • If improperly fitted, the dog can back out of the harness; proper fit is important
  • Accidental entanglement can occur and can result in injury; it is best to remove the front clip harness when your dog is not directly supervised

Head Halter

How it works:

  • Has one strap behind the ears and an additional strap that loops around the dog’s muzzle 
  • A leash can be clipped to the head halter for walking; the clips on most head halters are located under the chin
  • Putting gentle pressure on the leash causes the halter to tighten around the dog’s nose and turns the dog’s head with minimal physical force
  • Some have leash attachments behind the neck; pressure on the leash tightens the strap around the dog’s muzzle, often reducing pulling
  • Reduces the power of the dog’s pull and can help improve safety when a strong dog has a physically small or compromised handler
  • Some dogs appear to quickly relax when placed into a head halter
  • Uses pressure and release to guide the dog’s movements

Possible risks:

  • Many dogs must be gradually conditioned to tolerate the head halter
  • Some dogs never acclimate, and even with conditioning, continue to find the head halter aversive; other tools are available, and it is best to seek professional guidance or use an alternative collar or harness
  • Head halters are designed to be used with a leash attached and in the hand of a person; dogs should not be tethered or allowed to roam with a head halter, as they could get entangled and injured
  • Never snap the head halter as there is a risk of injuring your dog’s neck; the head halter should be used with brief, gentle pressure followed by a release
  • Some dogs can escape from head halters; for safety, the head halter can be used in combination with a harness or buckle collar for securement

Body Harness

How it works:

  • Wraps around the body, securely holding the dog when attached to a leash
  • There are several varieties to suit each dog’s body type; a well-fitted harness does not limit the dog’s movement of the front legs and is adjustable in every dimension for a proper fit (it should not rub behind the elbow or cause discomfort)
  • Many are padded for added comfort
  • They put minimal pressure on delicate tissue and are less likely to cause injury; they are an excellent choice for dogs suffering from tracheal disease or neck pain
  • Some have clips on both the chest area and the back. Clipping the lead to both clips provides additional control under urgent circumstances

Possible risks:

  • Some dogs need to be conditioned to tolerate wearing a harness
  • Special care is needed to select the right style for the dog’s body type
  • The dog can back up and escape if not correctly fitted
  • Dogs wearing a harness should be directly supervised to prevent accidental entanglement

Martingale or ‘Limited Slip’ Collar

How it works:

  • Like a buckle collar but with a small loop that tightens the collar and applies pressure around the dog’s neck when the leash is pulled
  • Fitted to slide on and off over the dog’s head; some models include buckles for improved fit and quick release
  • Because leash pressure tightens the collar, there is a reduced risk of the dog escaping compared with a buckle collar

Possible risks:

  • Must be fitted appropriately so it does not choke the dog at the tightest point yet is also escape-proof
  • Can cause discomfort when tightened
  • Can become entangled, making it difficult to release the dog, particularly if there is no buckle
  • If improperly fitted, some dogs can chew through the sliding loop or get their jaw stuck in the sliding loop; your dog should be wearing a leash and supervised when wearing a Martingale collar
  • Not recommended as a training tool; Martingales require using either positive punishment or negative reinforcement; welfare can be compromised

Are there any collars to avoid altogether?

In addition to the collars described above, many collars are designed to create an aversive experience to train or manage dog behavior and are not recommended. Examples include prong collars that pinch, choke collars that cause discomfort and reduce the dog’s ability to breathe, and electronic collars that apply a shock or an aversive tone vibration (in most cases the tones and vibrations have been purposely associated with the shock to trigger a fear response). These collars are used for training that relies on punishment and/or negative reinforcement. Dogs learn to comply to avoid fear and/or pain.

The use of confrontational training methods that rely on punishment, physical force, or pain has been associated with increased fear, increased aggression, reduced welfare, and serious injury to people and animals and is not supported by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

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