Learning to become a better animal trainer is a life long process. And it’s pretty “normal” for trainers to disagree about all sorts of things. When I take dog classes, I might disagree with my instructors, but I try to keep my mouth shut for the most part. One common disagreement is about gear. In AKC clubs, I’ve seen people with choke or prong collars on their dogs, and I’ve been told head halters aren’t allowed! What?
So disagreements are to be expected, but it drives me crazy when I hear people saying that head halters are dangerous, they can cause neck injuries, interfere with a dog’s ability to smell, or just “dogs hate them.” So when I was in a dog class where the teacher said students should take their dogs to see a chiropractor if they’re using a head halter, you can imagine how hard it was for me to say nothing!
But after a few gasps of protest, I clamped my hand over my mouth and focused on observing the dogs. And at the very moment two unruly young dogs in body harnesses were causing some commotion, barking and lunging while the teacher made a pretty good display of not being bothered the slightest by barking and bouncing dogs. “That’s not predatory aggression,” she said, and remarked what she could tell from his body language. “He just wants to play.”
It sounded like famous last words to me. Canine body language can surprise us. The only certainty in my mind was that the dog was excited, aroused, barking, and pulling with all his might at the end of a leash attached to a woman who didn’t know what to do. If the handler lost her grip on the leash, the dog would blast off and my young German Shepherd’s relaxed down-stay on his mat would be tested.
Head halter handling is much like holding the hand of a toddler. Most of the time you have a light touch, but you might give a little squeeze when you’re crossing the road. Head halter training helps us to avoid “opposition reflex,” as illustrated in the above photos. The opposition reflex leads your little buddy to naturally pull away from restraint. In agility, we use that reflex to build speed into a “blast off!” So when untrained handlers pull or balance themselves by hanging onto the dog’s leash, it naturally stimulates dogs to pull in opposition. Restrictive body harnesses work mechanically, by restricting shoulders, and preventing the dog from shifting weight back onto their hips, but they can also stimulate opposition reflex. Muscles regularly restricted and inhibited in this way can slowly deform and disable growing bodies, just like keeping your toddler in a straight jacket. But because it can be challenging to put on and off the dog’s harness, many handlers keep dogs in body harnesses all the time, even when the dogs are off leash!
In any case, body harnesses are essential when you want your dog to pull, as they help distribute weight over the dog’s body. I use body harnesses to cue my dogs that yes, now it’s okay to pull.
A head halter is not good for tracking, or pulling. And it’s not like prong, choke or shock. Head halters can’t be just slapped on and go. Much like driving a stick shift, handlers and dogs need to learn how to drive, or walk nicely, on a leash with a head halter. Used properly, head halters should not be aversive, and they can be far less aversive than body harnesses.
ANY training tool handled improperly, can be aversive.
Internet head halter propaganda shows an anatomical sketch of a dog’s head laced with bundles of nerves and veins and this caption, “this is why I don’t use a head halter.” Did they forget that veins and nerves are all over the dog’s body? And anytime ANY gear cuts off circulation, it’s being used improperly.
Head halter trainers do not “pop” or “correct” dogs on a head halter. The head halter leash needs to be held lightly, loosely, like the reins of a horse. What changes is WHERE you are holding the leash (up near the dog’s head when the dog needs more guidance). Trainers try to never pull on the leash. Just as horses can develop a “hard mouth” from trainers who pull on the reins, dogs develop “hard necks” when handlers habitually have a tight leash.
There are different types of head halters, just as there are different types of body harnesses, and I prefer head halters with cheek straps and a safety clip to the flat collar (like the”Walk n Train”). ” Cheek straps make it easier to keep the nose loop loose without falling off, and that loose/tight contrast is essential for communicating clearly with your dog. When the nose loop is usually loose, dogs can notice when it tightens even a little bit.
As trainers, we need to help handlers prevent injuries in themselves, as well as their dogs, and handler injuries are far too common. Handlers get hurt when dogs yank. And I’ve also seen dogs with collapsed tracheas from flat collars. No matter what gear we are using we should ask ourselves, our veterinarians as well as our trainers, “is this safe?” I ask my veterinarians, “Are you seeing head halter injuries?” and they invariably say, “maybe I saw some fur rubbed off once?” but, no, they’ve never seen a neck injury due to a head halter. Ask your veterinarian if you get a chance and report back what s/he says in the comments! And it’s not that dogs don’t pressure test head halters.
Lisa told me she had her dog on leash with head halter. She was holding the leash sitting the back of their station wagon when the dog suddenly surprised her, lunging out after another dog. They both got yanked, but neither was seriously injured. If that had happened on a flat collar, or a body harness, would the results have been better, worse or the same? I don’t know, but when you hear that a handler has been injured, or if you see or hear of a dog altercation, I do ask about and observe what type of gear the animals are wearing.
Without training, dogs can wipe a head halter right off their face. So head halter training requires pet owners to learn about operant and classical conditioning, reinforcement, and choice based learning. When we hold up a head halter, head halter trained dogs come running to put it on. Handlers handle their leash gently, like the rein of a horse, to avoid stimulating the opposition reflex. Handlers have practiced putting the head halter on and off, until it is easy, so that later they can carry the head halter in a pocket, pop it on if a dog seems overly excited, and take it off when the dog has calmed himself. A head halter teaches handlers to pay attention to their dogs, and to progress training so that a dog isn’t stuck forever in a restrictive harness. Head halter trained dogs graduate from head halter, to flat collar, to off-leash freedom in more and more environments.
So if you hear a trainer saying that head halters can damage necks, take a careful look around your training classroom. Which dogs seem to be straining their necks? It’s probably not the dogs who have learned to relax and accept hand holding with a head halter. But the big bouncing barking dog, with a handler hanging on dear life?! I would definitely call the chiropractor for that!!