By Dr. Sophia Yin
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.
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).
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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?).