By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Loose leash walking is part of most obedience classes, but it’s clear that many handler/dog pairs fail to master the art of the walk. Look around at folks struggling to walk dogs on leashes and you’re likely to find all sorts of gadgets intended to stop the pulling, including choke chains, prong collars, shock collars, front-clip harnesses and—the subject of this article—head collars, also known as head halters.
One of the biggest challenges to achieving anything close to a loose leash is the dogs’ opposition reflex. Technically, opposition reflex is a type of thigmotaxis, an innate response (pushing or pulling) against physical pressure. In learning theory terminology, your dog pulling on the leash is an unconditioned response in the same vein as his salivating when presented with food: He does not have to be taught this.
Many aspects of dog training focus on teaching our dogs to not behave in ways that are natural and instinctual. For instance, dogs are social creatures, but we must teach them how to be alone to avoid separation anxiety. Likewise, it is completely normal for an animal to protect his resources, but we teach our dogs to not snarl and snap when we take their toys away to avoid excessive resource guarding.
Leash pulling is instinctual
And so it goes with pulling on the leash: Until he is trained otherwise, your dog is likely to exhibit the opposition reflex that prompts pulling against his leashed collar. (Sadly, mushers in the Iditarod use this innate response to their benefit; sled dogs will pull against pressure to utter exhaustion, even death.) Since we humans seem to have our own unconditional response to finding the quickest solution, many devices have been designed and marketed to combat pulling. But the most aversive gear —choke chains, prong and shock collars—do nothing to address the opposition reflex, instead relying on pain.
Conversely, both head collars and front-clip harnesses act by reducing opposition reflex. For most pulling issues I’ll usually start by introducing an Easy Walk or SENSE-ation front-clip harness and simultaneously teach loose leash walks using a combination of positive reinforcement (click/treat when the leash is loose) and negative punishment (forward motion stops when the leash is taught.)
When a dog is a world-class puller or is also reactive on leash to either people or to other dogs, a head collar is my tool of choice. British animal psychologist Dr. Roger Mugford developed the first head collar, the Halti, in 1986. Mugford scaled down the head halters that had been used for thousands of years on horses (bridles), cattle, camels and lamas, and then adjusted the construction to fit the dog’s facial anatomy. Other brands have since hit the market, including the Snoot Loop, Walk ‘n Train, and the most common brand in the United States, the Gentle Leader.
New head collar design
Until recently, and despite the fact that it was the first one developed, the Halti was my least favorite because it did not include a locking cam under the chin strap and was therefore too easy for the dog to back out of. The Gentle Leader did provide the cam, but did not include a safety strap to connect the head collar to the dog’s buckle collar, a feature included in the Walk n Train which I consider crucial: In case any part of the collar fails, you still had your dog. But now, Halti has released the best design yet: The Optifit.
The Halti Optifit is now the only head collar I recommend to my clients. As you can see in the photo above, the design includes both a locking cam under the chin and a safety strap that secures the head collar to the dog’s flat buckle collar. Other improvements include cushioned padding under the nose strap and side straps that do not crisscross the dog’s mouth. While all head collars allow dogs to open their mouths (for panting, eating and drinking), this is the first design with side straps that angle back so that the mouth remains complete unimpeded.
Conditioning the head collar
Regardless of which brand my client selects, I encourage them to slowly condition the dog to wearing the head collar for short periods before the appointment in which I demonstrate how to use it for leashed walks. This is an excellent discussion on how to accomplish this:
How to get your dog comfortable in a head collar.
My clients are often amazed the first time we take their dog out with a head collar because, instead of pulling ahead on a tight leash, he’ll instead trot close in a heeled position for the first time ever—the opposition reflex is no longer in effect. If he does start pulling ahead, a quick, gentle tug-and-release will guide him back to the correct position, his head adjacent to your leg.
A note on corrections: I am loath to use the term “correction” for the motion we make using the leash and head collar to communicate with the dog. Leash correction conjures up all sorts of images of angrily yanked collars. I don’t use choke, pinch or shock collars because they inflict pain, and I certainly do not advocate hurting dogs with harsh leash corrections. The communication via the leash is similar to that which happens between a horse and a rider using a bridle and reins.
The gentle tug-and-release should be accomplished with a wrist motion, or even just a flick of the pinky finger. When using a head collar, the leash should be loose 99.5% of the time. If you’re yanking too hard or the leash is taught for more than short instances, you’re using it incorrectly. I recommend hiring an experienced trainer to demonstrate the head collar the first time you use it following the desensitization period.
Head collar no-no’s
- NEVER use a retractable leash with a head collar because you’ll be sending very mixed, confusing messages to your dog, which could result in injury. The head collar is meant to keep your dog near you while the retractable leash tells him to go as far away as the leash will extend. I would actually expand on this to say, never use retractable leashes!
- Do not run your dog using a head collar. A sudden stop could cause injury to your dog. Instead, use a flat buckle or front-clip harness for running.
- Do not allow your dog to wear the head collar except during walks, especially not when he is playing with other dogs. It’s too easy for another dog to grab hold of the collar, a distinct disadvantage and potentially dangerous.
Temporary or permanent?
People often ask if their dog will wear the head collar for life, and the answer is (as is often the case): it depends. A dog on a loose leash using a head collar is less likely to be aggressive/reactive for two reasons: (1) he is in a less aroused state when trotting next to you, leash loose, than when in front of you on a tight leash, and (2) the head collar can have a calming effect not unlike that achieved using a pressure wrap such as a Thundershirt. So if a dog is highly reactive, the head collar might be your best option for the long haul.
If your most pressing concern is pulling without leash aggression, I would recommend combining the head collar with positive reinforcement to teach heeled walks, then wean your dog off the head collar as his leash skills improve. Again, working with an experienced trainer is a great option. I find that a dog learns heeled walks faster when training sessions incorporate many figure 8 patterns: He has to pay more attention to you when you’re constantly turning. Regardless of where he is in relation to your leg, on the turn he will end up by your side at some point, and this is when you click/treat and introduce the verbal “heel” cue.
Head collars are deemed effective and humane by both the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States. A head collar is simply a tool, and like all tools it can be used correctly or incorrectly. Some dogs simply will not get used to wearing one, though this is relatively rare. Others will take to them instantly with no problem whatsoever. Regardless, be patient and compassionate with your dog and ever conscientious about building your relationship.