A Systematic Review of the Biomechanical Effects of Harness and Head-Collar use in Dogs
S Blake1, R Williams1, R Ferro de Godoy1.
1Writtle University College
The number of dogs in the UK is on the rise, as are canine sports involving the use of a harness to
allow the dog to pull against an interface in the same way as a husky might pull a sled. Service dogs and those
involved in essential work commonly wear a harness throughout their working lives, yet little is understood
regarding the biomechanical impact of their use. This systematic review was conducted to review reported
evidence of the biomechanical effects of harness and head collar (Halti) use in dogs.
Searches were applied covering 1910 to 2018 on the following databases: PubMed, Web of Science
and Writtle Discovery.
Three publications were identified as suitable which were then critically evaluated using predefined
criteria and ARRIVE based guidelines for bias assessment. Only one was considered to provide the most
reliable data regarding the influence of harnesses on gait, whilst the remainder were considered to suffer a
variety of issues including poor sample size, repeatability and study execution. The most appropriate study
found that wearing a chest strap harness reduced shoulder extension in both walk and trot by up to 80 of
movement, whilst a Y-shaped harness commonly marketed as non-restrictive reduced shoulder extension by
up to 100 of movement, suggesting that the use of harness type restraints can affect canine gait, whereas no
studies were found relating to the biomechanical effects of head-collar usage.
The canine population in the UK is currently estimated to be in excess of 9 million, whilst owner
expenditure is in excess of £10 million per annum . A fundamental requirement of dog ownership is control
outside of the home, and owners spend even more time and money on puppy classes, obedience training
and behaviourists in the hope of having a sociable and obedient pet, yet nearly a quarter of dogs given up to
the Dogs Trust are there because of behavioural issues, such as a lack of control or aggression towards other
dogs and/or humans .
A common solution for owners when faced with an unruly dog is the use of a restraint such as a harness or
head collar (commonly known as a Halti), with manufacturers routinely advertising them on the basis of how
they can benefit the owner, using product names such as Non-Pull™ and Easy walk™. Training a dog is vital
in their early years and the foundation of correct behaviour  and harnesses are often used during the
training period or as a training aid. It is surmised therefore that an owner is more likely to use these types of
restraint when an animal is younger and relatively unruly, which raises questions regards their suitability and
possible impact on a developing musculoskeletal system and its associated growth plates.
Canine sports such as Canicross (also known as Cani-fit) and Bikejoring are also growing in popularity
in the UK, and these sports use harness systems to allow an animal to pull against an interface in much the
same way as a husky may pull a sled, utilising the canines instinct to pull against pressure . Harness systems
of varying designs are also worn by all manner of service dogs, from guide dogs to search dogs and those
involved with armed forces and policing.
It is clearly appropriate that a dog is under control at all times, for its own safety and the safety or
others, yet there is very little discussion around the welfare consequences of using restraint devices, or
whether they may prevent walking at the most natural, biomechanically efficient gait. As such they may have
the potential to impact the dogs long term health and potentially compromise welfare.
If this proves to be true then the resultant costs may far out way any initial training expenditure needed to
negate the need for restraint devices - the cost of veterinary care continues to rise, with insurers paying out
on average £2 million per day for pet claims, an increase of nearly 56% in the last eight years . The most
common pet insurance claim is joint related, costing an average of over £450  with the typical
veterinary fee for a cruciate ligament repair being around £1,200, whilst a hip replacement costs in excess of
The most prevalent musculoskeletal disease in dogs are degenerative joint disease (DJD) and
arthritis, with dysplasia, cruciate and patellar issues making up over 20% of the total number . A further
assumption could therefore be made that if harnesses do impact a dog’s natural gait, they may be a
contributing factor in any of these conditions or could hasten the onset of any pathology that a dog may
already suffer from.
It is relatively well known that if a dog’s gait is dysfunctional or impaired compensatory mechanisms will
ensue  In the longer term this can lead to hypertrophy/atrophy of various muscle groups, as well as a
myriad of musculoskeletal pathologies. Research by King  found that incorrect biomechanics will lead to
loss of joint confirmation and function, in turn leading to abnormal wear, which can cause inflammation
and arthritic conditions [8,10] DJD and arthritis are the two most common musculoskeletal issues seen in
dogs, and whilst conditions such as elbow and hip dysplasia have strong conformational links, they may be
exacerbated by additional restrictions in gait. [3,11,12]. Tendinopathy of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus,
biceps and infraspinatus myopathy are some of the most frequent conditions diagnosed in performance
dogs  all caused by varying degrees of micro and macro trauma and repetitive strain. Forelimb gait-
related issues and lameness in active dogs is commonly as a result of medial shoulder syndrome (MSS)
caused by repetitive micro trauma to multiple elements of the shoulder joint [13,14] leading to partial
tears, dystrophic mineralization, chronic tenosynovitis, peritendinous adhesions and contractures  of
the affected muscle. Cruciate ligament disease has its genesis within conformation, as well as strong causal
links to obesity and immune mediated diseases  so as such may not be seen as a condition directly
created by compensatory gait mechanisms, however as previously noted if forelimb stride is compromised
in some way, this will lead to a change in the biomechanics of the whole animal  once again potentially
creating adverse pressures in the caudal anatomy which may exacerbate or hasten any conditions that the
dog may be predisposed to. The aim of this study therefore was to conduct a systematic review into the
effects of common restraint systems on canine gait, by identifying existing research relating to restraint use
and their effects, as well as analysis of the research quality. A further objective was to identify any links
stated within the research to canine musculoskeletal pathologies.
Materials and Methods
A systematic review protocol/research proposal was completed and submitted to Writtle University
College in September 2018, along with a request for ethical approval and a full risk assessment. The research
proposal was approved by Writtle University College ethics committee in October 2018 with approval
The search terms set out in table 1 were used to identify all relevant research relating to animal
studies. No control was specified in this instance as no description was deemed appropriate
Table 1. PICO terms used in search criteria.
(dog* OR bitch* OR canine OR K9 OR husky* OR puppy* OR “canis lupus familiaris”
OR canid NOT dogmatic)
(harness OR restraint* OR “head collar” OR “head-collar” OR halti OR “no pull” OR
“no-pull” OR “non-pull” OR “gentle leader” OR “julius-k9” OR dogmatic OR ruffwear)
OR “vest harness”)
No control was specified
(kinematic* OR range of motion OR rom OR goniometry OR ground reaction force OR
grf OR pressure OR limb OR lameness OR gait OR stride length OR stride frequency OR
kinetics OR motion OR locomotion OR force OR “force plate” OR “video analysis”)
Initial searches were applied in December 2018 to the PubMed database via the NCBI website (1910
– Dec 2018), the Web of Science database via the web of knowledge website (1969-Dec 2018) and the Writtle
Discovery database via the eds.b.ebscohost website (1979 – Dec 2018). Potentially suitable papers were
stored using Zotero reference management software to allow subsequent screening and removal of
duplicates. After initial screening to remove duplicates the exclusion and inclusion criteria contained in table
2 was applied to both the title and abstracts.
Table 2. Inclusion and exclusion criteria.
• Peer Reviewed.
• Thesis material.
• Conference Proceedings.
• Non-English language papers where abstract
is in English.
• Papers referenced in included studies.
• Not related to dogs.
• Not related to biomechanics.
• Not related to use of harnesses or head
collars in canines.
• Non-English Language papers without
• Papers relating to psychological effects.
• Single case studies.
• Non-peer reviewed.
• Papers relating to behavioural effects.
The full text of any remaining papers was then used to confirm suitability. Bibliographies of the
remaining papers were also used to identify any studies that were not located within the electronic search
A standardised model of data collection was then used as set out within PRISMA guidelines  to extract
key information from each of the included studies. Table 3 lists the relevant data that was included within
Table 3. Data extracted from all papers deemed suitable for review
1. Reference including publication date and author
2. Study population
3. Sample size
6. Outcomes studied
7. Main findings of the study
8. Limitations of the study
A bias assessment was conducted using ARRIVE (Animal Research: Reporting of in vivo
experiments) guidelines 2018 to determine risk of bias. The full text of each paper was assessed as to
whether it met the guidelines which would indicate a low risk of bias, did not meet the guidelines indicating
a high risk of bias, or whether it partially met the guidelines indicating a medium risk of bias. Fourteen
separate elements were considered for each study including study design, setting, study design reporting,
procedures description, animal details, housing and husbandry, sample size, treatment allocation, outcome
definition, statistical methods, baseline data, numbers analysed, outcomes and estimation and adverse
events. All domains were then scored as either 1) low risk of bias 2) unclear risk of bias or 3) high risk of
bias and results were collated using excel to produce a graph which would indicate the total risk of bias for
the pool of papers as a whole.
In addition, papers included in the review were checked for evidence of conflicts of interest such as funding
from organisations that may gain from specific research results.
Results of the search and subsequent exclusions can be seen in (Fig 1) whilst the results extracted from
each study can be seen in table 4.
The three papers identified as suitable for review are as follows;
• Peham C, Limbeck S, Galla K, Bockstahler B. (2013a) Pressure distribution under three different
types of harnesses used for guide dogs. The Veterinary Journal. (2013a);198: e93-e98 
• Peham C, Limbeck S, Galla K, and Bockstahler B. Kinematic analysis of the influence of three different
guide dog harnesses on the movement of the spine. Wiener Tierarztliche
• Lafuente M, Provis L, Schmalz E. Effects of restrictive and non-restrictive harnesses on shoulder
extension in dogs at walk and trot. Veterinary Record. (2018):16-24 
Flow chart to show search strategy used to identify articles regarding effects of harness and halter use on canine gait.
Table 4. Results of Individual Studies
8 Dogs n=8
1 x German
1 x Golden
4 x Labrador
1 x Labrador
1 x Flat coated
No harness versus
3 different types
of guide dog
Dog observed walking
in straight line, turning
left and right plus up
and down stairs
without harness then
same tasks were
each of 3 different
of torque in N and
pressure in N/cm2 at
10 points on each
harness was collected
from 5 motion cycles.
Forces measured were
highest under left
trunk strap and
underside of sternum
at right hand side.
There were significant
differences in the
pressures exerted by
all 3 types of harness.
There was no
significant difference in
the pressures exerted
by each harness in
straight line walk
compared to turning
left and right as well as
up and down stairs.
Sample size was small
The aim of the study was not to
determine how harnesses
Different breeds of dogs used
with different coat lengths which
may affect pressure
No limitations to the study were
stated within the paper.
Velocity was not measured and
therefore not repeatable
8 Dogs n=8
1 x German
1 x Golden
4 x Labrador
1 x Labrador
1 x Flat coated
No harness versus
3 different types
of guide dog
Observation of animal
walking in straight lines
and turning left and
right with and without
Force in Newtons (N)
was measured at 10
points under harness
(Abstract only, full
English text not
1 x harness caused
restriction to lateral
movement of spine
and spinal range of
motion compared to
without a harness
during straight walk
and left and right
2 x harnesses caused
significant changes in
walking in a straight
line and turning right.
Insufficient data was available as
only the abstract was in English
and no translation of German
main text could be obtained.
Small sample size of only 8
Different breeds of dogs were
used with different coat lengths
which would affect pressures
beneath the harness.
9 Dogs n=9
1 x Swiss
1 x Labrador
1 x Nova Scotia
1 x Border
1 x Border
1 x Rottweiler
1 x Springer
No harness versus
Y- shaped harness
and chest strap
Dog fitted with reflective
markers over joint
centres of forelimb.
High speed video
capture of walk and trot
Dogs walked and trotted
with no harness, then
each of the other 2
additionally with the 2
harnesses plus a 2.5kg
weight attached to
extension by 4.73° at
walk and 9.31° at trot
Y-shaped harness with
extension by 7.780 at
walk and 11.720 at trot
Chest harness reduced
shoulder extension by
2.16° at walk and 4.92°
at trot (mean
Chest harness with
extension by 1.020 at
walk and 4.210 at trot
High fall out rate due to poor
Harnesses altered to allow the
5kg of weight which may have
impaired the integrity
Subjects were not working dogs
and unfamiliar with pulling
Y-shaped harness is designed to
stop the animal pulling, so
addition of weight was contrary
to the design.
Skin displacement over joints
during locomotion will have
affected accuracy of results.
Treadmill can affect gait
Lafuente et al. (2018) found that both a Y-shaped (non-restrictive) and chest harness restricted
shoulder extension at both walk and trot, however the non-restrictive (Y-shaped) harness actually
decreased shoulder extension more than the chest harness, by an additional 2.560 reduction in extension at
walk and an additional 4.820 in trot. Full results are shown in table 5 and illustrated in (Fig 2).
Table 5. Reduction in mean shoulder extension in walk and trot in degrees of movement, control versus Y Shaped and chest harness.
Adapted from Lafuente et al. (2018).
Walk (Degrees of movement)
Trot (Degrees of movement)
135 ± 9.90
144 ± 8.38
Y – Shaped Non-Restrictive
130 ± 9.04
134 ± 11.69
Non-Restrictive + 5 kg weight
127 ± 11.00
133 ± 13.49
133 ± 6.58
139 ± 9.71
Chest Harness + 5 kg weight
134 ± 6.82
140 ± 10.30
Reduction in mean shoulder extension in walk and trot, control versus non-restrictive harness (Y-shaped) and restrictive
harness (chest harness). Adapted from Lafuente et al. (2018).
Peham et al. (2013a) found that force and pressures underneath all of the guide dog harnesses were
highest at the right sternum, with both the left and right sternum constantly loaded by all three harnesses.
There was insignificant loading of the spine from all three types of harnesses studied, as well as variable
loading of the shoulders as seen in (Fig 4). Data from the study can be seen in table 6.
Force curves of chest strap regions of three guide dog harnesses during a straight walk exercise. (a) Chest strap left. (b) Chest strap right. (c)
Chest strap shoulder left. (d) Chest strap shoulder right. Different harnesses represented by colour. Peham et al. (2013a)
Table 6. Different chest strap harnesses represented by colours corresponding to figure 16. Adapted from Peham et al. (2013a).
30.3 ± 9.2
2.02 ± 0.61
28.8 ± 9.0
1.92 ± 0.60
27.6 ± 7.5
1.84 ± 0.50
28.4 ± 6.5
1.89 ± 0.43
27.3 ± 7.4
1.82 ± 0.49
27.4 ± 5.0
1.83 ± 0.33
26.2 ± 3.1
1.74 ± 0.21
26.9 ± 3.2
1.80 ± 0.21
26.0 ± 4.1
1.73 ± 0.27
25.6 ± 4.5
1.70 ± 0.30
17.1 ± 7.3
1.14 ± 0.49
16.6 ± 7.5
1.11 ± 0.50
16.9 ± 6.9
1.13 ± 0.46
17.9 ± 7.2
1.19 ± 0.48
20.3 ± 6.8
1.35 ± 0.45
The second study by Peham et al.,(2013b) only reported data via an abstract which states that one
harness restricted “latero-lateral motion of the spine, causing a significant restricted minimum and maximum
lateral movement and ROM” whilst the same harness plus one other caused “significant changes in the dorso-
ventral movement of the spine”. A summary of publications and their results can be seen in table 7.
Table 7. Summary of publications and results.
Type of restraint
Number of publications
Summary of results
Guide dog harness
Peham et al., (2013a)
Peham et al., (2013b)
Constant bilateral loading of
Highest pressure exerted by
harness found at right sternum
Differences were found in
pressures exerted by 3 different
types of harness.
n = 1
Lafuente et al., (2018)
Reduction in shoulder extension
in walk (4.730) and trot (9.310).
Further reduction when weight
was attached to simulate load of
7.780 at walk and 11.720 at trot.
Chest strap harness
n = 1
Lafuente et al., (2018)
Reduction in shoulder extension
at walk (2.160) and trot (4.920).
Further reduction when weight
was attached to simulate load of
1.020 at walk and 4.210 at trot.
The individual results of the ARRIVE Bias assessment of included studies are shown in (Fig 4). No
conflicts of interest were Identified. Two papers failed to report details of animal housing and husbandry
including procedures to monitor test subject’s welfare during the study, whilst the remaining publication
partially disclosed husbandry only. Two papers failed to fully discuss how treatments were allocated to each
test subject, although as they were cohort studies no randomisation was expected. Two papers also did not
fully disclose baseline data and as previously mentioned only the Lafuente et al., (2018) study measured
velocity which would allow a comparison with baseline measurements. Risk of bias is necessary when
discussing validity of results and overall it is felt that the above limitations do not affect the validity of the
Results of bias analysis
Although not conclusive it is clear that harnesses utilising a chest strap or of a Y-shaped design do limit
the angle of shoulder extension at both walk and trot. The reasons why a Y-shaped harness, deemed non-
restrictive would limit extension to a greater degree is unclear, however the author postulates that it may
restrict the musculature around the scapula at both the cranial angle and border which would reduce its
extension. It is also unclear whether the width of strap or padding would further influence angulation,
although a reduction in the width of straps would focus pressure beneath them. Only the Lafuente et al.
(2018) study specified a width of 25 millimetres for the Y-shaped harness straps, running from the sternum
to the dorsal neck so no conclusions can be drawn regarding width of straps versus the effect on gait, but is
worthy of further study as it could be of detriment to the dog if areas are constantly loaded or at areas of
high pressure such as the sternum as indicated with the Peham et al. 2013a study. The Lafuente et al. (2018)
study used two 2.5kg weights attached to the lead on either side of the dog to simulate pulling and
interestingly this addition reduced shoulder extension even further. This was not consistent with both types
of harness, indicating that the shape of the harness could be a contributing factor as opposed to the load
pulling the limb caudally. It may also be that the dog shifts its centre of mass cranially to allow it to pull more
effectively, which is especially pertinent where canine sports such as canicross are concerned as the animal
is expected to be able to manoeuvre at speed, with a harness that is padded enough so as not to cause injury,
but thin enough to allow the limbs to move freely. The addition of 5 kg of weight is relatively light when
compared to the potential forces caused by a runner attached via a bungee lead, especially if the lead is at
the end of its stretch capacity. One unexpected result is that a guide dog harness did not create pressure on
the dorsal spine, but this may be due to the handler needing to maintain contact by lifting the harness slightly
via the handle. This would also explain why forces are highest at the right sternum as guide dogs are taught
to walk on the right of their owner at all times, meaning a slight lifting force would be exerted by the handler
from the left side of the dog. It is assumed that the majority of dog owners do not use a harness handle when
exercising their pet so the slight shift in weight bearing would not be significant for the wider canine
population, however it does have implications if a dog is undergoing therapy that requires them to use a sling
device or harness, in that an additional load will be created on the limb opposite the handler, and therefore
the handler should be on the same side as any affected limb so as not to place additional strain on the area.
Albeit this particular study did not interpret its results in terms of gait, it did show that the forces involved
are relatively high, even at walk, at just over 30N. Studies on the effects of poor tack fitting in equines have
found that a similar force can cause dry spots under the saddle, indicative of skin atrophy as the sweat glands
within the capillaries have been damaged . A dog’s mass is smaller than that of a horse, meaning the
exerted load is higher in relation to their mass than that experienced by equines. Further research would be
needed to ascertain whether the same could be true of harnesses used in canine sports, but what is known
is that ischemic damage can occur quickly when skin is put under pressure  and by the time damage is
noticeable the underlying muscles will also have been affected, as skin tissue is generally the last tissue to
show signs of macroscopic damage . A dog’s coat will also make it much more difficult to spot evidence
of ischemic damage but conversely may act as a form of padding to reduce overall pressures and potential
tissue damage. Although only limited information was available from the Peham et al. (2013b) study into
spinal movement it did conclude that a harness will impact lateral movement of the spine which adds an
additional dimension – a harness will need to allow for adequate flexion and extension, lateral bending, and
axial rotation of the spine, all of which will alter through changes in head and neck position at different gaits.
It would therefore seem logical that the larger or wider the harness, the more these will be impaired. As has
been noted skin displacement over anatomical landmarks during locomotion can lead to incorrect data
collection  so this would also need to be addressed in futures studies. No studies to date have explored
any impact on gait when using a head collar and leash, which would be necessary if it is to be compared to
the suitability of harnesses.
Risk of bias was low, but none of the studies adequately discussed the housing and husbandry of the
test subjects, and almost all did not fully examine or record baseline data prior to any intervention which
again limits the validity of the results.
Strength of Evidence and Further Research
All of the studies are limited by the small number of animals taking part. Harris et al.  suggested a
sample size of at least 27 subjects is needed to be able to collect clinically relevant data, which could be
problematic for further research. The Lafuente et al. (2018) study did start with a sample of 30 dogs but could
only collect data on nine due to most being unfamiliar with the treadmill. Some research does exist with
regards the amount of time a dog may need to become habituated to its study environment, and the data
within the above studies suggested that dogs became comfortable with use of a treadmill after 30 minutes,
whilst a study on greyhounds suggested useful data may be gathered in as little as 30 seconds  possibly
due to a greyhounds natural inclination to run, or familiarity with training expectations. Another study by
Rumph et al.  found that poor habituation impacts hind limb stance times and lower impulses of vertical
force. Speed of forward motion will be influenced by stride length and limb angulation , yet only the Lafuente
et al. (2018) study included a reliable measure of velocity, which is vital if further researchers wish to build
on what is already known. Any research is also going to be hampered by the huge variance in breeds,
conformations and even gaits – there is no such thing as a “typical” canine so a strategy could be to study
one breed in particular first where it could be most useful, for example a working dog breed such as Spaniels
commonly used for search work. Interestingly the chest type harness is commonly used for these types of
dog, as such it needs to allow full ROM of the forelimb, and if gait is affected performance and working
longevity may suffer. Recommendations for further research are therefore myriad – it would seem logical to
assess the impact of restraint systems on dogs most at risk of harm through daily use such as those used by
policing and security services as mentioned above. This would also reduce the overall number of breeds that
would need to be studied initially as well as having the greatest potential impact. What is clear is that future
studies will need to be of a sufficiently robust nature to be able to provide appropriate data, which has been
lacking in some of the research so far.
The only clinically relevant data that can be taken from this review is that shoulder extension is limited
by two of the most common types of harness. At present the use of relatively low-cost technology to assess
gait is still underutilised in veterinary practice, but what is clear is that quantitative analysis is the most
effective way of detecting biomechanical abnormalities as well as the underlying reasons.
As has been shown very little research exists regarding the effect of restraint use on canine gait. Of
the studies identified only one would be deemed to have the necessary scientific protocols to show sufficient
evidence of a change in gait, however it lacks a large enough sample size to reflect on the canine population
as a whole. None of the studies showed a biomechanical change when using a head halter but questions do
remain as to their long-term suitability. Nor does current research relate to any forms of pathology which
would be the next logical step, otherwise as standalone research the value is limited. This lack of
understanding poses a dilemma for veterinarians and physiotherapists alike, especially in the context of
evidence-based practice, who are forced to make judgements on what is best for a dog’s long-term welfare,
with no reliable means of knowing potential outcomes.
Further research is needed to establish if limiting a dog’s natural gait impacts their longer-term
welfare and to define the relationship between certain types of harness and injury, especially in working
breeds and those taking part in sporting endeavours. Owners, veterinarians and physiotherapists need to
understand the importance of the correct selection of a canine restraint system based on the breed as well
as the dog’s purpose. Special consideration should be given to working dogs and they may routinely have to
adopt an abnormal gait, as well as canine athletes who may be subject to the same restrictions but also be
expected to work at their maximum capacities.
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