Ten years ago, a new dog training tool hit the market. Known generically as the head halter (or head collar), it is a device similar to the halter commonly used on horses. It provides a greatly increased degree of control over the dog who is dedicated to pulling on the collar and leash, without the punishment or pain factors associated with choke chains and prong collars.
The head halter has a strap that goes around the dog’s nose, and another that clasps around his neck, just behind the ears. The leash attaches to a ring below the dog’s chin. Just like with halters on horses, bulls and other large animals, it works on the principle that where the nose goes, the body must follow. Rather than pulling against the dog’s whole weight on a collar that rests just above his powerful shoulders, we simply put gentle pressure on the halter to turn the dog’s head toward us. Almost like magic, the rest of the dog follows. It seemed like the answer to our leash-walking prayers.
The new tool was welcomed with open arms by many trainers. Indeed, some trainers started issuing halters to every canine student, and the first-night-of-class ritual was amended to include head collar fitting, just as many compulsion-based classes begin with choke chain or prong collar fitting.
Even from the beginning, however, some professionals were more cautious in their embrace of the new invention. The halter had a place in the positive trainer’s toolbox, they conceded, but with a relatively limited application. Predictably, now that positive trainers have had a decade to gain practical experience with the collar, it is becoming clear that the more conservative trainers were right. The head halter is the perfect tool for the right applications, but it is not the easy answer to every dog’s leash-walking needs. In fact for some dogs, rather than being a positive experience, wearing the head collar can be downright aversive. Here’s a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of head halters.
All of the positive things we initially loved about head halters are still true, to a degree. Because it doesn’t take great strength to use them, they can facilitate the control of a large or unmanageable dog, especially by children, seniors, and people with physical disabilities. When used properly, the head collar does not depend on the infliction of pain to bring the dog under control. And for some dogs, the head halter has a wonderfully calming effect within moments of being placed on the dog’s head. In the right circumstances, the collar can be a lifesaver. Dogs who might otherwise end up at animal shelters can be walked and enjoyed by their previously frustrated owners.
The halter is particularly appropriate for restraining and retraining dogs with aggression problems, especially dogs who lunge at people or other dogs. The halter provides the positive, non-punitive control that is vital for modifying aggressive behavior – when we want to change the dog’s perception of a stimulus from negative to positive.
With a dog-aggressive dog, for example, if you jerk on a choke chain when your dog barks or growls at another dog, you inadvertently inflict pain, increase his stress, and reinforce his belief that having other dogs around is a bad thing. A head halter can gently restrain or turn him away from the negative stimulus (the other dog) so he can be rewarded for good behavior (turning away). If we can make good things happen in the presence of other dogs, we can eventually convince him that having other dogs around is a good thing too. The head halter is exceedingly effective at this.
When used properly, to elicit non-pulling behavior so that loose-leash walking behavior can be rewarded, the head collar can be an effective tool for teaching a determined puller not to pull on the leash. “Properly” means that the dog is frequently rewarded with tasty treats and other positive reinforcement (toys, petting and praise, for dogs that enjoy this) whenever the leash is loose, until he realizes that it is more rewarding to walk near his handler without pulling than it is to constantly strain at the end of the leash. Simply relying on the head collar to control the dog, without rewarding the dog for loose-leash walking, is not proper use of the collar.
Trainers on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) e-mail list recently compared notes about head halter experiences. While most of the trainers used them on occasion and felt there were appropriate applications for head halters, they also agreed that the tool could be misused. Here are some of their concerns:
• Some dogs hate them. Trainers who are familiar with behavior science understand that anything the dog doesn’t like is an aversive. Just because we like the halter (or petting, or praise, or treats) doesn’t mean the dog does. If a dog reacts violently to the halter, it may mean that you didn’t take the time to properly acclimate him to it. If you start over and work with him more slowly you may succeed in getting him to accept it.
However, while most dogs can eventually be conditioned to accept the halter, it may take more time and energy than it is worth, and some never do accept it. If the dog continues to fight, or acts very bothered or depressed when the halter is on, then it is very much an aversive for him, and not a positive training tool at all. Put it away and find a different positive tool for that dog.
• Head halters can come off. Some brands are more prone to this than others (see sidebar, below). This is disconcerting enough when you are using the halter for a simple pulling problem, but it is a disaster if you’re dealing with aggression. Imagine having your collar pop off your dog as he lunges for a child walking by.
Many trainers now recommend using two leashes (or a “European” leash, with snaps on both ends); one attached to the halter and one to the regular collar, to guard against this. For some owners who already have difficulty handling one leash, this may be too much of a challenge.
• The halter can be difficult to put on. Especially with a very active dog (the kind who is most likely to need a halter), it can sometimes take two people – one to lure the nose into the loop with a treat, the other to snap or buckle the collar behind the dog’s ears. Many seniors, children and others who could otherwise benefit from the collar’s good points are physically unable to manage the complexity of the process. It helps to properly condition the dog to the haltering procedure, but sometimes it doesn’t help enough.
• The halter looks like a muzzle. As the general public has more exposure to head halters this misconception is diminishing, but it is still a negative for many dog owners that their canine pal is perceived as wearing a muzzle.
• Halter straps can rub. If the halter is not fitted well or the dog has sensitive skin, nylon straps can rub the skin raw. This can often be mitigated by gluing moleskin on the insides of the straps.
• It’s an extra piece of equipment. One of the beautiful things about positive reinforcement training is that the dog wears his regular “clothes” during training. It doesn’t require any special equipment. When we add a special collar, we run the risk of teaching the dog that he must behave when the halter is on, but not when it is off. Compulsion trainers frequently encounter this phenomenon with the choke chain; the dog is great when the chain is on, but does whatever he wants when it is removed.
• Some dogs are hard to fit. Although some of head halter companies produce their halters in a variety of size and shapes, some dogs, especially those with flat faces like Boxers and Boston Terriers, can be very difficult to fit properly. The nose strap tends to rest against the eyes, which most dogs understandably find very irritating.
By far the most valid concern, and the one that is hardest to resolve, is that the halter, if misused, may cause damage to the spine. One of the complaints about choke chains is their very real potential for causing serious damage to a dog’s trachea, even when it is used properly. If the head halter is used properly the chance of injury is so low as to be nonexistent, but if an owner jerks on the head halter or allows the dog to hit the end of the leash at full charge, the halter can snap the dog’s head sideways, risking damage to the spine.
While we could find no documentation of any such injuries, the rumors exist, and we can certainly see the potential. This was one of the reasons that the Gentle Leader was originally distributed only through trainers and veterinarians, not pet stores. However, Premier Pet Products, the distributor of the Gentle Leader, recently announced their decision to offer the product through pet stores as well, and the Halti has always been sold through regular commercial pet retail outlets.
Ultimately, any training tool can be misused. We still applaud the head halter as a positive training tool, as do most of the APDT trainers who participated in the on-line head halter discussion. We also suggest that trainers and owners familiarize themselves with all of the possible negatives that accompany the halter, and make careful, educated decisions about its use.