by Ruth I. Kellogg

A new owner confronted with the vast variety of collars, halters, leads, and harnesses, will be challenged to make a safe and appropriate selection of equipment for his dog. Knowledge of the various pieces of equipment, the pros and cons, and the correct and incorrect usages will empower an owner to make appropriate choices. "Seasoned" dog handlers, who usually have strong personal equipment preferences, should still be aware of the various types of equipment available to guide less experienced handlers.

I, like many "seasoned" handlers, have my own preferences of equipment. I shall, however, endeavor to be as objective as possible. Having said that, I will emphasize that anything we attach to our dog’s body in some way has the potential to be caught and/or twisted around a body part (including the neck) which can lead to injury and/or death,. This includes ALL collars, halters, leads, and harnesses. Some pieces of equipment have a greater "risk factor" than others when used incorrectly or become caught/twisted. Our dog’s safety depends upon our management and usage of whatever equipment we choose to use.

Handlers should be aware of a dog’s instinctive reaction when it is caught or feeling trapped. The dog will twist, turn, and thrash its body which usually ends up with whatever is trapping it to be tightened even more. This in turn causes the dog'’ panic to increase which again causes more thrashing etc. A vicious cycle. I have personally seen this when a dog has become tangled in a leash, harness, and during the adjustment phase to halter work. If a dog twists and turns as a person is hanging onto a collar, broken fingers can easily and very quickly result. (I can personally attest to that!)

To emphasize again, all pieces of equipment have their positives and negatives. With knowledge, awareness, and correct usage, even the more "risky" pieces of equipment can be useful tools.


Collars essentially are in three groups: buckle (tongue-style or plastic squeeze style), sled/semi-slip, and choke/slip collars. Buckle and sled dog collars are usually made of leather or nylon. Slip collars are usually made of nylon or chain. Why the collar is needed is paramount in determining which collar to use.

Buckle collars

These are considered the safest collar to use if they are correctly and snugly applied. I believe that no more than two fingers should be able to be slipped under a correctly fitted buckle collar. Loose fitting buckle collars make it very easy for the dog to slip out of and/or be caught accidentally on an object or by another dog’s jaw.
Uses: for dogs who must wear ID tags, puppy collars, obedience competition

Sled/semi-slip collars

These collars were designed by mushers who wanted an easy to slip on collar that the dog couldn’t get out of when hitched yet did not choke them while working. The sled dog collars I use have a 4" difference between the dog’s neck and the lead attachment ring. A correctly fitted collar tightens only to the dog’s neck measurement. These collars can be easily caught on objects or another dog can either pull it off or get caught in the collar. For this reason, none of my dogs who play roughly or are kenneled with another dog wear a collar (of any kind). I also have scissors that can cut nylon readily available both inside and outside. A positive aspect to a correctly fitted sled dog collar is that the dog cannot slip out of it when tightened. When I take my country bumpkin dogs to town, I know they can’t slip out of their collars which gives me peace of mind. For dogs going to shows, the looser fit (when not tightened) will float over the dog’s coat yet when the collar is tightened, the dog is secure. This collar is not advised to use as an "every day" collar due to the greater risk factor. Uses: in harness work and in situations where safe and moderate control is needed.

Choke/slip collars

These collars are called choke collars for a reason. Many dogs have been injured or killed when the collar is tightened and didn’t release. Tracheal and neck (muscle and vertebral) are also common injuries. If the collar is put on incorrectly, it will not loosen when the lead pressure is released. These collars should never be left on an unattended dog. They were designed as a training tool, which when used correctly, is a very effective negative reinforcer. It is important to note that the wider the collar (ie. Heavier nylon or larger chain links), the weaker the effect. Thus, the super fine choke collar has a very strong effect.
obedience and conformation work.


Halters are a training tool which should only be used under direct supervision. Basically, they work by the principle of "control the head, control the rest of the body." For Malamutes, who are hard wired to pull when they feel tension/pressure on their necks, halters are a marvelous aid for teaching leash manners. One negative aspect to halters is the adjustment period that the dog must go through when the halter is introduced. I have found that the adjustment period almost disappears when the halter is introduced using clicker training. I must emphasize that incorrect/rough handling of haltered dogs can result in neck injuries. Halters must never be jerked. Fortunately for dogs, the halters are becoming "known" to the general public as a different type of collar and not a muzzle. I classify halters in the following three categories.


This popular halter was the first to be mass produced and marketed in Europe and North America. The Halti’s action is to tighten the muzzle loop when the lead is tightened. This, in turn, closes the dog’s mouth which makes the Halti the halter of choice with dominant and/or aggressive dogs.

Promise and/or Gentle Leader

The construction of these halters is similar to the Halti but with a clip that limits the size of the muzzle loop. This leaves a "tab" that extends from the muzzle loop to the lead. The muzzle loop does not change in diameter with lead tension.

Inharmony’s Magic Halter

The "figure 8" halter, which predates the Halti and other styles, was the inspiration for this halter design. Inharmony’s Magic Halter is a simple design with two loops – a buckle collar and a muzzle loop that connect to a ring directly under the dog’s chin. Attaching the leash directly under the chin gives a more finite control of the dog’s head. For a dog who is accustomed to a halter, the Magic Halter has the advantage of allowing the muzzle loop to slip off enabling the dog to pant, drink and/or eat comfortably during, for instance, a break in an activity. It is also useful in weaning the dog from the halter to working only with a collar. But unlike all the other halters, when the muzzle loop comes off the nose, the dog is still securely held by a buckle collar. This can also be a disadvantage for some clever dogs who quickly figure out how to slip the loop off during the adjustment phases.

Uses for all halters: obedience, pleasure walks, breeding, biking, vet examinations and other activities that require a high level of control of the dog.


Go into any pet store these days and a smorgasbord of leads can be found. The majority of leads are either nylon or leather but cotton and chain leads can still be found. Leads can be extremely thin, fat, short, or long. There are simple leads, retractable leads, gimmicky leads….As with choosing collars, the handler should consider the lead’s uses.

Basic lead

This, simply put, is a piece of material with a snap on one end and a loop at the other. The snap should be of good quality as the lead is next to useless if the snap breaks. Nylon used for leads varies in size and quality. High quality nylon does not fray easily and is soft to handle. This softness prevents friction burns for the handler’s hands. Quality leather leads are supple yet strong. To keep the leather lead in top condition, the handler must be prepared to regularly clean and oil the leather. All stitching on both nylon and leather leads should be strong and well-stitched. Width of lead is generally a personal preference. The lead for conformation work should be narrow so it doesn’t detract from the dog’s appearance. I personally find a ¾" width gives both the strength I need for general usage and is easy to work with. Lengths of leads also vary. If a person only had one leash, the best choice is a 6’length as it is the most versatile. I find a 4’ length excellent and very handy for tethering young pups before their housemanners are solidly learned. A 15’, 20’ or 30’ length are useful for pleasure walks, tracking, supervised tie-outs (eg. while travelling) or as an "emergency brake" from lead dog to musher! Uses: multi-uses. All dogs should be leash trained!


This is a hybrid collar/leash combination that is seen in the show ring. There is a solid piece of material (usually nylon) between two rings that goes under the dog’s throat. Through these two rings, a large loop is threaded through which merges into a solid lead. The action is similar to the slip collar but with the difference of the lead coming directly upwards from the back of the dog’s neck. Uses: conformation showing.

Kennel lead
This lead is identical to the 6’ obedience leash but has a ring at the end instead of a snap. Essentially, it is a slip collar/leash combination. I find this leash extremely useful for immediate leash control – particularly for my non-collared dogs. The loop can be made quite large so a dog can almost be "lassooed". The dog should never be tied with a kennel lead. Uses: immediate leash control.

"Hands-free" leads

Essentially, this is a short leash combined with a belt for the handler. As the handler has no direct control unless the lead is grabbed, it is advisable that this be used only with a well trained/heeling dog.
Uses: jogging, pushing baby strollers, etc.

"Gimmick" leads

There are always "gimmick" leads available such as the elastic/bungie effect lead. Overall, these leads offer lazy dog owners a way to deal with (but not teach) their poorly behaved dog.

Flexi Leads

The Flexi leash is a popular retractable nylon string or tape lead. While it can offer a dog "freedom" to run on a pleasure walk, the Malamute will often just go to the end of the lead and continue to pull. They can also be useful at the dog’s elimination time. But the negative aspects must be strongly considered. This lead is no substitute for a simple 6’ lead. If the dog spooks, the lead can easily be pulled out of the handler’s hands thus increasing the dog’s terror factor. If not used carefully, handler’s hands can be burned from the cord or knuckles skinned from the casing. In my opinion, they should never be used in the city and only in areas that if the dog should get loose, would not be in danger. If the cord does get wet, the entire lead must be left out to dry to minimize the chance of rotting. When the same freedom of movement that is offered by a flexi can be obtained with a 30’ lead, the advantages of the "retractable leash" are quickly outweighed by its disadvantages. To emphasize, the disadvantages are increased danger to the dog if the flexi should be pulled from the handler’s hand, leg injuries from being tangled in the cord, and injuries to the handler.


Most Malamutes love to pull. They all are genetically programmed to lean into weight or a restriction they feel around their neck or center of their chest. This trait helps to make the breed challenging to teach "heeling" yet is a blessing when the dogs are hitched.

As with selecting the appropriate collar, halter, and lead, the foreknowledge of what the harness is to be used for is important. The various styles of harnesses, of which I’ll cover the most common generic versions, are specifically designed for different uses. For example, asking a dog to weight pull wearing a racing harness puts the dog at a disadvantage in a competition and could possibly lead to injury due to how the energy of the pull moves through and off the dog’s body.

Cart Harness

This is the most common harness seen as it is readily available in pet stores. Many little dogs wear a variation of this harness particularly if their owners get tired of hearing the dogs cough while pulling against a collar and lead. The cart harness was designed for draft dogs who are positioned between cart shafts to pull light to moderate rolling weight. Rolling weight is considerably easier for a dog to pull thus the chest strap, while impeding shoulder action, would create less damage to the dog overall than pulling a heavy no-rolling weight. Quality cart harnesses have good padding as well as solid hardware for attaching the cart’s traces to the harness.
 Uses: carting.

Racing Harness

This harness is the most commonly seen sledding harness. It is a non-restrictive harness which means the shoulders have full range of motion. The harness is constructed so the direction/momentum of the dog’s energy/pull goes from the center of the dog’s chest through the traces to the ring/line attachment at the base of the dog’s tail. As the name implies, this harness is used on competitive/spring racing dogs. The team sizes in unlimited classes are in the double digits. Simple math skills can deduce that one dog in a team of ten, for example, pulls considerably less weight than one dog pulling the same sled and driver. Thus the direction of the pull from each dog to ultimately the sled is not as critical as in a team that is pulling a heavily loaded excursion sled. For those brave souls who skijor, the racing harness is the ideal choice as the skier is higher (usually!) than a sled thus keeping the direction of the energy from the dog’s chest to the skier’s belt a relatively straight line. Uses: racing, skijoring.

Freight / Siwash Harness

This harness is similar in construction to the racing harness except that the main lines from the center of the dog’s chest are attached to a spacer bar (eg. piece of wood) that is suspended closely behind the dog’s rear above it’s hocks. Thus the direction of the pull is from the center of the chest straight or downwards as opposed to upwards with the racing harness. This harness is meant for the dog to pull a heavy and/or low to the ground load.
Uses: toboggan, recreational sledding, excursions, freighting, weight pull

Non-restrictive / Tracking Harness

This harness is commonly made from heavy nylon and features adjustments on both sides of the neck and chest for a good fit and to allow full range o movement for the shoulders. The fit is snug around the dog’s girth as it should not be pulled from side to side when the dog is working. As with the sledding harnesses, the tracking harness is designed for the dog to pull from the center of the dog’s chest. The lead is attached to a ring on top of the harness along the dog’s spine close to the dog’s shoulder blades.
 Uses: tracking, springer bicycle attachments, attaching to a tether as a "seat-belt" harness

"No-Pull" Style of Harness

This type of harness, in my view, is a gimmick for lazy dog owners. The harness probably hits accupressure points on the dog which gives immediate negative reinforcement. The general dog owner/handler would be farther ahead spending money on classes and taking time to properly train his dog rather than a "quick fix" gimmick. However, in a skilled trainer’s hands, this harness could be useful in rehabilitation obedience work in conjunction with a positively orientated operant conditioning program.

Every piece of equipment that we choose to use with our dogs has both positive and negative aspects. It is up to use to understand all the pros and cons associated with the equipment and choose the most appropriate pieces to use with our Happy Dogs!

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