Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
"Help, my dog hates having the harness put on! The moment I grab the harness, he'll walk the other way or start shrinking his body as if he's hoping to disappear. What's up with him? And how can I help him?"
If the above scenario sounds familiar, rest assured that you are not alone. Many dogs share these feelings upon seeing their harness and many dog owners are frustrated with this. Aren't dogs supposed to do a happy dance the moment they know they are going for a walk? Not so fast.
Many dogs struggle with wearing a harness. Indeed, this problem is so common that companies who manufacture harnesses for dogs have started creating new designs to cater to the needs of these fellows.
So what's the problem with harnesses? To better understand this, it helps to put ourselves in our dog's paws, and perceive the world from their perspective. The following are some possible problems.
Not Liking to Stay Still
Putting on a harness is more labor-intensive than just clipping on the leash to the collar and going for a walk. It requires the dog to stay still and this can be challenging for dogs who move a lot and are fidgety.
Not all dogs like being touched and handled. Depending on the make and model of your harness, you may need lift your dog's paws or insert the loop over the head. When you have to put the harness on, try to carefully observe your dog and evaluate whether he appears intimidated by any of these actions.
A Negative Experience
Some dogs dislike the sound of the clasps being snapped or they may be afraid of them pinching his skin. A negative experience such as being startled by the sound or the skin getting accidentally pinched when it's being snapped on, can be enough to cause a dog to dread to wear the harness.
It's called "single event learning," that is, learning from one single experience that has a long-lasting impact. Dogs are impressionable in this way, and this is how dogs develop fears and phobias.
Not Liking the Restraint
And then you have dogs who dislike the sensation of restrain when wearing the harness. My sister-in-law has a beagle this way. Once the harness is put on, she would "freeze" in a state of helplessness and had a miserable look on her face.
Fortunately, when out and about, he would forget about this and would start going on sniffing adventures.
A Combination of Factors
Some dogs may struggle with several factors. For instance, an English setter I worked with recently didn't like putting the head through the loop, the sound of the clasps and the restraint.
These dogs may have originally disliked just one part of the harness-wearing process but may have learned to dread the other parts coming before that, by chaining them together in a sequence, similarly to dogs who fear storms and start shaking the moment the see dark clouds or dogs with separation anxiety who start pacing the moment they see their owners put on their shoes.
Help, My Dog Hates Having the Harness Put On!
As seen above, dogs may have their own good reasons for hating having the harness put on. However, it's not always easy and straightforward to identify the exact trigger.
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If you were able to identify a reason why your dog doesn't like wearing the harness, more power to you! This will give you the benefit of having a starting point to work on.
A Word About Methodology
Below are several guides to help your dog better tolerate, and hopefully even enjoy, wearing the harness based on the potential underlying issue.
Most of these methods encompass two powerful behavior modification methods: desensitization and counterconditioning.
Desensitization entails taking small steps so that your dog is exposed to the trigger or situation he dreads in a sub-threshold manner. For sake of comparison, if you are afraid of spiders, desensitization would involve first getting used to seeing spiders in pictures, then on TV and then at a distance.
Counterconditioning entails creating positive associations with certain triggers and situations, ideally to elicit a positive conditioned emotional response. For the sake of comparison, imagine if you are afraid of spiders, and every time you see a spider dollar bills will fall from the sky. With time, you may start looking forward to seeing spiders because they have become predictor of good things!
When desensitization is combined with counterconditioning, you have a double whammy of benefits: combining the perks of working at your dog's comfort level and making great things happen work at your advantage. So let's take a look at the implementation process.
For Dogs Not Likely to Stand Still
In this case, we need to work on creating positive associations with restraint. In other words, your dog needs to learn that standing still is very rewarding. You can do this by training your dog to hold a "stand stay."
A "stand stay" is just like a "sit stay" or a "down stay." If your dog has already been trained to stay in these positions, a stand stay is piece of cake to train. If your dog's hasn't been trained to stay yet,
To train the stand stay, you will simply say "stay" and hold your open hand in front of your dog as he's standing, move a few steps away and return to praise and reward your dog for standing in place.
Once your dog is comfortable holding a stand stay, you can add the distraction of the harness. Ask your dog to stand stay and show the harness, give a few high-value treats as he stands, and then after a few seconds of him standing in place, release him, give him a lower-value treat and put the harness away. Rinse and repeat several times.
Then, ask your dog to stand stay and then start pretending to start putting on the harness with one hand as you feed him high-value treats with your other hand, and then after a few seconds of him standing in place, release him, give him a lower value treat and put the harness away. Rinse and repeat several times.
Then, ask your dog to stand stay and then start putting on the harness by placing it over his head or inserting his legs with one hand as your feed him high-value treats with your other hand, and then after a few seconds of him standing in place, release him, give him a lower value treat and put the harness away. Rinse and repeat several times.
Finally, ask your dog to stand stay and then put on the harness completely with one hand as you feed him high-value treats with your other hand, and then after a few seconds of him standing in place, release him, give him a lower value treat and walk towards the door.
If at any time your dog breaks the stay, take that as a sign that you have progressed too fast. Split the exercise into smaller steps.
For Dogs Being Touch Sensitive
These dogs benefit from baby steps and lots of positive associations with being handled. If your dog doesn't like to have his paws touched, you would therefore aim to start with very light touches and then gradually increase the intensity of the touch and then start lifting the paw a little bit, then more, and then even more always feeding treats when the paws are handled, and no more treats when the paw is no longer being touched.
The objective is to point out to the dog that having his paws touched is rewarding! Once you start noticing a positive conditioned emotional response where your dog looks eager to have his paws touched, you can start practicing with the harness.
With dogs struggling with having the harness strap over their head, you would do a similar exercise. Have the harness hidden behind your back and present it to your dog, give a treat for looking at it, then once your dog is done eating the treat, put it behind your back. Rinse and repeat to make it clear that the appearance of the harness makes good things happen (treats!).
Next, have the harness hidden behind your back and present it to your dog, give a treat for your dog sniffing it, then once your dog is done eating the treat, put the harness behind your back. Rinse and repeat to make it clear that the appearance of the harness makes good things happen (treats!).
Next, have the harness hidden behind your back and then present it to your dog this time holding the loop over your dog's head and give a treat for your dog looking at it, then once your dog is done eating the treat, put the harness behind your back. Rinse and repeat to make it clear that putting the harness loop over the head makes good things happen (treats!).
Next, have the harness hidden behind your back and present it to your dog, this time placing it over the head and snapping the buckle in front of the legs, then give a treat for your dog wearing it, then once your dog is done eating the treat, remove it from over the head, place the harness behind your back. Rinse and repeat to make it clear that wearing the harness strap over the head and the buckle clipped on makes good things happen (treats!).
For Dogs Who Had a Negative Experience
If your dog cringes when you snap the harnesses' clasps, you can start snapping them without your dog wearing the harness at a distance and tossing your dog a treat. Snapping sound, treat, snapping sound treat, snapping sound, treat until obtaining a positive conditioned emotional response where your dog looks happy hearing the snapping sound.
Next, you can raise the criteria and start making the snapping sound closer. Snapping sound, treat, snapping sound treat, snapping sound, treat until your dog looks happy with that.
Next, raise the criteria by making the snapping sound next to your dog, being careful to be away from your dog's ears. Snapping sound, treat, snapping sound treat, snapping sound, treat until your dog looks happy with that.
Finally, let your dog wear the harness, snapping the harness and feeding a treat, unsnapping and feeding a treat. Once the harness is removed, no more treats.
If your dog was pinched at some time in the past and to prevent future risks, make it a habit of snapping the clasps placing your hand/fingers between the clasps and your dog's skin so to prevent the skin from being accidentally caught.
For Dogs Not Liking the Restricted Feel
Nowadays, there are models of harnesses that are less restrictive. The non-restrictive harness models typically have a Y-shaped configuration seen when viewed facing the front of the dog’s body.
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 dog’s leg gently all the way forward and all the way back with nothing interfering with or blocking movement.
For Dogs Who Dislike Several Components
These dogs require several of the exercises above, but you have to present these one at a time. With the English setter, I had to start working on creating positive associations with seeing the harness and then interacting with the harness until I was able to have him voluntarily put his head through.
And then I also focused on training him to hold a stand stay, and then on separate occasions, I worked on creating positive associations with the sounds of the clasps. before putting everything together.
Models for Sensitive Dogs
For dogs who do not like to have their paws lifted, there are now step-in harnesses so that you no longer need to touch the paws. You can use a treat to lure them into the proper position and feed the treat as the straps are pulled up.
For dogs who dislike anything placed over their heads, the use of a harness that has no loop that goes over the head, and clips over the back can turn helpful.
Yes, You Can Train a Dog to Help You Put on the Harness!
Finally, a great perk that comes along with using desensitization and counterconditioning is that once your dog is more comfortable wearing the harness, you can even train him to help you put it on! How about having your dog volunteer in exchange for tasty rewards?
For instance, with my Rottweilers, I have taught them to give one paw, and then the other one, to get their legs through the straps, and for other models that go over the head, I trained them to voluntarily stick their head through the strap for a treat. This made them extra collaborative which can turn very handy for the process!
The Importance of Ruling Out Something Medical
If your dog is struggling with having the harness put on, especially if he was fine with wearing it before but is now refusing, it may be worth having your dog see the vet to rule out medical problems.
Maybe your dog developed a muscle sprain or he has achy joints, which makes lifting his paws to put the harness on a painful ordeal.
On the other hand, if your harness is one model that goes over the head, consider that your dog may have ear pain and he's dreading having his ears touched or there may be a pinched nerve in the dog's neck.
Inform your vet about your dog's recent behavior, so that he or she can check your dog out. This is important because you can do all the desensitization and counterconditioning in the world, but if your dog has underlying pain you won't get any progress until that pain is properly addressed.
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.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli