Harnesses and Joint Health: Phoenix Pack

Joint Disease in Canines

Just like people, dogs can suffer from joint problems. Since one in four dogs will be diagnosed with arthritis, and large dogs are especially prone to joint problems, it is important to take steps to help protect your dog's joints. These staggering canine arthritis statistics are why it’s crucial to be aware of what to look for in your dog's gear in order to best protect your dog's joints.

Harnesses: Are they good or bad? Or can they be both?

Did you know that when not used correctly dog harnesses can actually do damage to your dog's joints? With proper education on fitting, using, and selecting the right dog harness for your furry friend, you can help to keep their joints healthy and pain-free. With a few correct decisions, a harness could be a better decision for your dog than a collar. In the end, a properly used and fitted dog harness can put less stress on the dog's neck and spine than a collar does. This is especially important for larger dogs, as their necks are already under more stress.

However, there are many benefits to using a dog harness rather than a collar. A harness disperses the pressure evenly across your dog's chest instead of just around their neck, which is much better for their joints. Harnesses also give you more control over your dog, making walking them much easier. For dogs with joint problems, a properly fitted and used harness can eliminate the pressure from their joints, making for an easier walking experience on their bodies.

Speak with a Harness Expert: Brandi Alden from the Phoenix Pack

This week, we were able to speak with the small business owner, Brandi Alden, from the harness and Service Dog Vest business, Phoenix Pack. We got educated on what to look for in a harness and/or vest in order to ensure the tool is helping and not harming our large dogs. 

"Can a harness hurt a dog?"


"Before I start, I want to preface all my answers by saying I am not an orthopedic vet. The information I talk about in these answers are based on personal experience alone. The first question is can a dog harness hurt a dog? Yes. If a harness does not fit correctly to a dog, or if the harness is being used incorrectly, this can hurt your dog. Here are a few examples that come to mind.

If your dog’s harness fits incorrectly to a dog who is pulling or performing a guide task, this can put too much pressure on the dog's airway, making it harder for them to breathe in and in extreme cases may lead to tracheal collapse. Another example is when a mobility harness, which is the harness that allows a disabled person’s service dog to assist them with mobility, is used on a dog that is either not trained properly for mobility task work, is too young or is too small. This can be damaging for their joints and body, according to the International Association of Assistant Dog Partners.

"What type of harness is healthiest for a dog's joints?"

"Different styles of harnesses exist for different purposes in the dog training and service dog communities. The two most common harnesses I encounter are called 'Y fronts' and 'straight fronts'.  A 'Y front harness' is a harness where the front straps connect in a Y shape in the front of the dog's chest. 



Photo from Homeskooling 4 Dogs

A straight front harness is one where a single strap connects from right to left in the front of the dog's chest.


Both types of harnesses should be fitted so that the front strap or straps do not sit too high on the dog's neck, therefore interfering with the dog's airway. In regard to the dog's joints in their back, it is important that the placement of any vertical mobility handles such as counterbalance handles or leash straps sit right behind the dog's shoulders so that any upward motion will pull up on the most muscular part of the dog, rather than putting pressure on the middle of the dog's spine. Lastly, it helps to offer more comfort as well as mobility when the straps do not cut right behind the dog's armpits."

"What should pet parents or Service Dog handlers look for in dog harnesses?"

"I suggest looking for a harness that is very adjustable so that when fitting it to your dog you have as much flexibility as possible. This will help ensure a proper fit. I suggest looking for a padded Y front harness as you're less likely to run into issues with the front straps, interfering with their ability to breathe when pulling or guiding". 

Photo from Homeskooling 4 Dogs

"Are all dog harnesses safe?"

"In order to ensure your dog's harness is safe for them it must fit correctly on the correct joints of their body. Additionally, if your pet is a 'puller' on leash walks, or you have a service dog that is performing a task where it is meant to pull on their harnesses, it is especially important that the dog's harness is fit properly as well as you are making the proper choice in the actual harness itself. I have had many veterinarians look over my harnesses to ensure their safety, however they can only formally approve the way that my gear fits my own mobility trained service dog since every dog’s body is different! Anyone concerned with how a harness may be fitting their pet or service animal who pulls should contact a local orthopedic vet in their area to check the fit of their harness and get it reviewed for their own dog’s safety". 

"Can harnesses do good or bad to a dog's joints?"

"Many people think that dog harnesses are a safer option than dog collars, but this isn’t always the case. A good dog harness should distribute the pressure evenly across your dog's body. However, many poorly made dog harnesses put all of the pressure on your dog's joints, which can lead to problems down the road. Some harnesses actually can do more damage to your dog's joints than a dog collar. So, it is important to do your research and find a good quality dog harness that fits well and is formatted in a way that will not restrict your dog's natural gait.

"How can a harness damage your dog's joints?"

There are two main ways that a dog harness can damage your dog's joints: by putting too much pressure on the joints or by restricting the dog's movements. Both of these problems can be avoided by choosing the right dog harness and fitting it properly. If your dog is wearing a harness that impacts the way they move, this can have a major influence in the way your dog will begin to alter their gait, therefore changing the fundamentals of their muscles and joints. At Phoenix Pack, we intentionally design all of our harnesses to correspond naturally with a dog's gait and joints in order to allow the dog full mobility while wearing their harness".  

"How do dog harnesses work when designed correctly?"

"When made correctly, harnesses should hug around the most muscular parts of the dog's body, leaving open any sensitive areas around the neck and not interfering with the dog's ability to move as normal. One of my favorite things as a dog harness shop owner is when our customers send me videos of their dog’s playing, running, and pouncing in even some of our more rigid mobility harnesses, because that's when I know that those specific harnesses are fitted and designed properly for that dog. A harness should fit your dog in a way where it is not applying any pressure on the sensitive parts of your dog's neck. It should only hug hugging the most muscular parts of the dog's chest. If a harness does not fit correctly, you may notice your dog stiffen up, walk funny, or display a hack like cough. If your dog acts in this way, even after some conditioning in the harness, then you may want to adjust your fit or invest in a different harness completely". 

"Should a dog wear a harness all the time?"

"I believe a harness should only be worn when necessary. With that being said, though, some service dogs and pets do have to wear their harnesses for long hours. Dogs deserve to take breaks from their harnesses, just as much as we do with formal clothing. A professional service dog trainer gave me a wonderful suggestion years back for service dogs who perform mobility tasks. She said handlers of mobility service dogs should make it a priority to massage their dogs back and shoulders after long day of work in a mobility harness, since mobility tasks, like guide and counterbalance work utilize the dog's strength and muscles. Likewise, if you have a pet who regularly wears a harness, massaging their muscles will help to relieve any unnecessary tension". 


"For Service Dog Handlers: How do I know if my dog and their joints are ready to use a Phoenix Pack mobility harness?"

“I get this question from a lot of our customers. I always bring up three points for this question. Number one is that you want to make sure your dog is of an adequate size and weight in comparison to your size and weight according to the research that has been done by the International Association of Assistant Dog Partners on the subject.

 Number two is that you want to make sure that your dog's body structure, joints and bones have been fully developed before you start doing any major mobility on your dog. Oftentimes people prefer to wait until two years of age to start any mobility on their dog since that is when large dog's growth plates typically close. I also suggest looking into taking your mobility service dog to a local orthopedic vet before starting any mobility task work. There a vet will be able to check their hips, take x-rays and evaluate background information on your dog to make sure that the dog doesn't have any underlying invisible physical conditions that may interfere with their ability to perform mobility tasks. 


Finally, the last thing is that you want to make sure, is that your dog is properly trained to do these tasks before doing any sort of mobility work on your dog. Tasks such as counterbalance, guide work and pulling wheelchairs are all behaviors that need to be trained so that the dog knows how to properly hold themselves, brace themselves and utilize their muscles and strength to perform those tasks correctly in a way that's going to be safe for the dog as a whole."


We are so grateful for all of this important information, Brandi! We appreciate your insight as to the health of our dogs when choosing a harness! Thank you so much! 

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