12 November 2015

Guest Post: Review: Howling Dog Alaska Second Skin Harness by Tamara MacLaren

Howling Dog Alaska Second Skin Harness

Tamara MacLaren is an urban Musher who lives in British Columbia.  Check out her Facebook page BC URBAN MUSHING.   We are happy to welcome Tamara back to Skijor Oxford Dogs Blog as a guest.  We sent Tamara and her dogs a Second Skin harness by Howling Dog Alaska to review! Tamara was not paid for her comments, and her views are solely her own.   Tamara did receive one free Second Skin harness from Oxford Dogs to review.

First, a few comments on half verses full length harnesses:

There are a few general advantages to a half or urban mushing style harness.

The first is that they are generally adjustable around the girth, and many styles are also adjustable around the neck. Measuring and ordering a non-adjustable harness such as an x-back harness is difficult. There is no standardization, and exactly where on the dog to measure for the specific harness changes from manufacturer to manufacturer. Additionally, as you get some miles on your dog, your dog gains muscle and may loose weight, changing the fit of the harness. With an adjustable harness, it is simple to expand or tighten a girth or collar, but with a fixed size harness, you need to get a different size.

Secondly, because they have a girth, the dog can't back out of the harness, a common issue with dogs new to the sport. Some do it accidentally, as they dart to the side to sniff, chase, or greet and when they are blocked going forward, reverse causing the harness to come over their head. Some have discovered this accidentally, but then continue to do it any time they want to go in a different direction than you do, like chasing a squirrel up a tree. Nobody wants their dog to suddenly be off-leash and potentially in danger.

Third, because the connection to the harness is just behind the shoulders, the handler retains more control of the dog, a very important and needed feature when bringing new dogs into the sport. Most dogs will at first behave the same way they do on leash. Some want to walk beside you, some want to dart in all directions, and most want to do a walk-and-sniff walk.  With a half-harness it is much easier to block unwanted behaviours, particularly those to the side, which is almost always where the dog is wanting to go.

Fourth, half-harnesses can be used for other things besides mushing. Restrained recalls, fly-ball, agility, etc, so for someone who doesn't want a different set of gear for every activity they do with their dog, the half-harness can be a very good option.

I like and use x-back style harnesses on my dogs, but when only running 1-2 dogs or when starting a new dog, I think a half-harness may be the way to go for many.

So, which half-harness should you get? I've used the Urban Trail harnesses from Alpine Outfitters and Canadog, and the Second Skin Harness made by Howling Dog Alaska and sold by Oxford Dogs.
The harnesses from Alpine and Canadog are very similar with padded nylon straps. The one from Alpine is adjustable at the neck and the girth which I thought would be the best option, but I found that as my dogs learned to pull, the neck buckle would slip and so every time out, I had to re-tighten that strap.

The Second Skin harness sold by Oxford Dogs is completely different. It is primarily made from a breathable waffle-weave soft padded fabric with bright coloured trim, reflective strips, and an adjustable girth. This style spreads the pulling load more evenly across the dog’s shoulders to minimize any pressure points from pulling. The neck hole is not adjustable but is soft and flexible. To help with heat dissipation and improve shoulder movement, the design includes an open area across the shoulders.

I used this harness on 4 dogs, a 55 lb German Shepherd, two 43-47 lb pointer crosses, and an Alaskan Malamute puppy, also about 55 lbs.  These dogs have very different builds and coats, yet the Second Skin fit perfectly on each!

I ran two of the dogs together with my bike and the harness did pull minimally to one side, but still worked very well. One of the things I noticed using the half harnesses on each dog is that they were less likely to get tangled (running very new dogs). Running a single dog from the bike or canicross style on foot was perfect and gave that extra level of control typical of most half-harnesses. I walked the Malamute puppy on the harness and she was able to pull to her heart's content, but without me worrying about pressure points with a puppy.

For a final test out, I took one of the pointers to a fly-ball practice and used this harness with her. Practice includes a stranger holding the dog by the harness while I go to the other end of the run and call the dog. The dog then runs to me, jumping several low jumps along the way. What I especially liked with this harness for this activity is that I could give the tug loop to the holding person and she could use it to hold the dog back without actually touching the dog, an important feature for dogs who are sensitive. When she released the dog, due to the loop's location, there was no risk to the dog tripping on it or getting it caught on something, and the harness is cut perfectly not to interfere with shoulder movement, so the dog ran freely clearing the jumps. If there had been an issue and the dog needed to be caught, the harness could easily be grabbed as the dog zipped by.

There would be no need to switch from this style of harness unless the tug line would be going from the dog to some connection point close to the back height of the dog or lower.  For lower connection points, the tug line would bump the dogs back, hind end, or cut to the side and potentially rub a hip.

My overall impression of this harness is excellent and I would recommend it to anyone doing multiple sports, training young teams, wanting to minimize pressure points, or looking for a flexible fit. 

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