Why use a harness?
A good walking harness is generally far better than a neck collar during recovery from injury or surgery. A good harness fits around the dog’s chest, with the main lead attachment close to the dog’s centre of gravity. This is the best set-up for keeping the dog safe should they pull or lose balance.
Above: Otis the strong young Labrador was kept safe on a harness and lead during management of a leg fracture that had occurred in puppyhood. He pulled less on this system than he did when the lead was attached to a head-collar.
The top of the harness acts as a safety “grab handle”, i.e. you can get hold of this without pulling on your dog’s neck if your dog tries to run unexpectedly. Unlike a neck collar, a harness avoids the delicate neck structures including the windpipe.
Above: During recovery from cruciate surgery, Bella would try to zoom out of her recovery pen when its door was opened. The easiest option was to leave her harness on at all times. We could hold Bella safe by grabbing hold of the top of her harness on opening her pen door. This is a Mekuti harness. We eventually cut the side rings off the harness as they served Bella no purpose.
If your recovering dog is really weak and wobbly, then you can safely use the harness to help support their whole front end. This is really useful if you have to help your debilitated dog get up out of bed or, for stronger dogs, for helping them in and out of the car or back and forth to the garden.
On a good harness, the clip for the lead is much further back than on a neck collar. This helps your dog to distribute their body weight more evenly, a factor key to recovery for many conditions, including most spinal disc problems, many cases of hind limb lameness (especially cruciate disease and patellar luxation) and front limb lameness.
A harness gives your dog freedom to move their head and neck as they wish, even when restrained on a short lead. This allows your dog to look about, to sniff the air and sniff the ground, all natural canine behaviours.
Choosing a harness
The harness should fit comfortably without pinching anywhere around the shoulders, and should not extend further back than the dog’s rib-cage.
So as not to constrict the shoulders, the best designs generally have a Y-shaped front rather than a T-shaped front.
Above: The Mekuti harness is a good design for many dogs. Note the Y-shaped front.
Above: Otis the young Labrador did well with this sturdy Ruffwear harness. Again, it has a Y-shaped front so that the straps do not cut across his shoulders or elbows.
Above: The Perfect Fit harness is another good design that does not interfere with shoulder movement.
Above: This type of harness is not ideal during recovery. The straps pinch and constrict the muscles above the elbow. A front view photo was not available, but this harness would have the shape of the letter “T” if viewed from the front.
In choosing a harness, also consider how easy it is to take it on and off. Many dogs do better with a harness that they don’t have to step into, i.e. the easier designs tend to go on over the dog’s head, with straps that then buckle up on either side of the chest. Some dogs dislike anything being put on over their head, perhaps because they have neck or ear pain for example. If your dog is “head-shy”, then choose a harness with a neck clip to avoid this problem.
Above: Look for a harness that has side clips, as this design avoids the dog having to step into the harness. It is tricky and uncomfortable for some recovering dogs to stand on three legs when stepping into a harness. This photo shows a Mekuti harness. If your dog is head-shy, then choose a design that also has a neck clip.
During recovery, it is best to avoid those “no-pull” harness designs that tighten uncomfortably around the dog when they pull.
Handling your recovering dog can be that bit easier if you choose a harness with a top strap. This acts as a useful “grab handle”, e.g. if you’re sitting together and the dog suddenly tries to rush off. It can also be a handy “point of control” (a place to put your hands to steady your dog) during any prescribed home physiotherapy exercises.
Above: Bella is relaxing with her owner. Even if a squirrel were to run past, Bella the spaniel is safe with her owner’s hand holding the top strap of this Perfect Fit harness
It’s best to choose a harness that offers some room for adjustment in all directions. The harness should fit quite snuggly but without pinching. Straps may need to be adjusted if your dog loses or gains weight, or if it needs to be refitted over the top of a jacket on a cold day.
Above: Sophie is doing a great job here helping Saffy the standard schnauzer recover from cruciate ligament injury. During prescribed exercises, just the right amount of lead pressure is needed to encourage Saffy to start using her injured leg properly. Saffy is wearing a Ruffwear harness. A good webbing design such as Mekuti, or a Perfect Fit harness would also be suitable for this purpose.
Harnesses range from those that are quite soft and stretchy (e.g. some designs from the Puppia range) through to tough webbing designs with very little stretch (e.g. the Mekuti harness) and then, most sturdy and rigid of the lot, the Ruffwear designs. During recovery, my first choice tends to be for quite a sturdy harness with little to no stretch in its fabric. We use the harness for safety, support and for exercises to improve strength and coordination. Too much stretch in the harness fabric makes a design less suitable for recovery exercises. This is because “messages” from the handler’s hand or lead tend to get absorbed by the stretch of the fabric before they reach the dog.
A few useful harness designs
The Mekuti harness, from its small to extra-large size, has a good Y-shaped design, is adjustable and made of hard-wearing webbing material. It’s main lead-attachment ring is positioned perfectly at the top of the harness, not too far forward or too far back. It can be ordered with an optional neck-clip. This design is well-suited to many breeds, including most terriers, Labradors and giant breeds such as Newfoundlands. Mekutis are not the ideal fit for very tiny dogs, or for narrow, deep-chested dogs (e.g. greyhounds). The Mekuti comes with side-rings which are rarely if ever needed during recovery – I tend to cut these side rings off before use. Important: Contrary to the instructions that come with the harness, I advise not to loop the dog’s lead in front of the chest and through the side-ring(s) as a no-pull system during recovery.
The Perfect Fit harness has a good Y-shaped design, is quite plush and fleecy, and comes with neck clips as standard. Again, its main lead-attachment ring is positioned perfectly at the top of the harness. The various harness sections (top, front and girth) can be bought individually to offer a good fit for most types of dog. This is particularly useful for those tricky-to-fit tiny toy breeds, whippets, greyhounds and other dogs with special fitting requirements. With dozens of size options available, this harness is chosen based on your own dog’s size and shape. Once bought, you’ll find that the adjustable straps are useful, e.g. if your dog gains or loses weight, or if needing to fit the harness over a jacket.
Ruffwear harnesses are extremely sturdy and hard-wearing. They offer very good control. This is ideal for dogs that try to pull or run off, or for those needing manual support of their front end. However, this range does not suit every size and shape of dog. If choosing from Ruffwear, I recommend that you measure your dog carefully and contact the supplier for fitting advice if needed. Not all designs from the Ruffwear range are suitable for recovering dogs. Look for one with a well-positioned top clip (see image below). The Front Range and Webmaster designs have proved particularly useful. As a bonus, Ruffwear harnesses are waterproof and are therefore perfect for those recovering dogs that have been prescribed aquatherapy (sensory work and exercises in the shower or bath) for home use.
Above: Saffy the standard schnauzer modelling a well-fitted Ruffwear harness. Note that the lead attachment point at the top of the harness is just behind the level of the dog’s elbow.
Harnesses for dachshunds
A harness is one of the most useful tools during recovery from IVDD. This is the case whether or not your affected dog has had spinal surgery. Firstly, for safety in the early stages, your recovering dog mustn’t run or jump because this could cause a worsening of the spinal disc problem. Secondly, in order to help the IVDD dog learn how to walk again, we need a safe way to slow her right down, so that her hind legs have a chance to try and step. A chest harness is positioned around the dog’s centre of gravity, so it is perfect for slowing her down safely, avoiding accidents and helping to teach the dog how to take proper steps. The harness can also be used as a grab-handle when helping the recovering dog with exercises such as weight shifts within a standing position.
One of the breeds most often affected by IVDD is the dachshund. However, not all harness designs are suitable for this deep-chested breed. As ever, look for a harness with the following plus points if possible:
- Some adjustability. This allows you to put the harness on over a jacket if needed
- A Y-shaped front. Avoid a horizontal “T” bar strap that cuts across the front of the elbows or shoulders
- Two side clips so that your dog doesn’t have to balance on three legs when putting on and removing the harness.
- The lead attachment ring is best positioned just behind the level of the point of the dog’s elbow when seen from the side in a standing position.
- Comfortable enough to leave on the dog for large parts of the day at home.
The Perfect Fit harness is a good first choice for both miniature and standard dachshunds because it can be ordered to fit the shape of the individual dog. The fleece-covered straps are comfortable, even on sensitive single-coated dogs. On the negative side, the lowest-slung miniature dachshunds may perhaps not have quite enough clearance for the strap underneath the chest.
My next choice would be a webbing design with a Y-shaped front, a lead attachment at the top of the harness, and a snug but comfortable fit all the way around.
Above: Darcy Dolittle the standard dachshund is wearing a small Halti Walking Harness. Not all designs from the Halti range are useful in recovery, but this one has proved to be quite a good adjustable webbing harness. It has served Darcy well through rehabilitation after IVDD surgery. The prominent top strap loop has been a useful grab handle through the early stages of recovery.
Dachshunds are tactile little dogs, and some of them prefer soft harnesses to those made of webbing. If your dog hates webbing, and if the soft Perfect Fit harness is beyond your budget or your dog does not get on with it, then another option is a vest type fabric harness. Vest type designs include the Doodlebone Snappy dog harness (it has little to no adjustability, but some dachshunds love the wraparound design), Puppia Soft harness (which has an adjustable girth strap) or Paddingpaws Soft Mesh harness (a low budget option, also with an adjustable girth).
A drawback of most vest type harnesses is that they tend to be quite stretchy, making them less useful for exercises during recovery: “Messages” from the lead or from the owner’s hands are absorbed by the stretch of the fabric before they reach the dog. Having said this, it is still better to attach the lead to a vest type harness than to a collar (which pulls strongly on the neck) and of course it is much better than not using a lead at all (which would risk the dog rushing ahead too fast). In the end I am happy for a recovering dachshund to use whichever harness fits well and is comfortable.
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