Where the Head Goes, so too the Dog:

Consider two owners walking their dogs down the street. One is walking comfortably with a loose leash while the other is being dragged, unmercifully like a reluctant piece of baggage. The dog walking comfortably is the result of one of two things – either the dog isn’t very interested in going anywhere or the owner took considerable time teaching a decent heel. The majority of dog owners don’t have it so lucky. They walk with a wheezing, struggling nuisance that makes going for a walk a painful experience. It is unlikely that many of those owners will ever gain control over their dogs. Fortunately, there is a solution that does not require main strength or hours of practice – it’s called a head-halter.

Head halters are not a new idea. They are older than Babylon and as contemporary as the nearest horse. People have been controlling strong animals by the nose for about seven thousand years, but dogs for only about the last 30. The wide acceptance of halters shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you want a big strong animal to pull a plow, wagon or log, you hook them up with a collar or a harness. Collars and harnesses allow an animal to use its powerful neck and shoulder muscles to move heavy weights or drag their owners willy-nilly. They also allow a dog to lunge at other dogs and people.

This general lack of leash control starts with the almost universal use of the wrong tools, a flat, buckle collar or a choke chain. Despite their popularity, few dog owners ever get good with the timing or force needed to inhibit a dog’s pulling. Additionally, these collars put pressure on a dog’s wind-pipe when they tug or pull or the handler gives a correction. The dog adapts by tightening its large neck muscles to neutralize the pinch caused by the collar. Though the dog may not object to this constriction, the wheezing and struggling that goes along with a neck collar is often unacceptable to the owner. As a result, many people decide to switch to a harness to take the pressure off their dog’s throat or simply let the dog tug and pull at will. They are more concerned about their dogs comfort than their own. They miss the fact that a harness is the same contraption used to attach sled dogs to sleds and plow horses to plows. Harnesses facilitate pulling. By being nice to their dogs, the owners have condemned themselves to unmerciful tugging.

The solution to this problem is to remove the dog’s heavy neck and shoulder muscles from the equation. Head halters by pass the shoulders and focus on the smaller muscles that attach the head to the neck. In practice, this isolation and control of lesser muscles works with a remarkable simplicity. As the animal surges forward, any tension on the leash tends to turn the dog’s head to the side. This has two major advantages, one mechanical and one behavioral. The mechanical advantage is that by turning the head, the dog’s momentum “jack-knifes.” The harder he pushes forward, the more his body turns to the side. This turns into a strength advantage for the human and a strength-neutralizer for the dog. It is far easier to turn the dog’s head to the side than it is to stop a dog that is pulling directly away from you. This can result in a huge improvement in control, especially with dogs that are obnoxious pullers or aggressive in public. Being able to redirect a lunge with a simple arm-movement is a huge safety factor for the average dog owner. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7oVZm_2jNg

The behavioral advantage of using a halter on a dog requires understanding something of their unique way of dealing with the world. While humans are often fascinated by a dog’s keen senses of smell and hearing, it is vision that is a dog’s most important attribute. You will rarely see a dog chase violently after a cat merely because he smelled or heard it. It takes the sight of a cat to do that. That is the real secret to the halter’s effectiveness on dogs – it controls their vision. If a dog sees a cat or squirrel, predatory instincts pop to the surface. Unencumbered, the average dog will sprint toward the target to either investigate or attack. The mechanical advantage of the halter easily turns the dog’s head and stops the headlong rush. Now the dog is looking either to the left or right, but has lost sight of the target. They hate that. If the lunge was forceful, the dog may even wind up headed in the wrong direction as it pivots around its chin. The result is predictable. They do whatever it takes to see the target – and that invariably means they learn to back up and stand still. Over a series of these experiences, the lunging simply fades away.

As with all tools, halters are not right for every dog. A small percentage of dogs fight the sensation of having a loop over their nose. This is often fixable and you’ll have to decide if the goal is worth the struggle. Another problem is that halters require a nose. The whole purpose of the nose loop of a halter is to allow you to clip the leash under the chin. If the dog doesn’t have enough nose sticking out, a halter won’t work. The nose-loop itself is an issue for some owners. Many people confuse a halter for a muzzle. In reality, the nose loop fits loosely enough for the dog to eat, drink and does not restrict the mouth. I have never had a client refuse to use a halter because they thought it was a muzzle.

Another common objection to a halter is the possibility of neck injuries. Ironically, a halter exerts far less force on the dog’s neck than either buckle collars or choke chains. Corrections with a halter are smooth pulls and a fast release of tension. In my twenty years of using them I have never injured a dog using one or even heard of a dog that was injured by a halter. By contrast, choke chains can cause neck and spine injuries and on rare occasions collapse the trachea. Of the two, a halter is many times safer than a choke chain when used by the average pet owner. If the dog is acclimatized to a halter from puppyhood, the chance of an injury is remote.

To explore using a halter with your dog it is good to know that all halters are not made alike. The two biggest players in the market are the Gentle Leader and the Halti. The main differences between then is that the Gentle Leader is a simpler design and sizing is much easier. The other big name in halters, the Halti, has a cheek strap that makes the fit more difficult and requires greater selection to fit your dog. As a trainer, I prefer the Gentle Leader because they adjust downward well. An extra-large can be fitted to a medium sized dog without any change of proportion or fit. A Halti would require having the correct size. I also think the Gentle Leader is easier to adjust the proper fit on any dog. It’s a simple, elegant design. If you do your research, you will find several other brands of head-halters on the market. For instance, the Snoot Loop is a halter than can be used on dogs with shorter muzzles, such as Boston Terriers. Each of these halters has its own features and benefits and like all products, should be evaluated before you accept or reject it for your use.

The vast majority of dogs learn to walk beautifully on a halter for even the most amateur handler. As dogs become accustomed to it, inhibitions form that limit unacceptable behaviors such as tugging, pulling and lunging at people and other dogs. The added level of control and the softer corrections of the halter make this an ideal solution for your clients who struggle with their dogs. As an inexpensive alternative to training classes and more forceful collars, head-halters are a blessing to dog owners who do not wish to become skilled trainers and just want to go for a walk.

2 thoughts on “Where the Head Goes, so too the Dog:

  1. Do you have an tips for handling a reactive dog on a halter? Mine stiffens his whole body when he sees another dog and I was wondering if I was going to hurt him by using the strength required to turn him head to get him to follow me.

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