Updated: Nov 21
Confession: I used to be one of those dog trainers who believed that harnesses caused pulling.
Back then, I thought that my clients' dogs were pulling because the harness they were wearing encouraged it or that the dog wanted to deliberately disobey. Now, however, I know better. I've realized that this old myth simply doesn't hold up under the light of Learning Theory.
The truth is that there are many myths surrounding harnesses and why dogs pull on leash in general; these myths often stem from misunderstandings about how dogs learn and behave.
There is misinformation about harnesses on both sides.
You may have heard that harnesses cause pulling.
You may have heard that harnesses stop pulling.
I've heard well-meaning dog enthusiasts and professionals alike on both sides of this issue. But both of these claims are false.
Why do dogs pull?
The truth is that dogs are not pulling because they are wearing a harness - they are pulling for other reasons entirely. Just looking at immediate motivations a dog may be pulling because they want to walk faster than you, because they see something they want to chase, because their pent-up energy exceeds their self control, and so on. We could think up a dozen more easily.
Or there's my favorite reason for pulling that nobody talks about - some dogs want to focus on the environment but still be able to track your position. When a leash is tight a dog that is used to it and the collar/harness can tell exactly where you are by feel. They know precisely what direction you are in and how far away you are just by the feel of the pressure.
Regardless of the surface motivation of the dog we know from Learning Theory that one thing is true: the dog is doing this because it's working. Or if we must be technical, we know that any behavior that is continuing or escalating is being reinforced. Even if you think they know they are in the wrong on some level they are getting what they are seeking.
Reinforcement is what is causing the pulling. Am I saying it is your fault as the handler?
But you are also the one that can fix it like the badass dog parent you are!
So stop blaming the gear, put your big-kid pants on, and get to training.
I can't believe anybody has to say this is 2022 but here it is: your dog is almost certainly not pulling because of dominance. Not even actual wolves behave in the way these "alpha/pack leader" dog people claim is natural. It's a myth.
This alpha stuff has been discredited in real science for decades. Don't believe me? Here is David Mech himself - the researcher who literally first proposed that stuff - explaining why it's wrong.
Being tougher or acting like "an alpha" won't stop the pulling. Good training - taking advantage of the same learning theory principles that caused this problem - is what is needed to resolve this.
The truth about dog harnesses
Dog harnesses don't cause pulling - but maybe some trainers have a point that could be made. One thing that some harnesses do is make pulling more comfortable. What would you rather pull on: a flat collar on your neck or a padded chest harness?
Fair enough. But this is not a strike against the use of harnesses so much as it is a warning about the proper selection of management gear. Obviously if you have trouble controlling your dog making pulling easier without also providing training is bad news bears.
But no trainer would tell you to put a put a sled-dog harness on your pulling mastiff and leave it at that.
Dog harnesses don't stop pulling - but maybe some trainers have a point that could be made. One thing that some harnesses do is make pulling easier to manage. Let's take a look at the body harness with a front clip. The "Easy Walk" harness for example.
This helps manage pulling by turning the dogs body when they pull, significantly reducing the amount of leverage they can use. This can make the dog's attempts at pulling way less successful as it is so much harder to pull their human along.
Fair enough. But this does not make that harness (or any other) an actual solution. To be a bit technical again it will reduce the rate of reinforcement for the pulling but likely not eliminate it. And in the end it definitely isn't teaching your dog to walk politely in any real way.
So, to sum up:
Dog harnesses don't cause pulling - reinforcement causes pulling.
Dog harnesses don't cure pulling - good training cures pulling.
Harnesses are fine as long as - like with any gear - we are selecting the right tool for the right job. If your dog is pulling on the leash the answer is training. Rather than leaning on a tool to control or restrict their behavior let's teach then what WE DO want them to do. Leash walking is one of the most popular topics in dog training and no matter what style of training you favor you will find tons of instructional videos on YouTube and other platforms. Of course if you need help consulting with a professional dog trainer it will give you a huge boost!
Robin Wong is a certified dog trainer, a graduate of the prestigious Victoria Stilwell Academy, and a Certified Behavior Adjustment Training Instructor (Knowledge Assessed). He founded Holy Sit to provide trauma-informed behavior work and positive dog training in London Ont.