How a Pulling Harness Works

Pulling harnesses are designed to encourage a dog to work (pull). Here’s what you need to know.


As mentioned in an earlier blog post, dog harnesses have been in use throughout history. Working dogs, in particular, are outfitted with pulling harnesses for:

Sledding: also called dog sled racing, mushing (think the Iditarod) or freighting (hauling cargo).

Skijoring, bikejoring and scootering: pulling a person on skis, a bike or scooter.



  • Wagons and carts (called carting or drafting);
  • Toboggans (called pulka); and
  • A travois (a frame structure with two long poles and cross-bars used to drag loads over land (like the Native Americans used to move buffalo meat and firewood)).

The Mechanics

The mechanics behind a “pulling” harness and a “walking” harness are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Pulling harnesses (called the Siwash or Schutzhund Style) are designed to depend on, and encourage, the “opposition reflex.” The opposition reflex is a dog’s natural tendency to pull against pressure or restraint.

The Opposition Reflex

OppositionReflexThe early 1900’s discovery of the opposition reflex is attributed to Pavlov, the Nobel Prize winner Russian scientist who discovered “classical conditioning” (with his salivating dogs). The opposition reflex was originally called the “Freedom Reflex.”

Regardless of which term you use to describe this hard-wired reflex, it is a natural behavior (at least until a dog is trained or conditioned to respond differently). Tension, pressure or restraint causes a dog to instinctively resort to fight-or-flight or freeze (like our own reflex responses to stress). In other words, the opposition reflex is part of a dog’s “survival” instinct.

Viola! The Pulling Harness is Born

The pulling harness takes advantage of the natural opposition reflex by its very design. Siwash-Style-Harness2The harness has a center chest piece (B) that allows the dog to drop their head down and drive forward which maximizes their effort, strength and overall working ability. A pulling harness puts the load-bearing center on the chest and shoulders so the dog can pull its hardest. For a dog to pull effectively and efficiently, they need to be able to leverage their core strength against the harness.

Common pulling harnesses include:

  • The freight harness.
  • The H-back harness.
  • The X-back harness.
  • The Y-back or hybrid harness.

Breeds that Work in Pulling Harnesses

Some dogs, particularly those known as “working” breeds, have a natural tendency to pull against pressure; including:

Northern Dogs (including Samoyeds and Huskies) and Great Pyrenees:

  • Bred for pulling sleds (mushing).


  • Able to pull heavy loads for short distances.


  • Used to pull carts.

Bully Breeds (like the American Staffordshire Terrier):

  • Typically involved in competitive weight pulling.

Newfoundlands, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Greater Swiss Mountain dogs, Saint Bernards and Leonbergers:

  • Breeds that naturally excel at pulling, carting and drafting.

A Pulling Harness is NOT a Walking Harness

Many walking harnesses are really a shortened version of the Siwash Style with the same center chest piece. While this style works great for encouraging a dog to pull, such behavior is usually unwanted by the average owner simply wanting to walk their dog for exercise.BK9_collar_illustrations-harness_pulling

Without proper training, dogs that are larger, more powerful and/or dominant, those with a lot of stamina or pent-up energy and those with a strong prey drive will be encouraged (instead of discouraged) to pull and lunge forward with a pulling-type harness.

If your dog is not involved in the working activities and sports listed above, a pulling harness will probably encourage more bad behavior than it will fix. Understanding how each harness style works and what you want to accomplish with your own dog, will help you make the best decision when it comes to buying an effective harness.

Click here to learn more about the ergonomic BrilliantK9 Dog Harness (featuring 20 fully adjustable sizes from Teacup to Giant) that can be properly fit to your dog no matter their size or shape!

Resources and Additional Reading

Dog Harness Activities: Sledding, Skijoring, Bikjoring, Carting and Weight Pulling Links.

I.P. Pavlov and the Freedom Reflex.” 

Dog Word of the Day: Opposition Reflex.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.