Aliy Zirkle’s Expert Advice on Distance Harness Configuration

For the last 10 years Allen and I have run Iditarod and Yukon Quest using Howling Dog Alaska’s Distance Harnesses and without the use of necklines. We truly believe that our harness and line system is safer and healthier for our dogs. This results in our dogs becoming less tired and less injured. The dogs can compete at a higher caliber. We believe our successful racing results over the last few years are indicative of healthier dogs.

Over the past few years we have made our harness system very public. One of the biggest quotes we say to folks unfamiliar with mushing (when it comes to the “no neckline” set up) is: “Our dogs have no leash attached to their neck pulling them down the trail. They simply do it out of free will.” Every musher should try this setup and see the tremendous health benefits in this system for dogs.

People are individuals – mushers certainly are – so we are bound to do things differently. It’s not to say someone is correct and someone else is wrong. Most mushers prefer the traditional harness/gangline setup. Our system obviously works for Allen and me. We have thought a lot about the system over the last 10 years and have refined it to what we believe works best for us and doesn’t negatively affect our competition.

Our harnesses are half the length of a traditional harness. The connection point to the tug line is at the middle of the dog. Our tug lines are only 15 inches in length (from the dog’s back to the mainline.) We spend a great deal of time teaching our dogs to know this system. Each of our racing dogs also has a permanent neck line around their collar. There is a loop in our main line to affix a neck line should the dog need one. With the ice and blizzard conditions as they were during the latter miles of Iditarod this year, we ran with neck lines. In that situation, it seemed more challenging to ask a dog to “find his own footing” when there was none to find.

Benefits that we see to our harness / “no neck line” System:

  • Dogs can avoid holes in the trail and choose the “best” route.
  • Dogs can pull away from hazards (trees, rocks, stumps).
  • Dogs can navigate sharp turns individually and are not pulled around corners head first.
  • Dogs’ heads are not pulled up and down when going over hills or down gullies.
  • Dogs can go at their own pace if they choose (a slower dog can “relax” in the team).
  • Dogs can independently dip snow off to the side of the trail without affecting other dogs.
  • Dogs do not freeze their tongues to neck line brass snaps.
  • Dogs do not risk choking by neck line.
  • Dogs have fewer hind end or hip injuries or soreness since the harness does not press on their rear.

Here are our gangline dimensions:

  • There are 7 feet in-between dog tug lines.
  • There is 42 inches from the bridle on the ATV or sled to the first tug line.
  • Our tug lines are short. It is only 15 inches from the “d” ring on the harness to the connection at the mainline.

2 Replies to “Aliy Zirkle’s Expert Advice on Distance Harness Configuration”

    1. There is not an easy answer to this question. The feel of running in a Distance Harness is completely different for a dog than running in an x-back. But usually it does not take long for the dog to get used to it. We recommend incorporating a couple of Distance Harnesses in the existing set up first (in a regular x-back harness gangline) before switching completely. The bigger issue here is for the dogs to get used to running without necklines. That’s the challenge. It takes a well-disciplined dog team to run without being attached by their necks. When switching to this set up, it comes down to patience and common sense. But the reward can be well worth it! 🙂

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