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Apr 11

Can your dog benefit from a head halter?

Tips on using head halters

Head halters don't seem quite as popular these days....no-pull harnesses are currently a more popular tool, especially with trainers who avoid anything they perceive as uncomfortable to the dog. However, the truth is,one, if a no-pull harness is working, it is because it applies negative reinforcement (pressure is on when the dog is doing the wrong thing, pulling, but automatically releases when the dog is not pulling) so they aren't any more positive in the dog's mind, plus a harness does not give you the control of the dog's HEAD that you get with a head halter.  So if you have a dog with even the slightest aggression issue (such as lunging out towards other dogs) or your dog is not responding well to a no-pull harness, you may want to consider a head halter.  Used properly, they are a humane option that can quickly get a puller to stop pulling plus give the owner much more control over their dog. You can even use them to close a dog's mouth before they have time to think about barking at another dog or person.  Used incorrectly, a head halter CAN, very rarely, harm a dog's neck, so it is very importatnt to work with a trainer who knows how to use them correctly (so that your dog can get used to it quickly, without bucking around like a wild horse).  If you want to try it on your own, be sure to buy a Gentle Leader package that includes the training DVD from the manufacturer.

But as with most training tools, I highly recommend that you work with a good trainer to learn how to use this tool.  Someone knowledgeable will ask if your dog has neck problems. They also won't use a head halter on a breed that is prone to Wobbler's syndrome or anything which can cause cervical (neck) disk issues. Dobermans are one breed that I prefer seeing people use a small link "pinch collar" if the dog pulls, because a Dobie can have an undiagnosed cervical disk problem (also this problem is not uncommon in Great Danes). So with these pariticular breeds, I would go with a pinch collar if you need more than control than a no pull harness, due to the possibility of neck injury during the early training process of a head halter. Even though they have fallen out of favor, due to the way they look, the pinch collar, properly fitted, can be the most humane option for a puller. And a good trainer who knows how to use all types of training tools, can get your dog used to a pinch collar in one session. Any training tool is no more humane or effective than the person at the other end of the leash.  If your dog constantly pulls, then using good training collar,will actually be less likely causedamage to your dog's neck than the dog straining and pulling constantly on a buckle collar and constantly.

But back to the topic at hand, head halters.

What exacttly is a head halter?

It is a relatively simple piece of equipment, which includes a nylon snap or buckle collar with the addition of a loop of flat material that goes around the dog's muzzle (in addition to the part that snaps around the neck).

Is this a humane piece of training equipment?

Like any training tool, the person on the other end of the leash must have some knowledge about how to use it correctly and in a manner which the dog can quickly understand. If used properly, most dogs will accept a head halter and there is very little stress involved once the dog understands that loose leash equals no pressure on the collar.

For what purposes are they typically used?

Head halters can, if used correctly, be an almost immediate answer to problems like pulling on leash. They also give the dog's owner more control of the dog's head and can even be a quick fix for lunging and barking at other dogs or people.

Are there any dogs on which you would not recommend use of a head halter?

Yes, I do not recommend them for Dobermans or Great Danes There is a common spinal disease of large breed dogs, with the Doberman being the most commonly effected, called cervical spondylomyelopathy, more commonly known as Wobbler's syndrome. In addition to not using them with these breeds, I also would not recommend using them with any dog who has a known neck or back injury. This is simply because many dogs will buck around, similar to the way an untrained horse acts when something is first put on his head. I have used head halters on hundreds of dogs and never known of an injury, but I feel it is better to err on the side of safety. So if your dog is a breed prone to neck issues or if it is an old dog that might have arthritis issues then I would recommend a different type of collar..

Is one brand of head halter better than another?

I would not say one is "better" than another, but the one I most often use is the Gentle LeaderR simply because dogs cannot slip out of them. It is possible for a dog to paw off the nose loop, but with the Gentle LeaderR, the collar will still be securely snapped (or buckled, they come in both varieties) around the dog's neck. With other brands of head halters,it is possible for dogs to slip out of the entire collar.

If a dog is having trouble accepting a Gentle Leader, I will sometimes switch to a  HaltiR because this type of head halter is made a little differently. Dogs that will fight a Gentle LeaderR will often accept a HaltiR. They are constructed in a way that make it less likely for the nose piece to slip back towards the dog's eyes. But whenever I use a HaltiR I always use a small coupler that allows me to snap the head halter to the dog's regular buckle collar as well as to the leash. In this way, if the dog is able to back out of the head halter, the coupler assures that the leash is still attached to his regular collar, so he cannot get away.

How do you start training with a head halter?

If time allows, it is best to start by first just getting the dog used to the feel of the head halter, without picking up the leash (hence you will not yet be putting any pressure on the nose loop).

Simply have your dog sit beside you, slip on the head halter (attached to the leash) and distract your dog by giving a few little treats, or simply petting him or allowing him to chew on a favorite toy, but not yet walking him. The purpose of giving the treats is to distract him from the feel of having the loop around his muzzle. After a few minutes, take it off, then repeat with similar sessions several times the first day.

On the second day, when you actually start your leash work, your dog will be less likely to "fight" the head halter, and also should be able to be distracted by being led with treats if needed.

How do you start heeling with the dog on a head halter?

Many people call any type of leash training "heeling" but at first you just want your dog to walk with slack in the leash, not worrying about keeping him always in heel position*. At the beginning, we just want to teach the dog to stay on our left and not pull ahead (or pull backwards). To get him started, have your leash in your left hand, and a treat in your right hand, held in front of his nose while you start walking. Think of your treat as your steering magnet, steer the dog with the little treat which is just in front of his nose, like a magnet. Keep the treat at nose height (if a small dog, you will have to at first crouch as you walk, but for medium and large dogs, just let your hand drop to a normal position where he can smell the treat but does not have to reach up or jump up for it).

What if he pulls ahead?

If your dog gets ahead of you, the head halter will automatically correct him. If he is trying to go around you to the other side, simply take a little slack out of his leash and just turn around, then use the treat to guide him back into proper position until he understands how to walk comfortably with the head halter. I find it is helpful with large dogs to use a 2 or 3 foot leash at first (or you can fold up your leash and secure it with a strong rubber band to shorten it). If your leash is short, then your dog cannot go way ahead or pull way back from you, he will naturally have to stay more in the correct position.

What if he still tries to pull or he starts bucking around?

If he pulls ahead, make a right hand turn, and keep moving at a brisk pace and encourage him to follow....keep moving. If your dog lags behind, DO NOT slow down or stop because this reinforces for him that if he lags, you will stop. If there is repeated lagging, switch to a shorter leash so that he does not have enough lead to get behind you, and also work on your "jolly routine" (whatever you use to make your dog "up", happy and motivated, so that he wants to be in close to you--it can be special treats, a toy, praising him in a high pitched voice or a combination of any of these).The most important thing is to keep walking at a brisk pace. As soon as he starts moving with you loosen the leash and encourage/praise him to help him understand that he is now doing the right thing. Praise him as you walk, do not stop walking when you are praising him.

As long as he is moving with you, the leash should have slack, so be sure to relax your arm and do NOT tighten the leash. If you are keeping the leash tight, he will never understand "right from wrong". "Right" is when the leash is loose so he feels no pressure on the nose loop, "wrong" is when he is pulling forward or backward which takes the slack out and tightens the nose loop.

When your dog is bucking or pulling ahead, don't say anything but the second he is in correct position and you are putting slack in the leash, give him verbal encouragement while you keep walking. Once he is doing well, make sure you walk a bit further before stopping. When you are ready to stop, slow down a bit and then ask him to sit. It is quite easy to guide him into a sit with a Gentle LeaderR, just gently pull upwards and as his head goes up, his rear should plop into a sit. Make sure that you have totally loosened the leash as you praise the dog for sitting. With a head halter, it really is a very gentle pull upwards, never jerk the leash (like you might need to do if using a slip collar to give a collar "correction". With a head halter, just lift your hand up slowly and as the dog's head is pulled upwards, his bottom should plop into a sit). At this point, you immediately drop your hand, taking the pressure off, so that the collar is totally comfortable once he has sat down.

*Heel position is when your dog's right shoulder is in line with your left knee, or in the case of a small dog, in line with your left ankle.

Important: Don’t let your dog lag or pull. Otherwise, leniency makes it very difficult to get the issue to go away if he becomes de-sensitized to the feel of the collar around his nose.

Questions?  Feel free to email me through our contact link. You may also wish to consider purchasing our affordable ebook entitled FOLLOW THE LEADER...How to Use Walking as a Behavior Tool. Walking is one of our most important behavioral training tools; secrets to having a dog walk politely on leash actually begin with easy leadership exercises that we do with our dogs indoors.

We need to strive to be compassionate and consistent leaders in order to help our dogs relax and feel safe in our ability to protect them. Follow the Leader was developed to help gudie you in helping your dog understand and accept human leadership.

.(c)2004-2014, Melanie Schlaginhaufen, all rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any fashion without permission. If you would like to use this article, please use the contact form to reach Melanie.


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