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Choosing a Harness for Pulling and Bracing

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you start training a dog to pull you in a harness or brace you while walking.

How old is your dog? Make sure she is at least 18 mos to 2 years (for the giant breeds) before you start training her to pull/brace for real. Joints can be permanently affected if training starts too young (before the growth plates have closed), the dog gets injured, or if the pulling/bracing is too strenuous or prolonged during this stage.

Is your dog physically large enough to do the required pulling? Take into consideration the weight of both the wheelchair and yourself. The height and stockiness of the dog may affect her pulling capacity. A shorter stocky wide dog may do better than a tall lanky finer-boned dog for the same breed. On the other hand, if you also need the dog for bracing, taller broader dogs do better as they have the height and width to be more stable for bracing.

Has your dog had her elbows and hips checked (OFA ratings or radiologist readings) to make sure she is structurally sound? Heart, lungs, spine, legs are all impacted as well. 

What will she be pulling and how much weight? There is no magic height or weight ratio for pulling. It depends on their dog's bone structure and amount of weight. Lightly-built (fine-boned or low muscle weight) dogs should not be pulling at all.

How much of the time will she be pulling a chair? (occasionally or quite often will help you determine the right harness).  
To balance the weight evenly and most efficiently a dog should be pulling forward, not on an angle. Pulling from the side puts undue stress on the shoulders results in uneven muscle build up, tendon damage, early arthritis and other health issues. These dogs are typically retired quite young due to this. Using a proper pulling harness (think a sled dog harness) reduces the amount of pressure to a more acceptable level and balances muscle development.

Take time to build up your dog's endurance for pulling. Just like a sport, there needs to be a careful plan for building up your dog's ability to pull weight both the amount of weight and endurance. 

Harnesses that go around under the belly and around in front of the chest are designed only for very occasional use and not for heavy pulling such as up inclines.  

Harnesses that are have a band between the front legs (sometimes in the shape of a Y) and multiple contact points to the body to spread the pressure and are usually quite stiff to give her body support for longer term and heavy duty pulling. 

If the dog is required to pull much of the time, you may need to consider an electric chair as pulling can be very hard on the dog's body.

If you have a giant breed, are harnesses made large enough or will you have to get a custom job? That will add to your cost.

Before you buy, check out several options, try them on if possible and do your research on the requirements of the pulling/bracing job and impacts on the dog.

Contact a dog sport expert or physiotherapist to have your dog assessed for pulling and to create a detailed training plan. Also do regular follow ups (6 mos) to check your dog's physical and structural health.