A Myotherapists Perspective on Harnesses
In this blog, myotherapy pioneer, Julia Robertson explains the anatomical impact of equipment we use on our dogs.
About the Author
Julia Robertson brought Canine Myotherapy to the UK and established Galen Therapy Centre in West Sussex in 2002 where she began treating dogs with degenerative musculoskeletal change that have been caused through a variety of underlying conditions such as osteoarthritis and other forms of lameness. Julia is considered an expert, pioneer and leader in her field of Canine Myotherapy both in the UK and worldwide. Julia is a published author of three books and has produced two DVD’s one of which won the coveted ‘The Dog Writers Association of America’ Maxwell Award. Click here to know more about Julia and to find out more about the courses, workshops and treatments Galen Therapy Centre offers please visit www.galentherapycentre.co.uk
As humans, instinctively we would avoid having something put around our necks and especially on a draw-string, This is because there are so many structures within the neck, that if any one of them were compromised it could be a life or death situation. The neck is the main road to and from the brain; the brain conducts and controls the whole of the body; So perhaps we should question, why do we use a device that will physically reduce all these critical functions, such as oxygen, blood, food and nerve supply? The collar is probably the most traditional, and maybe because of that it is not being questioned as to its action and implication on our dog’s anatomy. Methods we employ to restrain, to keep our dogs safe, should be considered more carefully before we apply them.
…we should question, why do we use a device that will physically reduce critical functions, such as oxygen, blood, food and nerve supply? The collar is probably the most traditional, and maybe because of that it is not being questioned as to its action and implication on our dog’s anatomy…
All anatomy is functional, in other words, it has a purpose. The muscles in the neck surround the vertebrae completely. Apart from the first two neck vertebrae the rest of the necks or cervical vertebrae cannot be easily felt through the muscle and skin, unlike the rest of the spine. The purpose of this muscle configuration is to provide flexibility and movement within the neck and head, plus protection and support of the ‘motorway’ of nerves and vessels travelling to and from the brain.
When a collar is tightened, the muscles will be compressed and bruised, therefore damaged. Damaged muscle fibres shorten during their self-healing mechanism. By the shortening of the muscle length surrounding the vertebrae, it will draw these vertebrae of the neck closer together; in turn compromising the gap between each of the vertebral bodies, therefore impinging the structures. This can have a devastating effect on the major nerves and vessels in the region.
…When a collar is tightened, the muscles will be damaged, which then shorten during their self-healing mechanism. This shortening will draw these vertebrae of the neck closer together, which can have a devastating effect on the major nerves and vessels in the region…
The result is high potential of severe dysfunction, pain and referred pain. Pins and needles or a deadening in your hands, are examples of referred pain from your neck; a dog experiences the same, which can often present as a dog licking or chewing on its paws.
By reducing a good flow of blood to and from the brain will also have an impact on hormonal delivery which can be catastrophic for function of the senses (eyes, ears, nose).
From a muscular perspective, the neck is the most critical region for impulsion, balance, and flexibility; if the neck is stiff through damaged muscles, this will affect the dog’s total mobility; travelling through the body creating systemic issues.
…From a muscular perspective, the neck is the most critical region for impulsion, balance, and flexibility…
There is a muscle just above the dog’s chest that stabilizes the tongue. The tongue is so important for eating but also vital for overall balance. If this muscle is disturbed or damaged, it will affect the position of tongue and this has impact on the dogs’ total balance.
If a dog is being pulled sideways with a collar, this can cause what is similar to a whiplash injury, due to the weight of the head and a sideways thrust. This type of force is not what the neck can cope with, from a functional perspective and can be very easily be damaged, leaving the dog with a permanent and sometimes repetitive whiplash pain.
Every action a dog makes requires the neck to be engaged, mobile and flexible, part of this mechanism include the dogs’ shoulders. The dog’s shoulders are structurally intended to be free flowing, like a sling, so the dog has good turning and coursing ability. If they are damaged by use of a collar or indeed an incorrectly fitted harness it will also have a complete impact on the dog’s mobility as well as the dogs’ total wellness.
…The dog’s shoulders are structurally intended to be free flowing, like a sling. If they are damaged by use of a collar or an incorrectly fitted harness it will also have a complete impact on the dog’s mobility as well as the dogs’ total wellness…
If a dog’s mobility is compromised due to pain and compression of the neck, their body will not function correctly and like us their posture will change causing a protective muscular-skeletal adaptive change, further creating physical and psychological stress impacting on other areas such as digestion and their perception of feeling more vulnerable; as we all do when in pain.
If the dog pulls a lot when on a lead, and this will have a huge impact on their lower back or their lumbar region (this is a highly also a susceptible area within their body), regardless of whether the dog is on a collar or harness. The damage is exponential as well as being insidious, so these changes may not be immediately obvious and subsequent bad health may not be connected to the primary cause or a neck problem caused through the usually completely unintentional abuse of the collar.
Harnesses, have far less potential features to damage our dogs, but it is all in the fitting. There really isn’t one fit or make for all. The key factors when fitting a harness are to ensure that when there is tension on the lead, the strap over the dog’s chest does not impinge on their windpipe or gullet. If the harness impacts on this region, it will also have the same damaging effect on the position of the tongue, as was discussed previously.
Also, be aware of the harness not impinging the shoulders; if the straps do not allow for the shoulder blade to ‘float’ over the body as it should, again this will cause issues. The front strapped harnesses are very common, they form a breast strap over the dog’s chest, this too will impinge the movement of the dogs’ shoulders, creating pain and imbalance within their mobility.
The strap of the harness behind their forelimb should be set further down the ribs, as many fit under the dog’s arm and rub. This must be irritatingly uncomfortable but could also have a negative impact on one of their major neurological junctions that is anatomically positioned, superficially just under their arms.
Also, be aware of how the top-line of the harness is sitting on top of your dog’s back, it should fit with soft fabric and not be constantly rubbing or the buckle or fixings rubbing or bouncing on the dogs back. An important point, if we have a sore or irritable back, even clothing can feel sore and uncomfortable, think what it is like to have a strap too tight or too loose over the effected region!
Another point, think about your dog’s health and mobility, do they find it difficult to lift or bend their legs? Consider how you need to put the harness on, some need the skills of a contortionist to be put on and off!
As for using a head collar, I would ask anyone who does, for it to be the very last option. I have seen some of the most awful whiplash injuries from these, the leverage potential on the dog’s head through the joint where the skull meeting the neck vertebrae is huge and dogs, anatomically are really unprotected in this region.
…As for using a head collar, I have seen some of the most awful whiplash injuries from these…
Whether a collar or harness, how it is used will be dependent on the damage caused. Muscle damage from use and abuse of these devices has far reaching effects on the dog, most of which do not appear connected; healthy muscles, healthy dog, damaged muscles, damaged dog.
When choosing equipment, safety first, so you and your dog have to be safe but remember the equipment you choose and how you use it will have a lifetime impact on your dog’s health so choose and use carefully!