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Head Halters

By Gary Wilkes

A common sight at a kennel or daycare facility is a dog – on a leash – acting like an absolute beast. You usually notice this as the client is waiting for check-in. As the dog is passed from owner to kennel attendant, a transformation takes place. The firm control of a steady hand restrains their movement. When the owner returns to collect their dog, the sequence is reversed, and the dog goes from angel to devil.

I t’s too bad the owner doesn’t have your years of experience or the equivalent. It is unlikely that most of them will ever take the time to develop your level of control. Fortunately, there is an equivalent. It’s called a head halter. Not only will it give your clients the control they desperately crave, but it’s also something you can use to help your bottom line. That is a win-win situation.

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 7,000 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 your clients through your front door. They also allow a dog to lunge at other dogs and people as they wait in your entry area.

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 windpipe when they tug or pull or when 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 to let the dog tug and pull at will. They are more concerned about their dog’s 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 bypass 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 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.

The behavioral advantage of using a halter on a dog requires understanding something about their unique way of dealing with the world. While humans are often fascinated by a dog’s keen sense 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 either to 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. When that happens, 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 halter’s nose loop 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 and 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 requires far less force than either buckle collars or choke chains.

Corrections with a halter use smooth pulls and a fast release of tension. In my 20 years of using them, I have never injured a dog by using one or have 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 add halters to your kennel or daycare, the initial decision is to pick the one that is right for your clients and easy to stock. The two biggest players in the market are the Gentle Leader and the Halti. The main differences between them is that the Gentle Leader is a simpler design, and sizing is much easier and requires stocking fewer sizes. The Halti Collar has an additional strap on the side that is intended to give stability and strength. The trade-off for the Halti is that you have to stock more sizes and some face shapes are difficult to fit.

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 find the proper fit on any dog.

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 product line.

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 your clients and can be an added source of revenue for your kennel, boarding, or daycare business.

Gary Wilkes is a former shelter manager with more than 25 years experience solving behavior problems by veterinary referral. For more information, visit or write to [email protected].

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