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How to Fit a Dog Harness – Expert Advice

Selecting and fitting a harness to a dog might just be the worst thing you ever shop for—even worse than trying jeans on after Thanksgiving. Why? Because there are more styles, shapes, sizes, and uses to harness than anything else in your canine wardrobe. AND, because an ill-fitting harness can be dangerous medically as well as unsafe if your pup is able to wiggle out and dash off.

Cary Zimmerman, creator of the Help ‘Em Up Harness, went through many iterations and has been improving on his harness since 2008 to make sure it fits dogs well and doesn’t chafe. We thought this made him the perfect person to go to when it comes to choosing and fitting a harness.

The traditional nylon harness can rub your dog and will stretch when it gets wet
The traditional nylon harness can rub your dog and will stretch when it gets wet

Aside from specialty harnesses like yours or font clasps, Are all harnesses created equal? 

No.  As you might expect, a lot of it will depend on where you purchase it and how much the harness costs.

Most harnesses today are now made with nylon strapping but nylon tubing is preferable to the straps as it is double walled.

In addition, the roundness means it’s softer around the edges and more comfortable for your dog.

Unfortunately, nylon materials stretch, especially when wet, which is why many therapists and trainers get complaints about incorrect sizing. If the dog is in water with the harness or it gets wet, minutes later it could be loose.  Not much you can do except tighten it again.

But this frustrates many owners who expect it to be consistently the same size.

Currently, however, the nylon tubing is the best material out there because its durable and cost effective and much better than simply flat nylon straps.

Other things Zimmerman tell us to keep in mind is type of fabric vs. type of dog. For example, the mesh harness that are in style for small dogs right now would definitely not withstand a medium to large breed dog bolting away from their owner.

The use of the harness is important! For example, this style is made for pulling. So don't use if you are trying to teach loose leash walking.
The use of the harness is important! For example, this style is made for pulling. So don’t use if you are trying to teach loose leash walking.

When looking at all the different harness designs, what should consumers look for or stay away from in terms of design?

I think harnesses or restraints fall into 3 categories.

1.Control and Training  

Many trainers still recommend collars to help control and train a dog and I have heard both sides of the argument for various forms of collars and for how potentially harmful they may be to your dog’s neck or throat.

But it seems to me that it has more to do with the size of the owner in proportion to the size of their dog and establishing control is the critical issue. Some owners may need a collar device to accomplish this or one of several new innovations that help turn a dog to change their focus and direction.

2.Walking and Restraint

A body harness is great for getting a grip on your dog’s torso which is exactly what it’s designed for. But if your dog pulls as they have a tendency to do when not properly trained, [i.e. no voice control or cooperation walking], with a harness you may be trying to restrain them but you are lifting them instead. Lifting the front legs off the ground seems to help, but in reality they’re still pushing with the hind legs and pulling against you. This is where harnesses may not be as effective in controlling a larger or determined dog and proper training is much more helpful or a device like a training collar works well.

3. Lifting or assisting

Lifting or assisting harnesses are designed for aging or recovering dogs.  This is a completely different need and for these dogs comfort and support are the critical issues.  A harness that does not wrap around joints or pull on tendons is preferable.  The desire is to lift the torso not to strain the joints. Look for padding and comfort when selecting this kind of harness as well as quality of construction.  You don’t want the harness to fail at a critical moment!  Ease of use is also significant because you are often dealing with a down dog and the harness needs to be easy to get on and off.

Harnesses with a rear lifting assist are relatively new in the industry and the few that do exist have patents on how they perform.  The HelpEmUp harness design specifically lifts the pelvis without wrapping around the rear legs and when used with the front half allows the owner to lift the entire dog without putting pressure on any joints or tendons.

The real challenge is determining what you need it to do most. There are harnesses made for everything – from skijoring (pulling you on skis) to backpacking. As Zimmerman points out, each dog’s situation is going to be different and there for each owner is going to have to take into consideration their dog, themselves, training goals, health issues, etc., before choosing a harness (or collar).

What are the “steps” for fitting a harness properly? How can an owner tell when it’s on “right”?

The first patent for a dog harness dates back to the late 1800’s and in reality it has not changed much since. Most harness designs fit around the chest and legs of a dog in one form or fashion.

  • If the idea is to hold or lift the sternum than the harness needs to fit under the chest at its deepest point, generally about 2-5 inches behind the front legs depending upon the size of the dog.
  • In that costal region, the sternum flattens out as the ribs start to separate and this creates a plateau or flat plane that is ideal for lifting.
  • If your harness does not allow you to get its lifting element under or beyond this area, under pressure it will have a tendency to slide back to the front and neck of your dog.
  • You want to check your harness when putting it on each time and make sure that it has not stretched and is no longer properly positioned under the chest.
  • Harnesses that wrap around the legs are not ideal.  Some harnesses cross around the front or parasternal region and this helps to restrain your dog, but is really not part of the lifting.

A harness generally does not need to be tight to function, as all harnesses will compress muscle and tissue under pressure, and a gap will form at the top. This does not mean the harness is too loose or not working as they all lift from under the torso not the top.

The bottom line? Do your research and take time to look at all those harnesses before paying one. Ask your dog trainer and vet what they recommend, as they know you and your dog well.

About the Author

Based in Tustin, Calif., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House, where she makes personalized collars, leashes, beds, keepsake pillows and blankets, and anything else your imagine can think up. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.


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Written by Kristina Lotz
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