Headcollar vs Harness – which is better for our dogs’ welfare?

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dog with harness

Dogs are the UK’s most popular pet and with 25per cent of households owning at least one, owners are well aware of the importance of providing them with regular exercise. One of the joys of dog ownership is getting outdoors for some fresh air with a faithful companion and the health benefits, both physical and mental associated with it.

However, for some, a walk with the dog is a challenge rather than a pleasure, as the dog pulls their owner forcefully along following scents or lunging after cars, joggers, cyclists or other dogs. The recent research conducted at Nottingham Trent University (Carter et al. 2020) has confirmed dog owners concerns that traditional collars can cause damage to their dog’s neck, especially when the dog pulls, likening the pressure exerted on the dog’s neck to that of a tourniquet.

This means that finding a suitable alternative has become even more important, but with so many alternatives being advertised as the ‘cure’ for pulling on the lead, why should owners choose one over another?

dog wearing headcollar
Photo by Alex Muse

Pulling on the lead is commonly tackled during dog training classes, but with little success when the training is applied to the real world which is full of distractions for dogs. For this reason, there are now an array of walking restraints including headcollars and harnesses of different structures and brands, but all with the aim of giving owners more control over unruly dogs.

The marketing of the majority of restraints does not indicate the possible impact on the wearers welfare and although it is widely recognised that walking dogs on a traditional collar can cause damage to the dogs neck, little research to date has been conducted on comparing alternative restraints against each other.

A recent study at Myerscough College undertook to investigate this by comparing changes in external temperature and behaviour to assess stress levels in 21 pet dogs, of various breeds and ages, when wearing a head collar compared to a harness. A range of headcollars were used in the study including Halti, Gentle Leader and Dogmatic.

The harnesses used in the study were all Perfect-fit harnesses, a brand that has developed soft fleece-lined harnesses with three separate adjustable parts to ensure the ‘perfect fit’ to each individual dog. The harnesses also have two D-rings, one on the back and one on the front, for use with a double ended lead to reduce pulling on the lead.

Photo by Gemma Grisewood

The study at Myerscough college used thermal imaging techniques which have become a popular method of obtaining biological data from animals. A thermal imaging camera can be used to measure changes in the temperature of extremities which indicate stress. An animal under stress will experience a raised core temperature and simultaneous cooling of the extremities as they prepare for the flight or fight response.

In this study a thermal imaging camera was used to measure changes in external ear temperature in response to wearing a harness or a headcollar. Ear temperature was measured, before any restraint was applied, to obtain a ‘baseline’ reading for each dog. Subsequent ear temperatures were measured when dogs were wearing each restraint to identify any differences from baseline. Findings revealed a more significant fall in ear temperature when wearing the headcollar suggesting a higher level of stress.

Lip-licking and yawning are behavioural signs of stress in dogs and along with attempts to remove the restraint, these were seen significantly more frequently when dogs were wearing a headcollar. This suggests that the Headcollar causes discomfort and stress, which can compromise welfare.

Photo by Gemma Grisewood

62 per cent of dogs tried to remove the headcollar either by pawing at it or rubbing it against their owner or the floor, indicating that the restraint causes discomfort when applied to the sensitive facial area.

Attempts to remove the harness which could have included shaking off, rolling on the floor or rubbing their body against the owner were not seen despite the dogs in the study having no previous experience of the harness, therefore suggesting the harness is a more comfortable restraint.

Do headcollars ‘fix’ behavioural problems?

The lower temperature and increased stress behaviours were more pronounced in dogs with behavioural problems such as barking or lunging at dogs, vehicles or people on walks. This indicates that the use of a headcollar to rectify control problems on walks could be aversive and worsen the problem rather than solve it.

It is also possible that some dogs may inadvertently learn to associate the lead with the discomfort caused by the headcollar thereby causing anxiety when the owner prepares for a walk perhaps shown by avoidance of the headcollar, lead or owner. Those using headcollars as a management tool for behavioural problems should consider the discomfort caused by the headcollar to the sensitive facial area, that could be exacerbated by the dog barking or lunging.

Which restraint stops dogs pulling on the lead?

Time taken to walk around a short route was also recorded for each dog in each restraint. No significant differences in time were found, other than for those dogs that refused to move when wearing the headcollar. This lack of difference suggests that dogs pulled no more or less while wearing the headcollar or harness.

Do dogs adjust to the headcollar over time?

Although dogs which had worn a headcollar for more than a year prior to testing exhibited a smaller fall in ear temperature compared to dogs that had less experience of the headcollar, the clear fall in temperature in all groups still indicates that the discomfort is great enough to induce a stress response which is not counteracted by prior experience of the restraint.

Conclusion

The evidence provided by this study demonstrates that whilst headcollars may give owners more control over larger or unruly dogs, this is likely to be at the expense of the dogs comfort and welfare. When considering the suitability of dog walking restraints, dog owners are advised to consider their dogs body language both when applying their chosen restraint to identify any avoidance behaviour and during walks to identify any indication of stress while wearing the restraint.

Further reading
CARTER, A., MCNALLY, D. and ROSHIER, A. (2020) Canine collars: an investigation of collar type and the forces applied to a simulated neck model. Veterinary Record.
GRAINGER, J., WILLS, A.P. and MONTROSE, V.T. (2016) The behavioural effects of walking on a collar and harness in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 14, 60-64.
HAUG, L.I., BEAVER, B.V., LONGNECKER, M.T. (2002) Comparison of dogs’ reactions to four different head collars. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 79, 53-61.
OGBURN, P., CROUSE, S., MARTIN, F. and HOUPT, K. (1998) Comparison of behavioural and physiological responses of dogs wearing two different types of collars. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 61, 133-142.

This is a guest essay by Gemma Grisewood. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

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