As with so many dog-related questions, the answer isn’t hard and fast. Whether a harness or collar is the best choice for your best friend depends on her age, breed, and walking style. Is she a rambunctious puppy ready to charge full steam ahead to explore the world? A harness can facilitate training and give you more control and can do so with ease and minimal exertion on your part. Is she an adult dog who takes your lead? A collar with a leash does the trick. Sometimes, you’ll want both on hand depending on where you’re headed on your adventures.
Read on to learn the main types of dog collars and harnesses, the pros and cons of each, and how to know when one style is the clear winner—so you can make the smartest and safest choice for you and your best friend.
Types of Dog Collars
The dog collar can be a fashion statement, a piece of safety equipment, a method of control, and more. Dog collars are the point of attachment not only for a leash, but also for crucial identification and vaccination tags. Often a collar is enough: enough comfort for your pal, and enough control for you. For some animals, though, a collar can be a training hindrance or even a health hazard. Explore the different types of collars to choose the best one for your dog.
The martingale collar is a favorite among dog trainers—this style is humanely designed to tighten without choking. The martingale features two loops: one that goes around your dog’s neck, and a smaller one where the leash attaches. When your dog pulls, the small loop tightens the collar around her neck so she can’t get loose or back out of the collar. This is not a choke collar; it tightens only a limited amount. It is an excellent choice for dogs with narrow heads (including Greyhounds and Whippets), and dogs who pull incessantly.
Martingale collars aren’t meant for all-day wear. If the loop gets stuck, it puts the dog in danger of asphyxiation.
Flat buckle collars are a strip of material—usually leather, faux leather, or nylon—that secures with a quick-release clip or a metal buckle. Flat collars are the traditional choice; they are widely available, making them a convenient option. Wider collars put less pressure on a large dog’s neck, so they can be a more comfortable option for bigger companions who tend to pull.
Even if your dog wears a harness for walking, she should always wear a flat collar with identification. Have your contact information embroidered in bold print directly on a personalized collar, and attach your dog’s ID tags to the D-ring—a collar with pet identification helps lost dogs get home faster.
A rolled or round collar is most often leather and secures with a metal buckle. Many trainers and veterinarians warn against using a round collar for dogs who pull—and especially for puppies—as it can put too much pressure on the neck. This type of collar does not minimize pulling, and dogs with narrow heads can often slip out of it.
The most durable dog collar materials are leather and nylon. Nylon collars are often machine washable, while leather collars clean up easily with soap and water. Faux leather varieties may not stand up to your best friend’s taste for adventure, especially if she enjoys swimming. Opt for a genuine leather collar instead.
Types of Dog Harnesses
Harnesses come in nylon, leather, or mesh fabric and they’re available in front- or back-clip styles, some with both points of attachment. Be aware of where the harness rests on your dog’s chest and neck. While harnesses are usually better for brachycephalic dogs like Pugs, Bulldogs, Shih Tzus, and other short-nosed breeds, the chest clip must not press against the throat, as it can hinder breathing or damage the trachea.
Front-clip dog harnesses, also called no-pull or chest harnesses, are designed to reduce pulling. A dog’s instinct is to pull against pressure—great for sled-racing, but a disaster on slick sidewalks. Collars and back-clip harnesses can trigger this instinct, which is why dogs haul against them. The leash clips to the front of the aptly named front-clip harness, then crosses the dog’s chest. If she pulls, it turns her body to the side and doesn’t reward the instinct to tug against pressure. With patience, she will learn that pulling means stopping—but slack in the leash allows the walk to continue.
There’s a learning curve—for both human and canine—with the front-clip style harness. It may take a few tries before you can walk without becoming a tangle of limbs and leash. Some styles may take practice to put on and remove, so reward your dog for her patience as you practice.
Back-clip dog harnesses offer less control than a front-clip style but work well for dogs with impeccable leash manners. Dogs who can’t wear collars but aren’t pullers may do well with a back-clip harness. As with other styles, this harness distributes pressure evenly across the dog’s chest and shoulders for comfort.
Step-in harnesses refer to how the harness goes on, and they come in front- or back-clip styles. The dog steps into the harness and it fastens above the shoulders. There are no extra straps, buckles, or clips, and you don’t have to put anything over the head of a nervous dog.
When Is a Harness Better Than a Collar?
Beyond control, your dog’s collar also holds your all-important contact information. Harnesses aren’t comfortable for all-day wear, so your dog should wear a collar with current identification. Even if you walk your dog with a harness, she should wear a collar with current ID tags. Some trainers recommend securing the leash to both the harness and collar clips, which may provide added security.
Cars are exciting. But an unrestrained dog is a danger to the driver, and therefore to everyone on the road. Many chest harnesses come with attachments that clip onto existing backseat seatbelts, keeping everyone safe, and providing the comfort of boundaries for the dog.
Martingale Dog Collar Versus Harness: Which Offers More Control?
This depends on your dog. Both are designed to reduce pulling, but a chest harness can be a better tool to banish the behavior in stronger dogs. If you walk your dog in areas with heavy traffic or in hazardous wild terrain, a chest harness will provide more control. A martingale collar tightens in response to a pull on the leash, which can prevent dogs from slipping the collar, but a harness can distribute the force from a pull—which is easier on her neck and your shoulders.
Choose a Harness for Health Reasons
Tracheal collapse is a disease affecting the cartilage in the airway, which can cause the airway to close (listen for an animal’s honking cough). The disease usually affects toy breeds, especially terriers, though brachycephalic breeds are also prone. A neck collar puts further strain on their airways and should be avoided.
Because collars can make breathing difficult for brachycephalic breeds like English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Pugs, a front- or back-clip harness is the best option for these flat-faced canines.
Dachshunds present a handful of challenges: Intervertebral disk disease (IVDD) puts Doxies at risk for spinal damage, they’re prone to tracheal damage, and the long, low breed harbors escape-artist tendencies. Harnesses can prevent escape, but may damage the spinal cord or back if used improperly. Collars are suitable for Dachshunds who walk politely on the leash, but aren’t the best choice for dogs who tug and pull throughout the stroll. Consider your dog’s specific needs and consult with your veterinarian to decide which is the better option.
A chest or back harness allows you to physically help your dog rise, change direction, or climb stairs, so it may be a better option for older dogs or dogs with mobility concerns.
A Harness May Be Better for Training
A front-clip chest harness can be an advantageous training tool for a Husky, German Shepherd, Pit Bull, or other breed with a strong instinct to pull. A Labrador or Golden Retriever puppy may need a harness while learning proper leash manners, but a martingale collar may be plenty when they’ve grown into a polite adult.
There are dog breeds and dog temperaments that can make a harness the ideal choice—and vice versa. Once you’ve made the call, the most important factor is your behavior on the other end of the leash. Hard yanking, jerking, or tugging on your dog’s collar or harness is never advised and can cause injury, even with a harness. Your goal should always be steady, firm, and smooth movements to restrain your dog, and plenty of praise when she gets it right.
When it comes to walking, your preference and your dog’s safety and comfort should determine whether you choose a harness or collar. While by no means an exhaustive list, these situations may require a harness instead of a collar. If your dog:
- Pulls or jumps excessively
- Is a brachycephalic breed (or has brachycephalic airway syndrome)
- Is prone to tracheal collapse
- Has a narrow skull or thick neck
- Has glaucoma
- Has arthritis or mobility issues
- Spends a lot of time in the car
Whether you choose one or the other—or both—dog collars and harnesses are in near-constant use. They should be rugged enough to withstand your daily outdoor excursions, whether you’re headed around the block or you’re hiking a challenging trail. Look for rugged materials, strong stitching, and sturdy clips and buckles. You’ll also need to keep a close eye on your dog’s outgrowing the collar or harness, chafing at pressure points, broken buckles, or missing ID tags. Make a habit of inspecting the collar or harness for tearing, fraying stitches, and tags coming loose, each time you put it on her or take it off.
Now that you know the ins and outs of dog collars and harnesses there’s only one thing left to do: Buckle up and get out there.