Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
What are Front-Attaching Harnesses for Dogs?
Front-attaching harnesses for dogs are simply harnesses composed of straps that often fit under the dog’s front legs and loop over the dog’s shoulders. As the name implies, front-attachment harnesses have a ring in the middle of the straps by the dog's chest where the leash attaches to (front-attaching).
Some models though may have two-point attachments with a ring in the strap located in the middle of the dog's chest area and one in the back area.
There are a variety of front-attaching harnesses on the market nowadays. Most fall under the restrictive type and non-restrictive type.
Restrictive harnesses typically have a strap that lies across over the bones of the front leg and chest horizontally. Common models have a "T design" where there is a horizontal strap across the chest joining with a strap going between the dog's front legs.
These harnesses are known as "restrictive" because they seem to interfere with front-leg movement. In other words, they prevent the dog from extending their shoulders and elbows out as they do with their natural gait. They, therefore, have a "tightening effect" as they aim to reduce pulling by restricting movement when the dog pulls against this harness.
Examples of restrictive harnesses include the Easy Walk harness, The Freedom harness, Julius-K9 IDC Harness, Wonder Walker, Positively No-Pull Harness and Sense-ation Harness.
Non- Restrictive Harnesses
The non-restrictive models typically have a "Y-shaped" configuration seen when facing the front of the dog’s body. You'll therefore see two straps coming from the sides of the dog's neck reaching to a single strap that goes between the front legs attaching then to a strap that goes around the rib cage.
These harnesses are designed to allow as much natural movement as possible without interfering much with front-leg extension.
Indeed, with your dog wearing this type of harness, you should be able to extend your dogs’ leg gently all the way forward and all the way back with nothing interfering with or blocking movement.
Examples of non-restrictive harnesses include Ruffwear's Front Range Harness, Balance Harness and Perfect Fit harness.
The shoulder joint is not a tightly fitted ball-and-socket like the hip (in fact, the front legs are attached to the body only by muscles and tendons), and shoulder injuries are common, especially in performance dogs. Because the shoulder is already a joint at risk of injury, it is best to avoid exerting additional force on it by using a restrictive harness.
— M. Christine Zink, D.V.M., PH.D
What Studies Say
Now, one would assume that the non-restrictive harnesses are a no-brainer choice considering that without having the horizontal chest strap they should allow a better range of motion. Yet this remains a subject of controversy and often stirs a heated debate among dog professionals.
A study carried out by Carr et al tested five types of harnesses (3 “restrictive” harnesses and 2 “nonrestrictive” harnesses) and compared the impact they had on a dog's gait and their potential predisposition for shoulder tendinopathies.
The study concluded that the risk for potential injuries was real and therefore recommended not using harnesses on dogs while training, conditioning, or competing. In particular, one Y style and one T style harness appeared to be more problematic. These harnesses both shared the feature of having wider straps and therefore greater surface contact.
The study, therefore, suggested that it would be preferable to use an adjustable Y-type harness that had the least contact with the body, but not when a dog is exerting himself or undergoing repetitive motion as it may happen in canine athletes and working and performance dogs. Therefore, the conclusion seems to be that, such harnesses should not be worn when dogs are training, conditioning, or competing.
A more recent preliminary study conducted by M Pilar Lafuente, Laura Provis, and Emily Anne Schmalz though specifically focused on testing Y and T style harnesses to determine their impact on forelimb range of motion (ROM).
Here is where things get confusing. This preliminary study revealed that Y-type harnesses had a tendency to restrict a dog's range of motion (shoulder extension) almost twice as much as T-type harnesses.
The bottom line seems to be that issues seem to arise the most when harnesses are used during intense and repetitive work (e.g. agility, conditioning) but more studies are needed to determine whether harnesses can trigger any long-term effects on a dog's gait.
In the meanwhile, should front-attaching harnesses be used for dogs? Do the results of these dog harness studies suggest that they are unsafe? It seems like it boils down to how these harnesses are used and whether there may be better options than others.
What to Look for in a Front-Attachment Harness
When picking a good front-attachment harness for your dog, you will need to consider several factors. Not all no-pull harnesses for dogs are created equally.
With dogs coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, you may find out the bad way that there's no one-size-fits-all. Below are several qualities you will need to look for in a good no-pull harness based on several factors.
- If your dog has delicate skin, look for a harness that has padding so that it doesn't doesn't rub or chafe your dog's delicate skin. Padding can be found in several models on both chest and belly straps.
- If your dog is an escape artist and has a history of wiggling out of harnesses, look for an escape-proof design.
- If your dog is an extra-strong puller, it may help to use a harness with two points of attachment (front ring and back ring)
- If your dog doesn't like to sit still long enough to wear a harness or doesn't like paws touched or straps going over his head, look for a models that are easier put on. Nowadays, there are models that you can just slip over your dog's head and then click on without lifting legs, while in some other step-in dog harnesses, your dog just steps in and no straps go over the head.
- If you plan on walking your dog in the evening or in conditions of low visibility, look for a model with reflective trims.
Most of all, look for a harness that is comfortable for your dog to wear and that doesn't impact his natural range of motion. "Ideally, a harness should be adjustable along both sides of the neck and the body as well as along the back and along the sternum," explain Dr. Brittany Jean Carr, Dr. Chris Zink and Kaitlyn Dreese in article for Clear Run.
The harness should also be kept rather tight around the neck to avoid the straps from gliding down. Also, all the three sections of the Y should meet at the front of the dog’s sternum (this way the pressure is supported by the dog’s entire rib cage) and harnesses with a large surface area in contact with the dog’s body should be avoided.
The best harnesses feature straps that fit tightly around each side of the dog's neck, almost like a collar, and meet a third strap that runs under the dog's chest. The point at which the neck and chest meet forms a "Y" that sits right on the manubrium -the part of the sternum (chest bone) that is closest to the front of the dog - a very stable bone that supports the entire dog's body.
— M. Christine Zink, D.V.M., PH.D
The Perfect Fit Harness
- The Perfect Fit harness offers the possibility for two points of attachment: It allows you to use two leashes or use a dual connector leash to enable more control and allowing you to redirect your dog's attention back to you for training and treats
- It is easy to fit. You can adjust straps in 5 different places and therefore its modular design is suitable for almost any size and shape. As your dog grows, you can purchase each piece individually.
- It's easy to put on the dog. The top piece is colored so that you can easily know which part goes up touching the dog's spine.
- It is difficult for escape artists to wiggle out from this type of harness. Fact: Harnesses that require you to slip over the dog's head must have a head hole that is wider than the dog's head. This is a potential flaw for escape artist dogs because this feature makes it easier for them to back out of. With the neckpiece being clipped on and the strap being adjustable, you considerably lower the chances for escape.
- It is padded with fleece to protect the dog’s skin
- Vet recommended. Veterinarian Dr. Dobias repeatedly recommends this harness on his website.
- The Balance Harness offers the option of two points of attachment: you basically have a ring in the front and a ring in the back to attach the leash. This configuration allows you to use two leashes or use the dual connector leash to enable more control.
- Every single strap is adjustable so that you can find the perfect fit. This means you have six points of adjustment so that you can ensure a comfortable and secure fit for dogs of all shapes and sizes.
- It's easy to put on the dog. It has a clip on the neck so that you don't have to put it over the dog's head. This feature is also a safety perk so that if your dog's harness gets ever stuck while hiking, you simply unclip the buckle to free him. The top strap is also colored so you can easily identify it.
- The girth strap has a smart design so that it sits far from the elbow area to prevent annoying chafing.
- Vet approved by Dr. Brittany Jean Carr and Dr. Chris Zink.
In contrast, the Balance Harness, which was the most adjustable harness and also covered the least amount of the dog’s body surface area, appeared to affect gait characteristics the least.
— Jean Carr, DVM, CCRT, Chris Zink, DVM, PhD, CCRT, CVA, CSMT, DACVP, DACVSMR, and Kaitlyn Dreese
Ruffwear Front Range Harness
- The Ruffwear Range harness offers a two-point attachment: There's an aluminum V-ring centered on the dog's back and reinforced front clip webbing at the dog's chest to redirect dogs that pull on leash.
- Easy to fit and put on
- Has four points of adjustment for an optimal fit
- Foam padded chest and belly straps
- Reflective trim for low-light conditions
- Possibility to add a beacon safety light (sold separately)
Should I Attach the Leash to the Front Ring, Back Ring or Both?
The fact that certain harnesses have a front ring, back ring, and option to use both rings courtesy of a double-ended leash, can create some confusion for those not familiar with harnesses. Here is some clarity on the subject.
Clipping the Leash to the Front Ring ONLY
Attaching the leash to the front ring provides several advantages. The main advantage of a front-clip harness for dogs is that when the dog pulls, the dog will pivot around, but this time towards you. This gives you the advantage of reinforcing the dog with food.
Clipping the Leash to the Back Ring ONLY
When the leash is attached to the back ring only, it can encourage untrained dogs to throw their full body weight into pulling on the lead. If you watch huskies pulling sleds, indeed, you'll see how they wear harnesses hooked at the back so to allow more pulling power.
Clipping the Leash to Both Front Ring and Back Ring
When the leash is clipped on the front ring only, the harness can sometimes manage to slide around. Keeping the leashed attached to both rings helps keep the harness even and steady.
At the same time, a double-ended leash makes it easier to maneuver the dog around as needed. In other words, the back attachment disperses the pull over the dog's entire body and therefore avoids excessive strain on one area of a dog's body which can be uncomfortable, while the front-ring converts any forward motion into an arc back towards the handler as explained.
The Bottom Line
Despite some risks, unlike normal collars which encircle a dog's neck, harnesses are considered a safer option for dogs, especially to those predisposed to laryngeal, tracheal, esophageal, or spine problems. According to a study, harnesses are also considered a safer option than collars for dogs with weak corneas or predisposed to glaucoma as they show no effect on intraocular pressure.
Harnesses though may inhibit shoulder movement to a greater or lesser extent. This specifically applies to puppies and young dogs who are developing. Some veterinarians have voiced concern about their effect on their developing shoulders. However, other veterinarians feel that harnesses remain overall safe to use in puppies as long as they're used just for walks and aren't left on the dog full time.
Front-attaching harnesses are also popular among owners of dogs who pull. It is important to emphasize though the importance of the final goal which is ultimately training dogs to walk politely on leash. While the use of a harness may aid during the training period, it goes without saying that its use is not meant as a substitute for training.
Training Is the Ultimate Answer
Here's the bottom line: owners seeking products to reduce pulling in dogs are more likely to own juvenile dogs who are in dire need of training.
While harnesses can be helpful during the training process, long-term or inappropriate use raises questions in regards to their suitability considering the potential negative impact harnesses may pose on a young dog's developing musculoskeletal system.
However, there are harnesses and harnesses, so it's a matter of finding one that would do the least harm while providing benefits. When in doubt, best consulting with a vet.
Yet, it should never be forgotten that training is the ultimate answer. Only training, along with gentle guidance, patience and time, is what ultimately stops pulling.
- Carr BJ, Dresse K, Zink MC. The effects of five commercially available harnesses on canine gait. Proceedings of ACVS Surgical Summit, 2016.
- Harnesses for Agility Dogs By Brittany Jean Carr, DVM, CCRT, Chris Zink, DVM, PhD, CCRT, CVA, CSMT, DACVP, DACVSMR, and Kaitlyn Dreese, Clean Run magazine, April 2017 https://www.caninesports.com/uploads/1/5/3/1/15319800/carr_acvs_2016_harnesses_proceedings_final.pdf
- Effects of restrictive and nonrestrictive harnesses on shoulder extension in dogs at walk and trot, by M Pilar Lafuente, Laura Provis, Emily Anne Schmalz, November 2018 https://www.caninesports.com/uploads/1/5/3/1/15319800/lafuente_effects_of_harnesses.pdf
- What is the best harness design? By M. Christine Zink, D.V.M., PH.D. Dog World magazine, September 2011 issue
- Pauli AM, Bentley E, Diehl KA, Miller PE. Effects of the application of neck pressure by a collar or harness on intraocular pressure in dogs. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2006 May-Jun;42(3):207-11. doi: 10.5326/0420207. PMID: 16611932.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 22, 2021:
In earlier times, we only walked our dogs using their collar and leash. For our last dog, we used a non-restrictive type of harness. It worked out well for all of us. This information is good to know should we ever get another dog.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on April 20, 2021:
I don't have a dog and I never would have known about any of this if I hadn't read it here.
It's great that there are loads of types on the market but it also seems like you really need to find one that works best for your dog. It's not a one size fits all.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 19, 2021:
alexadry Harnesses are a good option. Your advice is useful about using the correct harness. Dogs need a proper fitted harness and to make time spent with them easier and with confidence. Walking dogs is challenging if not lead with a good fitting of a harness.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 19, 2021:
Years ago, I used to be the sole dog walker for a next door neighbor's dog who never got walked. He was a purebred Malamute and just stayed in an enclosed dog pen 24/7 but I walked their dog whenever I could. He went nuts when he saw me (the poor guy was totally untrained) and he pulled me throughout the entire walk. Our walks were adventures.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 19, 2021:
Hi Pam, yes training is always important. I hope you'll be able to get a dog. A smaller dog can be much easier to walk.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 18, 2021:
If I am ever able to get a dog again I would heed your advice, which I think is excellent. The diagram you show clearly lets you know why one is restrictive and one is not. I can't walk very well, so we have put off getting a dog but I want one so badly. I always think training is the best answer with any pet.
I love your articles as they are full of such good advice, Adrienne.