In discussions about dog harnesses, the Y dog harness often emerges as a popular choice, but not all Y harnesses are created equal.
There is such a strong pushback about using collars or harnesses going across the shoulders, while no one seems to talk about the risks of using a poorly fitted/sized Y-harness.
Many seem to think that any Y-harness is safe for their dog, which is not true. The unpopular truth is that a poorly fitting Y (or H) harness can cause the same health problems or injuries as a dog pulling in a collar or while wearing a cross-shoulder harness.
We already addressed the argument that Norwegian harnesses would always restrict the shoulders in another article. We noted that adjustment and the dog’s behavior are essential to determine if that style can work for your dog, and the same is true for the Y-harnesses!
Finding a good fit is very hard, and there are many ways the straps can restrict the movement, change the natural posture or gait of the dog, and cause rubbing/chafing. You want to ensure the harness is comfortable all around so your dog can freely enjoy your time outside.
Let’s look into all the aspects of the harness fit so you can decide for yourself if aneck-straps harness fits your dog well!
How to determine the right fit for a dog harness
While the ideal harness fit is highlighted in the images below, it’s rare to find a perfect match for every dog, as was the case with lana.
Often, we encounter a compromise: if the neck straps are adjusted ideally, the harness sits too close to the armpits; if there’s sufficient armpit room, the neck area becomes too loose and low.
You’re likely to face these trade-offs with most harnesses, unless you opt for a custom-made one or a harness with 5-6 adjustable points.
We’ll delve deeper into each aspect shortly, but let’s begin with an overview of key considerations:
Shoulders: In the photos, I’ve marked the shoulder joints’ approximate location with red Xs. It’s important that neck straps don’t cover this area, especially if your dog pulls or lunges.
Chest Bone: The chest bone, easily felt on your dog’s chest, should align with the center of the Y or H harness’s connection.
Armpits: Ensure there’s enough space behind the front legs for movement, without the straps being too far back and pressuring soft tissues.
Between the Front Legs: The chest piece should not be excessively wide between the front legs to avoid chafing the insides of the front legs.
Here is an illustration of a harness that suited Mia effectively. The straps over the shoulder are positioned above the joint, ensuring freedom of movement; the chest straps are adequately spaced to allow leg movement without being so distant as to exert pressure on delicate tissues.
The back portion of the harness commences just prior to the shoulder area, thus avoiding any restriction on neck mobility.
Harness fit analysis with photo examples
In the following section, I’ll present some photographs illustrating both well-fitting and poorly-fitting harness sections on some other dogs.
My intention isn’t to label one harness superior and another inferior, as each would fit differently on a different dog. My aim is to guide you in identifying what to look for in a harness for your dog.
Remember, photographs can sometimes be deceptive; I could select images where most harnesses appear perfect and others where they seem ill-fitting, sagging, or shifted.
There are angles and postures in which the front of the harness might appear overly low, yet be quite suitable in a relaxed stance. The photos chosen here clearly demonstrate my points and accurately represent how the harnesses fit in reality.
Optimal harness fits on the chest bone
It’s crucial that the harness doesn’t ride up onto the neck, avoiding pressure on the trachea. The ideal position for the intersection of the chest section and neck straps is on the chest bone, not the soft tissue.
To illustrate this, I often reference a photo of the Line harness, where the orange loop at the front indicates the chest bone’s position when the dog stands with its head up.
While the harness’s position will vary with movement, this provides a good baseline understanding.
Ideal shoulder fit for dog harnesses
Many opt for a Y-harness with the intention of avoiding pressure on their dog’s shoulders, yet often end up with poorly fitted Y-harnesses that do precisely that.
This misfit can stem from the angle of the neck strap, an oversized harness, or wide straps on a slender dog.
Below, you’ll find an example of a harness that fits the shoulders well.
The optimal harness fits around the armpits
A harness that’s too close to the armpits can lead to chafing and rubbing, and may alter the dog’s stride and posture. This can potentially cause joint and spine issues over time.
While ensuring freedom of movement for the forelimbs is important, especially when the dog is stationary, the chest straps should not extend beyond the last sternebra to avoid placing weight on the abdomen’s soft tissue.
As a rule of thumb, for medium-sized dogs, there should be enough space for 2-3 fingers, and for large dogs, 3-4 fingers, between the chest strap and the back of the front legs.
This guideline is challenging to apply to small dogs due to their size variability, but the aim should be to maintain a similar proportion.
In addition to the risk of exerting pressure on soft tissues, another problem with a harness positioned too far back is its tendency to slide up significantly when pulled forward, only stopping when impeded by the front legs.
The significance of chest section width between the front legs
Often neglected until a dog with sensitive skin starts experiencing discomfort in the inner front leg area, the width of the harness’s chest section is crucial.
While padding in this area is important, if the chest piece is too wide, it can cause rubbing, chafing, or just general annoyance.
This discomfort may lead the dog to alter its walking pattern to avoid the irritation, thereby placing unusual pressure on the shoulder joints.
It’s sometimes immediately apparent when a harness is excessively wide between the legs, but other times, it’s more challenging to assess.
A simple method to evaluate this is to engage your dog in a game of fetch with and without the harness, observing their movement from a seated position at their level.
Fitting a three-strap dog harness
When it comes to three-strap harnesses, the guidelines for fitting the neck and first chest strap remain the same as previously discussed.
However, particular attention should be paid to the last strap, especially if it rests over soft tissue rather than the ribcage. It’s important to ensure this strap doesn’t exert pressure on the stomach during the dog’s movement.
The inclusion of this third strap generally serves two purposes: to better distribute weight when lifting the dog (though these are not lifting harnesses per se) and to prevent anxious dogs from slipping out of the harness. These different scenarios necessitate distinct fitting and adjustments for the third strap.
Optimal positioning for the no-pull front clip
For no-pull harnesses， often, this ring is positioned too low on the chest. For optimal control, the no-pull ring should be located on the chest bone.
This positioning ensures that the harness turns the dog rather than pulling their leg sideways, which can lead to various problems over time. If you’re planning to use the no-pull ring, it’s crucial to ensure it’s correctly positioned.
How important are buckles on a dog harness?
Many dog harnesses feature buckles only on the chest straps, which suffices for the majority of dogs.
However, symmetry in buckle placement is an aspect worth considering, as even a minor imbalance, like a small plastic buckle on one chest strap, can cause the harness to consistently lean to one side. The trade-off of securing two buckles on the chest strap, taking an additional few seconds, is a more stable fit, particularly when the dog is running off-leash.
Should you choose a dog harness with neck strap buckles?
For dogs that are hesitant about gear or dislike being touched, a harness with at least one buckle on the neck straps is worth considering.
This design eliminates the need to pull the harness over the head, which can be especially beneficial for dogs with a large head relative to their neck size, where an ideal neck adjustment would prevent the harness from fitting over their head.
So, why do most harnesses lack buckles on the neck straps? The primary advantage of this design is the reduced risk of chafing from hard plastic buckles and the lower likelihood of buckle failure under sudden pressure, such as when a dog lunges.
A closer look at step-in dog harnesses
From my observations, finding a step-in harness that fits well is exceptionally challenging, particularly since they are frequently used for small dogs. The issues with restriction and chafing are often less noticeable in smaller breeds. I bring this up to encourage those with small dogs to take a closer look at how their harness fits while the dog is moving.
Inherently, step-in harnesses tend to be positioned right in the armpits. For example, the neck straps on the harness shown below should be tighter for an ideal neck fit, but such an adjustment would lead to chafing in Mia’s armpits when stepping. While not impossible, finding a well-fitting step-in harness is significantly more difficult compared to other designs.
As demonstrated, choosing an appropriate Y dog harness involves more than just ensuring it isn’t too loose or tight around the chest.
While securing a perfectly fitting harness without opting for a custom design is challenging, it’s not impossible.
This can be achieved by selecting a harness with multiple adjustment points and taking the time to fine-tune the fit as needed.
It’s not necessary to adhere strictly to all the guidelines mentioned here. Many dogs don’t face issues with a harness that’s close to their armpits.
For dogs that don’t pull on the leash, a wider neck strap over the shoulder joint may be acceptable, provided there’s enough room for leg movement.
However, if you have a dog that tends to pull, it’s crucial to focus on how the chest part of the harness distributes pressure and to ensure the shoulders are unencumbered.
For dogs with sensitive skin, it’s important to ensure the chest plate doesn’t rub against the insides of the front legs and that there’s no chafing in the armpits.
Ultimately, you know your dog best. The aim of this article is to assist you in determining your priorities and evaluating whether a harness fits as expected.
There’s no benefit in using a harness simply because it’s from a well-regarded brand or used by an expert with their dogs. The key is to select a harness that fits YOUR dog.
What should I consider when selecting a Y dog harness for a small dog?
For small dogs, it’s vital to ensure that the harness does not restrict movement, particularly around the armpits and chest area. Small dogs vary greatly in size and shape, so a harness with adjustable points is preferable. Additionally, observe your dog’s comfort and movement in the harness, as signs of discomfort may be less obvious in smaller breeds.
How do I know if a harness is too tight for my dog?
A harness is too tight if your dog shows signs of discomfort, such as scratching, biting at the harness, or difficulty breathing. You should be able to comfortably fit two fingers under the straps for medium dogs and three for larger breeds. Pay special attention to areas like the neck, chest, and armpits.
Can a poorly fitting harness affect my dog’s health?
Yes, a poorly fitting harness can lead to health issues such as restricted breathing, chafing, and changes in gait or posture. Long-term use of an ill-fitting harness can potentially cause joint and spine problems, especially in active or puller dogs.
Are step-in harnesses a good choice for my dog?
Step-in harnesses can be a good choice for dogs who are uncomfortable with harnesses being pulled over their heads. However, they can be challenging to fit properly, especially around the armpits and chest area. It’s important to ensure that the harness does not restrict your dog’s movement or cause discomfort.
How often should I check and adjust my dog’s harness fit?
Regularly checking and adjusting your dog’s harness is important, especially if your dog is still growing, has changes in weight, or the harness is subject to wear and tear. Adjustments may be needed over time to ensure continued comfort and safety.