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  • Writer's pictureKari Bastyr, MS, CDBC, CPCN

Dog Training: How to Train your Dog to Love His Harness without Fear or Biting

Does your dog run from you when you get his harness out? Does your dog dislike getting her harness on but is fine once you are outside? Or does your dog exhibit fear or anxiety when you put his harness over his head? Training your dog to put his harness on, and then loving it isn't as hard as you think. It takes time and patience, but with counter-conditioning and desensitization, your dog will willingly run to her harness and happily let you buckle it.

Here are steps you can follow to help your dog learn to love his harness:

1.     Choose the Right Harness: Choosing the right harness is as important as acclimating your dog to it. I don't recommend harnesses that have a tight head hole or that aren't created for training. You want to select a harness that fits your dog properly and is appropriate for their size and breed. Ensure it's comfortable and made of materials that won't cause irritation or discomfort. A thicker strap is better for bigger dogs. My favorites are the Freedom No-Pull Harness, the TTouch Harmony Harness, and the Blue-9 Harness.

2.     Introduce the Harness: Start by showing the harness to your dog without attempting to put it on. Put it on the floor, and let him sniff it and investigate. Put treats around the harness, and praise him as he eats the treats.

3.     Positive Associations: Allow your dog to sniff and explore the harness while rewarding them with treats and praise. Repeat several times until your dog shows no signs of fear or hesitation around the harness. Don't force the harness onto your dog at this point. Only use it on the floor right now as you begin the acclimation process.

4.    Gradual Acclimation: Once your dog is comfortable eating treats around the harness, then pick it up and put it on you wrist or elbow. Give your dog treats while you are holding the harness on your wrist, but don't try and put it on your dog.

5. Luring your Dog's Head Through the Harness: The next step is to begin luring your dog's head through the opening (the piece that will go over your dog's head eventually). Hold the harness at the top with one hand, and lure your dog's head through with your other hand. Then your dog can back out of it. Take as long as you need to, with several sessions, until your dog happily puts his head through the head strap.

6.     Short Sessions of Wearing: Once your dog is comfortable with the harness's presence and touch, introduce short sessions of wearing it. Place the harness over your dog's head and set it on the back of her neck without fastening it. Have her 'wear' it for a few seconds while you are feeding treats and praising. Then take it off, give another treat. Always reward/praise your dog for staying calm and relaxed.

7.     Gradual Fastening: Start fastening the harness one buckle at a time for for a few seconds, gradually increasing the time as your dog becomes more comfortable. Keep the sessions positive and rewarding, offering treats and praise for wearing the harness without any signs of distress. Work up to clipping both buckles, rewarding right after you clip the second buckle (and the first if needed), then take the harness off.

8.     Associate with Activities: Associate wearing the harness with enjoyable activities such as going for walks or playing fetch. Put the harness on your dog before engaging in these activities to reinforce positive associations.

9.     Adjust and Reassure: Ensure the harness fits properly and adjust it as needed for your dog's comfort. Monitor your dog's behavior while wearing the harness and provide reassurance if they show any signs of discomfort or anxiety. Take the harness off if your dog is stressed, and go back to Step 1 or 2 to counter-condition more gradually.

10.     Consistency and Patience: Be consistent with your training and patient with your dog's progress. Every dog is different, so it may take time for your dog to fully acclimate to wearing a harness. Continue to reinforce positive behaviors and provide support as needed.

Regularly practice putting on and taking off the harness, as well as wearing it for longer durations. Reward relaxed behavior with treats, praise, and rewarding experiences to solidify your dog's comfort and confidence in wearing the harness. It's okay if your dog doesn't want to get his harness on at that moment. Put it down and try again in a few minutes. Also- and this is very important- You may have to increase the value of the treats you use for harness training, especially if your dog already has a negative association. Hot dogs, string cheese, and boiled chicken (small pieces, of course) can work well if that's the case. A higher value treat also creates even more of a positive association... like giving your dog $100, instead of a $1 to get their harness on.

By following these steps gradually and patiently, you can help your dog become comfortable and confident wearing a harness, making outings and activities more enjoyable for both of you. Have fun!

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