Over the years I've known many dogs that were very conflicted about going on walks. On one end they are super excited about the idea of going with zoomies and spins when you say “Want to go for a walk?” … but the minute you get the harness out they are reluctant to allow you to put it on. Some run away, some mouth their human and some just slump to the floor in defeat.
Well, there are some things you can do to Create Zen for your dog and make this better for both of you. Note that if your dog is super fearful or aggressive then please reach out for a detailed plan to help your pup build confidence. These tips are for dogs who are mostly annoyed or conflicted by the process.
First you want to do some counter conditioning of the behavior. This is associating something the dog loves (food) with the problem behavior (getting the harness put on their body). Dropping treats on the ground just doesn’t really work because they will gobble them up in 2 seconds before you even figure out which way is up with the harness. You need something that lasts longer and you need a food that is amazing.
Luckily there is a great product called a Lick Mat that is a great solution for this problem. The one in the link even says it will distract your dog for up to 15 minutes! For the food you want to use something really good and creamy. Liverwurst spread, creamy cheeses, FreshPet food log and maybe peanut butter (watchout for Xylitol). None of my dogs have ever been motivated by peanut butter so creamy meats and cheese are my #1 go to when I want to make a lasting impression and do some counter conditioning.
Now fill it up and attach the lick mat to the front of the fridge or to the glass on the back door. As soon as your dog is focused on it, sit next to your dog on the floor (or pull up a chair) and gently slip their feet into the harness. Be sure to happy talk “Good boy/girl, thanks for letting me do this to you...you are being so good” this will help your dog stay calm.
This counter conditioning is super important to do with puppies as you first start out and also the first time you try to fit a harness to your dog’s body, which can take several attempts.
Now a few things I mentioned are very important to point out. #1 is to sit by your dog and not to stand over your dog when you put the harness on. Sit in a chair, have them get up on something like the couch/bench so they are waist high or sit on the floor next to them. Attach the harness at their level or from underneath. This will help them feel more confidence about the whole process.
The 2nd thing is that I said “Gently” slip their feet into the harness. Be Gentle! Feet are sensitive, ticklish and it can be scary to have your feet grabbed.
Lastly is to happy talk. This is the normal silly chitchat you have with your dog when you play, groom, pet and walk. Talk to them like you do when you are happy.
If you don’t want to buy a lick mat you can try putting the food into a small ceramic bowl and put it in the fridge to harden. You can then put it on the floor in front of the dog as you attach the harness. I say a ceramic bowl instead of plastic because one customer’s dog took off with the bowl, so you want something heavy. Ha! ha! Smart Puppy!
If your dog tends to be reluctant to come towards you when you pull out the harness I would recommend doing the lick mat and just allow them to lick it a few times before bringing out the harness. Again if your dog is showing fearful signs then we need to approach this slowly. But if your dog eventually decides he really does want to go for a walk – this process will help your situation.
I do also want to point out that using a harness instead of attaching the leash to the collar is really important to avoid potential injuries to the neck. Especially small dogs and if your dog likes to pull. Tension on the neck can potentially cause injuries to the larynx, trachea, thyroid or tiny bones in the spine.
My favorite harness is the Two Hounds “Freedom Harness”. This harness does not go over the dog’s head which is something else some dogs hate. Also in many cases just getting a new “type” of harness can help too.