When Cricket was little I heard a lot about the collar versus harness debate. That, especially with small dogs, the vertebrae at the neck are so fragile that the collar can do real damage if she pulls too hard at the leash. A harness is safer and better. Just like a crate is better than leaving the dog to roam free and sleep on your bed. And homemade food is better than store bought. And you need pet gates and wee wee pads and hourly trips outside, and on and on.
I was determined to be the perfect pet owner this time around. We bought everything on the list from the breeder, including special food and treats and toys and a crate. For my whole life, our dogs went without all of that. They ate regular dog food, and chewed on socks and couches and never stepped foot in a crate or an obedience class.
I was especially proud of Cricket’s car harness. It was black nylon on the outside and plush on the inside and solidly made. I snapped her into the harness and tightened the straps and then attached it to the seatbelt in the back seat of the car just like the instructions told me to do. My preference would have been just to hold her in my arms, or buy one of those soft carriers you see in the catalogs. Dog catalogs are like crack for new dog owners, addictive and very bad for you.
She was sitting calmly in the back seat when I turned the key in the ignition. This was just a test trip, because I’m a worrier, and Mom was there with us in case of trouble. And, of course, within thirty seconds of my turning the key in the ignition, Cricket had escaped her harness and jumped into the front seat.
The pressure to put her in a harness didn’t go away, though. Whenever we took her out walking, we were told that her collar was too skinny to take the pressure of the leash pulling at her neck. So we went back to the store and bought a strappy red harness for her daily walks. By the time we reached the sidewalk on the first outing with the new harness, she had removed the whole apparatus, this thing that took me five minutes and ten red scratches on my arms to put on her. One minute she was at the end of the leash and the next she was in the street, bewildered.
Mom found a wider collar, meant for a larger dog, and then altered it by adding more holes in the collar so it could be tightened down to Cricket’s size. With the wider collar, we read, the pressure would be more evenly distributed along her neck as she, inevitably, pulled like an ox against her leash.
We took a break from harnesses for a year after that, but when Cricket went to her second training class, the teacher recommended harnesses again, and told us which one to buy. She carefully tightened the straps in all the right places before class and told us Cricket would be fine. Within two minutes, Cricket had worked her body into such knots that the harness was wrapped around her ankle and holding her foot in the air.
The teacher had never seen such a thing, and after another few failed attempts, she told us to stick with the collar and make do.
Finally, five years along, Cricket has a harness that stays on. Mostly. It’s pink and silver and looks like a little tank top. And this time, we tailored it so it fits her skinny shoulders and stays right under her armpits. She can stay in it for a whole walk, but even with this one, she can pull part of the mechanism over her head, so that the leash is dangling from her throat. I don’t know how she does this.
The fact is, with enough motivation, like one of her human cousins trying to drag her across the yard, Cricket can even get out of her collar, let alone any of her many harnesses. She’s an escape artist. But the only place she escapes to, is behind my legs, where she feels safe. Go figure.