The Problem with Head Halters

by Suzanne Clothier

Copyright 2000 Suzanne Clothier. All rights reserved. Used by permission. www.flyingdogpress.com

Head halters, like ALL training equipment, need to be used carefully. They are NOT appropriate for every dog. Humane trainers need to be aware of and carefully consider the ramifications of any training equipment.

NO training equipment can substitute for a strong, mutually respectful relationship. Pulling on lead is NOT respectful, and points to underlying problems in the relationship which need resolution. Halters or any other piece of equipment might be important crutches to lean on while resolving the real problem – pulling is just a symptom of that real problem. Pay attention to trainers like Turid Rugaas, and realize that it is the relationship, not the training equipment, that allows you to gain the dog’s voluntary cooperation.

The Last Resort Halter

Going against the tide of popular opinion, I have to say I am not a big fan of head halters of any design although I have used them with success, just as I have used prong collars, various no-pull harnesses, training (choke) collars, buckle collars, martingales and even electronic collars. I consider head halters an equipment choice of last resort for several reasons: resistance, psychological impact and physical considerations. Having said that, let me state very, very clearly that head halters are like any other piece of equipment – they are an option which may or may not be used, according to the individual dog and the situation. And like any training equipment, halters must be used with care and with complete awareness of the possible effects on the dog (physically, mentally & emotionally).

Communicated Resistance

My approach to dog training seeks to engage the dog as a willing partner. In my actions, words and choice of training equipment, I try to avoid anything that will create resistance in the dog. Resistance often springs from fear, discomfort, distrust and defensiveness – none of these are states of mind I want in a dog. Resistance is not conducive to learning, and is not supportive of the relationship between dog and human. I view resistance as communication, and in my mind, communication from the dog must be respected and listened to. Where I find resistance, I need to find another way. Head halters, in my experience, frequently do create resistance.

Speaking from Experience

I remember teaching a seminar with another instructor and she was working with a pretty exuberant Siberian who had no respect whatsoever for his handler, and pulled wildly wherever he wanted to go. This instructor decided to use a head halter. For 10 or so minutes, she prepared the dog in little steps for the halter, but when she finally put it on, he absolutely exploded, clawing at his face as he tried to remove the darn thing. This is a very skilled trainer who used the halter “correctly” (i.e, fitted it properly, prepared the dog, had a buckle collar and another leash as well as the head halter) but nonetheless, it was a very poor choice for this dog. All it created was even more resistance to working with people (he had that already!) and it undermined his trust of the person who put it on him.

We removed the head halter, put on a training collar, and within moments, the dog was happily working with a wagging tail and attentiveness without any resistance, a much different picture than the dog who had tuned us all out as he fought to get the halter off . What he really needed/wanted were clear signals that he could understand. (And by clarity, I do not mean pain. I use leashes and collars in soft, subtle ways. The dog is never allowed to “correct” himself by hitting the lead at speed. With such use of the equipment, often nothing more than just fingertip pulses on the lead are effective signals.)

Psychological Effects

From a psychological point of view, even if the halter does not create much fighting and resistance (I’ve seen some dogs only mildly fuss before resigning themselves to it), it can have an unpleasant effect on the dog overall. At a clicker seminar a few years ago, I watched a well-known trainer work with a lovely little Lab bitch. Enthusiastic and happy, she came charging into the seminar room, towing her hapless Guardian. The poor dog had been chosen for this demo because she pulled. The halter went on, and the change in this dog was awful. From alert, eager and happy, she became a very depressed dog who stood with tail slightly tucked, head lowered and no longer interested in engaging with the trainer. In short, there was an overall suppressive effect similar to that on dogs experiencing non-contingent punishment. This is a good thing?

When I put my hands on an animal, figuratively or literally speaking, I don’t want the effect to be a negative. I am not looking to diminish the animal in any way, but rather to guide them, to channel their spirit and mind. I may ask for more self control. I may ask the animal to focus. I may ask the animal to be with me. But none of this is ever done in a way that results in a dog drooping with the light in their eyes extinguished. I’m after a dog who is calm, relaxed, trusting.

The easiest test I know of whether or not the head halter is having an overall suppressive effect on the dog is this: take it off . Does the dog visibly brighten? Does his body posture change? Does the light return to his eyes? I’m not talking about the joy of simply being set free to run and play. I’m talking about the difference between the dog standing there on leash and collar but without the head halter vs. the dog wearing the head halter. If there is a difference, I think the aware trainer has to ask, “Then why am I doing this to this animal?”

Why am I Using the Head Halter?

There may be valid reasons for using this equipment – such as a Guardian who has totally lost control of a dog, and the equipment is being used on a temporary basis as remedial training takes place; such as an aggressive animal where there is a serious need to control the dog’s ability to bite (some head halters allow you to tighten the muzzle loop and thus close the mouth.) There may not be any good reason for using this equipment except that it’s a popular fad; the quick control gained is often viewed as a suitable substitute for real training and a solid relationship. But the question needs to be asked – and answered honestly: Why am I using this head halter on this dog?

I would suggest that many handlers choose halters because it is easier on them, because they can mechanically control a dog that they otherwise could not (due to a lack of training or relationship problems or both). Any training equipment that is used to substitute for training and a solid, healthy relationship is just a crutch. And every piece of training equipment and all the rewards known to mankind can be used as a crutch, whether it’s a buckle collar, a head halter, an electric collar, a frisbee or a pocket full of hot dogs. Sometimes crutches are necessary but not as a lifelong solution.

Dog vs. Horse

Proponents of the halter claim that it is no different from halters used on horses – a concept in use as long as man has tried to control horses. With 34 years of horsemanship under my belt, I assure the reader that this is simply not true. There is a profound difference in effect and fit. For the horse, the halter sits well down on the long, bony part of the muzzle, far away from the eyes. For many dogs, the halter nose piece comes just under the inside corners of the eyes. I’m not a dog, but I know that this is a sensitive area with many nerves and thin skin on dogs and on most animals. The construction of the canine head does not really loan itself to haltering – thus, for centuries on end, folks have used collars for dogs, reserving halters for animals better suited to it.

Acupuncture Meridian

As for the (implied beneficial) effect due to stimulation of the acupuncture meridian via the pressure on the dog’s face and facial nerves – it might be exactly what an individual dog needs; it also might not be. Acupuncture/ acupressure does not equal harmless or guaranteed beneficial. Like any powerful medical treatment, acupuncture is not completely benign. As for the effects of having a point or meridian stimulated, here’s a note from an article, “Contraindications and Possible Adverse effects of Acupuncture” by Vivekan Flint regarding what may occur: “The patient may experience a dull, aching, heavy, numb, sore, or warm sensation around the needle. This is known as “De Qi” to the Chinese.” In another study, the second most frequently reported adverse response to acupuncture was “fainting and dizziness.” Personally, I will continue to prefer to reserve acupuncture/acupressure for deliberate use, not a side effect of training equipment.

If I have to rely on training equipment to literally provide a sedating effect for a dog, then I’m probably way ahead of myself – that dog is too greatly aroused to be working at that level; his arousal needs to be addressed long before I begin teaching him anything else. Much of the training equipment in existence is needed because the dog is being asked to work in situations where he does not have the skills or the ability to think clearly and behave appropriately. When we work slowly and carefully to keep the dog engaged and thinking, the need for equipment begins to fall away very quickly. If we push the dog (or have never established a solid working relationship with him), we’ll need equipment.

Touch Communication

In terms of psychological effect, there is another difference between dogs and horses. For the dog, the muzzle area is rich in psychological impact. Dams gently grab errant puppies by the muzzle (or even the entire head, depending on their age), much of the canine greeting ritual is directed at the muzzle (subordinate animals often lick at the muzzle or even gently grab the muzzle of a dominant animal), and quick disciplinary grabs are often directed at the offender’s muzzle. Just taking your hand and putting it across the bridge of a dog’s nose is a very meaningful communication. Would you try it with a dog you do not know too well? Why not?

There’s a very good psychological reason why so many dogs wearing halters look so depressed while horses and cattle don’t. Horses and cattle do not use the muzzle or the bridge of the nose in this way. You will not see a mare grab her foal by the muzzle to correct him – she has other ways of communicating with him. The halter is a physical annoyance to the horse, but I’ve yet to see a horse who was depressed in any way by wearing a halter. The most I’ve seen in horses or cattle was a reaction to the unaccustomed feel, just as a puppy finds a collar annoying but not depressing.

There are times when the overall suppressive effect created by head halters IS useful, thus the halter’s popularity among many behaviourists who are trying to find solutions for difficult behaviour cases where the dog/human relationship has gone badly askew. There are times when the ability to direct a dog’s head and close his mouth (a feature of some head halters, if not all) is really critical to a Guardian’s ability to safely control a dog with serious problems. In such cases, I do choose a halter for just that reason, and use it with care. Everything has a purpose sooner or later.

Risk of Injury

On a physical basis, the halter is probably the one piece of training equipment that appalls me most – the potential for injuring the dog is simply too high. I’m not talking about snapping the dog’s neck or crushing his trachea – I’m talking about soft tissue damage and damage to the spine, particularly the cervicals. At the American Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) conference in both Phoenix and in Memphis, I had the opportunity to spend entire days watching trainers and their dogs walking through the conference facility. Many of these dogs wore head halters, not surprising since APDT attracts many trainers who are interested in humane and positive approaches to training; the head halter is seen as both. What horrified me was the number of people who would simply stop at a booth, allowing the dog to drift ahead until he reached the end of the lead and then had his head brought sharply to one side. Watching this repeated over and over again, I began to feel that I was watching people casually moving boats in water – as if the leverage and force made possible by the head halter was little more of impact to the object on the end of the lead than a canoe might experience!

NOTHING in the dog’s physical construction or his nervous system prepares him for the force of an unexpected, externally directed, sideways and upward movement of the head while his body is still moving forward (sometimes at considerable speed!). For the horse, the leverage is similar but with key differences: the force is directed sideways and downward, and the muscles of the horse’s neck are among the most powerful in his body. There is also a considerable difference in force that can be applied to 1000 lbs. of horse vs. 25-75 lbs. of dog. Interestingly, when working with young horses, ponies and miniature horses, care must be taken in the use of the halter with allowances made for the height difference – knowledgeable handlers do not apply force upwards and sideways, but turn the animal’s head in the same plane as would happen with a larger horse.

I’ve heard people defend the sideways snapping movement that occurs in the head and neck by pointing out that this is part of being a predator, that dogs who hit the sleeve in agitation work or try to move a sheep or take down a deer experience this same motion but at even greater speeds and with greater force. This is true, but there’s an important detail missing in this argument, details that can be found in almost any physiology book. Signals from the brain serve to prepare the body and muscles for the task at hand; roughly described, such signals help the muscles “lock” in preparation for the anticipated impact/force. You’ve probably experienced this yourself when going up or down stairs. If you’ve miscalculated and there is one step more or less than you anticipate, you find yourself badly jolted by either stepping into empty space where your brain had anticipated solid floor, or by stepping down and landing hard – your brain had prepared your foot for landing further down on the next stair. This preparation by the brain serves to protect the body. It is what makes rough play and work possible. Dogs happily throwing themselves at each other only rarely hurt themselves or their playmate. Dogs that are blindsided and t-boned unexpectedly are often hurt – nothing in their brain prepared their body for the coming impact. When we see a dog rushing at us in play, our bodies prepare for the impact. When a dog surprises us, we can be hurt – our muscles were not prepared. When working with a head halter, the dog is moving along with his brain and body working on the assumption that he will be proceeding forward. Anytime the halter is used in such a way as to actually turn the dog (unless preparatory signals are given, such as fingertip pulses that in essence “ask” the dog to make the turn), there is no warning to the dog’s body. The greater the force used to turn the dog and/or the greater the speed the dog is moving at, the more profound the impact.

Imagine if you were walking along with a similar contraption on your head. What might it feel like if your head was pulled sharply to the side with no warning? What if you were running? It’s not hard to imagine how painful that might be. There’s a good reason that one of football’s most severe penalties is reserved for “facemasking”, meaning a player grabs the face mask of another player in motion – severe injuries and even death are possible.

Despite their popularity, head halters, in my opinion, have many drawbacks and off er much potential for pain and discomfort. (I’m not even going to address the long term effects of such insults to the soft tissue of the neck other than to say that the ultimate result of any repeated insult to soft tissue is dysfunction.) In their very application, resistance is often created which simply adds to the problems already at hand which necessitated the halter in the first place! In some situations, head halters might be a suitable choice, but should be viewed as a temporary phase, not a life long solution. Based on what I seek when working with a dog – willing partnership, a calm mind free from resistance, and only the equipment necessary to allow me to communicate clearly and quietly with the dog – there are other choices that work much better for me.

Many trainers find head halters truly useful training tools and feel comfortable with this as a humane choice. This article is not an attempt to condemn head halters as useful training tool. It is an attempt to get trainers and handlers to stop and truly consider the ramifications of using a head halter, be aware of the potential dangers and choose training equipment wisely.