Harness selection is a big deal. It is easy to argue that the most important piece of equipment used in any dog mushing sport is the harness. It can be likened to a pair of shoes. You wouldn’t wear football cleats while playing basketball, would you? Or settle for a pair of shoes that are a size too big or too small? As with shoes, the harness your dog wears should be well suited to the sport in which you are participating in and fit correctly. But finding the right harness can be difficult for experienced sport participators and beginners alike.
The desire to create this guide was sparked by my own struggle to find a suitable harness for my very hard to fit German Shepherds. I have been in the sled dog world since I was a child, but these days get all my enjoyment out of joring with my non-husky pets. I can honestly say I never thought too much about harnesses or harness fit before getting out of mushing and into joring. It was much easier to fit my huskies into a standard x-back, something I quickly learned was not possible with my German Shepherd dogs. I have spent innumerable hours researching, reading, asking others, and trying out different harnesses on my own dogs. My goal for this guide not to tell you which one harness is best, or give personal opinion, but to bring together both scientific and anecdotical thoughts and experiences from mushers of all dog pulling sports and all experience levels specifically about harness selection.
It is my hope to accurately summarize some of the more common types of harnesses out there, how they work, and how to choose one. It is geared towards the recreational musher or jorer (meaning bikejoring, skijoring, canicross, and any other variation of urban dog pulling sports). It is still up to you, the reader, to decide which harness will best suit your needs. This will not only be affected by factors such as the type of dog you have, but the sport you wish to run, and your particular goals in that sport.
2. Dog Biomechanics
Before you choose a harness, you should have a basic understanding of how dogs move in and out of harness. A 2011 survey of dropped dogs in the Iditarod recorded 152 dogs dropped for forelimb injuries, 10 for foot injuries, 44 for carpus injuries, and 71 for shoulder injuries1. From this we see that shoulder injuries were by far the most common injury in sled dogs. Since the forelimb bears sixty percent of the dogs weight2, this makes a lot of sense. It also helps us understand the specific mechanics of dogs pulling in harness. In fact, dogs do not pull in harness at all. Instead, they push the harness (and whatever the harness is attached to) with their chest and shoulders. Please see the note on shoulder movement for a visual representation of how the shoulder of a dog rotates and which muscles are used as the dog moves. As you can see, a great deal of movement happens in the shoulders and chest where the harness sits.
When you put a harness on a dog, no matter how unrestrictive, it will change the movement of the dog. Furthermore, different harnesses will affect the movement of the different parts of the shoulder, such as the scapula, shoulder joint, manubrium, humerus, and thorax, differently. This can also be true when talking about the same harness on two dogs of the same size but different builds or breeds. Depending on your activity, the harness you should use may also change because the activity may change how the dog moves and pulls. For example, a harness with a low attachment point (such as a wheel dog harness, or an X-back with a spreader bar) is much better suited to kick sledding than a harness with a high attachment point (a half harness).
2.1. Understanding Your Dog’s Build
Knowing the build of your dog is an important factor in choosing the right harness. There are dozens of well-regarded harness makers all over the world. Each one will design the same type of harness differently, affecting the angles and distribution of force, usually with a certain type of dog in mind.
Many of the harnesses used by professional mushers are designed to fit within two broad categories of sled dog. This can create extra challenge for recreational mushers whose dog does not possess the uniform builds most sled dogs have. In the image below is an example of the two most common types of sled dog3, build-wise. The top two images represent “hound-types,” often called eurohounds. These are dogs with deep and broad chests, who are often as long as they are tall (square) and have slick, short coats. The two bottom images represent “husky-types,” which loosely fits most purebred racing huskies and long distance-racing Alaskan huskies. These dogs tend to have deep and narrow chests, are longer than they are tall, and have thicker coats.
In short, most racing sled dogs or highly competitive joring dogs are going to fit somewhere between these two build types. This is important to understand when choosing a harness that has been designed for these specific types. One way to determine your dog’s build is to put it into a stack (commonly used in dog shows to demonstrate conformation) and physically measure it. Is it square or long? Does the dog have a broad chest or a narrow chest? Once you have a better understanding of your dog’s conformation, you will be better equipped to pick a suitable harness.
See below a picture of a dog in a standard x-back that is the correct length, but still does not fit the dog (left) vs the same design by the same maker on a traditional husky (right). In the left-hand picture the side straps extend behind the ribs and push into the soft part of the dog’s flanks. The dog in the picture on the right does not have this issue. The dog on the left probably requires a custom harness (please see notes on customs in section 5).
In general, all harnesses must meet the same requirements to fit well. Harnesses that do not fit well will cause issues in the dog, including muscle soreness, skin rubbed raw, breathing restriction, or a reduced desire to run. A bad fitting harness can make a dog reluctant to pull at all or cause them to run in an awkward gait. It is also important to mention that it is impossible to accurately tell the fit of a harness if there is no tension on it. Harnesses are designed to fit when the dog is pulling into them, and so you cannot judge a fit without sufficient tension in the harness. It can be useful to tie the tug of your harness to a leash connected to a fence or other sturdy object and encourage the dog to lean into it as if they were actually pulling something (or actually have them pull an object such as a small tire) before assessing the fit. Pictured below is a harness with the proper amount of tension to judge fit (right), and the same harness without any tension (left). This harness fits the dog but without tension on the harness, a beginner may be led to believe it is too small.
3.1 The Components of a Harness
Harnesses of the same general type can fit quite differently depending on the modifications added. The purpose of this section is to define some of the components that can be changed or added to almost any harness, and clarify a few terms used in the following sections.
- Split chest: Split chest harnesses have a double strap leading from the breastbone and between the dog’s legs. This is often used in full bodied harnesses for broadly chested dogs. It prevents the breast strap from moving into the armpits of the dog and rubbing.
Collared harness: Mainly used in full bodied harnesses, a collared harness is one in which a single strap extends from the neck between the dog’s shoulder blades before splitting down each side of the dog. Its purpose is to decrease restriction around the shoulders but also concentrates the pull to a single point from the neck as opposed to a more even distribution offered by harnesses with two straps immediately separating at neck. Pictured below is a collared x-back (left) vs a standard x-back (right).
- Round neck: Some harnesses have a round design of the neck. A round neck is necessary for certain harness designs to work properly but can be harder to fit on dogs with deep breastbones without causing the harness to ride up into the dog’s throat.
Diamond Neck: This is a very common neck shape that allows the harness to sit more evenly over the breastbone. It is often seen with x-back styles. Pictured above is a round-neck style (left) and a diamond neck style (right)
- Adjustable rear: some harnesses have an “adjustable rear” created by two rings that allow the back half of the harness to move up and down. Two examples of this are the Howling Dog Alaska Wheel Dog Harness, and the Dragratten Multisport harness.
- Belly Band: A belly band is a strap that can be added to most full-bodied harnesses to prevent the backing out of the harness by the dog.
- Tug: This is the loop attached to the back of a harness where the tug line is connected.
3.2 Assessing the Fit of a Harness
There are generally three main components to the fit of a harness. The neck, the sides, and the length. Some harnesses must be exact in all three, while others are more forgiving. Each component is discussed below.
The neck. A properly fit neck is arguably the most crucial part of harness fit. If the neck is too big, it will slide up the throat when the dog pulls and choke the dog. If it is too small, it will not rest properly on the breastbone and shoulders and will choke the dog when they pull. This is true for any harness. The neck should be snug, and you should only be able to fit 2-3 fingers between the harness and the dog. Often, beginners worry that the neck is too tight when it is not and have a habit of using harnesses that are too large for the dog.
Second is the sides of the harness- this does not apply to most half harness but does apply to all full-bodied harnesses. If the side straps of the harness are too long, it will push into the soft sides of the dog, causing discomfort. The side straps should lay on the rib cage.
Third is the harness length. A harness that is too long will push onto the dog’s hips, causing undue pressure and soreness and possible injury. A harness that is too short will have an uneven pull, causing soreness or rub. Below is an image of a properly fit x-back.
Below are several images of a few different types of harnesses, can you tell which ones fit and which ones do not? Answers below:
Nonstop Dogwear Freemotion harnesses: This one was a trick! Neither of these harnesses fit these dogs in the neck. Both are a size too large. Notice in the left most image how the harness is pushing into the dog’s throat. On the right, you can see how far back the neck of the harness extends. When this dog is running, it will push on his throat.
X-backs: The top two images are of the same dog in two different harnesses. On the left, we have a perfectly fitting harness in neck, sides, and length, on the right the harness is too long in the back and on the sides, the neck looks an inch or so too big, but would probably be acceptable when running. The bottom image is of an x-back that the probably fits well in length, but is slightly too long on the sides, and definitely too big in the neck. It is easy to see how it sits on her shoulders instead of being snug around her neck.
Howling Dog Alaska Distance Harness: The left image is too large. The harness moves up into the neck when the dog is pulling into the harness. The right image is a perfect fit.
- Harness Types
The following section is intended to cover some of the different types of harnesses commonly used in mushing and joring sports. Its goal is to cover the basic mechanics of each harness and give examples of fit. It is not an exhaustive list of every harness type in existence. It focuses on those used in mushing and joring sports. It separates the different types of dog harnesses into two broad categories, full-bodied and half-bodied. This is for organizational purposes only as there are numerous types of harnesses and modifications to those types that can blur the lines between “full-bodied” and “half-bodied.”
4.1 Full bodied harnesses
Full bodied harnesses include x-back, open-back, and h-back harnesses and generally any other type that extends the full length of the dog.
4.1.1 The X-back
The X-back is quite arguably the most used harness worldwide. It is a favorite among professional dog sledders and recreational runners alike. The X-back is a versatile harness that can fit most dog shapes, sometimes with modification. It can have a single breast strap for narrow chested dogs or split-chest design for broad shapes. The angle of the side straps can be adjusted to accommodate length, and the neck can be adjusted as well. It is widely used in both sledding and joring (skijoring, bikejoring, scootering). The “X” of an x-back is simply to keep the harness from moving too much on the dog.
While the X-back is a great harness, it requires a precise fit to work well. This is not a problem for dogs that fit somewhere in the build types described in section 2 above. Though it can be modified to fit almost any dog to process of getting a custom-made harness can be lengthy (see note on customs). It is also a more restricting harness and works best for dogs that runs straight and smooth. It can cause crabbing in dogs with imperfect gaits (see note about Crabbing).
As a very popular and widely used harness, the x-back has been subject to several criticisms. This guide will attempt to address those concerns below in an unbiased manner.
Claim 1: The X-back is not suitable for joring sports as the angle of attachment is higher than that of a sled and the x-back only works when the angle of attachment is even with the dogs back.
Response: I would like to make the argument that the higher angle of attachment is generally not too high to negatively impact the dog, and if anything, the higher angle of attachment prevents pressure on the back and hips of the dog when using a full-bodied harness. This may not be the case for all dogs, especially smaller breeds. It is important to watch your dog running in harness to properly evaluate the set up. Many professional level jorers run in x-backs, if it was somehow bad for their dogs, I expect they wouldn’t be using them at all.
Claim 2: The x-back is only good for trotting dogs. If your dog lopes, an x-back will put pressure on the hips and spine.
This is simply untrue, and I am not sure how it came about. The “X” of an x-back is designed to hold the harness in place on the dogs back. It reduces movement and therefore rub or awkward pulling angles. It is not designed to put pressure on the dog. The vast majority of dog sledders use x-backs, including sprint teams in which the dogs are loping/galloping most, if not all, of the run. I will agree that some dogs absolutely run better in an open-back than an x-back. These dogs might have excessive rolling of the back or might not like the restrictiveness of an x-back compared to an open-back.
4.1.2 Open Back Harnesses:
Open back harnesses are simply x-backs without the x. They tend to be less restricting as the “x” straps are not there to provide stabilization of the harness. This is generally not a problem for straight running dogs but may not be suitable for crabbers. Some open backs are modified to minimize this problem, such as Zero DC’s Faster harness, who’s modified shoulder design creates a snugger fit and allows for a straighter pull from the shoulder to the point of attachment. The caveat to this design is more restriction on the top of the shoulder. It is important to remember that every benefit of a harness comes with a drawback.
4.1.3 H-back harness:
The H-back is a longer harness than that of an x or open-back. It is often recommended for larger, hard to fit dogs. It is a less technical harness that does not require as perfect a fit as an x-back or open-back style. The side straps are longer and meet farther back along the dog.
Pictured below are examples of all three full-bodied types discussed above.
4.2 Half-Bodied Harnesses:
Top-pull half harnesses mainly pull from the top of the dog, and only extend about halfway or less down the dogs back. Some top pull half harnesses have a moving back strap, enabling the dog to pull from the side, making them usable for dog sled teams. These types are often used by top Iditarod runners such as Ali Zirkle and Jeff King. Another benefit of the top-pull half harness for sled dogs is that it allows for more freedom of movement and distance-mushing users claim to see less injury because of this.
They are also great harnesses for recreational jorers with dogs that pull lightly or inconsistently and can double as a walking or hiking harness too. For some dogs that pull extremely hard or have low breastbones, these harnesses may not be suitable, and the reader should consider a harness that pulls from the sides. Low-breasted dogs need that side pull to distribute pull from the breast strap down to prevent choking.
Top-pull half harnesses have a high attachment point, making them perfect for all joring sports, but less so for dog sledding (unless the moving strap is present), and not at all for anything with a low attachment point such as kicksledding.
It has been discussed among users that top-pull half harnesses do not allow the dog to use their full power in harness. For the recreational jorer or musher this likely be an unnoticeable difference, but the reader may consider another type if they intend to run competitively.
Pictured below is Howling Dog Alaska’s distance harness (right), Alpine Outfitters urban harness (center) and Tiaga’s Mushing Supplies trail harness. Three of several types of top-pull have harnesses available on the market. Photo credit to the respective sites of each harness maker.
4.2.2 Side-pull/top-pull Half Harnesses
Some half harnesses pull from the sides as well as the top, or mainly from the sides. Rather new to the sport, relatively, there aren’t really any “standard” harnesses like there is with the x-back (one type of harness with same basic mechanisms). All the current side-pull/top pull harnesses on the market currently vary quite a bit by maker. So, this section will describe a few of the more commonly used brands. These include harnesses such as Draggattan’s Multisport, NonStop Dogwear’s Freemotion, or Howling Dog Alaska’s Second skin. Each one of these has pro’s and Con’s of their own and will be discussed individually below.
22.214.171.124 NonStop Dogwear’s freemotion:
A very popular harness that is often considered the bikejoring or skijoring harness of choice, especially in European countries. It strikes one as a sort of modified H-back, with much shorter side straps. It is adjustable on the sides and back, allowing a better fit to a wider range of build types. The neck is not adjustable and requires a very snug fit. New users often use a size too large, not realizing just how snug it should be around the neck. One con of this harness is that it is often difficult and quite involved to put on the dog and some dogs find it too restricting. It is also not suitable for dog sledding as the attachement is at the center of the dogs back and does not pull from one side. And while it does fit a wider range of dog builds, it does not fit them all, especailly very long built dogs. It also has a wide chest strap that may not work for very narrow chested dogs, such as whippet types.
126.96.36.199 Howling Dog Alaska’s Second Skin
Another popular harness among jorers, the second skin offers several benefits. A side/top pull harness with an even distribution of pull, it is well suited to hard pulling dogs. Its extensive fabric helps distribute pull force and reduces rub in slick coated dogs. Like the distance harness, it has a movable back strap to convert into a side pull and can be used in sledding. Howling Dog Alaska has a stronger version called the “Tough Skin” better suited to competitive teams and hard pullers. It may not be as suitable for inconsistent pullers as the harness has a tendency to bunch up without tension.
188.8.131.52 Draggattans Multisport Harness:
Less common in the United states, the Draggattan multisport is like a half harness with the benefits of a full-bodied harness. With a pull force mainly coming from the sides, it has a loose fit and is great for joring sports with higher attachments, putting almost not pressure on the back.
- Summary and Notes
Finding the right harness for your dog can be an adventure. Each dog is an individual and I would highly recommend experimenting with harness types. You may find that your dog does better in one type for one activity, but better in another type for a different activity. As your dog grows or changes, that perfectly fitting harness may not fit as well, or perhaps a more technical harness might become more desirable than when you first started. Harness selection really is more of an art than a science, at least with the current lack of scientific research in this subject. The world of urban mushing is still very new, and many new types of harnesses are appearing on the market as demand for harnesses to circumvent new challenges continues to grow. It will take many more years before they have been tested enough and analyzed to know if they are good or not. Don’t be afraid to try them out! They may be exactly what you are looking for, or not.
* Please follow the following link for a video visualizing shoulder movement in dogs, as discussed in section 2 above.
**Custom harnesses. While custom harnesses are sometimes necessary, it is beneficial to the dog owner to first attempt to find a maker with standard sizes that suit their dogs’ measurements. Customs can be very difficult to correctly fit as the differences between the measurements any one individual makes can greatly vary. Coupled with the fact that almost every harness maker measures in a slightly different way, it may take several attempts and shipping back and forth to get a harness right. In these cases, it is highly recommended that the dog owner directly contacts their harness maker of choice and work closely with them in measuring the dog. Pictures, video, and explicit instructions will be very helpful in this regard.
***Crabbing. Crabbing is when a dog runs with one side of its body inward or outward. Crabbing is an inefficient gait that is not optimal but generally does not increase chances of injury in the dog.
2 thoughts on “A Guide to Harnesses in Dog Mushing and Joring Sports”
What an informational read! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!
Thank you for reading! I am so happy you found it useful 🙂