Let’s Talk Harnesses

Jul 19, 2023

Let's Talk Harnesses

“This is a super cute harness, Pookie is going to love it!”

“Everyone in my Scent Work class uses this type of harness, I’m going to order it as soon as we get home.”

“I saw this video with a dog hiking in this harness, I just bought it and cannot wait to try it!”

There are so many reasons why we may try out different pieces of equipment and “clothing” for our dogs.

However, it is easy to forget that all our dogs are individuals, with unique builds, sizes and personalities. A harness that works out great for Fido may be downright uncomfortable and even painful for Spot.


Simply put, it can cause negative results with your training, no matter what it is that you are doing.

I have seen this time and time again throughout my career.

When I was still offering in-person training services, one of the first things I would look for is the type of equipment the client was using. Countless times, the equipment was exacerbating whatever problem they were dealing with.

For instance, I had a client who reached out for help with their leash reactive dog. A medium sized Doodle with a fair amount of coat. I met with the client in their home and the dog seemed happy and engaged. I then requested the client to get the dog prepared to go for a short walk and suddenly this happy and wiggly dog turned into a slinking, hunched over mess who kept hugging the wall to get away from having their harness put on. I immediately put on the breaks. We need to fix this FIRST before we can work on anything else.

Upon closer inspection of the pup, I noticed a fair amount of matting and skin irritation on all the contact points for the harness. This harness, unbeknownst to the client, was causing discomfort in their dog.

We switched over to a martingale collar to give the dog’s skin a chance to heal while looking for other harness alternatives that may fit better.

Was the harness causing the leash reactivity? Who knows, but it certainly was not helping. Think of it, the dog is concerned about other dogs, is even scared of them, tries to tell them “LEAVE ME ALONE” and every time they do so, the harness was snagging at their fur and skin, causing them pain. What a terrible feedback loop!

Need another example?

I had a client submit some videos of their dog tackling some Scent Work searches that they were very frustrated with. The dog was timing out of their searches at trial and did not seem very engaged. Upon reviewing the videos, I saw a dog who was trying to work and then would suddenly do full body shakes, stop and scratch and even spin around, looking at their harness. This was consistent throughout the entire video. At the very least, the dog was uncomfortable.

Could this be a behavioral discomfort, a concern about the trial environment? Sure. But when trying to diagnose an issue, we need to peel back the layers of the onion.

I asked the client to humor me and set up three searches at home and video them for me. The first search would be a typical practice run using the harness and long line the dog was accustomed to. The second search would be with the dog wearing the harness but running off-leash. For the third search, the dog would not have the harness on and would also run off-leash.

The difference between the three searches was stark to say the very least.

The first search looked eerily similar to the trial videos, with the dog stopping, giving a full body shake, scratching and looking back at the harness throughout the search.

The second search featured a full body shake and a scratch, but no looking back toward the harness. The dog seemed to be a bit more comfortable focusing on the search but still took a considerable amount of time to find the hide.

The third search was night and day. When released to search, the dog immediately went to work, efficiently and joyfully finding their hide. No full body shakes. No scratching. No displacement sniffing. No asking questions to the handler. No stopping, standing and staring off into the distance.

Needless to say, the videos made it clear that the harness was NOT working for this team. Additionally, the dog felt some pressure with how the handler was handling their long line, so we needed to work on that as well. They switched over to using martingale collar alone and saw a dramatic difference in their results.

But what if a dog needs to use a harness and a collar is not an option? That was the case with my boy Valor after he developed arthritis in his neck.

Ensuring we take the time to find a properly fitting harness AND acclimate the dog to ENJOY their harness is key.

That is why we are beyond fortunate that Kayla Dever and Samantha Winslow of Every Dog Nosework are offering their Harnessing Joy Webinar through Scent Work University. In this webinar, they discuss not only a variety of harness options but also a step-by-step process on how to help your dog become acclimated to and LOVE their harness. Every dog owner and instructor should check this webinar out.

Have you taken the time to evaluate the equipment you are using with your dog? What does your dog think about it? Is it working for you or against you?

Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.

Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.

In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!

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