I’ve had and walked dogs since childhood. Until last autumn, I’d never given a second thought to how I walked them. I’d just always clipped a leash to the ring on the dog’s collar and got on with it. In October of 2015, I was conducting interviews for a Dogster magazine article on the health benefits of dog walking as exercise. As I noted in the piece, when dogs and their humans establish a regular walking routine, the benefits — emotional, mental, and physical— pass up and down the leash.
The article wasn’t published until February of 2016, but two of the interviews I conducted— with Tricia Montgomery, founder and CEO of K9 Fit Club, and Jt Clough, author, dog trainer, and inter-species life coach— made an immediate impact on both me and my dog, Baby. I was fascinated by how passionately each of them spoke about using a dog harness instead of the standard collar clip. The long-term risk to a dog’s neck over years of pulling and being pulled had simply never occurred to me, and I’m convinced that these interviews may have changed the course of my dog’s life.
One of the questions I’d formulated for my interviews had to do with chest or waist leashes for dog owners versus the traditional method of holding the leash by hand. When I asked Montgomery and Clough about these rigs, I was taken aback when each of them turned their answers toward a dog harness, specifically.
Clough: I have become a proponent for dog harnesses. The love of my life is my 10-year-old Weimaraner; she got a neck injury… My realization was that I was pulling on her neck all the time. That’s how we’ve always been taught to control our dogs. The benefit of a harness for a dog is [that it’s] really helpful for [reducing] wear and tear on their bodies.
Me: The risk of repetitive stress injury never occurred to me.
Clough: It really became apparent looking at her X-rays. If you’re pulling on that all the time… They withstand it a lot differently than we do, but their ligaments, their bones, and the way they’re put together, the wear and tear is the same. You can only pull on something, or jerk on something, so many times before it has a life-long effect.
When I asked Tricia Montgomery about harnesses, the echoes of what I’d heard from Clough startled me.
Montgomery: I’m a huge advocate of harnesses. I believe harnesses work for the dog. The harness controls dogs just a little bit better. Keep in mind that excessive pressure for the dog on its neck or cervical [vertebrae] can cause so many issues related to whiplash lameness.
I’d adopted my dog, Baby, about 18 months earlier, and had only ever walked her the same way I’d walked every dog I’d had before, with the leash attached directly to her collar. It didn’t take long for me to learn that Baby, a Bluetick Coonhound mix, is a puller. She’s powerfully scent-motivated and physically very strong. With Clough and Montgomery’s words ringing in my ears, I thought about all the times I’d already tugged at Baby’s leash, and, by extension, her neck.
I also thought about all the times she tried lurched off at full speed after an intriguing smell, straining her own neck in the collar. I felt a compounded sense of guilt, not only for my baby puppy, but also for all the dogs I’d ever had. Having lost my previous dog, Tina, in the spring of 2014 to a debilitating idiopathic condition that robbed her of the use of her hind legs, I could only wonder what role, if any, a lifetime of tugging and pulling from both ends of the leash might have played.
Within a day, I’d obtained a simple harness for Baby and haven’t looked back since. As with any dog accessory, there are a wide range of options, sizes, and price points. The harness I got was literally the simplest $12 to $13 dollar one at the pet store. We slide her front legs through two hoops, and clip it over her back, where I attach the leash.
It took a while for each of us to get used to it, but the difference in handling her was immediately noticeable. I feel more in control of her when we walk, and I am confident that Baby’s risk of unforeseen spinal trauma is greatly reduced in the process. Sincerest thanks to Jt Clough and Tricia Montgomery; Baby thanks you, and so do I!
Read more about dog walking on Dogster.com: