• Sarah Groves

Does your dog run away or cower at the sight of the harness?

By Sarah Groves Dog Training - your puppy training specialist covering Neath, Port Talbot and Swansea

So you’re ready to take your dog for a walk, you go to the place where the harness is kept and your dog is already darting around, running away or cowering as you approach with the harness in your hand.

Does this sound familiar to you?

This response to the harness is something that I come across very regularly and is probably one of the most commonly overlooked issues, but is definitely having an impact on your dog’s overall behaviour.

And the reason why this is so overlooked is because for most dogs, once the harness has finally been put on, the dog appears to be happy in himself and ready for the next step – the walk.

This response could also be confused with excitement for the walk.

Signs of stress

By the time the harness has been put on, the dog has already shown signs of stress, and with this stress we get an increase of the stress hormones in the body – cortisol and adrenaline.

When a dog is feeling stress or uncertain in a situation we normally see one or a combination of these behaviours:

Fight – growling, lunging, biting, barking

Flight – running away/hiding

Freeze – staying still/frozen position

Fool around – act silly, zoomies, maybe biting the lead and jumping up

Even subtle signs of stress will have a knock on effect on behaviour - on the walk and later in the day

As mentioned in a previous article, these stress hormones have a HUGE impact on behaviour, and once your dog has hit a limit of stress hormones in the body you start to see behaviour deteriorating – you are less likely to get dog who is calm not only on the walk but also back at home later on that day.

See THIS ARTICLE for more information on the effects of stress hormones on your dogs behaviour.

Why does my dog show these signs of stress with the harness?

This stress response usually starts very early on when we first introduce the harness to the dog – and generally the more physical force involved in putting the harness on, the greater stress response we will get over time.

When we first get a dog we forget that a harness and a lead is such an unnatural piece of equipment, and as pet owners we get excited to take them out for their first walk, so the process of putting the harness on generally gets rushed.

Over time and with repetition, you get a dog who does not particularly enjoy this process and that’s when we start seeing these stress responses.

The good thing is - there is a lot that can be done about this!

First of all the type of harness you use will have an impact – again the less physical force involved in putting the harness on the better.

From my experience, the types of harnesses which involve less physical force are the ones where the head goes through the head piece, and then clip around the back.

The ones which get the biggest stress response is the type where the feet go into the holes first.

The brands of harness which I generally recommend is the Ruffwear harness or the perfect fit harness as these are super comfortable and allows more option for your dog to enjoy the harness being put on with minimal physical force.

Getting your dog totally happy and comfortable with the harness at a really young age would benefit

The next steps of what to do really depends on the individual dog.

For a lot of dogs it’s a simple case of allowing the dog to approach and investigate the harness in their own time, and then use some food to lure your dog’s head through the head piece. Give some treats as they are going through the head piece and then another when the harness is on.

If your dog backs away at any point, allow this to happen and then allow them to approach again in their own time and repeat.

Take the headpiece off, followed by a treat. REPEAT, REPEAT REPEAT!

This should be done as an exercise in it's self a couple of times a day without it being walk time.

If you have the type of dog who is VERY reluctant to approach or will run away from the harness as soon as it’s out, it’s a little more complicated and will involve a process of desensitisation and counter conditioning (gradual exposure to the harness, and slowly building good feelings about the harness, and each step of the harness being put on)

This process takes careful consideration and can take time and repetition so putting all of the steps of this on here would be impossible to cater for every single dog with this issue, so if your dog is experiencing this, then please let me know and we can make a plan for the next best steps for you!

I had to do this with my dog Prince many years ago – it took TWO WEEKS of no walks and just harness work before I finally managed to get him to the point where he LOVED the harness again, and now when I show him the head piece, he will voluntarily put his head through.

I would LOVE to hear about your dog and your experiences on this topic - does your dog show signs of stress when the harness comes out?

Send me an email with a short video of you getting your dog's harness out and putting it on your dog, and I will help you work through this!

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