Of course I shouldn’t need to point out that I am a dog trainer and this is what I have found to work for me specifically. I am using tools that I know how to use and have experience using in the way that I use them. This is not always the way that I recommend inexperienced clients (and by inexperienced I mean not having trained behaviorally challenged dogs in a professional setting) work with their dogs, this is just my two cents from the insight of someone who works with challenging behaviors on a regular basis with success.
Head halters are thin lightweight harnesses that fit around a dog’s head usually with a loop around the dog’s nose, another around the base of skull, and a leash attachment under the dog’s chin and provide more control when leash walking (like a horse). They are a little controversial in the dog world (what isn’t) and there’s some basis for that. I don’t see them used very often and that’s probably okay too. Here I’d like to go over where and why I personally use them in my training and when you need to be using one too.
There are several brands out there on the market, namely…
- Halti, which fits a little more loosely and has a second safety clip that attaches to the dog’s collar should the Halti slip off. It has an extra piece that prevents the nose loop from closing tightly around your dog’s mouth.
- Gentle Leader, which is literally just two loops: one which fits over the dog’s nose and attaches to the leash and another which snaps around the base of the dog’s skull. The nose loop can cinch tight when pressure is applied to the leash.
- The Snoot Loop, which is a hybrid of them both really (a little more space but also some cinching action) and which has an optional strap that goes between the dogs eyes and over the skull so that it can be fitted on short-nosed breeds.
For these purposes I am going to write about my favorite one, the Gentle Leader, because it is so simple and because it does provide the most feedback to the dog in the form of tension when pressure is applied to the leash and a loose fit when not. So there is a clear and immediate difference between when there is tension in the leash and when there is not.
How the Gentle Leader Works
The Gentle Leader works in two ways: it provides about the maximum level of control you can get with a leash by steering the dog’s head in the direction that leash pressure is applied, wherever that is, and in doing so it can turn a dogs face (and eyes) wherever you want. It also works to close a dog’s mouth when pressure is applied upward. It works with physics, not pain, so it can be used on even very strong dogs.
Fitting the Gentle Leader
For the Gentle Leader to be a functional training tool, the neck attachment loop (that snaps closed) should be as tight as possible while remaining comfortable for your dog and the nose loop (that has the ring attachment) should be as loose as possible while not falling off your dog’s nose. If the neck loop is too loose, the dog will slip out (and I recommend stitching it in place once fitted so it doesn’t loosen from wear). If the nose loop is too tight you will be applying constant pressure to your dog’s face which they will hate and will leave them no way to escape the pressure, thus defeating the whole move-into-pressure part.
With the leader fitted properly, the dog should be able to pant, take treats, carry a ball in their mouth, and even bite when there is no tension on the leash.
The pros and cons…
- It is about the most control you can get with a leash.
- It can close aggressive dogs’ mouths when used correctly.
- It can be used to remove reactive dog’s line of sight from triggers.
- When used with two points of contact and some skill, it provides crystal clear feedback and guidance to the dog about what you expect of them, far better feedback than a collar or harness can.
- Most dogs initially hate it and some dogs hate it forever.
- It doesn’t fit every dog or breed. Some short-faced breeds like Pugs can’t use them, even with extra straps for stability.
- It takes some skill to use correctly. They can be used as a stop-loss for reactivity or leash walking but needs some skill to be used as an actual training tool.
- The facial pressure has a weird subduing effect on some dogs, so much so that they are lunging frothing alligator-rolling monsters without it and walk like near perfect angels with it on. This seems great in theory but actually provides zero opportunity for training. There are some dogs that I can’t use it on at all for that reason.
- Without some leash handling skills, strong clever dogs can bulldoze right through its effect and pull anyway.
- It can do a lot of neck cranking when used improperly, and for this reason should never be paired with flexi leashes, long-lines, or children.
- Dogs can slip out of it and the snap has failed a few times in training, which is why I never use it as my only point of attachment with any dog. The base-of-neck attachment seems to really trigger that fish-on-a-line alligator roll behavior in some dogs which is when they slip out.
So it turns out I rarely use head halters. However here are the times I see it used with success and times when it may come in handy for you too.
1) Crowd control: for group walks. This is when someone is walking two or more strong dogs that maybe walk just fine when walked alone, but together that cooperative behavior kicks in (call it pack drive if you prefer) and you can really get taken for a ride if your gang sees a squirrel or decides to mouth off at dog in passing. It can give justified peace of mind to have that extra control and the ability to pull dogs off trail without a backhoe or direct their gaze off of a trigger when needed.
Personally I don’t really like group walks and prefer to use head halters with two points of attachment which gets a little juggle-ey. It feels exactly like the title implies, crowd control, which is a little too chaotic for me, however…
…I totally understand that not everyone has the time or inclination to walk multiple dogs separately (or can’t walk separately for some other legitimate reason) and I approve of its use in those situations and would much prefer this to not using leashes at all. In this scenario it might be a good route to go. It is important however to note that here this tool is being used less for training but to control outbursts. It’s a means to an end: getting dogs outside without forming a sled team.
2) Reactive dogs — for facilitating leash walking skills. Specifically dogs that act a wild fool in general when out and about on leash. This doesn’t specifically have to be leash-reactive dogs (the kind who bark and lunge on leash) but can be any dog that is too manipulated by stimuli in the environment, the quintessential “SQUIRREL!” dog who is a whirling dervish of over-reaction to sights and sounds around them (more about reactive dogs in a future article).
For these dogs the first few minutes outside can be really rough and a head halter can go a long way towards decreasing how much you want to strangle your dog to death for that first leg of the walk.
And most importantly, in this scenario it is being used for training in that it is facilitating socialization and the halter can often be taken off a few minutes into the walk and actual leash training can begin. With this strategy, the need for the head halter becomes less and less or is only needed in unusually stimulating environments. It can be a strong training tool here, however I always recommend its use with a legitimate proven training plan. Without training and some structure instilled in the walk, these “it’s all too much” dogs may not improve with the head halter alone as it is not teaching the emotional management skills to support better behavior.
3) Aggressive dogs – for on the third phase of training with me: trail passing*. Specifically dogs that in their behavior or intention want to put their mouths on, hassle, or overwhelm other dogs in a not-friendly way. This can be dogs that bark and lunge at other dogs on leash, rush in on other dogs, or who are very intense in their approaches. This may be dogs that have aggressive or predatory behavior toward other dogs or dogs who are, or may be, okay with dogs off-leash but have built so much frustration and anxiety around leash greetings that they have become aggressive on leash**
People can say what they need to feel better about what their dog dog “actually means inside”, but these dogs weight, focus, movement, and perceived attention is to approach other dogs in an alarming way. This is the equivalent of a man on the street stopping, looking right at you, extending his finger out at you and yelling “I’m gonna hurt you” and then running straight at you. It is a very frightening experience and more than warrants a dramatic response even if he stops short and decides not to assault you after all.
*I say “training with me” here because this is a scenario that most owners should not attempt without professional help. It really does take expert awareness, communication, and timing, to train these dogs safely and effectively with minimal stress, even if you’ve seen it on TV.
**I also need to mention that when working with dogs who have a history of damaging bites or questionable history I use a secure, fitted, conditioned, basket muzzle at all times. I am not going to take the risk and it’s not fair to subject the world around me to a dangerous dog.
In other words, dogs that bite hard wear muzzles.
I go through three phases when working with these dogs
- Harness and two points of contact: basic control and leash manners on leash with no distractions around which almost always involves me having to drive the dog to spacious areas with good visibility at unpopular times when distractions are low (so I am intentionally avoiding stimuli).
- Harness and two points of contact: approaching or passing distractions at a distance comfortable for the dog. This second phase is the biggest time investment and the most strategic timing and location planning. I am trying to set up organic situations that are stimulating but not too overwhelming while remaining safe and that can be a challenge.
- Gentle leader with two points of contact: after the foundation is laid and I feel I can work the dog through all but very high-tension scenarios where we are approached by a loose or reactive dog, I fit the Gentle Leader and we start hitting the trails. I always use two points of attachment: one on the harness, and one on the head halter so that I am only applying pressure to the halter when I mean to (and at this point the dog is already leash trained. I am not using it to control pulling but to de-escalate staring and emotionally charged situations).
So this is very far from slapping a head halter on these dogs and going for it. There is a collaboration or skill, experience, and planning.
Let me give you some context…
I frequently work with a dog who has a history of predatory behavior directed at small dogs. She can be intense and inappropriate with dogs her size or larger but can be managed around them. She has fully gotten ahold of a few small dogs in the past (she is about 40lbs and the dogs were all around 8-12lbs and various levels of hairy). In all cases she has picked up the dogs in her mouth and done zero to a few stitches. None of the dogs had any deep bruising but a few shallow-ish punctures or tears.
This dog was six years old when I began working with her. She has always had access to a fenced yard and had spent many of her days running along the fence hunting for rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks. Occasionally she will catch one and kill it, although no one has actually seen her do it (so we are speculating based on evidence). She spends a lot of her day, everyday, seeking out small animals to harm.
“Seeking” is actually an incredibly strong and very recognized emotion, one of the main emotional groups actually. Seeking rewards a very specific part of the brain and is the reason why people enjoy fishing, put together puzzles, get hung up on re-playing that boss battle 400 times, and put money into a slot machine all day despite loosing every single time. And it is the reason this dog, and many others, run along their fence all day with a maniacal obsession looking for that pesky chipmunk to pop its head out so they can try to kill it.
This dog has been seeking that chipmunk every single day, for hours a day, for years. Her brain is very wired to do this and it would take a time machine and a whole different lifestyle to un-wire it. Hunting smaller animals is a favorite pastime, and her mind doesn’t separate small dogs from small animals.
And honestly, cutting out that part of her life would also cut out most of her daily activity and require her owner completely re-construct his lifestyle or re-home her. That yard provides a lot of enrichment and freedom for them both.
Training with me is not about making this dog buddy-buddy with small dogs, that would be too risky and stressful for everyone. It is about improving her quality of life so that her and her owner can do as many things as safely possible together to make their lives richer and better. So minimizing dramatic anxiety-inducing scenes around other dogs, helping her de-escalate her emotions when they are running her mind, and making it easier to interrupt that “seeking” behavior when it appears.
And in case you were wondering, this dog is a very common family pet dog breed, nothing “dangerous”, so I won’t be confirming any stereotypes here thanks.
For this particular dog I feel comfortable walking her alone on a trail with a head halter because it gives me control enough to be safe. When I walk her with her housemates (who do not have the same predatory challenges solo but do 100% play into exacerbating hers) I avoid narrow trails, head halter or no, because the bunch of them are too much to manage safely in a group.
I choose trails that are wide and have shoulders where we can escape having to greet other dogs. When we see a dog approaching, I pull her off trail and put her into a sit facing away from the trigger while the dog passes.
I avoid situations where we are likely to pass small off-leash dogs as that would be stressful and overwhelming for the both of us. I would really have to be on my A game to avoid trouble and my hyper-vigilance and stress would be very apparent to her.
In the situations where I use the harness with two points of contact, I don’t feel the need to have the extra control of the head halter because we are working in spacious leashed areas where running onto another dog would be the result of gross negligence on the part of the other dog owner. The other dog would have to come running at me loose from a long way off and then all the fail-safes I have in place: running away, yelling at the owner to collect their dog, yelling at the dog to back off, spraying the dog with Spray Shield, and booting the dog away would all have to fail for the approaching dog to make contact with mine. The dog would have to be really cruising for a bruising to get one.
So to re-cap, head halters are great for three areas…
- Walking multiple dogs together in a smooth and controlled way.
- Getting through rough patches of leash walking with an easily overwhelmed or under socialized dog.
- Teaching trail skills to a leash-aggressive dog in conjunction with a thoughtful and proven training plan.
So there you have it, what I do with the dogs that I work with, what works for me, and what might work for you when it comes to head halters.
Thanks for reading and happy training!