Are Head Collars on Dogs Dangerous or Safe? It’s All About Technique!

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By Dr. Sophia Yin
1966-2014 R.I.P.


Every once in a while, when I’m doing a seminar for dog trainers, someone will ask, “Are head collars such as Gentle Leaders, Haltis and Snootloops safe for dogs to wear? Can’t a dog hurt its neck?” It’s a pretty simple question, but what some trainers really mean is, “Head collars are bad because I’ve heard they cause injury. How could you possibly use them? Dogs will run to the end and break their necks.” Or “I used one but my dog just pawed at it and didn’t like it.” Or, “I have no control with a head collar when my dog wants to be reactive. She just thrashes around and I’m afraid she’ll damage her neck.” So, what is fact and what is fiction?

How Head Collars Work

First of all, head halters attached to leashes are tools designed to help you control your dog by guiding its head, just as halters and lead ropes are used to help control horses. An animal tends to go where its head goes. So, if the dog (or horse) wants to pull on the leash and its head can’t move, it can’t pull you so well. If the dog (or horse) wants to head in one direction and you want to go in another, gently (but not daintily) guide its head in the direction you want to lead the animal.

The nice thing about head collars is that with some dogs, owners can just slap a head collar on and the dog suddenly walks nicely on leash, including around distractions that the dog would have barked and lunged at in the past. But in some cases, dogs randomly paw at the funny gear hanging off their faces the way you’d paw at pesky flies buzzing around your head. In other cases, the dog walks nicely and on a loose lead but, when he sees a distraction, he starts to sprint several feet to the end of the leash or barks and lunges and flails to get at the dog, cat, or person in the distance while fighting to get its head loose. Now if this were a person, flailing on the end of a leash attached to an apparatus on his head, he’d surely have a neck injury. But anyone who has seen a dog that goes to town playing tug-o-war knows that a dog’s neck is built differently. Because of this neck strength, few cases of injury due to head collars have been proven or medically documented (I actually haven’t seen any). Not to say injury could not happen. However, veterinary documented injuries caused or exacerbated by choke chain corrections and electronic collars are easy to find.  . Most likely if dogs are pulling on their head collar a lot or running to the end, they may need massage or chiropractic care just the way people who work or study at a desk all day need back adjustments periodically. In fact, I think I need a lower back adjustment right now.


The Basics of Teaching Dogs to Understand Head Collar Guidance

The fact of the matter is, that as a trainer, if you’re concerned about injury due to head collars or difficulty accepting the collar, it’s best to learn the skills needed to actually train the dog to love wearing the head collar and walk politely on a head collar, as well as to teach the owner how to correctly guide the dog in an anatomically natural way. The first step of training dogs to love the head collar is easy. Just pair the head collar with food and systematically train the dog to stick its head further and further through. In most cases where the food and the collar are handled correctly, the dog can learn to shove his nose through in just a minute or two. Practice over several sessions if you’re worried that your dog will especially dislike wearing something odd on his head. On a side note, this method for training dogs to love their head collar is virtually identical to training dogs to love wearing a muzzle brochure available here.

Once the dog is good at shoving his nose into the head collar, then put the head collar on. Keep the dog focused on you instead of the funny thing on his face. You can lure him with a treat to hurry and follow you a few steps at a time; if he’s doing well after you repeat this five to ten times, increase the number of steps he must take to get the treat. You can also use targeting instead of luring if he already knows how to touch a target with his nose and loves it.

Once your dog’s walking nicely and no longer has the desire to paw the head collar, it’s time to teach him that the leash has a limit. Every time his front feet pass yours, meaning he’s just a second or two from getting far enough ahead to pull, stop dead in your tracks. That will make it clear you’ve stopped and even the slightest pull will mean a halt to his forward movement. Once he clearly steps back towards you and then stands with a loose leash (or better yet, sits), walk forward briskly on a loose leash.

In other words, he learns the leash hanging in a lazy “U” means he gets to walk forward. If the leash starts to tighten, it means you’re stopping.  By doing this consistently for as little as one 5-10 minute session, Fido can learn that the leash has a limit that’s predictable. Note: in order for Fido to learn this and continue walking nicely you have to be consistent about how you walk and hold the leash. If you sometimes let him walk ahead and pull a little such that the leash is hanging but like a wide smiley face, or if you stop when his feet get ahead of yours but instead of keeping your leash–holding hand down low at your side– you let Fido pull your hand forward when he continues to walk, you’re sending mixed signals about what you want. Fido may never clearly get what you’re imagining in your head.  Have someone watch you so that you can see if you’re always being clear.

Now that Fido can walk with a head collar on in a non-distracting environment, you may be ready to guide him better when distractions appear. When you see something that normally catches his eye, react ahead of time so that he can’t run to the end of a his 6-foot lead.  Hold his leash so it’s just one to two feet long but still handling loosely so that you can easily and quickly guide Fido in the direction you want to go. If you hold the leash that way, it  will only tighten when you head in the new direction if Fido does not immediately follow. Then, so that Fido knows you have a direction in mind, you must clearly and quickly move in the  different direction the same way you’d move if you and a friend were jogging and you had to grab her arm to guide her away from the hole she was about to fall in (To understand the importance of movement, read Dealing with Difficult Dogs at the Vet: 5 Tips That Don’t Involve Food or Training Time).


Head Collars Are Most Effective and Safe if You Have the Necessary Skills

Of course the choice to use a head collar is up to the individual; however, if you’re a dog trainer, it’s helpful to know why a head collar might be useful and how to use it more skillfully, beyond the basics described above.  The number one reason I recommend head collars to some owners is that a head collar can level the playing field for owners who have mediocre timing and speed. Because the owners are able to guide the head, they can more easily get their dogs’ attention. The use of a head collar can greatly speed up the process of training dogs to focus on their owners and perform fun, polite behaviors instead of reacting to other dogs, people and stimuli. When used correctly, a head collar can even help control anxious dogs so that they can calm down enough to focus and take treats.

Demonstration: An Anxious Dog that  is Variably Motivated for Treats

In the video below I show the case of Clyde, the rescue puppy mill Cocker Spaniel who has a history of fear and anxiety in new environments and around new people. Clyde behaves well for his foster mom. He heels nicely, comes when called and is good with her other dogs and cats. He needs to get used to working with other handlers and in new environments because, ultimately, he will live in a different home.  The goal is to have enough people work with him so that he quickly feels comfortable and confident with new handlers. The problem is that in the situation shown here, he’s too anxious when someone other than his foster mom is handling him and he just wants to get to her. In order to help my student intern, Sophie, work with him, I put a Gentle Leader head collar on him. Usually I’d have his foster mom train him to enjoy wearing the head collar, but we don’t have that luxury here. We only have an hour to work with him and he’s not taking food reliably.

I start by just getting him to move and follow me on leash. Note: I don’t give him much time to stand around. I move quickly so it’s clear I want him to follow, but hold the leash in a way to guide, but not jerk, him. If he were reliably interested in food, I’d use big treats to lure him to follow instead of just moving quickly. But without the luxury of being able to consistently use food, I have to rely on my movement. Each time he catches up I have him stop and sit—after which he’s willing, sometimes, to eat the treat. I also use petting as a reward because his body language says that he enjoys it. However, I have to be careful because he’s been known to snap if he suddenly gets scared while the unfamiliar person pets him. After a few minutes, he’s following more willingly.

Next we walk him in the neighborhood. In this case, I hold his leash so that when I stop he can’t continue to move around and pace.  For anxious dogs, it’s important to keep them from pacing because pacing and squirming will increase their arousal and anxiety level. Sometimes they even look excited and happy when they are moving around nervously, so people don’t realize that the dog is anxious until he suddenly snaps or lunges. I hold the leash short, but loose, and stop every time Clyde’s front paws get ahead of my feet. When he gets to the end of the leash, he stops because the cue to stop is clear. Then, I tap his rear end to see if he’ll get the hint to sit. At first he’s too nervous, so I just resume walking after he’s stopped and stood stationary. After a minute or so, he relaxes and starts to sit when I give him a hint. Then, soon after that, he starts sitting on his own whenever I stop and even starts taking treats. Finally, after only ten minutes, he’s heeling with me at attention the way he does for his foster mom and he’s taking treats because he’s less anxious.

Next, Sophie, my intern, tries the same thing. It’s her first time using this technique, but even so, Clyde quickly transfers what he has learned from me to her and walks nicely next to her and stops whenever she stops.

Overall, the process of training Clyde to work calmly and happily with me and later with Sophie took just about 20 minutes. Without the head collar, it might have taken several sessions or a few straight hours with Sophie working with Clyde in the house.

Should All Dogs Use a Head Collar?

What’s my final opinion?  I find head halters an invaluable tool, especially when used with skill. I only recommend them when I think the dogs will benefit.  I do recommend that owners start dogs off correctly by following the protocol for training them to enjoy wearing their head halters and then to learn how to guide them clearly but safely. If you don’t know how to do this, though, and your dog is less controllable with a head halter, I recommend that you try something else, such as a front-attaching harness or that you get help learning the skills. (To see the pros and cons of harnesses read Which Types of Collars and Harnesses Are Safe for Your Dog?).


Dr. Yin passed away in 2014 but her legacy lives on.


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35 responses to “Are Head Collars on Dogs Dangerous or Safe? It’s All About Technique!

  1. Dr Yin – wonderfully put as usual. I had a man abuse me in the park one day because I had my lovely Rottweiler Cole on a Head Halter. This man felt it his duty to tell me off for being abusive towards my dog for having such a contraption on him as I would do him damage to his neck. Can you guess what kind of collar this man recommended to me and had on his own dog?……………….a nasty prong collar!
    Cole loved his head halter, he recognised it meant going for a walk, he even showed a clueless friend of mine once how to put it on him, when I asked her to pick him up from my home one day. She said she stood there looking at the halter wonder how on earth to put it on, when Cole put his lovely head in as if to say “this is how”!
    He did take off on me once, when a dog rushed him at a fence taking us both by surprise – I stood still in my surprise, he took off and suddenly came to a stop, non the worse off.

    1. have you used front connect harnesses and how did that go? My dogs never got used to the head halters, and that made me uncomfortable

    2. I am amazed by how well a gentle leader works,
      I made a very simple one myself out of a figure eight i tied in simple webbing, the cross in the figure eight is below his neck, which is where i clip his leash, through both loops of the eight. super simple and effective.
      I use a small carabiner and clip the back loop to his normal collar or harness which then acts a back up for the few times he has got distracted and wiggled free as it’s actually quite loose. The last time was when we came around a corner into two tom cats having a stand-off. One saw Red and was distracted so the other took the opportunity to lunge at the first, resulting in two tumbling fighting tom cats hurling themselves right at Red. I started using a gentle leader style collar because he was badly distracted by cats, and this incident was certainly too much for him, and he went a little mad and wiggled free, but the carabiner to his collar saved thee day

  2. One of the problems I’ve seen with head collars is that strangers think they’re muzzles. People see a dog in a muzzle and automatically think it’s going to bite them (which is stupid because a dog in a muzzle isn’t able to bite them!).

    We opted for the easy walk with our puppies because they’re already large enough (70 lbs at 7 months) to make some people nervous without being afraid that they’ve got aggression issues and I’m more worried about them learning to love strangers coming up to give them attention than I am about perfect leash manners while they’re young.

    I had great results with a head collar with the dog I had growing up, but at least in this area I can’t see using one long term if you want people to come up and interact with your dog. If you want everyone to leave you and your dog alone then they’re perfect!

    1. The way I combat that is by informing them that it’s the same as a horse’s halter. You might try the same. Usually I use it as a conversation starter about how much better a headcollar is than say, a choker or prong collar.

  3. Is E-collar injuries really easy to find? The ones I have seen involve improper use or cheap/faulty equip.

    Most E-collar injuries are due to pressure necrosis from individuals leaving the collar on to long. Others involve cheaply made collars that shorted in rain or had battery leaks. A good collar cant physicly burn a dog and equating a cheap ebay find to lets say a TriTronics collar is the equivalent of comparing a Primier head collar to a piece of rope/chain fashioned into a DIY collar.

    Of course I am not arguing here whether its humane to use an E-collar. thats a sep discussion.

    1. Yes. I have seen burns on 2 different dogs’ skin from invisible fence e-collars. The devices were left on for long periods of time, but with the clients using the invisible fence product, it was the point for the dogs to wear the collars for long periods of time when outside in the yard unattended (FYI, I don’t condone the use of e-collars & was helping these clients find other tools for their dogs).

  4. Yes, easy to find within the veterinary community with collars that are supposedly “good” brands (tritronics, dogtra). Shock collars companies say pressure necrosis but veterinary diagnosis is burn in the cases colleagues have posted and based on history. These include cases of hunting dogs where the collar is controlled by remote and used for trialing and training.

    Note that these cases are not necessarily cases where the collars have been kept on over 12 hours! For those in which they are kept on too long, do note that these products are prone to being misused because of what they are made for. e.g. dogs who bark when left outside are not just prone to barking for the first 12 hours. If “pressure necrosis” is a problem with keeping this product on too long and it occurs fairly commonly then the industry should design the product with this in mind.


  5. I have a Chinese sharpei name lloyd I have bought ever no pull collar and harness out there just bought one called front range harness attached the leash to the front as it said and not only can he still pull me when he sees other dogs but it goes sideways when he does. I’ve got the gentle leader again because first one broke where u lock it under chin but thankfully he was inside when it happened. If for some reason it breaks again if not attached want he run loose

    1. If you can, try the Comfort Trainer. It’s expensive but the materials are soft to the dog’s muzzle and they are harder to break than any others I’ve seen. As to the front clip harnesses… most of them do that. The only one I’ve found that doesn’t (if fitted properly) is the Walk In Sync.

  6. Headcollars are less likely to cause injury while training a dog not to pull, whereas a neck collar can often cause problems with dogs that weren’t taught as puppies not to pull, like rescue dogs. And muzzles are designed to keep the trainer safe while training dogs not to bite who weren’t taught as puppies, like rescue dogs.

    So your arguement is great from a puppy-bought perspective, but not everyone starts with puppies. Training tools are usually temporary, my goal is always to be able to switch to a neck collar after the problem period has passed, and to be able to stop using a muzzle once the danger period has been worked through.

    1. I used “neck collars” on my first dachshund and he ended up with cervical disk surgery. And he was an escape artist so just the right chest harness was hard to find. I agree with Ms. Miller. It all depends on the dog, the age, and the temperament

  7. I don’t believe in head collars full stop as they are seen as a ‘quick fix’ when they don’t tackle the underlying problems at all. If a dog is reactive on the lead, then there are positive reward based methods to train a dog to focus on the owner rather than the distraction. If a dog pulls on the lead, then train him to not to pull, don’t bung a head collar on him. Also there is no need to push down on a dog to make him sit – find a treat the dog loves – could be anything from sausage to chicken – move the treat up and over the dog and as his head goes back his bum will go down.

  8. This is a very informative article.
    Even though the subject of neck injury was addressed, I still have some concerns when it comes to Dachshunds. They are prone to back and neck injuries, as exemplified by my first dachshund, who had extensive cervical surgery.
    Can this be addressed

  9. I am in the process of training my 4 month old lab-pointer mix. She already knows many tricks, including how to get out of a halter, how to chew on her own collar when it is on and how to jump up and at least attempt to take the leash from my hand. I do use a very expensive shock collar with an even more expensive electric invisible fence. It keeps her in a three acre field which is her outside playground. I also have resorted to using a head collar (without the e collar on). It has helped her learn that the collar and leash are not toys and I am the leader. Focus on me. I use treats when she responds as directed, withhold treats or a favorite toy when she does not respond as directed. The bottom line for me is that I am the human and she is the dog. I take the e-collar off periodically during the day and definitely at night. In fact, my vet uses one for her dog. Like anything else, I feel that each dog is different — breed, energy level, and traits are all different between dogs. What works for one will not work for another. I also believe that one must use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement. But, then I am a retired school teacher and treat my dog, as a child who at times must be corrected — positively or negatively.

    1. Dear Ann,
      Thank you for your comments. The most important thing with training is to focus on clear direction for the animal and reward within 1 second for the right action rather than relying on the punishment – aversive to stop an unwanted behavior. While many use the electronic collars for the invisible fence, there is still risk with over shocking the dog or the dog running through to go after something they want ( a squirrel, or other dog). I have sadly seen the consequences of both. Also, there is a real risk of increasing aggression and anxiety with a dog experiencing the shocks.
      Have you followed Dr Yin’s learn to earn program? This is the best way for all his training because he earns all his food for coming when called not just in training but for all regular movements and interactions in the home so it becomes habit. It really strengthens his recall and focus on you.
      I am sure as a teacher you can appreciate the fast learning effect on a child who earned playground time, or other privileges for calm non disruptive behavior. Using the perfect puppy book learn to earn has helped a lot of adolescent dogs.
      Glad to see you are using the gentle leader as well.
      Dr Sally J Foote

  10. I am a professional dog walker/pet sitter (I do not use a head harness) however, I am currently caring for a very rambunctious 5 month old golden retriever who’s mom has bilateral rotater cuff injuries and is unable to walk her because of the pulling. This type of head harness has been recommended to me by an elderly neighbor so I am considering the option of trying it until we can train puppy to walk nicely so that she can be walked by her mom. I appreciate the opinions of those WITH experience, not concerned about opinions from those who have not used a product like this.

    1. Having owned, rescued, and trained Akitas for 36 years, I met my match in a young, large male. He had been put outside at age 4 months and lived outside until we took him at 14 months. Hs idea of walking is to just pull whoever is on the other end of the leash wherever he wants to go. He has a very large personality, no aggression. I tried postive reenforcement with treats, as well as every obedience trick I have learned to try to get him to walk without pulling. They worked very well until something distracted him…he preferred the distraction over the treats. I did use a variety of high value treats. I had ankle surgery and we needed to do something that worked. Another trainer friend suggested a halti. I was skeptical, having seen dogs escape from haltis et al, but it worked wonders for him. All my other Akitas, whom I trained, walk well on leash with no issues….he has been the exception and another learning experience for me.

  11. There is a UK company – Dogmatic – who make a dog head collar for more like a horse’s, ie firmer/more structured and available in various sizes. I think this is a much better option than the type available at pets stores.

  12. My friend has the Gentle Leader but insists that it must be removed immediately when the walk is over, saying it it harmful to leave on. I believe his dog has not worn it enough to get used to it and he merely doesn’t want her to be uncomfortable, but the Gentle Leader really helps his dog stay under control!!!

    Will leaving it on when not at home harm the dog???

    1. There is no reason to leave it on when not on a walk unless you are doing other training at home. It was not designed to be left on for long periods and can cause skin issues or get caught on things, among other issues.

  13. I have a dog that has pulled in the past. I used the head collar as a last resort. She has had it for about a year now, and wont listen to me unless she has it on. When we go on “fun walks” I do not use it on her. When we are walking in a highly populated area, I use it on her. She has minor fer aggression. She feels more secure to have it on. So my opinion would be that it is a helpful tool, when it is used right. When we get home, or in the car to come home, the head collar comes off. I think that it can be a good TOOL when used right. Not something for fun, not to try it. As a tool. When you have to use it, and if you know ow to use it. My dog has really benefited from it, and even with a regular collar on, has been better about her pulling. I use the Halti, as it is more padded, and that is what she prefers. So in my opinion, they can be useful in soft, gentle hands, when they are really needed.

  14. I’ve had great success with a Gentle Leader. My male Rottie was too big and too hard to control. He was 120 pounds of pure muscle. It did irritate him at first but he was so much better after a couple times I could walk him with one hand. Keep it slack when they are walking nice and not pulling. They get it quickly.

  15. Informative article however the breed of dog 🐕 may be of importance. I have two labradoodles routine is everything to them. You don’t walk them for 2-3 days you pay 💰 for it. If I walk them every day or every other day it goes smoothly. I handle both dogs 🐶 with one hand on each leash. If they get distracted or start jumping I cross the street. They want to reconnoiter the neighborhood. That’s why letting them loose in the backyard does’t work for these two.

  16. The most important thing is to know your dog and what training tool they need. I have an 11 year old heeler coon hound mix that is fine on a flat collar. My 5 year old husky can be fine on a martingale. I started him on a prong collar and was able o move him to a martingale. I have a9 month old husky that I use a gentle lead on. Hoping to move her to a martingale.

  17. my cane corso pulls me on my bike and goes left and right on command stops and goes on demand ( I don’t peddle) can I use a gentle leader or is that strictly for walking? I use a regular leather collar and leash with a shoulder strap he puts in his mouth to pull me with and not his neck.

  18. Hi – I was just given the recommendation by a trainer to start using the gentle leader on my jack russell. She did the fit for me while I was with her. I was using it today and my dog makes sort of a wheezing sound when she was wearing it. Does it restrict their breathing at all on their neck? Thank you.

  19. I have never used head collars as I have never had trouble with dogs pulling on the leash, but I have seen others use them and they seem to be very efficient and quick to solve the pulling on the leash problem.

  20. I recently adopted a dog who was supposed to be non aggressive. He was impossible to control on a regular leash. His previous trainer said he should be on a gentle leader .
    He was fine for a couple of weeks and the pulling ceased . He now has decided he can pull as much as he wants and is becoming more and more aggressive
    Gentle leader doesn’t work with this 135lb Shepherd .

  21. I have been using the gentle leader for about 9 months with my Labrador and she started breathing funny , like blowing out. Then my other dog also did it once. Can these cause breathing problems?? We walk alot.

    1. Generally no. That could be a sign of some medical issues so I would get her to the vet and have a chest x-ray done.

    2. We have an English Setter who has been professionally trained…more than once and was given up by her owners as she was not suited for hunting and was stubborn about nearly everything. We got her at 5, she’s now almost 12… she is an angel cuddle bug in the house but crazy once out the door. We’ve tried dozens of harnesses etc. The only thing that works although not perfectly is her head collar. Now, if she gets the scent of something her hunter instincts kick in and she could careless about her walking well and she will start to snort and make loud exhales as you may be hearing, that’s when we have to do a reset. We make her sit and stay for a good moment or two and walk the opposite way of the trail she was on. Also, keep in mind, your walks may have to become shorter as it gets hotter as their pant is a little restricted. Instead of 2 longer walks we do 4 one block walks as it gets hot. If they are still doing it, you may have it a little too tight, if not maybe a vet visit wouldn’t hurt, video the dog doing it so you can show the vet as they most likely won’t make the sound at the office visit,

    1. Please look up who Dr. Yin was. She was very well educated about pinch collars and hadn’t recommended them in over a decade.

  22. When I was a child we had a ridgeback and the only thing that stopped her pulling was a halti. Having had my welsh collie for a year now, from being a puppy, we have tried various ways to stop him pulling. We even had a session of several hours with a dog trainer which was of very limited help. It’s horrible to hate walking your dog.

    I got a halti last week and immediately he was better. I introduced him to it properly, using his favourite treat, and built up to taking him out on it before we left the house for a walk. He’s still taking a few swipes at it but that is already lessening and he is easily distracted by sights and smells so quickly forgets about it. I will use it in conjunction with the method outlined in the article (which I was already doing with his slip lead, with some small success), of stopping should he move ahead too far, but it’s so lovely to be able to walk him without sore hands, sore arms, pulled back and side muscles, or a half choked, red eyed, panting dog, that it may well end up being a long term solution. We never stopped using it with our ridgeback and if your dog isn’t bothered by it and absolutely refuses to walk without pulling on a normal collar (despite training) then I see no reason to stop using it. There have been a couple of issues with him getting tangled in the safety strap, which is quite long, but I’m trying it in different positions around the halti and if that doesn’t work then I may just take it off. The first halti I had didn’t have one so I don’t mind using it without. We are far happier walking him now and he is far happier as a result and doesn’t have the physical discomfort of pressure around his neck.

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