Why head halters are an essential element of force free training…

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.

Trained german shepherd, leashed with head halter.

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.

Caught my dog reacting on a head halter, you can see how he it helps me redirect him to away from the surprise dog.

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.

Opposition reflex in action: body harnesses restrict soft tissue and can contribute to musculoskeletal injuries and disorders, in both animals!

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.


I’ve trained quite a few dangerous dogs to wear muzzles, but I’ve never trained my own dogs to wear muzzles. If you read my last post, “A Horrible Thing Happened,”https://wholedogcamp.org/2021/07/01/a-horrible-thing-happened/ you know why I am training M’Ocean to wear a muzzle now.

Like most people, I thought, if I got my dog as a tiny puppy, from a responsible breeder, socialized him and trained him and socialized and trained some more, my dog would never be dangerous dogs. Wishful thinking is dangerous when it comes to our dogs.

Training helps prevent dangerous behaviors, and petting, grooming, stroking your dog can increase his level of oxytocin and make dogs less dangerous, but some dogs naturally produce less oxytocin than others https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/why-are-some-dogs-aggressive-hormones.

Fortunately, properly muzzled dogs can’t bite. It allows you to more safely socialize, train and travel with your dog, and it allows the dog to pant, drink water, bark, eat treats and even to push around balls and other toys! But a muzzled dog can’t bite, puncture, or pick up and toss a dachshund. A muzzled dog is far, far, far less dangerous than an unmuzzled dog. Here is a video showing how a very dog aggressive dog’s behavior changes when they are disarmed with a muzzle. https://youtu.be/xCEx6pn4W6s

But if the dog isn’t wearing one during the time that you need it or if the dog is able to push the muzzle off his face? It won’t work. A safe muzzle doesn’t interfere with vision or the natural movements of panting, breathing, eating, drinking. It has a forehead strap so the dog can’t push it off his face, and the part that goes around the skull is very snug, so the dog can’t possibly get out of it. Fitting the muzzle can take a week. Often I’ve bought two or three muzzles, and punched new holes in the straps, to get the fit just right.

Basket muzzles can be so comfortable and well ventilated that a dog can wear them all day long. If you have a dog who might jump up and pop you in the face with it, a plastic, rubber or silicon type is better than wire. We condition the dog to love it as with a head halter. Chirag Patel made a great muzzle training video, so I’ll just share that with you here. My only added comment is that you do need a forehead strap, especially if your dog has a history of knowing how to push a head halter off his nose. https://youtu.be/1FABgZTFvHo

The part of the muzzle that goes around the skull needs to be very snug. Often times, when I fit a muzzle, the head strap stretches and loosens over a few days and I need to keep punching new holes to tighten. You shouldn’t be able to fit any fingers under the strap that fits on the back of the skull, but the basket itself needs to be loose enough for the dog to open his mouth, bark, pant, drink water, eat treats. Here are some examples of muzzles that many dogs can wear comfortably all day long. Do you have a favorite muzzle?



I changed my mind.

So I called my veterinarian this morning and said, “I changed my mind.” I’m not going to get M’Ocean neutered — not yet, anyway. Here’s my reasoning (and I maintain the right to change my mind AGAIN).

M’Ocean doesn’t go around marking or humping pillows or blankets. He does sometimes get overly excited around other dogs, where it seems like he would like to hump them. Recently when a sweet playful spayed german shepherd came running over to him and dived directly underneath him, he wrapped his arms around her and started humping. It wasn’t a dog fight, but she was pinned and it scared her. He let her go, he didn’t hurt her, but I guess that was the event that made me think, I want to make training easier.

And unfortunately, neutering might not make training easier. At least, not for my dog. I see plenty of neutered dogs who get very excited when they see other dogs. Learning how to play, especially when you’re the biggest strongest dog on the playground, takes time. He does best in a large group, and this pretty dog diving into his arms was a pretty big challenge! But M’Ocean is increasingly showing self control around distractions.

My guess is that testosterone levels will naturally decrease as he hits five years old and 6. Maybe we’ve already been through the worst of his hormones.

When M’Ocean was 11 months old, an older intact dog at a dog Canine Musical Freestyle event jumped over the ring gates, landed on M’Oceans neck, sent him flying and left him with a shoulder injury that took a few months and about $1000 to heal. Yeah, I still am upset about it, because the event organizers seemed to blame M’Ocean, as though it happened because he was intact. But the dog’s owner told me her dog is “an asshole,” and he had a history of repeated bad behavior. So, unprovoked attacks happen to neutered dogs too. And now M’Ocean is 3 and he is 90 lbs of confident, socially experienced, mature, ballsy dog. A dog, maybe even a coyote, would think carefully before jumping a dog that looks like M’Ocean does now.

So I’m thinking, if I’m going to have to keep on training him and being wary of coyotes ANYWAY, if neutering isn’t a guaranteed resolution of the typical behavior challenges I face in owning a large imposing looking working dog, then I might as well focus on training and see how far I can get with that. I will re-evaluate in the fall.

Keeping his natural hormones for just a few extra months, while he is still building muscle and bone in agility, that has some health advantages. It’s a lot of responsibility, but if I can handle and manage him safely, there are some real health benefits, protections for his bones, brains and muscle, associated with keeping him intact a bit longer. He is becoming more “conscious,” more of a real “thinking” dog every month. There are other options, such as chemical (temporary) castration, or a vasectomy. I have time to do some research. He’s a LARGE dog to be running in agility. He needs to be in peak physical condition. So, about that neutering? Not yet. I changed my mind.

Off Leash Freedom!

How do you wind up with an adult dog who comes when called? There are lot of pieces to that puzzle. A lot of it is practice, practice, practice! But some of the pieces might be genetic. Some dogs have a natural urge to hunt, which can be a tremendous asset, as long as they are hunting for the things you want them to hunt for! But what if they take off after deer or chase cars or squirrels?

It’s important to prevent dogs from rehearsing behaviors that you don’t like. Some trainers use shock collars to stop dogs from chasing the wrong thing. I resist doing that, most especially with young dogs, because shock experiences can undermine a dog’s confidence and drive. It can leave them second guessing themselves and reluctant to experiment — an essential part of successful problem-solving. I don’t want my dogs to be afraid of trying something new.

The head halter to off leash progression in this video, (“Increments of Freedom” with Whole Dog Camp lead trainer Jenny Ruth Yasi) https://youtu.be/SU1XjbmgccI should be just one small part of your larger games-based recall training plans. This isn’t about coming when called, but it’s about understanding and using your leash and training gear as conditioned reinforcers, as well as cues. The head halter to off leash progression rewards dogs with one little increment of freedom at a time, around gradually increasing distractions! Dogs can understand that they aren’t just working for cookies, but they are working for something MUCH more interesting: freedom! Head halters and long lines set dogs up to succeed in trading responsiveness for privileges.

Rewarding with privileges — rather than giving privileges before the dog is ready and then punishment because the dogs makes mistakes — is a more fair way of working with your dog. It’s not fair to expect dogs to perform successfully off-leash if they can’t even perform successfully ON leash. I hope we all can become more awareness of when we are giving a dog a privilege and when we are taking a privilege away, and how that may influence behavior. When dogs understand that they aren’t just working for hot dog, but they are working for what they REALLY want, this leads to happier, less frustrated and more robustly confident dogs. Thanks for leaving me any questions or comments, here or on youtube!

Resource Guarding, part one

Picture the behavior you want to see.

“Resource guarding” is aggression that occurs around a dog’s possessions. The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or it could even be YOU. I once had a guest dog who would find a recently cleaned spot on the rug, and he would resource guard THAT!  It’s the opposite of what we want, which is  a relaxed attitude, a dog who isn’t worried about anything.

IMG_0124IMG_0192Resource guarding is the dog saying “Stay away!” It might mean stay away from my bone, my pups, my corner of the room, my human. It’s one of the most common behavioral problems I see, but fortunately one that is highly responsive to training.

First off: Why do dogs do this? Like almost all aggression, resource guarding typically starts as insecurity, and a lack of confidence, a dog who can’t predict what’s going to happen with a resource. Over time the dog can come up with his own plan for controlling resources, and this can develop into increasing aggression. Some dogs might be genetically more prone to this. I saw a puppy once that was scary aggressive, resource guarding at 16 weeks, and I was told euthanized by 6 months. Something was wrong with that pup.  But that is very rare. Far more typically, resource guarding is triggered by the environment, regardless of genetics.  Resource guarding is almost always a learned behavior. The dog has learned to act aggressively, because it allows them to control access to limited valuable resources.

IMG_0251This is why trying to pick up and control all potential triggers often fails.  You can’t eliminate every possible resource in the environment. When you limit some resources, you’re making every other resource in the environment seem more important,   MORE valuable, and this has potential to escalate things a  dog may choose to guard. We will never be “done” with our mission to  prevent development of resource guarding in all of our dogs. Behavioral health requires a  sense of  resource security throughout the lifespan.

When you’ve  flooded your environment with other resources,  the stinky spot on the rug doesn’t stand out so much. So that’s one way of approaching the problem. Rather than handing out one ball in a group of 6 dogs, dump out 24 balls. Begin with balls just laying there, don’t throw them right off the bat! If it looks like one dog is experiencing a ball shortage, dump out MORE balls. The idea is to have so many balls, no dog needs to worry about balls.  Ignore the balls, don’t touch the balls,  let the dogs do what they want. Add more balls as necessary.  Do the same if you pass out dog bones or treats. I remember spending $30 on 12 dog bones once, but it was super worthwhile!

I’ve seen dogs learn how to relax, again and again, in resource flooded environments. The resource guarder will likely collect  items: maybe six tennis balls, plus two bones and a rag, but then they start to  settle down and feel foolish because none of the other dogs cares a bit about what they’ve got. All the other dogs have what they need and they aren’t bothering the resource guarder. What does this tell you about the world?! I don’t know, but maybe something!

These ideas are not necessarily a prescription, but  reflective of experiences I’ve had with dogs who stay with me. As an old friend used to say to me when talking about beekeeping, “you need to think like a bee!” The same thing is true regarding resource guarding in dogs. We have to think of how we would feel if someone came and took our iphone out of our hands! Fortunately, dogs don’t care about iphones! IMG_9288