The function of standard chest harnesses
When we welcome a dog into our lives, we are faced with the task of understanding our dog. The three main topics when raising dogs outside of livestock farming are:
- Leash walking
- Social skills (avoiding aggression)
In contrast to lead harnesses such as STURMFREI®, the usual chest harnesses trigger different reactions in the dog and originally had a different purpose. Namely not the leash, but the provocation to chase.
Chest harnesses and their function
Chest harnesses are roughly defined by the fact that the holder for the leash is on the back. In addition, subcategories were created such as Y-harnesses or pulling harnesses. There are a lot of terms here that are not relevant in the context discussed here because leading from the back always initially has the same effect on the dog.
The dog reacts instinctively to touch and physical influences in different parts of its body, in different contexts and depending on previous experiences.
The chest harness (dog leash is attached to the back, dog is "pulled" on the back) - like the collar - comes from livestock farming. A sensory reaction inherent in the dog has been taken advantage of here: If you hold the dog in such a way that its front body (chest) is held and you pull the dog backwards, then the dog rushes forward. In the dog world, this behavior is called the “opposition reflex” (pressure creates counter pressure).
The situation is similar with horses and other four-legged animals: the head or the front chest of the body is "pulled" backwards to motivate the animal to move forward.
With a dog, given its size, this can be done using a structure that holds the front area together using a point on the back and then pulls on the back. The further back the point is, the more the dog will move forward.
For example, in Cani Cross (running with a dog), a chest harness is put on the dog that ends at the back over the rear area of his body. The leash is essentially attached over the dog's backside; when pulled, the dog feels that its entire body is being pulled backwards. The dog jumps forward more jerkily and forcefully when it senses a pull from behind (the leash tightens).
When we walk our dogs and the leash tightens because the dog has reached the end of the radius in which it can move, the dog feels as if it is withdraw something. He then increases his movement forward. This also works via lateral pull. If your dog is standing to your right in the chest harness (guided on the back) and you pull him to the left, then he will push against it to the right. Some dogs can develop enormous strength. Even if the pull on her part was only slight.
This in turn has to do with the following:
Dogs perceive a lot of different stimuli when they go for a walk outside. They explore the environment and, in a relaxed state, consider what might be interesting to them. For example, the tracks of a rabbit, the urine of a new neighbor's dog or a piece of bread that a school child wanted to disappear on the way so that there are no witnesses that it was not eaten.
The moment the leash tightens and the dog feels the pressure on its back to be braked, its field of perception narrows and its organism acts in silent “panic”. This can be roughly compared to the following situation:
Your house is on fire and you ask yourself: "What is the most important thing in the house and what else can I get out?".
This means that the dog's brain immediately prioritizes and focuses on the most relevant stimulus. This may be something that wasn't particularly relevant to the dog before. Just like your dusty diary may not have been interesting to you before the house started burning. But suddenly it's important: Now the diary has to come, otherwise you would mourn the loss forever.
The leash becomes taut and suddenly the dog stops as if tied up in the spot it seemed to have left moments before and presses its nose in that direction with all its might. You feel like you're kidding, right? He's not kidding her, he's reacting biologically.
What were chest harnesses originally intended for?
Chest harnesses should increase “target focus.” This means that the following idea was behind it: "How do I get a dog to concentrate more on one stimulus and not be distracted by other stimuli?".
A clear example are terrier breeds, which we particularly often notice in dog traffic. These were bred for different tasks (animal husbandry). For example, finding rabbits, catching them and barking very loudly so that the hunter could kill them. Since the dog, who is naturally interested in other things when out and about, needs to be conditioned to a stimulus first, the chest harness was used. First, a dog was made particularly palatable to hunting rabbits (and not deer) through positive reinforcement or punishment when hunting deer, and then they put the chest harness on him.
This was reinforced over generations and female and male terriers who were particularly motivated to carry out their task were paired together. So, through breeding, rabbit standing and barking became a trait of the terrier breed that was designed for it.
This made it possible to put a chest harness on a young male terrier at an early age and at an early age he would concentrate on the scent of rabbits instead of on stimuli like other dogs. If the dog was briefly distracted, you pulled on the dog and the dog focused on picking up the rabbit's scent again. That's why chest harnesses and not collars or lead harnesses like STURMFREI® are used in mantrailing today. This is also about tracking work. The dog usually looks for the owner or other things that are associated with smells and that he can identify. If used in a targeted manner, this can be fun for a dog because it demands his concentration. A hunting dog breed that has been bred to follow tracks will generally have more fun doing this than a breed that has been bred to circle around their herd. Members of such breeds do not like to let their “herd” completely out of sight/smell.
Protection dog breeds such as German Shepherds are also trained to use chest harnesses to locate things or people (via their sense of smell) and to follow this stimulus.
Everyday dog life with a chest harness
Many people complain that once their dog is on the harness, they no longer notice them. Nobody should take this personally because it depends on the context. Let's say you were separated from your dog for a week and then approached him (while someone else was wearing a harness): chances are good that he would even break away. Because at that moment you would be the most interesting stimulus and the dog's strength would multiply accordingly on the harness to reach you.
If your dog is on a leash, you hook him on the back and rush off, then he is often simultaneously confronted with the signal (verbal or by pulling) NOT to rush off. This leads to severe confusion in a dog.
This is also one of the reasons why there are increasingly leash-aggressive dogs wearing chest harnesses. The majority of leash-aggressive dogs currently still wear collars, but the number of dogs wearing chest harnesses and behaving aggressively towards other dogs on a leash is increasing.
This also has to do with the owner's fears. Dogs that grow up very close to people and have little free run identify more strongly with the feelings of their owners. Fear in humans can lead to male dogs in particular having a stronger need to examine their surroundings (greeting and assessing other dogs). As the dog pulls backwards, this need increases and at the same time is fueled by the nervousness of the owner, who tells the male dog that he has to look FIRST to see who is coming. In the long term, this can lead to aggression towards all dogs that approach the dog and its owners. We see this problem particularly often in female owners and male dogs, as it has to do with gender-related behavior. The male dog sees his owner as more territorial than an owner (unless he was bred for it) and therefore reacts even more strongly to "imminent danger" from "competitors" for the owner's favor. The problem therefore occurs less often between male owners and male dogs, male owners and female dogs or female owners and female dogs.
Chest harness for working out
If you want to lead your dog using the harness or hold your dog from behind and hold the leash If you want to hook him on the back, do so whenever you want him to react more strongly to certain stimuli. For example, use the harness to let him do "sniffing work" by hiding treats or if you want to put a running dog breed like Australian Shepherds or Huskies into running mode.
For pedigree dogs whose direct ancestors come from livestock farming, fulfilling the breed-specific tasks also means working out and “coming after themselves”. However, give your dog some free time, let him run around, get him used to other dog breeds (of different sizes) so that he learns to assess the environment and himself (and develop self-esteem) through interactive experiences with dogs and people.
Walk your dog from the front if you don't want to deal with the increased "pulling" on the leash or if you want to train with him. By leading from the front, you can draw his attention to you and "release" the dog from the "hyper mode" of the harness.
Next article: Part 2 - The collar on the dog
If you would like to be informed as soon as new articles on dog socialization are published, please subscribe to our newsletter below (which you can also unsubscribe from at any time).