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Teach your dog to wear a harness

Harnesses are a useful way to reduce the risk of neck injury, maximizing comfort and making walkies more enjoyable. You’ll still need to teach your dog to walk next you so you can both walk together comfortably. Taking the time to introduce your dog to wearing their harness in a kind, gentle and fun way is likely to save you both a lot of stress in the long-term, as your dog will learn to really enjoy wearing their harness and reaping the benefits.

A dog running on a harness
  1. There are many different types of harness available but it’s important to choose carefully so your dog’s movement is not restricted in any way – for example, that there aren’t any straps that cross directly in front of the shoulders preventing natural movement. Most harnesses require your dog to put their head through an opening, but you can find alternatives that clip around the neck and body which might be better for dogs who are a little head-shy. Make sure your dog’s harness fits well – you should be able to fit a finger comfortably between the strapping and their body while they’re wearing it so there’s a little room for manoeuvre during movement, and they shouldn’t be able to slip out of it.

  2. Place the harness on the floor and scatter some tasty treats around it so your dog can investigate it and start to associate it with nice things right from the start. As long as they’re happy about it, lift it up and feed your dog some of their favourite treats through the head-hole, place your hand all the way through so your dog doesn’t have to put their head through at this early stage – making it as easy as possible means they’re likely to be happy about it right from the start.

  3. You can now start to move your hand backwards away from the head-hole, with the treat ready in it as encouragement, so your dog has to push their nose and mouth through in order to enjoy their reward. If they’re not showing any signs of concern, you can continue to use treats to lure them through and let the harness hang gently around their neck while you continue to feed them. If they retreat, simply remove the harness straight away and go back a stage.

  4. Make sure your dog is comfortable with the noise of the clips first by simply clipping the harness up while you’re holding it, so they can hear the sound and you can see how they react. If they’re fine with that, then place the harness over their head, reward them with a treat, and then do up the clips around their body. Giving them tasty treats again straight afterwards will be a good distraction for them and means they’re likely to associate having their harness done up with good things happening.

  5. Once your dog has their harness on, get them used to wearing it while they move about by encouraging them into activity that will distract them, such as playing a game with their favourite toy or doing some fun trick training such as sit and give a paw. If they’re comfortable, go out for a walk and, if they do need some more encouragement, give them a treat every now and then along the way.

  6. Remember that to comply with the law, when you are in public spaces you will need to make sure your dog also wears a collar, with an identity tag attached to it, even if you are walking them in their harness. It’s also worthwhile regularly checking your harness, collar and lead for general wear and tear.

  7. If your dog is struggling with any stage of this training, simply go back to the stage before and continue for a little while longer to build their confidence before progressing again. If you believe your dog to be worried by the harness or being handled in any way then stop – always respond to your dog’s communication so they know they can trust you to help them out. Signs that a dog might be worried can range from the very subtle and easily missed, for example widening their eyes and lip-licking, to the more visually expressive such as wriggling around, growling, or even snapping if your dog becomes really frightened. Our Body Language section provides information on learning to recognize how your dog is feeling and how to respond appropriately.

    If your dog is behaving in any way that worries you or shows any signs of aggression, please contact your vet to rule out a painful or medical reason for this. Your vet can then refer you to a qualified behaviourist to help you further.