When to Use a Head Halter

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.

The Options

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.
Gentle Leader Headcollar

Gen­tle Leader Headcollar

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…

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons:

  • 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

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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…

  1. Walk­ing mul­ti­ple dogs together in a smooth and con­trolled way.
  2. Get­ting through rough patches of leash walk­ing with an eas­ily over­whelmed or under social­ized dog.
  3. 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!

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