By Richard Cross | Dog Q&A
Head halters can be a temporary tool for aggressive or highly reactive dogs, but shouldn’t be used for most pets. Here’s why.
These collars work by placing the pulling force through the nose, causing the dog to be turned where the owner wants to go. They can be somewhat effective if you’re struggling with a large dog, but this is only because the dog is uncomfortable or even in pain when he pulls. Halters can also cause injuries if the dog pulls too hard or lunges.
The only situation I recommend halters if is your dog is highly reactive or aggressive on walks, and you’re struggling to keep him under control. Of course, you should discuss these issues with a qualified canine behaviorist first, but a head halter could be a helpful tool while you work on the dog’s reactivity problems. Even then, listen to your behaviorist’s opinion about whether the halter is a good idea.
I don’t recommend halters for pullers, as they are uncomfortable for the dog and don’t actually teach him to walk on a leash. Head halters, such as the Halti or Gentle Leader, are often praised as a “no pain” alternative to spike or choke chains, but they still cause discomfort.
Head halters are often mistaken for a muzzle – but they serve a very different purpose.
The collar 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 direction control over your pet.
This is why I have an issue with halters. Halters essentially place the pulling force of the dog directly on the delicate snout and nose area, which is (at best) uncomfortable for the dog. In some situations, it could even be dangerous, especially if the dog suddenly jerks the leash.
It’s also important to realize that halters don’t solve a pulling dog problem. Using a head halter might reduce pulling in the moment, 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.
The obvious advantage of a head halter is that can (temporarily) discourage pulling. This type of harness won’t stop every dog from yanking on the leash, but they do reduce the strength of the dog’s pulling capacity.
Unfortunately, the reason head halters work is because they cause discomfort, or even pain. They also don’t solve the issue. While they can be a temporary tool for aggressive or reactive dogs, they shouldn’t be used to stop pulling.
At The Dog Clinic, we only support pain-free and non-aversive training methods. For this reason, we don’t think head halters should be used in most situations.
As mentioned in the introduction, however, they could be a temporary tool for dogs with on-leash aggression or reactivity issues, but only if the owner has trouble controlling the dog. I also recommend discussing whether a head halter is a good idea with a canine behaviorist before trying one.
Be aware that head halters can be dangerous in some situations. 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.
To minimise discomfort, use a dual leash with the second clip attached to a regular harness. You should then ensure that any pulling tension is via the harness, with the halter only used to change your dog’s direction in emergencies.
Note: A head halter may increase reactivity if the dog hasn’t been desensitized to wearing it. The added stress could reduce the dog’s tolerance for other dogs and people. Head halters also feel restricting, which can make the dog feel trapped and more likely to react. This is why it’s important to only use a head halter with the help of a behaviorist.
If you decide to use a head halter, you should always read the instructions carefully. 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.
The best way to counteract this is by gradually introducing the collar and using positive reinforcement. Start by allowing your dog to sniff the collar and then give praise and a treat. Work towards putting on the collar for a short time, then once your dog accepts this move to practising in the garden. Only when your pet is comfortable wearing the collar 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 become desensitized to it, but rushing this step can cause him to become scared of the collar.
A poorly fitted head halter isn’t just less effective. It’s also more likely to cause injury.
It’s vital the collar 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 – and the walk will be very uncomfortable for him. 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.
Head halters are an aversive training tool that cause discomfort when your dog pulls. They also don’t teach your dog to walk politely, they just reduce pulling in an attempt avoid pain when wearing the halter.
While we don’t recommend using a halter for pullers, they can sometimes be a temporary tool for big dogs with on-leash reactivity issues, but only with the assistance of a qualified canine behaviorist.
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. You can find him on Facebook or Twitter.