Dog Harnesses vs. Collars: Which Is Better?

Updated: Apr. 27, 2023

Harnesses and collars keep your dog safe on your adventures, but it can be tricky to know which one to use. Here's what our expert says.

Dogs need daily walks to stay happy and healthy. Harnesses and collars make those treks more enjoyable and safer. But how do you know which one is right for your dog?

A collar goes around a dog’s neck, whereas a harness fastens around its chest, belly and back. Choosing a collar or harness depends on the mannerisms and breed of the dog, says Leigh Siegfried, a canine behaviorist and founder of Opportunity Barks.

Collars and harnesses are best suited for different activities, as long as a dog’s handler knows how to properly use the equipment. When deciding between a dog harness and a collar, consider these pros and cons. Plus, Siegfried shares her tips on choosing the appropriate gear based on activity and skill level.

Pros and Cons of Dog Collars

Collars are no-fuss and can clearly identify your pup with an ID tag, but they’re not for every dog or every dog walker.

Pros

  • Price and convenience: Most dogs don’t mind wearing a collar, though many people slip it on and off before and after walks. With a range of materials available, including nylon, leather and polyester, you can find one that fits your style and budget. We found the best dog collars for as little as $10.
  • Clear identification: A collar displays your dog’s ID tags so everyone knows he has a loving home. You can also attach important health tags, like his rabies vaccine. This is especially handy for dogs who like to bolt out the door, because collars can be worn all the time.
  • Guiding movement: A collar works well for dogs who respond well to movement cues. “If the dog and handler are educated in walking and collar use, you’re using a minimal amount of pressure to guide movement,” Siegfried says. “Ideally, you’re guiding the front part of the dog which means you’re going to move together more efficiently.”

Cons

  • Can cause injury: Even the best collars may injure your dog because they only fasten around the neck, applying pressure to the neck and spine. Dogs who lunge, pull or have spinal injuries or conditions are especially at risk.
  • Not suitable for all breeds: Short-nosed or flat-faced breeds — known as brachycephalic dogs — can have trouble breathing in a collar. Attaching a leash to a collar could worsen their breathing and prevent panting, essential for keeping your dog cool.
  • Can slip off, snag or choke: While a tight collar can be a choking hazard, a loose collar can snag or slip off. Collars come in several styles, including standard flat-buckle and martingale limited-slip. Martingale collars feature a fabric loop that tightens when pulled. This makes them ideal for dogs that might slip out of standard collars, like sight hounds.

Pros and Cons of Dog Harnesses

When considering a harness for your dog, compare the various types and their functions. The following factors can help you determine if a harness works best.

Pros

  • Provide greater control: Harnesses are particularly good for dogs who get excited and require movement restrictions for their (and others’) safety. Siegfried also recommends harnesses for dogs learning how to walk on a leash. No-pull harnesses typically come with with a D-ring in the middle of the dog’s chest to discourage pulling, and top handles that let you easily grab your dog when needed.
  • Reduced pressure: Unlike collars, harnesses distribute the force of a leash across a dog’s chest and shoulders rather than just their neck. This reduces strain on the neck and spine, particularly in pups that pull or lunge.
  • More secure: Dogs can slip out of a poorly fitting collar. However, because harnesses fasten across multiple parts of the body, dogs are typically less likely to escape a harness.

Cons

  • Less convenient. Putting a harness on a dog generally requires more effort than simply snapping a collar into place. Unlike collars, you won’t want your dog wearing their harness unless you’re going for a walk.
  • Bulkier: Harnesses require more fabric to distribute pressure evenly over the dog’s body. Some dogs may find this uncomfortable, especially in summer.
  • Encourage pulling and lunging: Siegfried say if a harness isn’t used correctly, doesn’t fit well or isn’t right for your intended use, it can encourage pulling and lunging because there’s more surface area for a dog to pull against. This is also true of harnesses with a clip on the back rather than the chest. Therefore, it’s crucial to select an appropriate harness and understand how to use it.

Which One Is Right for Your Dog?

The decision isn’t just about choosing between a harness or collar. Has your dog been properly trained to walk on a leash? Do you know how to use the gear for effective movements? Siegfried gives these general tips about choosing a harness vs. a collar.

Consider choosing a collar when:

  • Clear identification is important. It’s always advisable to have a collar on your dog, even when attaching a leash to a harness.
  • You and your dog are skilled at walking on a leash and want to apply the minimal amount of pressure needed for movement cues.

Consider choosing a harness when:

  • Walking brachycephalic dogs like bulldogs or pugs;
  • Walking toy breeds like toy poodles or chihuahuas;
  • Walking young or inexperienced dogs;
  • Walking a dog diagnosed with or prone to certain medical conditions, like spinal injuries or tracheal collapse;
  • Hiking or exploring;
  • Traveling in a car;
  • Restricting a dog’s movements.

Siegfried also says it’s important to remember your dog will likely outgrow its equipment at some point. This can happen because they grow larger or their skills and needs change over time. So regularly assess your pet’s needs, and change or adjust their gear as needed.