To Harness or Not

By Sara Elzey
Harnesses modeled by Shadow, Myst, and Ayla
Photos by Pat DeRuyter

There are quite a few harness styles on the market these days so it can be hard to choose. I have tried four of the styles out there. Here are my thoughts and experiences with each.

Standard X-back

This seems to be the most common style. It is available at most of the local feed stores in a large variety of colors and many sizes including “regular” and “long” lengths. It costs $20-30.  It also comes in a light weight webbing or a heavier webbing, and with foam-like padding or fleece padding, and with and without reflective strips. Like most folks I started off with this style when Shadow & I began skijoring years ago. The staff at the retail stores are usually pretty good at helping with the fit, but be sure that the harness is not too tight across the dog’s flanks or hips. If you have a wider, shorter dog you may need to buy a bigger harness that is really too long for your dog to make sure it is not too tight along his sides/hips. The tug (the loop at the back of the harness where you attach the line) should be behind the highest point of the hips towards the tail.

I started off using this style of harness when I first started skijoring. My original harness worked well for several years but then seemed to get too small as my first dog, Shadow, matured and filled out and his coat got heavier and I had to get him a larger one. Be aware of your harness fit, the same one may not fit your dog for it’s entire life. This style always worked fine for most of my dogs with the exception of Myst (see my comments below under the Manmat harnesses).

Collared X-back

This harness is almost identical to the standard x-back except the neck is much tighter and rounded. The standard x-back neck is more “eye” shaped.  Many folks use this style harness successfully. I was told that it was good for dogs with thin/narrow shoulders. It does not seem to have as much variety of color, webbing, or padding as the standard x-back but comes in all the same variety of sizes. It costs about the same as the standard x-back. It should fit just like the standard x-back.

I used this harness almost exclusively the first winter that I had my third dog, Ayla. That winter Shadow, who was only 7 and had never had a lame day in his life, started having intermittent lameness on his front end. I could never palpitate any tenderness or swelling and it seemed to come and go somewhat randomly but mostly after a skijor, never after a run. I thought either he had just injured himself somehow or perhaps was aging early. We spent the winter resting and trying it again and going lame and resting and trying it again! It was very frustrating. I finally talked with my vet.  He suggested some things but nothing seemed to help. Then, during one conversation, quite by accident, I happen to mention something about having changed to the collared harnesses. The vet said that he had no proof but thought that the collared harnesses sometimes caused pinched nerves in the neck! I had never thought of this! I immediately switched Shadow back to the standard x-back and he has been perfectly fine since then. My other two dogs have never had any problems but both are more heavily muscled in the shoulder and neck than he is. I know many other skijorers and mushers use these harnesses with no problems, but if your dog experiences sudden expected lameness trying a different harness might be the “cure.”

Guard Harness or Manmat Long Distance Harness

This harness is available at only a few colors and comes in sizes XS, S, M, L, XL. Cold Spot Feeds carries this style. It costs a little more than the x-back harnesses. It is MUCH easier to put on your dog than the x-back harnesses! Especiall if you have a dog who doesn’t like to pick up his feet and put them through the leg holes. Also, because of the way the harness fits you can use the same size harness for a variety of dog body shapes and sizes and adjust the “arm pit“ band accordingly. The x-back harnesses need a more precise fit. I don’t think it was originally designed for mushing or skijoring. It has a collar similar to the standard x-back connected to a band that goes around the dogs body right behind the front legs. There is a strap from collar to “arm pit” band that goes between the front legs and one on the top of the dog along the spine. The “arm pit” strap is adjustable. There is a loop on the top of the “arm pit” band where the strap from the collar comes in.  The angle at which the line from the skijorer meets the dog is quite different from the angle of the x-back styles (See the photos).  Because the line attaches to the dog about half way up the dog’s body instead of at the tail you’ll need to lengthen your skijoring line. If you want to run 2 dogs side by side, one with an x-back and one with a guard harness be sure to make one line longer than the other and be sure to hook the correct line to the correct dog!

I bought some of the guard harnesses to try a few years ago.  I did not like the fit on my tallest, deepest chested dog (see side note below) but on the smaller 2 females they fit great. I have switched to using this style of harness most of the time. One of my dogs, Myst, has really bad knees and a bad lower back so that skijoring/pulling is really hard on her. As she has aged and her disability progresses I’ve thought that when she runs in the x-back harness she seems to have more stiffness later. If you look at where the x-back harness rides on your dog’s back and pelvis you’ll see that it does pull across this area and exert some pressure. I switched Myst completely to the guard harness it seemed to be better for her. I’ve switched to running other, older dogs who’ve had sensitivity in their lower/back pelvis to this type of harness also and it seems to work well for them.

Modified Guard Style Harness

As I stated above, I didn’t like how the guard harness fit my tallest dog, Shadow.  He has very long legs, shoulders and a long torso and the guard harness that fit his neck seemed to be too tight behind his front legs. I found a harness at Pet Stuff that was designed just for walking a dog, not pulling, it is similar to the guard harness but had adjustable tabs on the neck and “arm pit” bands. I had Apocalypse Designs take out the buckles  at the neck because I thought that they would rub and added fleece padding (See the photo). Don’t be afraid to experiment with harnesses. Apocalypse is really great about doing special projects per your instructions.

Bjorkis or “buggy” Harness

The latest harness I have tried is made by some folks from Wasilla. I got mine at the Mushing Symposium for about $30 each. This harness is available in limited colors and sizes S,M,L,XL but are somewhat adjustable.  It has a band that goes horizontally across the chest and attaches at the shoulder to an adjustable band that fits right behind the front legs. There is a webbing strap with a metal loop at the top of the “arm pit” band to attach the tug line. The greatest thing about these is that the entire chest band is reflective! I used these alot when I was just running with my dogs in the dark. It is super easy to put on your dog! No leg holes to put feet through, simply over the head and buckle the “arm pit” band. I think these harnesses would be good for a dog with neck or sholder problems since they have no collar on them. This harness is great if you have a dog that likes to back out of his harness when wearing the x-back, because he cannot do that wearing this harness if the “arm pit” band is tightened properly.

I have not used this harness a lot for skijoring, mostly just for running. I have not had any problems with it skijoring and the dogs seem to perform the same when wearing it, but my concern is that they do not have fleece padding, only foam, and I worry that on a thin shouldered dog they may rub on the collar bone some. I have not had any evidence of this however. The good thing about it is that unlike the guard harnesses they do not rotate from side to side on the dog if the tug line pulls more from the right or left side. The webbing strap where you attach the tug is a big loop so the line can rotate without pulling the harness. Many of the skijorers are using this style of harness now.

Wrap Up

The best advice I can give is to experiment. If your dog starts have any physical problems it could be a harness issue. Try a different style. Rotate styles. I think that dogs,  just like people if we constantly wear the same pair of running shoes, can develop problems from the way the harness wears or how it may influence their gate. Inspect the harness each time you use it for wear and tear and inspect your dog too! A harness that doesn’t fit properly may cause rubbed spots or tender areas. If you’re not sure if your dog’s harness fits ask a clerk at one of the feed stores to help you or talk to a more experienced skijorer at a race or a training clinic.

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