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.





Harnesses 101

What you need to know about using, buying and fitting a harness for your dog.


There’s a huge new trend in “controlling” your dog and it’s the harness; an alternative to a leash and collar. Just look around on any street and you’ll see many K9s strutting their stuff in some type of harness. In fact, harnesses are also quickly becoming a “fashion statement” among many dog owners.

All harnesses have one thing in common; the belief that a harness gives the dog owner more control over their dog during walks, training, hunting and car rides. But even the experts are divided over whether this is always true with every dog.

Harnesses are also an effective tool for:

  • Training.
  • Dogs with back issues.
  • Preventing jumping in dogs.
  • Puppies still developing and growing.
  • Older dogs that need help in getting up.
  • Controlling dogs who are easily distracted.
  • Controlling dogs who a high prey drive and desire to chase.

A harness, when properly fitted and correctly used (in conjunction with appropriate and positive training), can be an effective tool between the owner/dog walker and the dog. Harnesses can also help timid, nervous, anxious or unconfident dogs feel more secure and less fearful. This can definitely help control bad reactionary behavior while working on effective training or behavioral modification.

BK9_collar_illustrations-collar_pullingOne thing everyone can agree upon is that dog harnesses do re-distribute the pressure from the sensitive neck area (as with a collar, lead or leash) to the body’s ribcage, shoulders and upper body. Harnesses help prevent potential stress, strain, injuries or pain to the neck, throat, trachea, thyroid glands, spinal cord and even possible choking or coughing. Or, with dogs like pugs, protruding eyeballs from too much pressure on the neck!

The History of the Harness

Despite the recent upsurge in popularity, dog harnesses have been around for a while; particularly with working dogs; including:

  • Sled and skijoring dogs;
  • Hunting dogs; and
  • Weight-pulling dogs (with wagons, carts, toboggans or travois (a transport device consisting of two poles joined by a frame and pulled by dog)).

Harnesses: 5 Typical Styles

BrilliantK9-ErgonomicStyleErgonomic Style

Designed to allow a natural walking position, freedom of movement and prevents opposition reflex while taking advantage of a dog’s natural pivot point. (Like those designed by

Siwash Style


Designed specifically for Working Dog activities (including sledding, skijoring, hunting and competition).

Most “walking” harnesses (commonly found in pet stores and online) are actually a shortened version of this style with a center chest piece. This chest piece encourages opposition reflex (pulling against pressure, i.e., the human). It allows the dog to drop down and drive forward which maximizes their strength.

Front Clip Style (AKA Front Attaching)

Designed to discourage dogs who like to pull against pressure. (Some dogs have a natural tendency to pull against pressure; called the opposition reflex).

Pack Style

Designed to carry packs/saddle bags in the outdoors (for hiking, backpacking or camping activities). Note: Dogs should carry no more than 10% of their bodyweight. The K9 body is not designed for large or heavy loads.)

Car Style

Designed to restrain, constrain and protect dogs especially in a car accident (a “seatbelt” for dogs). Note: Car harnesses are not always walking harnesses.

Harnesses: Factors to Consider

Not all harnesses are created equal so it’s important to do your own research relative to your dog (breed, body shape, habits and even medical history) before purchasing a harness.

When researching different styles of harnesses, below are some questions to consider first.

  • What unwanted behavior am I trying to address with a harness? (i.e., pulling, lunging, preventing the dog from slipping out of their collar, etc.)
  • What harness style will effectively address that undesirable behavior?
  • Will the harness be comfortable for my dog?
    • Will the harness hinder my dog’s natural movement (for example, in the shoulders)?
    • Will the harness rub under my dog’s legs (or other parts of their body) and cause chafing, irritation or worse?
  • Does the harness allow for personalized fitting/adjustment to my dog’s body without painful pinching, cutting or chafing?
  • Is the harness lightweight, but sturdy for the size and strength of my dog?
  • Is it weatherproof?
  • Is the harness made of breathable material to avoid sweating and chafing?

A Few Final Thoughts

Regardless which side of the fence you are sitting on when it comes to harnesses, it’s important to keep in mind that a harness (or any other tool for that matter) will not completely fix a bad or unwanted behavior. Regardless if it’s a harness, head halter or even a regular collar, when it comes to training your dog to master the walk, one size does not fit all.

In fact, in some cases, a harness may actually encourage a bad behavior. For instance, BK9_collar_illustrations-harness_pullingsome dogs (especially those who are more dominant, larger and stronger along with the working breeds) may actually pull more with a harness. Some dogs have a natural tendency to pull against pressure (called the “opposition reflex”). A harness alone will not fix this natural reflex. It could actually result in the dog walker getting hurt if the dog puts his whole weight into the harness in trying to lunge and run.

Finding the right harness can be overwhelming if it’s your first time. Make sure to do your research and ask your vet for possible recommendations based on your dog and their behavior. Resist buying a cheap harness; quality matters! Not only for your dog’s comfort, but to also make sure the harness will work when you need it the most!

And finally, make sure you:

  • Buy the correct harness for your dog:
    • In size; and
    • Desired outcome.
  • Learn how to properly fit your harness on your dog before leaving the house.
  • Properly and slowly introduce your dog to the harness with patience and time.
  • Learn how to correctly use the harness before heading out to the outside world offering lots of distractions and temptations for your dog..