Dog Gear of the Year: 2003

The top picks from all product categories we examined this year.


by Pat Miller

Why is it that most of us dog owners love buying dog-related stuff? I’ve never examined the impulse, but I’ve certainly given in to it. A novel new toy for my dogs to run and play with, a leash that feels just right in the hand, a spill-proof water bowl . . . I never know what I’ll find (and immediately want) in the aisles of my local pet supply store, on line, or in the latest catalog deposited in my mailbox.

All of us, however, hate it when the object of our affection turns out to be shoddy – such as the toy that

gets destroyed in one quick session, the leash that proves difficult to clip onto a collar or breaks, the “spillproof” water bowl that leaks!

This is why we devote several pages of each WDJ issue to the results of independent testing and trials. Our goal is to recommend sound, long-lasting products designed to improve the quality of your life and relationship with your dog.

Here are our favorites from 2003. Some might serve as perfect holiday gifts for your dogs and dog-loving friends.

Training tools
Only one new training product made our top pick list this year, but it is a huge winner. The SENSE-ation Harness, produced by SofTouch Concepts, is taking the positive dog-training world by storm (see “A New SENSE-ation, WDJ October 2003). Although it was introduced in 2002, we failed to try it out until we ran into a large, obstreperous, intact male Doberman.

Wow! It’s not often that a new anti-pulling product impresses us, but this one knocked us off our feet. Or, more literally, kept the Dobie from pulling us off our feet! We were instant fans, and have since used the harness on many dogs and recommended it to many clients.

Because the leash attaches to a ring on the front of the harness rather than behind the dog’s neck, the SENSE-ation Harness provides a similar amount of physical leverage that a head halter does, but it applies the pressure on the dog’s shoulders rather than his head. Dogs accept it without any of the objections that many offer to the head halter. Every dog we have tested it with walks on immediately without a struggle; there’s no acclimation period or process.

Also, there’s no risk of a sudden snap to the neck if the dog lunges to the end of the leash; the impact is distributed across the dog’s chest and shoulders, which are far better able to absorb the shock than is the spine.

We also appreciate how simple it is to put the harness on the dog – no complicated straps to run under armpits and through rings.

Of course, like any other no-pull product, you must train the dog to walk on a loose leash by positively reinforcing that behavior with clicks, treats, praise, and other goodies if your goal is to wean the dog off the harness.

We did miss one feature of this great new product in our October article: You can clip your leash to the harness ring and the ring on your dog’s collar simultaneously to give you greater control, if needed, and to prevent your dog from stepping out of the harness if he is prone to do so. (We haven’t had that happen, but have received reports from owners whose dogs have managed to do that.)

Contacts – SENSE-ation Harness: $20 – $26. Made by SofTouch Concepts. Sold directly by manufacturer and by trainers. See or call (866) 305-6145.

Management tools
In the August 2003 issue, we tested a variety of alternatives to classic Elizabethan collars (“Canine Coneheads”), the bulky, cone-shaped collars that dogs sometimes have to wear in order to prevent them from licking or chewing on some healing body part.

While some dogs adjust to Elizabethan collars easily, others simply hate it. We found four alternatives that we liked, depending on the dog and the location of the surgical incision or wound you are trying to protect. Our test dogs varied widely in their ability to reach different body parts with the various collars, and in their ability to eat and drink with the collars on. For short-term use, the classic cone shape seems to be most effective for protecting any wound, but may have to be removed for eating and drinking. For long-term use, a dedicated owner may have to try more than one product to find one that is comfortable and effective for a specific dog.

The Pet Botanics E-Collar is very similar to the traditional cone, but is made of translucent plastic so dogs can see through it, thereby reducing their tendency to bump into walls, doorways, and furniture while wearing the cone. It is lighter-weight than the standard, veterinary-issued Elizabethan collar, has vinyl padding around the neck for added comfort, and comes in translucent colors as well. It’s our top pick for short-term use for any dog.

For longer-term applications, the Soft-E-Collar softens the Elizabethan collar concept with a donut-shaped, vinyl-covered foam pillow that fits around the dog’s neck. Because it is flat rather than cone-shaped, it doesn’t interfere as much with the dog’s daily activities; he is less likely to bump into things, and it’s easier for him to eat and drink.

The Bite Not Collar from Bite Not Products is a well-padded plastic brace-like collar that fits snugly around the dog’s neck, very closely resembling the cervical collar used for whiplash in people. It fastens with Velcro, and has a nylon chest strap that fastens behind the front legs to hold the collar in place. There was no negative reaction at all to this collar from our test dog; since it doesn’t extend out from his neck, it does nothing to impede his movement, play, or most other activities. Although it worked very well to prevent our test dog from licking a wound on his rear end, it was less successful at keeping him from licking his front paws. Also, this type of collar can’t prevent a dog’s from rubbing or pawing at his face, so count it out for use with ear hematomas or eye infections.

If you can’t block the dog’s mouth from reaching a body part, you may want to try a different approach – cover it up! K9 Top Coat’s Lycra Bodysuit does just that; it’s a full body suit made of stretchy Lycra that completely covers the dog except for his head, feet, tail, and between the legs (so as not to inhibit elimination). It’s easy to put on and take off, you can toss it in the washing machine, and it’s very durable. It’s obviously not indicated for head or foot wounds, but may be ideal for long-term conditions such as hot-spots and allergies.

Contacts – Pet Botanics E-Collar: $10 – $21. Sold in some pet supply stores. Made by Cardinal Laboratories, Inc., Azusa, CA. (800) 433-7387 or; Soft-E-Collar: $17 – $50. Made and sold by The BonaFido Company, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA. (949) 770-6516 or; Bite Not Collar: $20 – $25. Contact manufacturer to find local retailer. Bite Not Products, San Francisco, CA. (800) 424-8366 or; Lycra Bodysuit: $59 – $78. Sold in a few pet supply stores and veterinary clinics and by manufacturer. K9 Top Coat, Talent, OR. (888) 833-5959 or

There are lots of things you can do to reduce the risk of ever-present environmental dangers to your dog, and we discussed a handful of them in “Better Safe Than Sorry” (May 2003).

One everyday dog safety product that we like quite a bit is the KeepSafe™ BreakAway Collar made by Premier Pet Products. The collar features a safety snap that pops open under pressure, preventing such strangulation tragedies as hanging on fences or twisting around another dog’s jaw during play. It also has an override feature so you can safely attach a leash without worrying that the collar will pop off. At $16, the cost is well worth the protection it provides your dog and the peace of mind that it gives you.

Every dog who sails, canoes, or rafts with her owner should wear a lifejacket or “personal flotation device (PFD). When we reviewed these products (“Unsinkable,” July 2003), we found two that were easy to put on and adjust, fit well, had adequate flotation material in front of the dog’s chest to buoy up the front end, and stayed in place when the dog was swimming.

Like all the innovative products we have tested that are made by RuffWear, of Bend, Oregon, their K-9 Float Coat is exceedingly well-made. It’s also easy to put on and adjust, with a tab of Velcro on the front to hold the buoyant chest strap in place. The handle on the back of the PFD is well positioned so that it keeps the dog’s nose up if you lift him out of the water.

The handle on our other top PFD pick, Outward Hound’s Pet Saver Lifejacket, is positioned slightly too far back. When you lift the dog up out of the water it tips his nose downward and he may start to struggle. Other than that it is well made, fits snugly, stays in place well in the water, and has the added benefit of two thin reflective strips along the back of the coat – a big help if you are out after dark.

Contacts – KeepSafe BreakAway Collar: $16. Sold in some pet supply stores and by manufacturer. Made by Premier Pet Products, Richmond, VA. (888) 640-8840 or; K-9 Float Coat: $50 – $70. Sold in some pet supply stores, some sporting good stores, and by the manufacturer, RuffWear, Bend OR. (888) 783-3932 or; Pet Saver Lifejacket: $15 – $35. Sold in pet supply stores only. Outward Hound, distributed by Kyjen Company, Huntington Beach, CA. (714) 841-1950 or

Books and videos
We’re pleased that new books and videos on positive training and behavior modification continue to find a market with caring dog owners. We’d like to introduce you to three of this year’s most notable additions, all available from DogWise (800-776-2665 or

Click for Joy! is a great resource for novice and advanced clicker trainers alike, as well as for those who are curious about this clicker-training thing but have never tried it. Author Melissa C. Alexander, who manages a very popular Yahoo Groups e-mail list on clicker training, has put all of her list’s most frequently asked questions and answers into the book and added trainer anecdotes as examples. The result is a very useful and readable volume. If you train with a clicker – or aspire to – this is a must-read. 208 pages, $25.

Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash Aggressive Dog. Co-author Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D., is one of our favorite behavior experts and authors, and her series of short, to-the-point, and affordably priced booklets on specific behavior challenges holds a special place on our bookshelf. She and co-author Karen B. London, Ph.D., don’t disappoint with their newest volume. Feisty Fido addresses the issue of dogs who are aggressive toward other dogs while on leash, when the arousal and restraint frustration becomes too much for dog and owner to handle. It is an extremely common behavior problem, and this book will be the answer to many dog owners’ prayers. 59 pages, $8.

The HOW of BOW WOW is the latest training video by Virginia Broitman and Sherry Lippman, makers of the “Take a Bow, Wow!” series. This clicker training video takes you step-by-step through the foundation skills all dogs should know, and presents advanced clicker training concepts as well. More relaxed and low-key than their two prior productions, it contains the same charming humor and easy-to-follow explanations and demonstrations as its predecessors, as well as the same cast of brilliantly trained dogs (plus some new ones) to illustrate the concepts.

Do yourself and/or your clicker training friends a favor: add this video to your holiday shopping list. When you watch it, be sure to stay for the outtakes at the end! 84 minutes, $35.


Personal experience flying our small dogs in late 2002 led us to seek out a top quality dog carrier for under-the-seat airline use. When we found the Pet On Wheels dog carrier by Tutto, we were thrilled. It is beautifully crafted, with three zippered entrances (top, front, and side). The three vents have flaps that can be snapped into place in cold or windy conditions. The carrier has a sturdy, lightweight frame to protect the dog inside – it’s even strong enough to sit on while waiting in airplane lines. Finally, it has wheels and an extendable handle, making it a breeze to navigate through even the largest airport. (See “Fearless Flying, March 2003).

Contacts – Pet On Wheels: $130 – $140. Sold by Mascot Metropolitan, S. San Francisco, CA. (800) 949-1288 or