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The Pros Weigh in on Choosing the Right Dog Gear

Are you making these common mistakes when choosing your dog’s gear? How do you know if dog gear like harnesses and collars fit properly? How can you train your dog to love his gear and prevent injuries? The experts weigh in.

Martha M. Everett  |  Apr 24th 2018


“Any tool is only as good as the person who uses it,” Norma Jeanne Laurette says. She knows that firsthand, especially when it comes to dog gear.

“I was at a seminar where dogs were allowed,” recalls the founder of the International Positive Dog Training Association in Ontario, Canada. “I was wearing shorts that day, and a dog on a retractable leash ran around my legs. The cord was pulled back, causing a slash in my calf.”

Using your dog’s gear wrong — or using the wrong gear for your dog or the situation — can be dangerous to both human and canine. So how do you know if your dog’s gear is wrong? Dogster sought the advice of five training and gear experts to lead you in the right direction.

Top 3 Mistakes When It Comes to Dog Gear

Happy, excited dog with leash in his mouth.

Don’t make these mistakes when choosing dog gear! Photography ©DanAlex120714 | Getty Images.

In dog gear, as in life, there are some universal truths. Don’t judge a book by its cover. No one size fits all. Slow and steady wins the race. And above all: Learn from your mistakes.

Mistake #1: Choosing based on looks

Dog gear mishaps start in the store.

“A dog owner may just choose dog gear based on appearance without having a proper understanding of it,” says Megan Stanley, board chair of the Lexington, Kentucky-based Association of Professional Dog Trainers and owner of Dogma Training & Pet Services Inc. in Alberta, Canada.

Collars in particular fall into this category. “People often choose a collar for its color and print rather than for its durability and safety,” says Terri Bright, PhD, director of Behavior Services at MSPCA-Angell headquartered in Boston.

While a collar with bling might be attractive, it’s not always the best choice. “Be aware of how heavy equipment can be on the dog, such as a heavily adorned leather collar,” Megan says.

Do your homework before buying gear.

“It is important that we research all equipment and ensure it is the best gear for our dogs,” Megan says. Know how to fit and use each piece of gear properly, and understand its potential risks.

That might mean foregoing a pretty leash for a practical one. “When buying a lead of any kind, you want to make sure that the lead itself and the clasp are strong enough to hold the weight of the dog,” Norma Jeanne recommends. Celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell offers sound advice: “Go for comfort for both you and the dog and your ability rather than how it looks.”

Mistake #2: Getting the fit wrong

“Proper fit and technique is important, not only for the equipment to work properly but also for the dog’s comfort and safety,” Norma Jeanne says. Make sure gear is the right size and adjusted properly for your dog — not so loose it can come off or so tight it constricts.

People often are so concerned about equipment being too tight on their dog that they wind up with gear that’s too loose, says Travis Brorsen, host of Animal Planet’s My Big Fat Pet Makeover television series. He advises people to think about what happens when we wear shoes that are too big: blisters. Conversely, tight gear can be painful. “Collars or harnesses that are too tight can rub hair and skin off,” Terri says.

“If the harness is too tight or the chest strap is too low, it will restrict the movement of the dog’s front legs and shoulders, which can cause discomfort and a change in gait,” Norma Jeanne warns. “You have to get the happy medium,” Victoria says. “If you fit the harness correctly it’s just a really snug fit, like a wristwatch. The dog forgets he’s even wearing it.”

Properly fitted gear makes training easier because it provides optimum stability and support, Travis says.

Once you get the fit right, check your dog’s gear regularly. As puppies grow in size, so should their gear, Terri notes. And equipment can loosen over time. “Dog owners should check the fit every time they use the equipment,” she says. “It only takes a second.”

How to fit a collar

The rule of thumb for fitting a collar is the two-finger rule: When the collar is fastened, you should be able to get two fingers comfortably between your dog’s neck and the collar. A collar should be the width of two of your dog’s vertebrae and snug enough that you cannot pull it past the ears.

How to fit a harness

The two-finger rule also applies to harnesses. A harness should be snug but loose enough that it doesn’t push into the chest when the dog sits. To determine the right size for your dog, wrap a cloth tape measure around your dog’s chest just behind the front legs. An adjustable harness allows you to get a more custom fit.

Mistake #3: Introducing gear too quickly

Don’t just toss a new piece of gear on your dog. Introduce equipment slowly, and teach your dog to like it. Desensitizing your dog to gear will prevent stress, anxiety and fear.

“All gear should be introduced gradually as the dog adjusts to it — and paired with food — so that it comes to mean ‘treats!’ instead of ‘ugh!’” Terri says. “Go slowly and quit while the dog is relaxed wearing the equipment.”

Muzzles are a good example. “Throwing a muzzle on a dog just for vet visits will teach the dog that the muzzle predicts frightening events,” Terri says. “But having them wear it while randomly getting treats on walks makes it less aversive.”

Victoria agrees. “Every dog needs to be muzzle-trained from an early age,” she says. “If you acclimate your dog to a muzzle right from the word go and you make it a pleasant experience, when they do have to go to the vet or if something happens where they have to be muzzled, it’s just normal.”

Even seemingly innocuous gear like dog booties requires practice. Dogs don’t take to booties like a person does to a pair of socks; they need time to acclimate to footwear. So even though you might not be thinking snow right now, start well before your dog needs foot protection from inclement weather, Travis advises.

And keep it up year-round. With seasonal items like life jackets, Terri says, “It is a good idea to continue the pairing of these with treats in the off-season, as well.”

The power of positive training tools — especially when training dogs to use dog gear

Dog in a harness.

Positive training can help your dog love his gear. Photography ©DanAlex120714 | Getty Images.

“The biggest mistake most dog owners make when selecting gear is choosing aversive training tools,” trainer Megan Stanley says.

Aversive gear includes choke, prong, pinch and shock collars that punish unwanted behavior.

“They’re designed to cause pain and discomfort in order to get your dog to behave,” celebrity dog trainer Victoria Stilwell says. “There is no place in dog training for that.”

Animal Planet television host Travis Brorsen concurs. “This is old-school and outdated,” he says.

“Punishment in training is clearly counterproductive to the learning process,” trainer Norma Jeanne Laurette says. “It does not teach the dog what you want him to do. All the dog learns is avoidance and that people are scary and can’t be trusted.”

Behavior expert Terri Bright, PhD, echoes that sentiment. “There is no need to frighten a dog to train him,” she says. “Any animal can learn using the tenets of positive reinforcement.”

Why positive reinforcement works when training dogs to accept dog gear

Positive-reinforcement training is based on mutual trust and respect rather than fear and intimidation. The method teaches good behavior by rewarding correct choices. If the right choice has a benefit — praise, treats, a gentle pat — a dog is less likely to make a wrong choice, Travis says.

“Instead of putting that emphasis on punishment, we put the emphasis on teaching a dog what else to do in a situation,” Victoria explains. “Positive reinforcement is not just more successful in the long run, it’s also safer.”

Norma Jeanne agrees. “It makes learning quicker and easier, creates pleasant associations, strengthens the human-canine trust bond and protects the dog’s temperament and emotional well-being,” she says. “This promotes a thinking, confident and happy dog.”

Dog gear-related injuries

“Without proper training to walk on leash, any tool can cause physical injury if a dog pulls on it for too long,” Megan warns. Pressure on a dog’s sensitive neck can cause ear and eye issues and damage the trachea and thyroid gland, she says.

To take the force off the neck, our experts recommend using a harness with a leash attachment at the front.

“The reason a chest-led harness works is that the chest really is the dog’s center of gravity,” Victoria explains. “And that’s a much gentler experience for you and the dog.”

Have multiple harnesses to vary pressure points, Victoria suggests. “You don’t wear the same clothes every day, so why should your dog?” Any leash that is too long can tangle and trip people and dogs, but retractable leashes require particular care.

“There are many recorded injuries from minor to severe from people grabbing the [retractable] leash or getting tangled in it, causing rope burn or breaking bones,” Megan says.

If you use a retractable leash, attach it only in open spaces where there are few objects, no traffic and no other dogs or people.

Dogs at play can be ensnared by a loose collar or injured by bejeweled, studded or spiked collars. “It is recommended that collars be removed during play, especially any collar with a chain on it, or use a quick-release collar,” Megan advises.

Gear-related injures can do more than physical harm; they can affect a dog’s emotional well-being, Norma Jeanne notes.

“Any of these injuries can also result in damage to the human-canine trust bond,” she says.

Gear for specific dogs

Every dog is special, but certain breeds and sizes need special gear. Brachycephalic breeds (those with a broad, short skull that results in a flat face or short nose, such as Lhasa Apsos, Pugs and Pekingese) can have breathing issues, so it’s vital that gear doesn’t strain their throats, Travis says.

They also are more prone to heatstroke, so cooling harnesses are a good choice for these breeds, Megan says.

“For the brachycephalic breeds that need to be muzzled, people take risks with the wrong type of muzzle,” Terri says. She recommends using a muzzle specifically designed for short-snouted dogs.

Size matters. A large, powerful dog like an Irish Wolfhound might best be walked using a head halter, especially for a child or senior who might have trouble holding onto a big dog. For small dogs, such as Italian Greyhounds, wide collars and soft harnesses work well, Victoria says. And dogs with narrow heads, including Greyhounds, need a martingale collar (one with a large loop for the dog’s neck and a smaller sliding loop that attaches to the leash) so they can’t slip out of it, Megan says. Martingale collars also help prevent pulling without choking.

The naked truth about dog gear

When in doubt about the right dog gear, consult your veterinarian or a professional trainer.

“Any of it can cause injury or even death if a dog chews on it or can get stuck or tied up with it,” Megan warns. “One of the biggest mistakes people make when using their dog’s gear is leaving it on unsupervised. It’s best to remove all gear when the dog is alone or unsupervised for long periods within a safe, contained area.”

Getting the right gear for your dog and using it correctly is essential. But you are a key ingredient. “Using a piece of equipment should be a temporary aid to training rather than a crutch,” Terri says. “Changing the equipment merely changes the picture for the dog temporarily and gives you a window of opportunity to train an alternative behavior.”

As Norma Jeanne says, “We need to be a part of the solution and not the problem.”

Dog Gear Panel of Experts

FROM LEFT: Terri Bright Photo by Topher Cox. Norma Jeanne Laurette With Greg Ceci, Photo by Sandra Monaco Photography. Photo courtesy Megan Stanley

FROM LEFT: Terri Bright, Photo by Topher Cox. Norma Jeanne Laurette With Greg Ceci, Photo by Sandra Monaco Photography. Photo courtesy Megan Stanley

Terri Bright, PhD, director of Behavior Services at MSPCA-Angell headquartered in Boston. 

Travis Brorsen, host of the television series My Big Fat Pet Makeover, founder and CEO of Greatest American Dog Trainers.

Norma Jeanne Laurette and Greg Ceci, trainers, instructors and co-chairs of the International Positive Dog Training Association (founded by Norma Jeanne) in Ontario, Canada. 

Megan Stanley, board chair of the Lexington, Kentucky-based Association of Professional Dog Trainers and owner of Dogma Training & Pet Services Inc. in Alberta, Canada.

Victoria Stilwell, star of the television series It’s Me or the Dog, judge on television’s the Greatest American Dog, CEO of Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training and Dogster contributor. 

St. Louis-based freelance writer Martha M. Everett has lived on both coasts covering everything from Washington to Westminster. More interesting, her Keeshond-mix rescue, Trooper, helped set a World Record for the Most Dogs in Costumed Attire.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Jonathan Mauer | Getty Images.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!

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