25 February 2014

Happy, Healthy Dogs and Harness Selection

Though skijoring, kicksledding, scootering or any dog powered activity, you and your dog develop a close, trusting relationship because of the amount of time you spend together.  You are striving hard to work as a team, and through exercise releasing endorphins.    The love of the trail only serves to strengthen your bond.  

The goal of is a happy, healthy, highly motivated team.

Throughout this blog are many tips and ideas exploring how to keep your dog happy, healthy and motivated.  Today we will focus on the wide amount of choices you have for harnesses. 




As you can see in the collage above, there are many, many, many kinds of harnesses out there on the market!  I haven't even been able to scratch the surface of all the options out there.  So this is only a small selection of course.   Every musher has their own preference, but it really comes down to the dogs.   

How does your dog perform when wearing a harness?  We want the best for our dogs, and we want them to be happy, harness selection has a large part to play in that.     

This article is going to get into proper harness fit, design and how the harness you choose affects the health of your dog.

Harness Fit


Seems like a good place to start!  The basics of any harness, is that they should be fitting around the dog's shoulders, and not riding up to the neck.  The "neck hole" should fit over the shoulder blades at the top, and the breast bone at the bottom.   A harness that is too big will slip down over the shoulders, and get in the way of the dogs legs.   A harness that is too small will ride up around the dog's throat.  A harness that does not fit properly can distract your dog, rub their coat bald or even cause injury!

A typical X-back harness is meant to fit a typical northern breed dog.  Wider across the chest, and narrower down to the hips.  Many mushers use X-back or H-back harnesses, but pay attention to the types of dogs they are running.

If you are running a hound dog, look at some of the options meant for hound deep chested hound and hound crosses which are popular in the sprinting races of dog mushing.

For those of us running family pets, and mutts, the sizing can be a bit more tricky.  There is no real standard across the industry for what a Large or a Small is, and it varies from outfitter to outfitter.   Read their instructions for sizing carefully, and ask about a return policy just in case!

While it is true that not all harnesses are created equal, there simply is not one harness that is hands down the best harness out there.  If someone insists that the harness they have is the best one out there, it may be the case, for their particular team, or their own dog.  It does not mean that will translate to you our own experience!

Here is an excellent video on how to fit a harness.

Design


Two questions to keep in mind when shopping for a harness.  What was this harness intended for?   Is that what you will be doing?

There are so many options out there for harness designs, that there is no reason not to run your dog in a harness for the intended activity.   Most important when thinking of harness design, is to look at the attachment point.  Where you hook up the gangline.

Them compare the height of your dog, with the height of how the dog will be attached.  In any harness design your dog should be pulling forward from their shoulders, by pushing against the harness.  That's the basic idea.


For example, the attachment point for a skier who is of average height, with an average height dog, means that the gangline goes up off the dog to the skiers waist, as in the picture above.     This means that when the dog leans forward and pulls, the dog is using her shoulders to pull.  There is no pressure put down on the dog's hips, because the line goes up. .

In this shot, the line is going up off the dog, and the dog is leaning in to pull a skijorer.


The same is true in biking and scootering, the dog leans forward on their shoulders, with an angle up to the attachment point on the scooter or bike.

So skijoring, scootering and sledding, you can likely get away with the same style of harness.  If you have a tall dog, or a low attachment point on your scooter, you will need to look at the angle.   

 
If you are using a dog sled or a kicksled, the attachment point will be lower on the dog.  In some cases, shoter people with tall dogs skijoring will also fit into this category.

A lower attachment point needs to be taken into account and the use of a harness which will take the pressure off of the dog's hips.  Adding a longer gangline will also help reduce the pressure pushing down on a dog's back end.  A dog pulling forward, while at the same time having a downward force pushing down on their back end is going to cause discomfort and possibly injury.  

In this picture, you can see the attachment point is below the dog's hips, so she uses a harness designed to take the pressure off of the hips  

Many people know not to make a dog Sit, but applying pressure downwards on their back end or hips.  That's common knowledge.  But oftentimes we are still guilty of applying too much pressure to dog's hips through pulling sports.   It makes me wince when I see a picture of a dog pulling a kicksled with gangline pushing down on the dog's hips.  Either add a longer gangline, or get another harness.  It's a simple thing to avoid putting too much downward pressure on your dog's read end. 

Healthy dogs and harness fit

To pull properly and safely, your dog needs to be outfitted in the harness which fits them the best.  Look for a harness that fits properly, and don't outfit your dog if he is too fat. Have your dog drop some weight before asking him to pull.   Then you know your dog is healthy, and ready to pull and be fit properly. 

Now we have already gone over the importance of a good fitting harness, but now I am going to suggest you have not one, but two well fitting harnesses for each dog on your team.  

Why is that?  Well, roatating through different styles of well fitting harennes will relive the pressure points off the dog's body.   We rotate our dogs through different styles of harnesses throughout the season.

Our dogs spend the majority of their time working in front of the scooter and skijoring.  We use the sled for training, and in the shoulder seasons.   When we load up gear, we pack the right harness for the dog, and the activity.  If we have been working hard at skijoring for a few months, we make sure that within that time we rotate them through their harnesses, so we prevent pressure point injuries.

Some dogs take to a new harness, no problem at all.  Other's need a bit more time to become used to it until they perform at their best.    We are always careful to ensure that our dogs race in the harness in which they perform the best in.   

How many harnesses do you have for each dog?