Today I was at a dog-friendly beach, and I watched pet owners arrive with dogs on a variety of shoulder distorting harnesses. Some were front clip, some were back clip, some with literally hobbles wrapped around the front legs, some were not restrictive at all, and others were somewhere in-between.
I had my own dog on a head halter, because that’s the safe way for me to handle him. A family with a new german shepherd puppy arriving in a few weeks told me their plan: prong and shock. Why?
“I’ve heard that head halters can rub against the delicate nerves in the dog’s nose. I’m surprised your dog doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. With a prong, you can train the dog instantly, complete control.”
I really hate fake news, because the fake news about head halters is causing some people to resist this humane, gentle, effective training device, and instead choose devices that are proven to escalate aggression (prong/choke/shock), cause injuries and deformities in canines (restrictive harnesses and flat collars), or result in injuries to human handlers (flat collars and harnesses in general). So here is my rant to hopefully counter the disinformation that is out there about head halters.
1. Unlike other gear, head halter trainers learn upon purchase that we must condition dogs to voluntarily accept a head halter. It’s not about force nor hobbling. The process we use to teach dogs to be led with a head halter helps trainers understand dogs better, and become better, more compassionate, trainers.
2. It’s easier/safer to handle a big strong dog because they don’t have so much leverage. This is a geometry thing, not a nerve thing.
3. Yes, there are nerves all over a dog’s body. Armpits, shoulders, ribs are especially ticklish and sensitive. The vagus nerve is in the chest and the body harness makes it difficult to access the dog’s chest to stroke the dog’s chest. Head halters rest on the hard part of the skull, and they don’t compress any soft tissue, and you can read down and scratch your dog’s chest whenever you want, nothing is in the way.
4. Dogs gradually outgrow the need for headhalters, so why does it seem like people use restrictive body harnesses even when dogs are off duty? Maybe because it’s hard to get some harnesses on and off? While pet owners understand they need to condition dogs to wear the head halter, pet owners often don’t understand that they shouldn’t just slap on a body harness and start walking and tugging the dog around.
4 Head halters can gently turn the dogs head away from a distraction. When a dog is on a body harness, if the handler is trying to guide a dog away from a reactivity situation, they are pulling the dog’s whole body, while the dog’s head is still staring at the distraction.
5. You never need to pull on a dog in a head halter, you can just move your hand so you are holding the leash beside the dog’s face. That’s it, now the dog has no leverage. Whereas if the dog is on a body harness and starts to react, even if you move your hand to hold the leash beside the dog, the dog can pull you down or drag you.
6. I use harnesses for skijoring and tracking so harnesses cue pulling and sniffing. A head halter is very different and helps dogs be clearer about what we’re doing.
7. It’s so easy to carry a head halter in my pocket, put it on and off, and only use it if I am in an environment or situation where I need the extra safety that a head halter allows. My dogs have noticed a pattern where if they pull on the flat collar, I’ll put the head halter on them. Sometimes it seems like they actually WANT to be on a head halter, they want mommy to hold their hand! It’s conditioned relaxation, so the head halter reassures, I am in charge, and they don’t need to worry about anything in the environment.