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The Head Halter- Torture & Pain and This Nonsense explained.

February 10, 2015Category : Articles
The Head Halter- Torture & Pain and This Nonsense explained.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hate head halters. It boggles my mind that so many trainers call prong collars cruel, and have clients strap these devices on their dogs—and then call it positive training.

I’m talking, of course about Gentle Leaders and Haltis. There are a couple of design differences between the two, but they’re essentially the same thing. In this article, I am going to focus on Gentle Leaders for one highly personal reason: their advertising is so misleading and deceptive that they’ve suckered people into thinking they’re “humane.” It bugs me.

A digression into the subject of pulling.

The head harness manufacturers will tell you that head halters are a good training tool, but the fact is that the vast majority of people use them to manage their dogs’ pulling. The thing you need to understand is that dogs like to pull. It is a very rewarding activity.

There seems to be a trajectory when it comes to managing pulling. People worry that the dog will damage its neck when pulling on a flat collar. They’ve been told prong collars are cruel, so they stick the dog in a harness.

Harnesses distribute pulling weight over more body area, which makes it easier for a dog to pull. There’s a reason sled dogs wear them. So if that doesn’t work, people try a front clip harness, which swivels the dog’s weight around when it pulls. (I hate those too, because they can cause skeletal damage around the shoulder area–when they actually work. Plus, harnesses have their own set of issues.)

And when harnesses don’t work, people are assured by Gentle Leader advertising that this product is a humane, positive method of training your dog not to pull.

The only thing “positive” about a Gentle Leader is that you use clickers and food to bribe the dog to let you put it on. They hate it.

Gentle Leader or medieval torture device?

What is more cruel–a prong collar or a Gentle Leader? A lot of people will point to the prong collar, mainly because they aren’t educated in how they work. And after all, a Gentle Leader is …. gentle.

But don’t let the soft straps and cheerful colors fool you. Head halters are far more aversive than a prong collar. I’ve heard people say, “But it works!” My response is yes, it works. But you have to ask yourself WHY it works.

Here’s how Gentle Leader explains it in its training manual:

The Gentle Leader® does not choke your dog. It is scientifically designed to direct your dog’s entire body by controlling his head and nose. And wherever his nose goes, his body must surely follow! The Gentle Leader® dissuades your dog from pulling on the lead by transferring the pressure of his efforts to the back of his neck via the neckstrap, while the pressure of the noseloop communicates your reassuring control. Your dog’s instinctive resistance to these redirected pressures causes him to stop pulling to relieve the pressure at the back of the head and to relax and walk easily by your side.

Once you get past the feel-good wording, this is what it’s saying:

The Gentle Leader pivots the entire weight of a pulling dog on its nose. The pressure of that weight forces the dog’s head to turn. It’s called torque and it hurts.

Also, the company says that there’s pressure transferred to the back of the neck, but a simple look at where the lead attaches demonstrates this isn’t true. It’s all on the nose.

Imagine a 50-pound dog running forward, hitting the end of a leash and having its neck snapped around. We’re talking serious damage. Even on a slower walk, hitting the end of the leash is painful.

So yes, it works. Dogs don’t pull because they know that it will hurt like the dickens if they do. Gentle Leader calls it “power steering.” The handler doesn’t have to do anything because the halter does it for them.

(Do you see why I hate this company so much? It preys on people and their fears of being bad dog owners. People read this and are deceived into thinking that it’s a more “humane” choice than training with a prong collar which, let’s just get the facts straight, does not choke a dog.)

Dogs hate Gentle Leaders.

Not convinced? Consider this: Dogs hate Gentle Leaders so much that you have to condition them to accept just putting one on.

The Gentle Leader training guide glosses over this fact a bit (no surprise), a void that has been filled with youtube tutorials. These are all positive trainers going through convoluted “conditioning” and “reinforcing” processes that involve food to get their dogs used to the head harness. Do a search, you’ll see if for yourself. (If you do, take a look at the body language of these dogs. Many of those who are truly conditioned to accept it are obviously not happy.)

And then there’s the following gem, excerpted from a guide written by a positive training company. This sums up just how aversive Gentle Leaders are to dogs. The bolding is mine.

Acclimating your dog to the Gentle Leader

It’s very important that you acclimate your dog slowly to the Gentle Leader. The neck strap is a pressure point that reminds your dog of the pressure the mother dog puts on the back of the neck when she picks up the puppies in the litter. The nose strap reminds your dog of the Alpha dog as it’s similar to the pressure a higher ranking dog may use as a correction. Therefore, when your dog first experiences the Gentle Leader, he may think the mother dog and Alpha dog are sitting on his head! As long as you associate really positive things with the Gentle Leader, and never take it off when you’re dog is struggling, he or she will begin to enjoy having it on as it means walks and treats.

Always put the Gentle Leader on with a leash attached. If your dog fights it immediately when you put it on, GENTLY lift up on the leash at a constant rate towards the sky until your dog settles down and stops struggling. As soon as your dog relaxes, immediately loosen the gentle pressure on the leash so there is a ‘J’ in the leash, and praise and treat. Please DO NOT tug, jerk, or pull on the leash like you would with a choke chain correction. When lifting up on the leash, you only want to apply gentle pressure to the head collar so your dog will ‘give in’.

In the beginning, put the collar on your dog several times a day for 2-3 minutes, give him treats, throw a toy, feed him, etc while he has it on. At the end of the 3 minutes, if he is not struggling, take the Gentle Leader off. Never take it off if your dog is struggling, because that is a reward for struggling. Gradually increase the amount of time he wears it in the house, and then begin putting it on at the end of your walks when he is tired. Increase the amount of time he wears it towards the end of the walk until you are actually putting it on in the beginning. If your dog tries to rub his nose on your leg, or sweep his head through the grass, don’t let him. Lift up on the leash as stated above, and then loosen the leash and praise when he stops. Above all, make the time he has the Gentle Leader on FUN!

We can translate this pretty succinctly:

Your dog will resist when you put on the Gentle Leader because he will think he is being chastised and dominated. Do it anyway. Use food as a bribe. Ignore signs of distress. Eventually, your dog will give in.

Whether they give in is also debatable. A huge percentage of dogs will always fight them.

A proper fit is uncomfortable.

I have a lot of people show up with Gentle Leaders and Haltis on their dogs. I will never forget one particular dog. The bone underneath the head halter was shot. I mean, literally shot; his muzzle was almost concave because of the sheer pressure on his nose over an extended period of time. This was an extreme case, but I also see many other dogs with no fur on their faces because they try to rub them off. Some of these dogs have been wearing these for years, and they’re still trying to get them off.

I tell you all this because there are a lot of Gentle Leader and Halti fails out there. When you bring them up, the inevitable response is that it wasn’t fitted correctly.

Maybe, maybe not. The company says:

Even though the Gentle Leader® fits much more snugly than other collars you will notice that your dog is still comfortable, able to pant easily & shows no signs of distress or discomfort.

And yet this is a demonstration of what the proper fit looks like. Enough said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdBvK43TrrE

Where’s the positivity?

Call me crazy, but I don’t understand how it is humane to use a tool that yanks a dog’s head around with more force than anyone could ever do with a prong collar. And I fail to see how it is positive to force a dog to wear something that it finds painfully repugnant.

This, my friends, is where the cognitive dissonance begins. The people pushing head halters are the so-called positive people. Please someone, explain to me the level of denial that exists here. How do they reconcile this? Do they stick their fingers in their ears singing LA LA LA while frolicking among positive rainbows and unicorns?

And someone please tell me—how on earth do these people justify demonizing prong collars and then sticking these head cages on dogs?

It’s absurd. It’s so absurd that it’s laughable. Or at least, it would be laughable if we weren’t so busy fixing the damage caused by these people.

Train or manage—it’s a choice.

Remember when I said that that pulling is a rewarding activity for a dog? Here’s the thing: there are two ways to deal with pulling (and pretty much everything else too). You can either train the behavior you want, or you can manage the behavior you don’t want.

I prefer to train the behavior that I want. Head halters aren’t the way to do that. They just manage the behavior. And they do it through pain.

38 thoughts on “The Head Halter- Torture & Pain and This Nonsense explained.
  • Leanne

    What do you think off the “Safe Calm collar”?

  • Dale Hubbard, Ph,D.

    I am glad you wrote this article and thought it was well presented. In reality, there is nothing that is “all positive” in this world. Trainers who call themselves an exclusive positive trainer is just simply not true. Anytime you use any correction, it is not positive. Whether it is stopping a pull with a leash or a tone of disapproval. Therefore, I advocate using humane corrections with the main thrust of positive reinforcement. Even with the Gentle Leader, if used incorrectly is harmful but can be used in a helpful and humane manner. I encourage people to be realistic in examining how they use training methods with using corrections that are non-harmful and on the other hand reinforcing correct behaviors. I primarily train hunting dogs (mostly bird dogs) with strong instinct drives. Showing the dog what you want with gentle correction boundaries and rewarding the desired behaviors is what I advocate and produces happy dogs that love to learn and are wonderful hunting companions in the field without an e-collar or aversive techniques.

  • vicki harter

    Love this article on gentle leaders well said

  • Karla Brewster

    Thank you.

    I have been saying this for years.

    Also, the head halter was developed on the principle of a horse halter…where the head goes, the body will follow…

    But, having trained horses for years, I can tell ypu, I never trained a horse in a halter…

    Bridles, hackamores, bosals, with spurs, crops….etc….that is how you train a horse…

  • Viatecio

    The fitting directions say (and I failed to mention in my video) that if the neck strap “feels too tight, it’s probably right.” There is no release–it is buckled around the dog’s neck and left there.

    For up to 18 hours a day, according to some trainers, who say that dogs can just wear these around the house as part of their training equipment or if they need to “get used to them.”

    Funny, because I was taught that a slip collar is only supposed to be tight for a fraction of a second before loosening back up into a comfortable position–oftentimes much looser than a buckle collar, owing to how they need to fit around the dog’s head in order to be placed on the neck.

    But it’s cruel to use a slip collar in training because it chokes the dog. Because the APPEARANCE of cutting off a dog’s air for a good fraction of a second while administering a humane, effective and behaviorally-appropriate correction is more cruel than making a dog undergo the torture of having a constantly-constricting necklace that, by all audiovisual evidence AND WHEN FITTED “PROPERLY,” forces the dog to breathe through a constricted pharynx. Because “humane” or “dog-friendly” or somesuch nonsense.

    Right. Got it.

    Go ahead, Gentle Leader proponents; justify it all you want, tell me how nicely your dogs walk with it on (but don’t say how terribly they pull without it), how well they adjusted to it with treats and loves, how kyoot they are when they rub their noses on the ground or shove it in someone’s crotch to try and rub the dang thing off because OH HE HATES IT BUT IT’S THE ONLY THING THAT WORKS….

    …and I’ll keep training dogs without them. Because I can.

  • Jan B

    We got a German Shepherd puppy at Christmas time and I have been working with her since that time. And she’s coming along very nicely. But the walk is still hard. It’s okay if we go out at 6 in the morning when nobody’s out but in the evening it’s terrible. I tried A Gentle Leader. It’s barbaric and I’m taking it back to the store. She hated it, hated it, hated it! Oh she walked really good with it on but she would randomly throw herself onto the ground and try and put off like she was trying to chew off her own face. Since we got home she hasn’t even wanted to sit with me. It’s going to take a lot of treats and a lot of gentle persuasion to get past this episode. I’m glad I have my receipt so that I can return this piece of sadistic garbage.

  • Kiersten L

    I saw two “service dogs in training” wearing gentle leaders yesterday. People who train “service dogs” tend to be pretty defensive so I didn’t ask them any questions beyond the “what are the dogs training for” question, but I wondered.

    Are these dogs supposed to wear the halters for life as service animals? Since the dogs were being trained for working with people in wheelchairs, how is that good training? People in wheelchairs might have little physical ability to control the dogs, and dogs must be trained to respond without any equipment.

    The whole thing made me mad. Mostly for the person who is getting this dog as a service animal.

    If a dog is in a halti, I consider that a pretty clear sign it is not a legit service dog. I could be off, I do not work in the service dog realm, but I expect my malinois to behave off leash, without any equipment at all once they are fully trained. And they are just companion or sport animals, not service dogs. Service dogs must be at the highest standard of all, in my opinion.

    Haltis are a huge scam, designed for people who aren’t able or don’t want to train their dogs. As such, I believe their use on service dogs is completely wrong.

    • Nitro K-9

      There are no laws federal or otherwise I am aware of that could stop this. Thanks for the passion and taking the time to comment.

  • Kaylee

    Your points sound defensive in my honest opinion. I feel that your training has been questioned and rather than trying the so-called torturing lead you have jumped to the conclusion that it is hurting our beloved dogs. How has not one comment questioned why a dog with a gentle leader doesn’t yelp when he or she pulls and the lead “hurts” them? Dogs are annoyed with it yes, I would be too, however an argument can be, what about those of us that are in fact using it as a VERY last resort?

    For a 5’2 petite girl training what ended up being a very strong rescue Golden Retriever (1 1/2 and never leashed trained). I’m not okay with choke collars (severely damaging), shock collars (kills dogs), and I feel I need to mention that my girl is highly trained and attentive indoors, but in our city walking she gets very anxious and trust me when I say, I’ve tried everything humane. She has broken out of two different harnesses and her collar. Mind you this is not the first or second dog I’ve trained, and very well at that fact. My 7-year-old Siberian Husky, who come to find out recently has a low content WOLF heritage, is an amazing leash walker and highly responsive to me despite her naturally stubborn character. Anyway, I have the Golden on a gentle leader now, and after continuing her training with now full control to gain her attention nicely, she has gone from a chronic leash puller, anxious, jumper, to walking by my side and leaving tons of slack on leash. So I would have to say that the Gentle Leader was able to help me to get my dogs attention when nothing else would, as well as keeping my dog alive where she is unable to break it and run out in front of traffic in the middle of Boston. You may argue that I now sound defensive, but I assure you I even hesitated against the Gental Leader and took a lot of time to research. I’m writing this because I know what it feels like to feel as though you’re defeated by a dog and I wouldn’t want this article to deter anyone from trying a much more humane alternative. There is so much back and forth about this out there, but take it from me, the Gental Leader for training purposes on a strong almost ADD like dog outdoors, is not hurting your dog. Anyone who has written comments against this lead, I believe are not in the same shoes as those who have are struggling with an anxious, overly excitable, or stubborn dog.

    Once again I really have to ask you, why does my dog not yelp, cry, or put her tail between her legs and stoop low to the ground when she pulls the Gental Lead???

  • Archer

    @Kiersten L
    I used to raise puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. These dogs were socialized and trained to a high level to do a very important task. One of the first things we had to do was condition them to wear the Gentle Leaders. I don’t use them with my own dogs, as I feel they are just a band-aid, and I would rather train my dog to walk on a loose leash on a collar. When I protested the gentle leader, the Guide Dogs representative pointed out that the blind handlers of the dogs use the gentle leader to get a good idea of what the dog is doing with their head and face. An owner or trainer with full use of their vision can look down and see that their dog is sniffing the ground, or staring at another dog, and know that they will need to redirect the dogs attention back to them. A blind owner relies on the gentle leader to know what direction their dogs face is pointed in, and helps them keep spacial awareness of the dog as well.
    Blind people are also not able to see and prepare for approaching distractions like most people are.
    Finally, many people who rely on their service dogs do not have the means to keep them in regular training, and also rely on the dog for their own safety. That means that they have to have the means to control their dogs at all times.
    Again, I’m not advocating the use of Gentle Leaders for most people, but before you decry people using Gentle Leaders for service dogs you should consider the limited options and increased difficulties in training a dog that many disabled people face.

    • Nitro K-9

      Well I don’t think we agree on the message that was meant to be sent. But I wish you all the luck and success in the world.

  • Naomi harel

    I have a reactive dog, 11 month old, 77 lbs. mutt.
    We have a harness, that latches front and back, yet he still pulls, barks at people. He jumped as a typical 11 month puppy would, and hurt his knee. $400.00 later , I’m left with a dog that may damage his knee again should he do it again, lead to arthritis, and if it’s really bad surgery.
    We’re working with a trainer, and positive reinforcement, but the change is slow coming.
    And frankly I don’t want him to hurt himself again, or me ,I can’t afford it
    Help!

  • Gkeibler

    My dog walks up to me and puts his nose up in the air, when he needs to go outside, so I can put his gentle leader on. I’ve never had to use treats to bribe him into putting it on. We take long walks and he is relaxed and right by my side the entire time. When we get home he jumps in his chair and puts his head on the arm of the chair for me to take it off. My dog is an extremely strong pitbull and there is no way that we could enjoy our long walks without a gentle leader. And he loves his long walks and it’s important to provide that to him. Get off your high horse and stop acting like you know what’s best for all dogs. Your complaining about ever method out there, so how do you think people are suppose to be able to provide much needed exercise for large and strong dogs? A gentle leader has allowed for lots of outside activities which was not possible before when I tried a prong or harness. My dog loves outside activities so he loves the leader. If he hated the leader he would definitely give me a difficult time about putting it on, but he doesn’t. Like I said he sticks his nose up in the air allowing me to put his leader on. It’s so cute! So maybe you should do a little more research before you start preaching like you know what your talking about because obviously don’t know too much about the usefulness of gentle leaders!

  • Sue

    I got put off of the choke chains and prong collars by seeing them being used to cruelly choke and hang dogs (by the police, military, sheriffs and dog “trainers,” some of whom have filed the prongs so they will do more damage). I have since engaged a positive behaviorist, and she showed me how a properly used prong collar (with soft rounded “prongs” can be used humanely. When the head harness (gentle leaders) first came out, I thought they would be a humane alternative. But when I tried one on my dog at the pet supply, he went bananas, so I didn’t use anything on him. I took him out to places where he could expend his excess energy, swimming at the beach, running on the playgrounds, etc. It worked well, and he became a solid citizen, but now more and more the beaches are saying “no dogs,” and the playgrounds are being locked up. There are fewer and fewer places to take a dog and safely allow him to run and explore and be a dog, before introducing him slowly to bigger crowds and lots of other dogs.

  • Concerned

    I’ve been using a halti for a week on leash with recommendation from my mom (because she had to give up her huge Great Dane because he would knock her over and a lady with the “animal people” (can’t recall) used a halty and he walked with this lady smaller than my mom straight away)
    my 9 month staffy is always calm when I put it on because he’s used to harness’. it has never bothered him being on his face, he was trained to put his nose in it himself. We’ve always had trouble walking. More with when he doesn’t want to go he sits down rather than him pulling. He does pull and is pretty strong so I do want to correct him pulling too much and want him to walk by my side.
    He’s done great with the halti, I leave it lose and never pull only a slight tug if he pulls off to the side. I don’t make it tight around his nose it’s very lose because they told me that part of his nose is sensitive that’s why it works. I stop every now and again and gently adjust it because I don’t want to hurt him! Also if he stops I only tug him forward by his harness if required never his nose.
    Tonight after his walk have brought him inside to sleep and one eye is swollen!! I’m quite concerned, maybe because I’ve left it too lose that it slides up towards his eye. Either way I’m very concerned. Can this cause permanent damage to his nose, nerves, eyes? I’m thinking it’s the bin for the halti

    • Nitro K-9

      Hello-

      Thank you for reading my article and your questions. Please contact me via e mail or phone and we can discuss in detail.

      Best,

      Steve

  • Kay

    I found your post trying to find out why my standard poodle acts so offended by the gentle leader despite it working the best for our walks. He will ask to go out only to run from the door when I go to get his GL on to go out. Now I know and it makes sense. Back to the collar and retraining walking. If you see a lady walking a spoo in circles it’s probably me trying to stop the pull.

  • Cath

    What can you suggest for my Doberman …the second one who I can only control on a walk with a head collar . The dogmatic leather one. It has caused irritation on his muzzle so I’ve covered with a padded piece of fleece…the irritation is getting worse…a bit baldy.

  • Litch

    Are you aware of any studies demonstrating the danger of nose halters? I haven’t seen much.

  • Rip

    Here is a good piece on the deceptive origins of the “Gentle Leader.”

    http://www.tsurodogtraining.com/articles/gentle_leader.html

    Best, Rip

  • Janice Bowman

    Hello:

    I am a Service Dog trainer and an owner of a spirited 2 year old Siberian Husky.

    It seems the collar argument comes up often in this industry. I loved your article and will be citing it for future reference. I for one am an advocate user of the Herman Sprenger prong collar. Additionally, I use the iQ Pet Plus vibration collar. I will NEVER use a choke, martingale, or halti/gentle leader and training on a harness is just plain stupid.

    Here is a good video on how to properly fit/use a prong collar and its benefits:
    https://www.youtube.com/shared?ci=q__8WGZxHYM

    Thanks again!

  • Janet

    I have used a prong collar in the past on my large 75lb dog when he was an adolescent and pulled my left shoulder muscle, but I have also used a halti when he was a puppy and we use that daily for walking. He can walk on a buckle collar as well without pulling but if we meet other dogs or cats he can become strong. Since this time we have acquired a young puppy and I will slowly get him used to the halti as well. My friend uses only prong collars on her German Wirehairs and when the young dog was walking and I went to pet him the prong inverted and gouged my hand. Since this incident I decided that I wished to use other methods to control pulling.

    This is my choice, not condemning those who wish to used other methods such as training collars, harness with chest clip,prong collars,, martingale, food, clicker, no food. I believe in choices.

  • Anna

    Ok, so I’ve been using a gentle leader for about 4 years now…it worked better than anything else, but I didn’t try a prong collar at all…That said, my 5 year old chocolate lab still pulls with everything in her on walks. It has gotten better with time and if we are going out regularly she does much better, but I have been concerned because she will nearly hurt herself trying to “lead the way” while buckled into this thing. And I want to enjoy our walks. She is a gorgeous, wonderful, sweet friend to me, but walks have become a constant tug of war even with the gentle leader. I don’t fasten it as tight as they recommend, because I could see it was uncomfortable for her…loved your article, but please , what are my other viable options? Did I miss that part of it?

  • BABY

    I purchased a gentle leader for my 6 y.o pit bull after moving from calm quiet upstate NY to busy chaotic noisy new york .once moving to NY he became very anxious and excited and began pulling on his walks I used a regular choke collar with him and never had any concerns because he never pulled me but now the walks have become a tug of war . I purchased the gentle leader thinking it would be something I can use to regain control on our walks and train him to walk properly on leash IT DOESNT WOK he pulls even more and it’s created a mark on the bridge of his nose and has rubbed skin off the sides of his mouth so I stopped using it I love my baby he’s my fur child and all good owners just want to do whats best for their pets .so it saddens me to read this article and see that it’s considered to be harmful. when here I was believing that I was helping my dog.

  • Carol Cook

    We have a 6 year old rescue — Lab/Shepherd mix who weighs 80 pounds. She is a sweet dog at home, although pretty rambunctious. But she responds well to consistent demands. The problem is that she is aggressive toward other dogs and afraid of other people. You can imagine how taking her on walk around town can be. With a flat collar she pulls, twists, jerks, etc. Trainers have given up on her. She still wears a flat collar. Any ideas how another style might work?

  • Janice Kelly

    Hi Steve

    I live in Scotland so difficult to meet. Like Carol my dog is aggressive on lead. He has been wearing a halti for two years but doesn’t like it. I am 5.1 and he is 30 kilos. He walks perfectly until another dog comes into contact and stares at which time he pulls towards it, growling etc. Would freedome harness work? He mixes well with all dogs when off lead, but is too strong for me when on lead – hence the halti.

  • Ktl

    I understand how these products can be harmful when used to train against pulling but what about a dog that is already trained but has dog aggression? I personally use a pinch collar with my dog but recently I have been researching and looking into a head harness or walking “mussel” because it has gotten to the point where she walks really well but I need to have the immediate ability to turn her head and attention towards me and away from the other dog. Do you think that there is other equipment that would be more effective than the head harness at doing that. (I am experienced with the pinch collars and while it works great for walking and running it only works to a small degree around other dogs)

  • Xanthe

    Good article. There’s some serious cognitive dissonance going on in the dog training world. The most aversive and riskiest tool I have used as a pet sitter is the head halter. I only used them on dogs who were trained with them and the dogs still didn’t like them.

  • Matt

    Who to believe, you or the humane society? I think I’ll go with the humane society.

    http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/dogs/tips/how_to_use_head_halter.html

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