By Richard Cross | Dog Q&A
A pulling dog is stressful to walk. So, if your pet is taking you for a walk (rather than the other way around), a head halter may be an option to consider.
They can be particularly useful if you’re struggling with a large dog. Aside from the embarrassment of being yanked down the street by your pet, strong pullers can cause shoulder and back pain. A head halter can prevent this until your dog is trained to walk on a regular harness.
Head halters, such as the Halti or Gentle Leader, aren’t without their controversies though. They are often praised for being a “no pain” alternative to spike or choke chains, but not everyone thinks they are a good idea. Let’s take a closer look at how they work and who should consider getting one.
Head halters are often mistaken for a muzzle – but they serve a very different purpose.
The harness usually has a strap that goes around the dog’s nose and muzzle, along with another that attaches around the back of the dog neck. Unlike regular harnesses (see here) or collars (see here), head halters have a leash attachment point below the chin.
When the dog pulls forward, the leash attachment causes the nose to be pulled down and towards the owner. This makes it difficult for a dog to pull in a straight line. It also allows for subtle direction control over your pet.
Despite discouraging pulling, a properly fitted head halter shouldn’t cause any pain. Instead, it makes pulling a “no gain” activity for a dog.
It’s important to realize this doesn’t solve a pulling dog problem though. Using a head halter might prevent pulling, but it doesn’t train a dog not to do it. When you go back to a regular harness or collar, the problem will return. This is why I only recommend using a head halter as a temporary method of control.
The obvious advantage of a head halter is that it discourages pulling. This type of harness won’t stop every dog from yanking on the leash, but it does a great job at making pulling less attractive.
There are additional benefits to a head halter though. The leash attachment provides easier control over where your dog walks, so you can gently guide him. The reduced pulling can prevent back and shoulder pain too.
Importantly, a head halter doesn’t restrict your dog’s ability to open his mouth, drink or carry an object.
Head halters are much more humane than a choke or check chain. They don’t cause pain, yet can still be effective at preventing pulling. Here are some common candidates for a head halter:
Not everyone agrees with using this type of harness though – and they aren’t right for every dog. If your dog often lunges, a halter could cause damage to the neck. If the halter is the wrong size, it may cause uncomfortable chafing. It can also be difficult to use halters on dogs with short noses, as the strap often falls off.
With that said, a head halter can be a useful tool when used correctly and safely.
You should always read the instructions that come with a head halter. Many also include an instructional DVD, which I recommend watching. Every halter is slightly different, so it’s vital to understand the product and how to use it safely.
With that said, there are some rules to follow for every halter.
The most important rule is you should never jerk your dog’s head when wearing a head halter. This can cause serious injury to the dog’s neck. When using the halter to change direction, use light pressure and relieve the tension as soon as the dog reacts correctly.
Similarly, you shouldn’t use a head halter with an extendable leash. If your dog runs to the end of the line and has his head jerked back, the sudden movement can cause a neck strain.
You shouldn’t expect your pet to accept a head halter immediately. Some dogs don’t mind halters, but most resist to begin with.
The best way to counteract this is by gradually introducing the harness and using positive reinforcement. Start by allowing your dog to sniff the harness and then give praise and a treat. Work towards putting on the harness for a short time, then once your dog accepts this move to practising in the garden. Only when your pet is comfortable wearing the harness should you start using it on walks.
Be patient when teaching your pet to use a head halter. It may take time for your dog to accept it, but rushing this step can cause him to become scared of the harness.
A poorly fitted head halter isn’t just less effective. It’s also more likely to cause discomfort and injury.
It’s vital the harness isn’t too tight. If the dog can’t gain relief by walking on a loose lead, there isn’t any incentive to avoid pulling. Instead, try to fit the halter so he can open his mouth normally but without the strap slipping off.
You should always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for fitting a halter, but here are a few tips for getting a good fit:
On a side note, your dog should only ever wear a halter when you can supervise him. Never leave a dog unattended wearing one of these collars.
A head halter can be an effective tool for preventing pulling and reduce stress on walks. This type of harness isn’t right for every dog, and it shouldn’t be substitute for training, but it can be a useful temporary measure.
Do you use a head halter? Or do you have any questions about getting one? Please let me know in the comments.
Richard is a journalist who specialises in dog behavior. He's written hundreds of articles and books related to dogs, including for the Continental Kennel Club, Dog Fest (the UK's biggest dog festival) and various veterinary surgeries. When he's not spending time with Jess and Rudy (his beloved Labrador and Golden Retrievers), he enjoys reading, hiking and watching sports.