What Is Best For Border Terriers, Harness or Collar?

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So, what’s best for a Border Terrier: harness or lead? or, as my many American friends would say, dog harness or leash?

A more correct question would be whether harness or dog collar is most adequate for our Borders.  And it’s a a question that has been buzzing in my head since we virtually adopted our Indy, but more so since we joined our virtual group of the #BTposse.  Here is where I first started noticing that most Borders were taken for walks wearing a harness.  Eventually we learned, possibly too late after Indy injured his back, the reason why possibly a harness is the best choice for Borders.


The Inquisitive Nature of Border Terriers

It appears I am not the only one to ask myself this question, mind you.

Lately I have come across quite a few forums that have sparkled debated conversation threads about whether a Border should be made to wear collar and lead, or whether (s)he should be held on the leash from a harness.

Some owners seem to think that Borders are particularly bad at heel walking for as good they are at pulling.

Indy's inquisitive nature ... indoors too!
Indy’s inquisitive nature … indoors too!

If you already have a Border Terrier, I am sure you will agree with me when I say that Borders have the most inquisitive nature ever.  Like most terriers, Borders were originally bred for hunting vermin.  Their inner instincts therefore switch on and take over whenever they see small creatures, or even things, scatter about.  It was only a couple of days ago that Indy started growling at a white tissue flying at ground level on the street during a windy spell.  Yes, in spite of his older age, my Indy can still be a ‘silly’ boy 🙂

Does this necessarily mean that Indy Borders do much pulling during walks?

My experience tells me otherwise.


Border Terriers are very good at heel walking

As I say, I can only talk by experience.  But it is not solely the experience I have had with my Indy, but also what I have noticed when coming across other Borders and when hearing from their owners.

As far as I am concerned, Border are very good at heel walking.  Yes, admittedly my Indy likes to walk slightly ahead of me, but that is purely because I let him do so – yes, I know, bad trainer!

If at all, when taking a Border for a walk, you must be prepared to allow him or her to do a lot of sniffing – but this can vary also depending on the season and on the weather.  In spring, or when the weather is windy, a Border will naturally do much more sniffing.

However, a Border is very much renowned also for his or her high level of trainability.  Particularly when entised with treats, a Border can be easily trained to take on virtually any type of behaviour or action.  And this is because, as I have often said, Borders love to please their humans.

The secret is to train your Border to walk on heel from a very early stage or, if adopted, from as soon as you start taking him or her for a walk.

But … things can go wrong.


Border Terriers must be kept on a lead at all times

Again, experience has prevailed here and, as far as I am concerned, tow poignant incidents with Indy taught me best.

I have to say that both of them took place in the early days of us having Indy.  The first one was during one of our first walks in the woods.  Indy was off the lead and nicely walking to heel with us, when some scattering in the undergrowth grabbed his attention.  And off he was, never to be seen for quite a few minutes, in spite of our desperate attempts to recall him by whistling and by calling out his name whilst we were searching in the undergrowth ourselves.

The panik mode didn’t last more than 5 minutes, but I can guarantee that they were some of longest 5 minutes of our lives.

In UK collar with ID tag is compulsory

Suffice to say that Indy did come back to us, but what we still think took that best of his attention span was some squirrel or other creature that awakened his inner hunting instincts.

The second very similar incident took place in an open space.  Funnily enough, I was training Indy on recall, and had him off the lead.  I walked away from him to a distance, and called him to me enticing him with a treat.  I remember he came running to me like a lightening, but as he turned, he noticed a dog (which his scent probably picked as not neutered, hence threatening his dominance) and started running like a lunatic towards that dog … yes, wanting to fight with him.  The other dog’s owner tried to protect his dog by trying to keep Indy away, but to no avail.  Indy would not let go of that fight.

Again, thankfully it all ended well.  But the other dog’s owner was not best pleased with me – and rightly so.  I was mortified.  In fact I was in tears.  How could my lovely and docile, mild-natured lovely Border have turned into such a vicious robotic machine?!?!?!

To this day, we know that Indy made no attempt to bite the other dog, but his inner male dominant instinct possibly felt threatened and he just went for the other dog, trying to bark him off what he thought was his territory.

Further to these two incidents, we kept our Indy on the lead at all times.


Border Terriers’ body makes them NOT suitable for lead on collar

The final thing to bear in mind is Border’s physical attributes and abilities.

The body of a Border Terrier, when not overweight, is naturally slender, as it should be thin and agile enough to be able to penetrate into burrows, or in nucks and crannies to catch foxes or vermin out of their hole.

Likewise, Borders are indeed deemed agile and particularly fast, as not too heavy at all on very skinny but muscular legs.  For this reason, they can be really fast in twisting their body when you try to control them on walks.

Here Indy on collar was twisting his body
Here Indy on collar was twisting his body

Don’t get me wrong, a Border will hardly try to ‘squeeze’ away from you.  But I am referring to those very rare occasions when you are trying to restrain your Border away from another dog that (s)he might not like.  If you already own a Border, you will know what I am referring to: your Border will try to twist his or her body, trying to reach out to the other dog from another direction.

By doing so, if you hold your Border with the lead hooked up to the collar, you will have no control over your Border’s body, hence allowing your Border to twist.

This could cause your Border to injure his back.  This is exactly what happened to Indy two years ago, and it’s certainly something that you want to avoid for your dog.

Control your Border on a harness

Now, as mentioned, and especially since Indy injured his back in 2016 (no worries there, but he was lucky and recovered by himself with 8 weeks of absolute rest), I have been wondering whether Indy’s injury could have been avoided, had we introduced him to a harness from his earlier days.

However, I have been visiting forums on Border Terriers to find out what the general consensus is amongst more experienced Border owners and breeders.


A martingale collar aims to choke your dog if (s)he pulls on walks
A martingale collar, like the ones sold by Amazon, aim to choke your dog if (s)he pulls on walks

Does that mean that they need restraining?  Are they pullers?  Absolutely not!!!

As mentioned earlier, Borders are in fact very easy to walk, and to walk to heel too.

I have recently come across some currents of thought of a few years ago, which suggested that Borders should in fact be held on a leash by a martingale collar, or through one of those grooming nooses, which are also used for grooming.

The idea behind this principle was that this way, you would control your Border’s nose, hence stear him or her away from trouble.

These comments, funnily enough, all heightened in the shadow of the television series Dog Whisperer, where Cesar Milan showed all it took to control a dog was a high neck noose.

However a more recent approach has been recognised in possibly adopting the other teaching preached by Cesar Milan, and avoid boredom for Borders by keeping them well exercised and interested.


My Verdict

After all this debating, my conclusion is one, and one only: we walk Indy on a normal bog-standard harness.

I do believe that exercise is paramount to Border Terriers, but so long as it is embraced by your dog.  You should never force your dog to walk for marathons if (s)he is not happy with it and wants to go back home.

Also, walks is mostly where your Borders may show signs of not listening, as natural instincts may take over.

Indy wears a normal upper hook harness for his walks
On his walks Indy wears a normal vest harness with an upper hook on his back, like the many Amazon sells

But this does not mean that owners should use martingale collars or high nooses, with the sole purpose of choking your dog if (s)he pulls towards the forbidden pray.

A Border should be controlled in a safe manner, so as to avoid him or her unwanted injuries.  Holding your Border by a harness will also help his or her owner to pull your dog behind, i.e. away from other dogs, rather than up, i.e. on his or her paws, which could send other dogs the wrong signal that your Border wants to attack them.

Borders can be dominant – but they happen to be the most docile of all the Terrier breeds.  I believe that good training and bonding exercise indoors, with you playing with your dog in a constructive way, is far better and more rewarding for your Border and for you when you walk together too.

Let me know what your experience is of walking your Border?  Is (s)he a puller, or does (s)he or you prefer the aid of a harness?  Drop me a line below in the Comment box, share with us!

Do Border Terriers Run Away?



  1. // Reply

    My goodness! I never knew so much was involved with walking a dog! I actually never considered that a dog’s physical body type would be something to take into account when looking for the best leash or harness. I’m ashamed to say it, but I think I was more focused on the owner and not the dog.

    I haven’t had a dog in years and am seriously considering adopting a rescue dog in the near future, so your article will be most valuable to me, Giulia!

    1. // Reply

      Aaaaah Veronica, you really touched to the core, when you mention adoption. As a first time adopter – of Indy, of course, 7 years ago – I am a great advocate of adoption. You give a dog a home and a family, and stability. Now, I don’t know where you live, but I understand that in the States, dogs get put down if they don’t find an adopting family within a certain length of time. And in many other countries stray dogs are put down straight away when rescued – cultural differences, I guess. But, if you are a dog lover, by all means, do go for adoption, as you will be able to choose as much as if you were buying a pup from a breeder.
      When you mention focusing your attention on the owner, you are not wrong there. A dog will behave for as well as his or her owner will train the dog, and for as well as the owner handles the dog. Regardless, however, there are occasions – however rare ones – that a dog will misbehave. And that’s not a big deal, especially when the dog is on the lead. But what you want to avoid, even when the owner tries to untangle the dog from an argument with another dog, is the dog to get injured in the process by twisting his or her body clumsily.
      Let us know how you get on with getting a dog, Veronica, bought or rescued whichever. And if you do, send us pictures!!!

  2. // Reply

    Well Jolene at 3 months seems to pull much more on the harness. I just received her Martingale collar Today. I have taken her out twice and so far it seems a little better. But I have only taken her out twice So i will update you if it gets worse or better. The Martingale collar from what I have researched was designed for Greyhounds. And for dogs who like to pull back out of their collars.

    1. // Reply

      Debbie, first of all, I have to say, I have seen your Jolene on Google Plus and I have to say, she the prettiest, cuddliest, cutest baby Border ever!!! She is just the most adorable pup out there xxx
      By all means, Debbie, let us know how you get on with little Jolene on the martingale collar. I expect what she does in terms of pulling is not unusual for a 3 month old baby. But you really want to go with whatever you find it best for Jolene and for yourself.
      In a way, it’s good that you train Jolene on a collar. If you live in UK, you will know that by law she should wear a collar with her ID tag at all times whenever outside. But if I were you, I’d also try to get her used to a harness, especially as latching a dog to the harness when in a car is deemed safer for the dog – again, there are less risks for the dog to twist and to damage his or her spine 🙂

  3. // Reply

    Such a good read! I’m a terrier owner myself, but I have a cairn terrier. It was quite cool and funny at times to read this and think of my pup! It was well wrote and it sucked me in! Keep up the good work and can’t wait to see what else you have offer!

    1. // Reply

      Thank you ever so much, Michael.  I imagine you found quite a few similarities between my Indy and your cairn.  Let me tell you a little anecdote.  When we first adopted our Indy, his coat was soooo overgrown, that when we took him to the vet for the first time, the vet was not sure whether he was cairn or a border terrier.  Naturally, the floppy ears gave the game away 🙂

      Thanks again, and I look forward to hearing from you again!  And if you can, send us some pictures of your cairn.  It would be brilliant if I could build up a gallery of Indy’s virtual friends.

  4. // Reply

    I always enjoy reading your articles! When you talked about dogs twisting their body on a leash, I can identify. We don’t have a border terrier, we have 2 German Shepherds.

    Our female is fairly slim and usually has the run of about 5 acres. But whenever we take her somewhere on the leash, we absolutely have to have her on a harness. I’ve never seen a dog be able to twist and turn the way she does!

    1. // Reply

      First of all, thank you ever so much for your kind words, Janelle.  I must admit, getting good feedback is one of the big motivators for me to keep writing and sharing my thoughts and my experience.  I do it to preserve Indy’s name for posterity, but I also do all this to help other dog and Border Terriers owners.

      And yes, I can sooooo relate to your ‘twisting’ experience with your German Shepherd girl.  With Indy, the main reason for twisting his body trying to loose my grip on his collar has been – and still is sometimes, in spite of his age – coming across other dogs whom he didn’t like.  Our biggest frustration was not to be able to work out which dogs he didn’t like, as his likes and dislikes have always been so random. 

      Oh my goodness, you and other readers must be thinking that my Border is a proper terror.  He isn’t really, as he is fine with most dogs we come across.  And now that he is older, he has mellowed.  But I have also to admit, that was the reason that caused him to injure his back in 2016.  And that was a luck escape in terms of recovery, as he could have hurt himself much worse 🙁

  5. // Reply

    I think in general a harness is better than a collar for any dog. The harness prevents any risk of choking when the dog decides to suddenly move in a different direction while you are taking it for a walk. Can you provide an example of a breed where a collar is actually better for the dog than a harness?

    1. // Reply

      Thanks for your input, Tony, and for the very good question.  Generally speaking, it appears that the general consensus regards a harness like the less damaging solution for most breeds, particularly if your dog is prone to pull because of his or her personality, or due to inner breed nature.  I believe this is the case with Borders, who are not so much included to pull, unless they are distracted by something that makes them ‘deaf’ to their owner’s instructions.  

      A collar is very much seen as a potential for choking.  Then again, unless you use a martingale collar or a noose collar, normal collars should not cause your dog any choking.  Yet, I have found out that a harness is particularly required with breeds which have a short snout, such as pugs or french bulldogs, who are more prone to respiratory difficulties. 

      Even on breeds such as the greyhound one, where historically you have the dog wearing a high collar (‘high’ as in thicker in width, but also closer to the dog’s year, to assist with walking to heel), owners are now starting using harnesses, as it has been found that a greyhound’s slender head can easily slip out of the collar when the dog is determined to escape, to chase smaller animals.

      I hope I have answered your question.  By all means, do email me on support@livingwithaborderterrier.com, or leave another comment here or on any other page or post, if you need further clarification.

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