In Defense of the Head Collar
The pet dog industry has a large variety of dog walking management tools to choose from. Collars and harnesses seem to be the most popular but there has been a third type of collar that has been available to the public since the 1990s---the Head Collar. The brand names are “Halti”, “Gentle Leader” and “EZ-Lead”. While most of consumers may be familiar with the head collar and even how it works, it might be helpful to give more insight and information about just how effective it is and how it may help and improve your own handling with your current pet dog.
This is a quote from the company that invented the Gentle Leader:
“Millions of dog owners today enjoy the benefits of stress-free walks thanks to the Gentle Leader Head collar. Designed so that owners can communicate with their pet in a way they instinctively understand, the Gentle Leader painlessly and effectively removes the dog’s natural tendency to pull by placing gentle pressure on calming points and eliminating uncomfortable pressure on the throat. In addition to reducing a dog’s desire to pull away, the Gentle Leader is also a very effective tool in combating lunging, jumping, excessive barking and helping to calm an aggressive and/or anxious animal.”
– Premier Pet Products website (www.buygentleleader.com)
The head collar works like a halter on a horse---if you control the animal’s head, you can control their entire body. It is a simple concept and is becoming more and more common in all areas of dog training and control for the very simple reason that it allows a person to control a dog in a humane manner with little effort. I have a client who calls it ‘power steering’. This sounds great, so why doesn’t every one use it? Well, we will get into that shortly, for now, let me list some clear advantages of the head collar over traditional collars that use neck pressure for control:
- Using a head collar eliminates a dog’s ability to use their body weight—neck and shoulder muscles--- to pull a pet owner off line to sniff, visit a dog etc. This avoids dogs developing a ‘tough neck’ where they become sub-sensitive to collar pressure due to repetitive pulling on traditional neck collars.
- Using a head collar allows greater control and prevention of poor behaviors on leash.
- Using a head collar actually calms a distracted or energetic dog. The nose loop puts gentle pressure on points on the nose, actually creating a calming effect that is sometimes confused for ‘sadness’. In actuality, this behavior is a desired effect of the gentle leader and allows the handler to manage a calmer, tractable animal, especially in complex and distractible situations.
- It is extremely humane and easy on the handler’s body. With no attachment to the neck, the head collar eliminates collar pressure and potential for choking the dog. It eliminates sudden, unexpected yanking of the leash and painful shoulders and arms. This is a reason many humane societies issue head collars to new adopters. It is a humane tool that allows even children to control large dogs.
Here are some common behavior issues that can be effectively managed or even improved with consistent use of the head collar:
- Detecting and preventing scavenging for food or debris and preventing unexpected jumping up on people.
- Eliminates coughing or gagging for dogs with a sensitive trachea.
- Calming over-stimulated, excited dogs in busy, distractible environments
- Detecting chronic sniffing behavior.
- Effectively controls excessive pulling and lunging.
- Promotes control around distractions with minimal negative perceptions by the public.
Over the years people have offered up the following list of concerns about using the head collar:
- Dogs don’t like it and constantly try to pull it off with their feet or rub their head against things to try to get it off
- It promotes negative comments from the public, i.e. “it looks like a muzzle”, “the dog looks vicious” etc.
- It changes the dog’s behavior and makes it “sad”.
- The head collar is easily lost or misplaced.
- It can be difficult to put on.
I find that many clients who experience the above challenges, are quick to decide that the tool is too difficult to use and quickly dismiss it. They are not using it long enough to see the desired changes in behavior. The dog needs time and consistent use to adjust to the head collar. Intermittent use of the tool amplifies the above issues and often leads to escalating behavior issues. The more consistently the dog wears the tool, the more relaxed and receptive they become. Also, and perhaps more importantly, many people just rush and put the head collar on the dog in a shocking and jarring manner, creating an immediate negative reaction from the dog. Consider that the dog has never had a tool on his face and head area and then suddenly this apparatus is there and it is confusing and scary.
Taking the time to expose the dog to the head collar and make the experience a really positive one! This will prevent negative reactions in your dog. I use high value food and a clicker to teach a new dog that the head collar is a wonderful thing and help him look forward to wearing it!
Video below shows how the head collar should fit on the dog's head:
How to properly fit a head collar
It is perhaps the overt change in a dog’s behavior that creates the most anxiety for pet dog owners. They feel their dog is sad and uncomfortable. It is critical to understand how a dog interprets the head collar. According to animal behaviorists, the action of the nose loop is similar to the pressures a mother dog exerts when she disciplines and controls her puppies. In summary, the head collar helps to define the handler’s leadership position to the dog when worn. Armed with this new knowledge, hopefully pet owners will feel more confident that their pet’s change in behavior when wearing the tool is part of the purpose of it.
I thought it might be valuable to include some suggestions for responses to public comments regarding the presence of a head collar on your dog:
Q: Why is your dog wearing a muzzle?
A: It’s not a muzzle and my dog can freely open his mouth. This is a head collar that helps me control my dog in a humane way.
Q: Why does your dog look so sad?
A: He/She’s not sad, she’s content because she gets to be with me all the time!
Q: Why is your dog rubbing his head on you like that?
A: Because he loves me so much!
In closing I would like to offer the following testimonial from a recent client of mine--- Sarah Mason--- regarding her experiences with using the gentle leader. Sarah:
“I adopted my rescue American Bulldog “Aggie”, in 2009. She is an awesome dog and just overall a wonderfully loving and sweet girl. A few months after being home she began to test me a bit, as they all do. I began noticing some bad behaviors developing while walking her, specifically going after anything on the ground that she could eat, and being extremely solicitous with people, especially with people she knows. I contacted my trainer Emily Scott to get some suggestions, and she advised that I try having her wear the Gentle Leader. I had a neighbor who used a Gentle Leader on his lab, but I thought it looked cruel so was reluctant to use it. Emily came to my house and explained how the head collar works and that it is very humane. She encouraged me to be open to using it. She used Aggie’s favorite treats and a clicker to help Aggie to be more positive about this new collar on her head. Well, to my surprise, Aggie was extremely comfortable in the head collar and almost immediately, she became the perfectly behaved dog on leash I had wanted her to be! I do have to admit, I did feel guilty putting this on her the first few days because she looked so unhappy with it on. I always tried to make it a positive experience every time I would put it on by rewarding her with a treat for accepting it and not fighting me. I praised her a lot for her good behavior. We could be around people she knew quite well, and she didn't react to them at all. She stopped eating things on the ground. She was a breeze to walk with! I think the gentle leader is a great tool to use. I will continue to use it as long as it works, and of course try certain situations without it on, but be consistent and put it back on her if she exhibits the behavior. My hope is that the gentle leader will be a means to an end and eventually she will be calm and more behaved with just a regular collar”.
--Sarah Mason & “Aggie”
As always, if you have any questions or concerns, contact your local dog behavior specialist to get assistance. Stay safe and happy out there!