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What to do when your dog hates their harness

Common advice is to put your new puppy or dog straight into a harness nowadays. And for good reason I might add – they redistribute any strain from pulling on the lead and can relieve pressure on your dog’s throat.

But it’s not unusual for dogs to hate their harnesses… to run away and hide or even to nip you the second the harness comes out.

My own Toddy felt very strongly that harnesses were not a pleasant experience.

The very word ‘harness’ was a bit of a bad word as far as he was concerned – he would tolerate wearing it but quite frankly would rather be naked.

So in this blog, I’m going to share what I did to help Toddy overcome his hatred of the harness in actionable steps that you can start today – so your dog can feel happier in a harness.

Why do some dog’s hate harnesses?

Reason #1 – It’s uncomfortable

Getting a well fitting harness is a bit like finding a really comfortable bra! You need to try a few different styles to get the right fit  – and you often feel a bit of relief when you can finally take it off! 

There are lots of different harnesses on the market, my favourites are the Perfect Fit Harness, the Tellington TTouch harness and the Mekuti harness range.

Reason #2 – they don’t like it going over their heads

Toddy absolutely hated putting his head through the harness and having it go over his beautiful ears. As you put an over the head harness on, it can smush your dog’s ears and feel like an uncomfortable experience for them.

Here are my recommendations for the 3 best dog harnesses that don’t go over your dog’s head. Simply switching to one of these and following the steps further down in this blog can help your dog feel much happier about wearing a harness.

Reason #3 – the harness touches parts of their body they’re uncomfortable with

Toddy never much liked being touched on his back. He wouldn’t growl or show obvious signs, but if you looked closely – you’d see he’d offer you another part of his body to touch, or he’d slightly tense if you touched him there.

It stands to reason then, having a harness on his back wouldn’t be something that Toddy would choose.

I worked on building his confidence with this by figuring out what he found rewarding and slowly spending time growing his trust and comfort with being gently touched in this area. It’s worth mentioning here – that if this is unsuccessful, I’d recommend a checkup with either a vet or a physio to see if there’s underlying pain.

Do you need to use a harness for your dog?

For me, harnesses are a non-negotiable in most circumstances – but especially if you have a dog who pulls on the lead.

If a dog has a lead attached to their collar and they’re pulling on the lead – they’re in danger of choking themselves. The well fitting harness prevents them damaging their larynx (throat). 

My approach to helping your dog feel good about their harness is two-fold. 

First, let’s create a more positive harness wearing experience for your dog.

And second, let’s work on our loose lead walking training so collar and lead is an acceptable alternative to harness and lead.

Here’s my step-by-step for happier harness fitting:

I think a combination of humans not being quite sure of how to put a harness on, plus the restrictive feeling on a dog’s body can put quite a few dogs off of wearing a harness. So let’s start with the human skill of putting a harness on your dog positively.

  1. Human practice! Get a soft toy dog which you can use to practice putting the harness on and taking it off quickly and cleanly.
  2. Practice taking the lead clip on and off with only one hand and without looking – this means you’re less likely to be over the top of your dog when doing so which can be off-putting to them.
  3. What seems to be the most difficult part of harness wearing for your dog? If they don’t like having it pulled over their head, think about a harness that clips around their neck instead.
  4. If the sound of the click seems to make them uncomfortable, practice putting your fingers over the clip as you put it together – this significantly reduces the sound.
  5. Consider starting again with a new harness with no previous negative experience.
  6. Can you avoid walking your dog on the lead whilst you condition more positive feelings about their new harness?

Step by step to conditioning a positive response to a new harness:

Next, we need to help your dog feel more comfortable with the harness. Start by setting some time aside to work slowly on introducing your dog to the harness positively.

  1. Have the new harness in the room when doing a training session with delicious treats 
  2. Gradually have the harness closer to your dog during their training sessions 
  3. During a training session, pick up the harness and put it down then reward your dog
  4. Build up to holding the harness whilst rewarding your dog
  5. Hold the harness up so the head loop is available for the dog to put their nose into it – reward them for any movement in the right direction
  6. Build up to having the dog put their head all the way through the loop whilst you’re holding it – lots of rewarding
  7. When the dog is volunteering to put their head through, gently rest the harness on them for a second before holding it again – more rewards
  8. Build up to the harness resting on them for longer periods of time
  9. Add in doing up the harness for a short amount of time – remove and reward dog
  10. Build up the amount of time the harness is done up for – lots of rewards, and see if the dog can do simple training exercises whilst wearing the harness
  11. Add the lead being clipped to the harness for a brief moment, before being unclipped and rewarding the dog
  12. Build up the time the dog has the lead attached, and start building in loose lead walking training exercises
  13. Generalise your training in different rooms in your home, your garden, close to your home etc.

Important note: If your dog appears uncomfortable at any step STOP! They are not being difficult I promise. They’re just telling you their truth at that moment. 

When you honour their truth by slowing things down and going at their pace, you will make bigger strides forward in the direction you want to go. But patience is the name of the game here.

Think outside the box when it comes to rewards

Toddy loves food, but when it came to harness training – food didn’t cut it. He quickly told me that food wasn’t reward enough for him to form a new relationship with the dreaded harness.  

So I looked to see what else Toddy found rewarding. 

  • He loves walks
  • He loves agility training
  • He loves going out with his dog chums into the world

So I left it till that last possible moment to put the harness on, because once he’s out doing what he loves, he’s forgotten about the harness. And I used his love of training to quickly reward him for having his harness put on indoors while we worked on conditioning a positive response to wearing it.

Solving the pulling on a lead problem

Ultimately, if your dog would be happier not wearing a harness at all, then it’s important to work on your loose lead training. Because if your dog can walk nicely beside you on a lead, then you won’t need to worry about their collar choking them as they pull or damaging their throat.

I have a free video series that can help you transform your lead walks – so you can ditch the harness with confidence. Tap straight in and get started today by clicking the link or image below.

Get my 8 top tips for better loose lead walking success here. 

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