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The controversy of collar vs Harness and IVDD.

Its so confusing knowing what to do. Here's my thoughts.





With the recent blog shared by Dachshund Health UK on the use of harnesses or collars and risk factors with IVDD a big conversation has been ignited within our community. Not seen it? Here’s the link: https://www.dachshundhealth.org.uk/welcome/collars-vs-harnesses-some-research-insights.


Firstly, who are Dachshund Health UK? Why does their opinion matter?


Dachshund Health UK are the only UK charity focused on improving the health of Dachshunds. They commission and fund research to identify the causes of health issues in the breed and to develop preventative screening programs and DNA testing to help breeders and owners to understand the breed. They collect data on health issues affecting the breed (see their reporting system) and use this to give advice alongside funneling research into "hot" zones for health. They run and create webinars and educational resources for breeders and owners.

In the interests of transparency....I am one of the "they." I am a very proud trustee with the charity and love seeing how dedicated and committed the trustees are towards helping owners and the breed.


Is collar better than a harness?  I am a collar fan in honesty. The issue of finding a correctly fitted harness, for our breed….nightmare.  I am no good with measurements and always get it wrong. Its personal choice....as long as they are fitted right and appropriate to the individual dogs needs.....But what's better for them?


Confused?

There is a lot of confusion as people are told by one professional or another a specific recommendation with reasonable arguments as to why or why not. Understandably it has led to a lot of heated debate where everyone is giving their opinion. But does opinion help us? Where does that person's experience or knowledge come from? We are always biased towards things that make sense in our brain....even if our opinion contradicts fact.

An unrelated example. I got a parking ticket the other day. I was adamant there was no signage and its a retail park...no retail park I've ever visited charges for parking! Right? Wrong, there were several signs, just me and my friend didn't see them at all. My brain filtered them out as irrelevant. Expensive lesson!


I am going to give my opinion on the data based on experience and from the research I have read. But ultimately it is going to be a sit on the fence type of response in regards to the tool! Ultimately, I don’t think the tool is the problem here, it’s the behaviour the dogs or us show when they wear it. (Obviously I’m not talking about contraptions that cause pain!) Age old saying isn't it ...workman and tools! Think about it!


Clarifying the jargon!

First, a word about numbers.  The numbers gathered by several breed specific surveys, analysis of IVDD affected dogs etc. across the various studies on various breeds just tells us one thing…..numbers.  It doesn’t give the whys, the background, the answers.  What it does do it show, without any emotion, any arguments that this is what the information gathered shows. Further research is needed, and that’s a huge task…maybe one day I will embrace it….but for now the numbers have me running!


Whilst we can speculate on these things, unless clinical trials are carried out specifically with a purpose in mind we won’t know for fact.  And remember truth and fact….are subjective. My truth will differ from yours.  Even if we went somewhere and saw exactly the same thing.  What I saw, and how my brain processed it will differ from yours.  I remember a question I asked my mum when I was a kid…..how do you know the red I’m seeing is the same as the one you are seeing?  The numbers don’t lie, they just put to paper in the least subjective way possible what the data says.


One thing I will say with complete confidence is information shared on the Dachshund Health UK page will be based on research and data.  It will not be based on opinion.  It may speculate, but state clearly that it is speculation.  But, as a website dedicated to the health of the breed it will be based on the facts we have, there is no ulterior motive.  Nothing is gained from sharing biased or incorrect information. The charity are there to do the best for the breed, that is it!


Similarly, I also have nothing to gain from this blog. It is just my attempt to help clear some confusion and to try to make a difference in a way.... I hope


Another note to remember, the results do not imply causation….what does that mean?  The results are the results.  But, they do not say that X causes Y.  It simply demonstrates a potential influence on risk. If you want to look at risk please see my previous blog on IVDD found here: https://www.perfectlypolitedachshunds.com/post/seeing-past-the-worries-about-ivdd-and-enjoying-your-dachshund. Yep, we all want to know why, but its such a complex area with so many influences we can only speculate based on data and surrounding research.


Breed Specific Research.

In the 2015 breed survey dogs wearing harnesses were found to be 2.3 times more likely to have suffered from IVDD than dogs in collars.  This was mirrored again in the 2022/23 survey carried out comparing non affected and IVDD affected dogs. 

The data does suggest an increased risk. But it doesn’t say WHY! It doesn’t say harnesses cause IVDD.  Just that it is noted more dogs came down with IVDD when they wore harnesses!


Obviously after IVDD we need to follow the specialists guidance. But if they recommend a harness, ask which type and size it properly!


But what does the data say or not say?  This is my take.

1.       What harnesses were being worn? There are so many varieties and shapes, some far superior to others.

2.      Were they fitted correctly? Are they like a poorly fitted bra? With their lovely deep chests they are hard to fit properly.

3.      Does the dog pull? (This is my ding ding ding moment!) Constantly pulling into a harness puts a lot of pressure onto their shoulders, essentially making them front paw drive.  Imagine pulling a sled? Where is the centre of gravilty if you are pulling a heavy weight? You’d lead forwards, right?

4.      Does the dog lunge at the end of the lead? We know repeated impact or even just one injures us – think whiplash…..I have no doubt (personal opinion obviously) that this will impact them physically. (Again….ding ding ding)

5.      Are they on flexi leads and hitting the end at speed? (As above…ouch!)


Lets go back to the DHUK Blog.

90-95% of IVDD incidents happen in the mid to lower back, usually around the bendy bit at the bottom of the rib cage.


Thought: If only 5-10% of cases are cervical collars collars aren't really implicated as a cause or risk factor with IVDD! I note later the injuries listed are not spinal but related to the impact point on the underside of the neck!


My take:

1.      Is it because the midspine is the most mobile part of the spine? Its logical to expect bits that are used more are prone to more wear and tear….if there is already a weakness it can reasonably be expected to happen here.

2.      Is it because say they are pulling on a harness (many do so that’s a reasonable assumption) that they are restrained from the front (thats where they lean into) and they are almost hunching to create more power putting additional pressure on that spot? Again I don’t know but if you keep bending something in the same spot it does cause a weakness.

 

Cervical (neck) IVDD from my experience is definitely more painful.  Everything involves the neck with a dog.  Even just picking them up – gravity’s pull can make them cry.  And obviously if a disc is compressed in the neck it can cause problems for every single body part below.  Thankfully all those I’ve dealt with have made full recoveries.  In this case I would probably default to a harness.

 

My opinion (remember, my opinion. I am not a vet and am just doing some brief research. But I am observant, and do have a lot of experience with this). I will try to support my theory.


Pulling and lunging.  I think the issue lies here.


82% of dogs pull on lead! (Townsend and Buckley, 2022). If there is a weakness, the impact of that pulling COULD increase the chances of that disc weakening.  Logically that makes sense.


Weigh it up using the research:


Collars

  • Excess pressure on the neck….especially the throat may cause musculoskeletal issues, tracheal (throat) injuries – remember the thyroid gland in that bracket, and it is believed to have negative impacts on their eyes!! So an argument against collars could be this.  Pauli et al, (2006) found intraocular pressure increased significantly when pressure was applied.  They recommend dogs with weak or thin corneas, glaucoma or similar conditions should wear a harness during exercise.  PLEASE NOTE THE COMMENT…..WHEN PRESSURE WAS APPLIED!

  • Research does support that lead pulling can cause neck injuries.  Note PULLING again..not wearing a collar!  Pulling on a collar can increase the risk (REMEMBER RISK NOT CAUSE) of permanent tracheal, laryngeal, oesophageal and ophthalmic damage in dogs. I lost a collie through laryngeal paralysis likely due to the former owners repeated yanking on his neck with a choke chain!  Its devastating and very traumatic to experience! 

 

Harnesses

  • Studies looking at the influence on gait are inconclusive – I’d imagine due to the huge array of harnesses available.  But you only need eyes to see how some influence their movement – especially if not fitted correctly.

  • Harnesses may distribute force over a wider area than a collar which is more localized.  (If they are fitted correctly.  Note my use of the word FORCE.

  • Shih et al (2021) found that back connection harnesses are associated with greater pulling on the lead. 

Both have their downfalls clearly!


Here’s an interesting thought – lets look at us.  Many owners and dog walkers end up needing surgery or therapy for carpal tunnel or repetitive stress.  We know repeated stress on us causes us injury at the other end of the lead……so how does it not apply in the same way to the dogs?  I speak from experience, I had both hands needing surgery from years of dog walking other peoples dogs. Its painful and debilitating!

 

Lets really think about the research above. Almost every article I read talking about potential injury measured pressure or force on the dogs. Pressure or force, not simply wearing either tool!


Lets also briefly consider the recommendations to “jerk,” “tug,” or “yank” the lead, or the more recent phrase of “lead pressure” to stop reactivity or pulling. Repeated short sharp jerks to any tool especially when there is already tension is surely going to have an impact. Its common sense really. Think about that and the medical implications- lets leave behavioural out of this for now.


Anyhow…. if there is no pressure, if there is no impact, then as long as either tool is correctly fitted….does it have an impact?


Pulling on lead makes walks less pleasant for everyone.  It impacts our incentive to walk them as its literally a drag and uncomfortable for us.  It can cause frustration or overarousal in the dogs.  It can cause owners to become frustrated leading to shouting, yanking, frustration. And, obviously all that pressure can cause injury. Pulling can reduce our incentive to go on lovely walks which in turn reduces our desire to walk them. This can contribute to weight gain, sociability, destructive behaviours, fear and frustration. Huge knock on affect just because a dog pulls on a lead....right?

 

Is it really as simple as teaching the dogs not to pull?  Could it really have that huge of an impact?


I certainly think it could.  If harnesses or collars, or rather the way they are used have such a big impact….if there isn’t constant pressure….could that reduce the risks of IVDD and other health issues significantly?


Ok, so you're with me so far, now what?

Teaching loose lead walking really is the most boring thing to teach, and one many don’t do until there is a problem.  Usually related to reactivity.  But we often don’t consider the impact it has on health….theirs and ours.  Physically, mentally and behaviourally.


There are so many resources on different ways to teach a dog to walk on a slack lead using kind and effective methods.  I am a fan of clicker or marker training a loose lead rather than position.  I don’t mind where my dogs are as long as that lead is slack.  I do have a separate word for walking beside me – on or off lead, but I just don’t like being pulled down the road or across fields! I love engaging with my dogs when I walk, its boring otherwise. This will encourage them to stop pulling too, if you are better than the road ahead?


Utilise positive reinforcement.  We always hang around where the good stuff happens, and avoid places where unpleasant things happen.  Create a target spot next to you where the good stuff happens, as they get better at it you can reduce the good stuff down but if you have a consistent puller, breaking habits is hard to do!  Be consistent (that’s our biggest failure!)  Don’t worry about the destination, focus on a smooth journey. Don't give up, they learn through repetition and practice.


So really its not the tool! (My opinion anyway)

  • Both need to be fitted correctly and appropriate to the breed.  I’ll take you back to the bra fitting comparison.  How uncomfortable is a badly made or poorly fitted bra.  Gent’s go try one…(please and take pictures!) It isn’t fun! It causes shoulder pain, back pain, rubbing in the wrong places.  And if someone twangs that strap…..owwwwww!!  Think about it!

  • Both are just a tool. It really is how they are used. (In my opinion).

  • Using it properly will have so many benefits, beyond potentially (I am speculating) reducing the risk of IVDD.

 

I hope this blog has you reassessing how you walk your dog and has you focusing on addressing your dogs pulling and making sure the tool you use is correctly fitted to your dog! Y shaped harnesses are generally recommended over the ones with a chest strap sitting across the dog's chest.


You may find reteaching them to walk on a slack lead has a big impact on their walking behaviour generally too….in fact I can say (anecdotally of course) with confidence, it will!  It will also impact how much you enjoy walks too.


Hopefully, if you've managed to drag your eyes over this blog it has helped clear up any confusion. Obviously, this is my opinion, but there is nothing in what I have written which should have a detrimental affect on your dachshunds, so why not give it a try, and at the least you will enjoy your walks together more.



 

References

 

 



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