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Collar & Harness

Shih Tzu Collars and Harnesses

Overview

While there are many accessories that you can get for a puppy or dog, there are only a few that are a ‘must’. And a collar and/or harness are items that are a necessity for every Shih Tzu. Finding the right one may seem easy: Just get something that looks durable, cute, and fits correctly. Right? 

It actually goes far beyond that. And in fact, having the wrong accessories can have dire consequences.

We encourage all owners to read why choosing the best collars and harnesses for a Shih Tzu is such a vital element of care. 
Already know why a harness is a must? Jump right to The Best Harnesses for a Shih Tzu.

The Anatomy of a Shih Tzu’s Neck

Before we start talking about collars and harnesses for a Shih Tzu, it is important to understand the anatomy of a Shih Tzu’s neck, after all, that is where the collar is going sit.
The neck of a dog is physiologically comparable to that of a human’s. As you can see from this image, the throat splits off into two canals. There is the esophagus, which is the tube that leads to the stomach. And there is the trachea, which is the breathing tube that leads to the lungs. 

The tissue of the trachea is surrounded by rings of cartilage, which as you may know is much softer and more pliable than bone. It is also much weaker.

There is little else protecting a Shih Tzu’s neck. There are some very muscled dogs, such as Boxers, that have a good amount of thick neck and shoulder muscle that can withstand pressure on the neck from a collar. However, not so for a little Shih Tzu. 

Of course, there is some tissue and skin. The skin on a dog’s neck is actually thinner than that of a human’s (3 to 5 cells thick vs our 10 to 15 cells).
And then there is the Shih Tzu’s hair, which is a double coat but is fine and silky, without thick guard hairs that many other breeds have. 

Compared to many other dog breeds, the Shih Tzu (being a brachycephalic breed) has a more compact face and throat structure. The internal passageways are shorter, and can lead to breathing issues and increased risk of injury including collapsed trachea.

What You Need to Know About Collapsed Trachea

Going forward, you'll want to remember the anatomy that we just covered: The trachea is surrounded by rings of cartilage. If the rings weaken or break inward, this is called collapsed trachea. It is an awful health condition that is very painful and as you can imagine, makes breathing difficult. It is hard to treat. Often cough suppressants, corticosteroids, and sometimes pain medication is given, however it cannot be completely reversed. 
Some dogs are born with a congenital abnormality that causes those rings to be weaker and prone to collapsing. Other dogs (and particularly with toy breeds and brachycephalic breeds like the Shih Tzu) are much more prone to having this happen as a result of injury. What sort of injury? Pressure to the neck. What causes pressure to the neck? Collars. 

It is very important to note that once this sort of injury occurs, it can be lifelong. In severe cases surgery needs to be performed and in some cases, a dog struggles so badly that a veterinarian may recommend euthanasia. 

Can a Collar Really Cause Damage to a Shih Tzu?

You may have had 4 or 5 Shih Tzu in the past or have had your current dog for years, always wearing a collar when on leash and there have never been any problems. 

However, all it takes is one second. Just one brief moment for a Shih Tzu’s life to change drastically, sending him or her into a lifetime of breathing struggles and pain. Even spinal injuries are possible. Additionally, some problems can develop due from years of wearing a collar connected to a leash.
The risks of the collar/leash combination:

1. Compression of the windpipe & resulting collapsed trachea (as we discussed). Any time a Shih Tzu lunges forward or jumps to the side, any sort of quick jerking motion when on leash and collar, this can instantly cause injury. 
Even if a Shih Tzu never jumps, imagine that you are walking your dog and a car swerves by too closely… in an effort to protect your dog, you pull on the leash to bring him closer to you… just one incident of this can cause irreversible damage.

2. Breathing difficulties, as pressure is put on the neck of a breed that is already prone to have these sorts of issues. 

3. Increased risk of disc disease and neurological problems. Any time that a Shih Tzu does not keep up when walked on leash and collar OR if the dog jumps forward or to the side, it puts pressure on the spinal cord and the vertebral discs.

4. Eye Problems. Cornea conditions and glaucoma may be caused by collars. In a study of leash and collar issues published by the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, a direct correlation between a dog wearing a collar vs a harness showed that dogs leashed to collars had increased weakened or thin corneas and a higher rate of glaucoma. 
Shih Tzu with harness on
Jewel
Photo courtesy of Magalie and Mark Harvey
Soft mesh harness when on leash: Awesome!
5. Thyroid issues, paw chewing and other concerns. Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM, a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine who resides in Vancouver, BC, Canada has been studying the effects of dog collars for 2 decades. He suggests that long-term pressure of the collar on the thyroid gland can cause hypothyroidism and has made a correlation between pulling on a leash and nerve damage to the front limbs, resulting in excessive licking of the paws. 

Summary Thus Far

Hopefully, you now understand that walking your Shih Tzu with a collar is risky. The answer to help to avoid all of the possible problems is to slip a harness on your puppy or dog instead. 

Let’s go over some important facts first with choosing the best collar and then we will follow with vital information regarding choosing the best harness for your Shih Tzu. 

Overview of Harnesses for a Shih Tzu

One of the best gifts that you can ever give to your puppy or dog is the safety of a harness. It is an understatement to say that placing a quality harness on your Shih Tzu can prevent painful and lasting injury. 

Knowing what can occur if a collar is used, it does not make sense to do anything other than use a harness when walking your puppy or dog. There are other benefits as well:
1. Helps prevent all of the issues that collars can cause: Collapsed trachea, breathing difficulties, and spinal damage. It may also help prevent certain eye and thyroid issues.

2. You will have better control of your Shih Tzu when he wears a harness. Keeping your puppy or dog near you (to your left side is the correct positioning for proper heeling) and guiding your puppy or dog is much easier with a harness. 

3. Any time that you take your Shih Tzu for a drive, he should be placed in a certified canine car seat. A raised booster seat is best. There is a strap inside the seat that is meant to be connected to a dog’s harness (connecting it to a collar is very dangerous). If your Shih Tzu is used to wearing a harness, it makes for an easy transition into the safety of the canine car seat.

Barriers to Break

There are some common hurdles that some owners must get past to make the move from collar to harness. Here they are, along with some tips:
1. My Shih Tzu will (or does) put up a fuss with a harness. 

Anything that is new to a dog may cause an initial fuss. However, to give proper care, we must not tiptoe around the whims of a dog. When an owner makes the decision to have their Shih Tzu wear a harness, and the right one is obtained, the puppy or dog will get used to it. It can take 1 to 2 weeks for a Shih Tzu to get acclimated to it. 
Proper type (more ahead) and proper fit will make things much easier. In addition, there is a learning curve for owners too; after the first few days, it’s a much easier process. 

2. My Shih Tzu is so small, not much pressure is put on the neck. So is a harness really needed?  

When you think about the force that is put on a dog’s neck, it is all relative. The force would not seem much to you, however you must look at the force and pressure relatively speaking to the size of the dog. The tracheal tube and windpipe of a toy breed dog is fragile. Small dogs do not have thick muscle to protect the area. 

Having the neck restricted in any way can cause issues and it only takes one jump or lunge to cause damage. 

3. Will the harness be detrimental to the coat?

A breathable harness, when fitted properly, will not damage a Shih Tzu’s coat. As always, we suggest using a leave-in spritz to protect the hairs from contact friction and static. 
Check out this slide show of Shih Tzu in harnesses! 
We're very happy to see these owners taking proper care of their Tzu!

The Best Harness for a Shih Tzu

There are 4 different types of harness; we recommend 3 of the 4. 
Great to use: Stretch mesh. This is one of the best type to use for Shih Tzu of all ages, and is the only one that is really appropriate for puppies. 

It will be made of flexible, breathable air-mesh that lets air through for extra comfort. The design of these are similar to a 'vest', which makes them very easy to put on and very comfortable for a dog to wear. 

Some will be adjustable on the chest (lower sides of the dog) and others will have both adjustable necks and chests.  

There will be snap buckles on the sides or on the back. And, most come in a wide range of colors, to keep your dog looking dapper. Additionally, most of these are machine-washable, which is a big plus.
Great to use: Chest plate harness. This is a hybrid between a strap harness (see below) and a stretch mesh harness. Just for the chest, is a padded 'plate' that offers support, and the sides have straps. This is a good choice if your Shih Tzu pulls a lot while on leash. This is also a good choice for car rides; you CAN use your Shih Tzu's regular harness for the car seat; however, some owners like to use this type just for the car, as it offers the good support in the case of an accident. 
Great to use, if your Shih Tzu likes to or needs to wear clothes: Clothing that serves as a harness. During the winter when your Shih Tzu needs an extra layer of warmth to be comfortable, there's no need to try and put clothing on top of a harness. There are some quality vests, coats, and other outside gear that have an o-ring on the back of the clothing, to connect the leash. These are great because they fulfill two purposes at the same time. 
An option, but not necessarily the best one: Strapped Harness. A nylon strapped harness is another option, but not one of our top choices. They can be tricky to put on, and are typically not as comfortable as the other types. In addition, these are generally designed for adult dogs, not puppies. 

If you use a strap harness, look for one in which the bottom strap is a different color than the top ones, to let you know what goes where. Also, look for one with ‘quick snaps’ buckles on the shoulder or stomach. A martingale loop on the chest piece will help prevent the harness from twisting. 
These are our top recommended stretch mess harnesses, which can be found in sizes that fit all Shih Tzu puppies and adults. 
#1. The Puppia RiteFit Harness is one of our top recommendations. This is ideal if you are looking for a harness that is adjustable on both the neck and chest. This made with durable yet breathable mesh, and it has a padded neck for extra comfort. The 'small' has a starting neck measurement of 9.5" and extends to 11.5", and there are larger sizes, as well. So, this is great for all but small pups (see below for those). There are 2 snap-buckles on either side, for easy on-off. These come in 9 colors. 
#2. The Puppia Soft Dog Harness is fantastic as well. This is adjustable around the lower chest (sides), and also has a padded neck for comfort. This is made of durable yet breathable mesh. This starts in extra-small with a tiny neck girth of 8.2", and has sizes all the way up; so, it is perfect for Shih Tzu of any size, including little pups. This also has 2 snap buckles on either side, for easy on-off. There's 11 colors to choose from. 
#3. The Puppia Harness Soft B Vest is excellent. This is a 'vest' that has extra material extending down a dog's chest, to offer super-comfortable support, and a nice secure fit. This starts in size extra-small (neck girth of 7.34", so is for every the tiniest of young puppies... And goes all the way up in sizes to xx-large (if you happen to also have a giant dog!). This is also a great air-mesh material, and there's a snap buckle over your Shih Tzu's back, which makes it relatively easy for on-off. This comes in 13 different colors. 
#4. The Original EcoBark Maximum Comfort Harness is an eco-friendly option that offers the same breathable air mesh, while surprisingly being made from recycled water bottles. This starts at size extra-small with a non-adjustable neck girth of 7.5", which makes it ideal for tiny pups, and sizes go all the way up. The chest (sides) is adjustable, with 2 snap buckles. This comes in 10 different colors. 
There are our recommended chest plate harness and clothing harnesses, which can be found in sizes that fit all Shih Tzu puppies and adults.  
Chest plate: The DEXDOG Chest Plate Harness for Small Dogs is a chest plate harness that is ideal for both walks (has reflective tape for safety) and is also appropriate for in the car. As with a regular harness, you connect the car seat's inner belt to the harness o-ring. 

The chest plate portion is padded very well. It is fully adjustable with sliders on the side straps, and there are 2 back snap-buckles for easy on-off. This starts at size xx-small, which has a neck girth starting at 9" (typically a 4 lb. pup), and this goes up in size for adults. This comes in 6 different colors. 
Clothing: One of our favorite is the Gooby Padded Cold Weather Vest for Small Dogs, for several reasons. This is ideal on freezing cold winter days since it is padded and water resistant. It is a zippered design (as opposed to slipping it over a dog's head); but, they thought carefully about this by offering a 'safe guard' zipper to help prevent hairs from getting stuck in the zipper. 

It starts in size xx-small for pups as little as 4 lbs., and sizes go all the way up. There is a secure o-ring sewn into the back for leash attachment. And, this comes in 9 different colors. 

The Best Collars for Shih Tzu Puppies and Dogs

Though walking your Shih Tzu with the leash connected to the collar is unarguably risky, you may still want your dog to wear a collar to hold your Shih Tzu’s ID tags. 

Some states require the tag to show proof of rabies vaccination and/or registration information. At any rate, you will want it to display your contact information in the event that your puppy or dog ever becomes lost.
Qualities of a good collar: Look for a lightweight material; you do not want a lot of weight on your Shih Tzu's neck. Those with snap buckles are ideal, as opposed to those belted collars.  

Collar tips:
1. Remove the collar when brushing your Shih Tzu. If not, it will impede long strokes to brush the face, neck, shoulders, and chest. It should also be removed when bathing your dog to properly clean the coat. 

2. Any Shih Tzu diagnosed with collapsed trachea or any other sort of breathing issue should never have a collar placed on him, even when off leash. 
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