in Honor of Halters
valuable training equipment
This article concerns the use of halters as a valuable training equipment. The usual brands are "Halti", "Gentle Leader", and "Snoot Loop." Some precautions are also mentioned.
I love halters and use them a lot. They work well for most dogs and most people. But of course they don't work for every dog and every person. No tool works well for every user, and every tool can be mis-used.
Update 2020 : I have added a section "it's NOT a muzzle" because there may still be a few people out there who still don't understand this. Illustrated with photos.
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- (1) and (2) are "Halti" brandhalters ; size 3 fits most Bouvier. (1) is a size 4 that I altered to a smaller noseband.
- (3) is a Halti style that I made myself from tubular nylon web.
- (4) is a Halti style that I made with a plastic covered cable inside the noseband. (5) is the cable noseband. I made this for someone whose dog had chewed through the noseband of a purchased Halti.
- (6) is a "Gentle Leader" brand. Note the lack of cheekpieces for the sides of the face.
(I made this one ,
same pattern as Halti ;
model is Shady)
"Snoot Loop" brand
(photo found on internet)
notice center of face strap
"Gentle Leader" brand
(model is my precious Chris)
note lack of side of face straps
G L neck strap must be tight
The difference between Halti (on left) and Snoot Loop (in center) is that the Snoot Loop has adjustments for the sides of the face and has a center strap going from noseband up the center of the face. (Of course you could add a center strap to a Halti, and you probably need to if the dog is short-snouted) The "Gentle Leader" (on right) has no side pieces and must be fit very tight around the top of the neck. The fit of Gentle Leader needs to be more precise than that of other styles, and may be less comfortable.
Halti and Gentle Leader are generally available at the large pet emporiums like PetCo and PetsMart. It is harder to find the Snoot Loop.
There are other brands similar to Halti, with different names.
The first dog halter was the "Kanine Kumalong" , a design essentially similar to today's Halti, which I saw advertised in Dog Sports Magazine sometime in the mid-1980s or late-1980's. I suspect the inventor was a horseperson inspired by the equine "Be Nice" halter which combined a tightening noseband with pressure point beads on the crownpiece and was intended (and very successful) to cure horses of pulling back on a halter, especially those who pulled back when tied. It must have been an idea ahead of its time or being presented to the wrong audience (primarily a police and schutzhund audience) , because it did not catch on then. With the clearness of hindsight, I am dissappointed in myself for not recognizing this as a potentially useful tool, because I am a horseperson and normally quick to appreciate the potential use of horse techniques on dogs and vice versa.
When trainers of classes oriented towards pet dogs (as distinguished from classes oriented only towards formal Obedience and other competitions) started to discover the advantages of the halter and started introducing them, many members of the general pet dog owning public thought they looked like muzzles and this may have slowed acceptance. However the usefulness for pet dogs gradually overcame this obstacle, and today halters are commonly seen on the streets and in dog parks.
Behaviorists and problem dog trainers also discovered that the halter often had a calming effect and / or tended to make the dog more responsive to leadership (pack leadership) and that the halter could be used to inhibit an attempt to bite. Halters are now one of the basic tools in the behaviorist's and problem solver's toolbox .
The principle of the halter is very simple : where the head goes, the dog goes. When you are able to turn the dog's snout and thus his head in one direction, the rest of the dog will generally turn to follow. It's not impossible for a dog to walk one direction with head facing another, just as it is not impossible for a human to do so, but it is uncomfortable and unnatural enough that they don't like to do it and won't do it for long.
People often compare dog halters to horse halters (which interestingly in the UK are called "head collars"), saying that it would be difficult to impossible to control a horse's movement with just a strap around his neck, especially the lower and stronger portion of the neck, but easy to control him with a halter controlling the head. Well, there is a lot of truth to that : it is much easier to control a horse with a halter than a mere neck rope. However a trained and cooperative horse can be controlled with a neck rope or even led by the trusted and respected handler taking hold of a piece of mane or forelock. It's also true that horses are strong enough that a normal halter can be resisted quite easily if the horse is determined or frightened or simply untrained. Some horses require stronger means. It's also true that the relative strength of a dog compared to a human is much much less than the relative strenght of a horse compared to a human. (Surely one would suspect that by the merest glance at the species involved.) Of course a large, powerful, determined dog is quite a bit stronger than most humans, dog muscle being 3 to 5 times as strong ounce per once as human muscle.
The psychological reason why halters have a powerful influence on the dog is that it is part of dog / wolf social structure for a high ranked individual to acknowledge the submission display of a lower ranked individual by more or less gently grasping the underling's snout with mouth of the higher ranked individual. A more sudden and firmer snout grasp is one way a higher ranked individual might rebuke an underling for some percieved insubordination or misbehavior. A human can make a similar gesture by grasping the top of the dog's snout with the human hand, and a few trainers will even do so with their own mouth. In any case many behaviorists comment that merely wearing a halter makes a dog both calmer and more willing to view the human as a pack leader, provided of course that the human acts in a leaderly manner, what I call acting with "Alphatude" (the attitude of being highest ranked, self-confidently and calmly in charge). At least one very respected behaviorist has observed that having a halter on seems to have an inhibiting effect on biting, but I must add that I have personally observed instances of a dog making a serious effort to bite even though haltered, so please don't put too much reliance on the halter's bite inhibiting effect. It's not a muzzle.
Always remember that the halter should never restrict the dog from fully or 95% fully opening the mouth. It must never restrict the dog's ability to pant, which is the dog's only effective cooling mechanism. The ability to pant is crucial when the dog is exercising, even when the weather does not seem hot. Restricted panting can result in the dog's death !
The noseband of the halter should fall to the rear of the back corner of the dog's lips, or no more than just barely ahead of that. The noseband must be large enough, loose enough, that the mouth can open fully or 95% of fully. Yet the noseband can't be so very loose that the dog can paw-pull it over his nose and off of his snout. For some dogs, especially the shorter snouted ones, a center of the face strap that runs from the center of the front of the noseband to between the eyes to the over the ears band is needed. That's easy to add.
Since the mouth can open widely to pant, it also can open widely to bite. So this is NOT a muzzle. If you think there is any reason to need a muzzle during training session or on walks, use a basket muzzle over the halter. A basket muzzle properly sized will allow the dog to pant (and to vomit and to drink water). There are situations where a muzzle "takes the worry out of being close". For example the dog who might nip at joggers or skateboarders or bicyclists who zip by too close. (I had had a dog who had a "thing" about bicycles, so even though we very rarely encountered a bicyclist, she wore a basket muzzle on walks. I am a "better safe than sorry" person who thinks that "Be prepared" is not merely "the Boy Scout's marching song".)
Fox The Wicked Queensland models a well fitted"Halti" halter, showing she can pant or bite easily
loose noseband rests at or above lip corner
dog is able to open mouth to pant
dog is able to hold (bite) a large diameter toy
While the halter just might slightly make it harder for a dog to take a real "full mouth bite", ie with crushing carnassal teeth and molars, it certainly won't prevent a hard front-of-mouth bite with incisors and canines ("fangs") penetrating deep and/or slashing and tearing. I have experienced front of mouth bites on several occasions, and I can tell you that this is not an experience to be desired. Plenty of pain. Most dog bites are not full mouth ones, unless the dog is a trained Police K9, Schutzhund trained, etcetera.
If you need to use a halter with a muzzle, it's possible to fit the halter underneath the muzzle, but you have to have the ring to which the leach will attach protrude through the underneath of the muzzle. Photo below, red muzzle on the left, shows this. Notice the green arrow pointing to the live ring and the dead ring coming through between a space in the muzzle. (The red halter looks collapsed because there is no dog inside it. This is the same muzzle Fox is wearing in photos above). Alternatively the halter could go on top of the muzzle, surrounding the muzzle. For that you will probably need a halter one size larger than you'd normally use on this dog. See photo, black halter on the right. In photo the red halter underneath the muzzle is size 2 but the black one outside the muzzle is size 3. (Both muzzles are the same size, which for this line is size 7, which fits Fox and her packmate Bug. Bouviers take size 10 in this brand.)
When you move the direction of the dog's snout, you are also moving the direction of his eyes , direction of his directly foreward vision.
Because dogs naturally consider a sustained eye contact, sustained stare, to be a challenge and a threat, calling for the other dog to either stare back (and escalate the possibility of combat) or else turn head and eyes away (thus de-escalating any potential hostility), using the halter to break the dog's stare at another dog can be hugely valuable. If you are introducing two dogs or simply encounter another dog when out walking, if both are wearing halters and both handlers understand the challenging eye contact principle, both handler can use the halters to limit direct eye contact.
If you have a dog who tends to react excitedly to the sight of a squirrel or cat or moving bicycle or whatever, your being able to interrupt his gaze by turning his head away can be very helpful. At the same time it's helpful if you can focus the dog's attention on something else, eg perhaps a cue or trick that the dog knows well.
(Note : most dogs find the feel of the noseband to be strange at first and will try to paw or rub it off, but they will come to accept it. You may want to do a few short lessons of giving treats while the halter is on. Most dogs soon learn that the sight of a halter means that a walk will occur and therefore the dog is quite willing to put it on in order to make the desired walk happen.)
So the most basic reason to use a halter is to teach the dog to walk with you on leash with a loose leash, ie without pulling ahead or dragging behind. Using a halter is certainly NOT the ONLY way to teach this, but for many people using a halter is the EASIEST way.
Using the halter is easier because the handler does not need to learn the sequence of handler loosening the leash then jerking it and then loosening it. For some people throwing enough slack into the leash to get an appropriate jerk as a correction seems to be very difficult.
It can be easier to teach such people that every time the dog takes slack out of the leash, the person should simply stop and stand dead still. Soon as the dog loosens the leash, the person can move foreward again. This is sometimes called the "Red light, Green light" technique : the dog pulling causes a Red light and the dog ceasing to pull causes a Green light. Having to stop when wanting to continue forward is a very mild correction (aversive event, ie something the dog finds undesirable) and being allowed to continue forward is a reward. Since the aversive event is the loss of something enjoyable, the continuance of the walk, technically a behaviorist would classify this as "negative punishment", which sounds ugly but is actually a very humane and powerful technique. (Indeed whenever the desired response causes a reward, failure to give that desired response should cause lack of reward, and that lack of "positive reinforcement" is a "negative punishment:" )
If just stopping does not work, I advise the handler to take one or two steps to either side so that now the leash is no longer parallel to the dog's spine but is at an angle to the dog's spine and thus causes the dog's head to turn away from the forward direction. At this point the handler can remain stationary until the dog starts to turn back and thus loosens the leash.
Alternatively, if Red light Green light does not seem to be working, the handler can be instructed to make a 180 degree turn and go in opposite direction every time the dog takes slack out of the leash. Soon as the leash is loose, the handler turns again and resumes the original direction. This could be called "Red Light, Green Light, Traffic Ticket" as going the direction opposite to the one the dog wants to go is the "traffic ticket". (Alternatively this might be called "speeding ticket".) This is especially used when the dog is intent on reaching a goal , such as entry to Dog Park.
These methods work very well , almost magically well , so long as the handler can make sure to give slack into the leash whenever the dog is cooperating. The handler MUST avoid creating a pull himself !! Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to get some people to stop unconsiously holding the leash tight and pulling on the dog themselves. If the handler pulls, the dog will respond by pulling against that pull. This totally defeats the intention of teaching the dog to accompany the handler on a loose leash. Worse, if the dog pulls strongly enough, he can injure neck or spine.
It is also essential that the handler be taught to NOT jerk the leash when using the halter. It can be appropriate to give small tugs or bumps with the leash, and for some dogs this is very helpful, but strong jerks can cause injury to the dog.
Now one sometimes hears the objection to using a halter to train loose leash walking and other basic obedience that "it doesn't carry over" to loose leash walking without a halter, with leash attached to a collar. Well, in some cases that might be true , true without additional training. But it is equally true that for most people , teaching the dog to walk on a loose leash "doesn't carry over" to enable you to keep the dog at your side without a leash. To go from good on leash responses to good off leash responses requires additional training (usually a lot of work with a long line , also called drag line or check cord). But most people would be thrilled to death to be able to take a walk with the dog on leash and on a halter if that meant there was little or no pulling and the handler felt in easy control of the dog. Truely there are not many urban or suburban public places where it is really safe for a dog to be off leash even if the dog is superbly trained and responsive.
Now it is true that for AKC Obedience competitions, for "Canine Good Citizen" tests under AKC rules, and for some other performance competitions the use of a halter is not allowed. (And in Agility one is not permitted to have any kind of collar or halter on the dog during the run, a rule made for the dog's safety. In herding, if the stock are horned, I always remove my dog's collar or halter as a safety precaution against risk of a horn getting hooked into the collar or haltter with probably serious injury to the dog.) In these cases we are talking about a much more advanced level of training being needed anyway. By the time you are competing in these events, ie by the time you are genuinely READY to compete in such events, the dog's responses SHOULD (ought to) have been made independant of any equipment.
For dogs who lag and drag behind , the halter is less useful. Yes, you can teach the dog that if he lags the noseband will tighten creating some discomfort, and that if he quickens his pace to catch up the noseband will loosen and be comfortable again. This is a very mild "negative reinforcement" paradigm, ie the right response causes an aversive condition to end thus rewarding that response. Giving praise and sometimes a little treat when the dog catches up will add to the effectiveness. I find this works well when walking one dog at a time, provided you are adjusting your pace to the physical ability of the dog if lagging results from age, disability, etc causeing the dog to not be able to walk faster.. It does not work as well when walking several dogs in a group, as you often wind up trying to drag the laggard along by the snout. Since the tightened noseband prevents the dog from opening its mouth and thus prevents panting, tightening the noseband for more than a few moments results in the dog being LESS able to move more briskly and less able to catch up. In warm or hot weather, keeping the noseband tight for more than brief periods is actually dangerous to the dog and a sustained tight noseband could cause heat stroke. If you have a lagging dog on a halter, I'd advise attaching the leash to the "dead ring" ( the one through which the noseband slides) , rather than to the "live ring" ( the one that pulls on and tightens the noseband).
Many many dogs respond so well to the halter that training for loose leash walking is almost effortless, but a few dogs do not respond well enough to make this the tool of choice. As a Rescue worker and trainer, I find that about 90% to 95% of the untrained and exuberant or pulling dogs (that I needed to initially need to use a Pinch Collar on to make them responsive to a leash and to get them to walk on a loose leash) will respond as well or better to a halter. So for some years now , I try the halter first. For the relatively few dogs who want to pull anyway and who don't respond to the halter, I then switch to the Pinch Collar. Of course some dogs are perfectly biddable on just a flat collar.
Once again the halter works because when you control the direction of the snout, you usually control the rest of the dog.
For Sit, any time you have a way to get the snout to lift up and back into "Howling Coyote" position, in which the snout is pointed at 45 degrees or steeper towards the sky, the previously standing dog will almost always sit because sitting is more comfortable for the neck . Get down on all fours yourself and see what happens if you rotate your head into this position.
Now there are many many ways to get a dog to rotate its head into "Howling Coyote" . Different ways work better for different dogs.
One way, called "luring" or "targeting" is to have a food treat or an attractive toy in your hand and to raise your hand up and then a bit towards the dog's rear, so the dog's eyes and head follow. I find that often I can get a totally untrained dog to sit for me just by doing this motion with my hand without having anything in it. (That's an example of "naked dog training", training without any equipment, usining only your intelligence, your voice, and your body language. You and the dog might as well both be naked.) But a treat or toy sure does help to get a few responses, and once you have rewarded a few responses, the dog has that "light bulb goes on" look and becomes very ready to respond even with the toy or treat out of your hand and back in your pocket or pouch waiting to be used as a reward after the response takes place. The Lure then Reward technique is currently considered the normal way to teach puppies and one of the normal ways to teach adults.
Another way is to use the halter to lift the dog's snout and head into Howling Coyote, then praise and reward the dog soon as he sits. The reward could be food or toy or physical caress or anything else that the dog really enjoys. The reward could be that the closed door from house to outdoors opens and dog is given permission to go out and begin a walk. Likewise it could be the car door opens and dog is given permission to leap in and go for a ride. The halter can be used to teach the Sit response in the first place and can be used to carry through and require the response if the dog does not offer it himself, ie can be used to enforce the response, which should then be praised and rewarded. I also find that because the leash snap is located under the dog's chin, a light flip of the leash so the snap bumps the underside of the chin is an effective mild correction for a dog who delays in responding to Sit.
For the Down, luring with the hand-held treat or toy is also a very effective method. If the dog is sitting, the hand moves first directly down to the ground and then along the ground ahead of the dog as the dog's head follows and the dog lies down to be more comfortable. After the dog knows and willingly goes Down from a sitting position, it is usually fairly easy to lure a Down from a standing position.
For those many dogs who might not be so willing to go into Down position, the halter is very helpful and more effective than equivalent methods with a slip chain or other type of collar. Use the halter to bring the dog's snout down to the ground and a bit foreward and the rest of the dog is likely to follow. Sometimes you do need to use your other hand to unlock the dog's elbows and slide his front legs foreward, or sometimes it is effective to put some downward hand pressure at the top of the dog's shoulders. Now some trainers prefer to use their hand on the leash close to the snap to bring the haltered head down. I generally prefer to run the leash under my foot and use the foot as a pully, thus bringing the dog's head down. My legs are stronger than my arms and my balance is much more stable in a standing position. (I know one trainer who I greatly respect who dislikes the foot on leash method because the dog might bite out of panic or resistance. But if I have so utterly misjudged the dog that he responds with an attempt to bite, I'd rather take it on the leg than on hand, arm , or face. Also the mere fact that to use the hand and arm method means that one's upper body is bent over the dog can provoke a defensive aggressive response, because to many dogs a person bending over them is considered a threat.) As soon as the dog is down , praise and reward must follow immediately. A really correct compliant Down is one with elbows touching ground but for the first few times I would settle for the rib cage touching ground even if elbows are still a bit braced. Later when the dog understands Down well but might be slow to comply, one can quickly step on the leash, more quickly than the equivalent enforcement with hand and arm. Or withhold reward until a full elbows-on-ground down is accomplished.
The halter and leash can be used to gently guide the dog to come (and then be rewarded for coming) and then to guide the dog to sit close to you on arrival (and then be rewarded for sitting) This is pretty much the same as teaching Come with any form of collar. Of course ideally your dog has been rewarded for coming to you since the first hour of your life together and ideally you have never unwittingly or intentionally punished your dog for coming to you. For comments on cautions to be used in using the long line or drag line to form the habit of Come from a distance, see the warnings concering strong pulls and strong jerks below.
Some trainers have a strong preference for one or another of these styles. For most dogs it probably does not matter, as they are all effective.
I personally like the Halti (or Snoot Loop or Halti with a center-face stap added) type better for a number of reasons :
Some reasons why you might need or prefer the Snoot Loop :
Some reason why you might prefer Gentle Leader :
Whatever style of halter you use, be sure it fits safely and comfortably. Once you have the neck strap or the over the ears strap fitted correctly, it is a good precaution against slippage to secure it at the right length by putting in a couple of stitches with carpet thread or waxed dental floss. You can always snip this out if you need to change the adjustment for another dog or if this immature dog changes size. It's worth while to have one halter for each dog or at least one for each size/fitting of dog that you have or work regularly.
A temporary halter substitute : if you find yourself with a dog on leash without a halter and you need more control, you can get some snout control by making a "half-hitch" of the leash around the snout. That means you make a loop in the leash very close to the snap and put that loop over the dog's snout so the exiting portion of the leash is running between the loop and the dog's underjaw. (This is a horseperson's technique.) In this case you do need to keep enough tension on the leash that the loop does not fall off the snout. Of course if you put an extra twist in the loop , you probably will be able to slacken the leash.
Halters are NOT SAFE to use with strong jerks or a strong sustained pull !
There have been reports of injuries from sustained hard pulling.
A hard jerk on a halter also has the potential for injury.
Halters are NOT SAFE for dogs with some medical conditions :
Do NOT leave a halter of any kind on a dog when the dog is not under human supervision, and especially do not do so with any kind of line or leash attached. If the halter or leash were to get caught on something and especially something overhead, injury or strangling might result. A halter is probably less dangerous in this regard than a slip collar or pinch collar, but still too much risk to take unless of course you have a dog whose behavior problems are so severe that the need to be able to take control through the attached line outweighs any risk to the dog. The main time when leaving a halter and short tab leash on a dog would be worth the risk would be when dealing with a dog with aggression issues or one who tends to jump up on people vigourously (which can be more dangerous than a bite if the person falls and breaks a hip).
Remember that every training tool is merely a tool. Correct use can make the training easier for the dog and the person. But every tool can be mis-used and some kinds of mis-use can be dangerous.
But halters are one of the very most useful tools in the training "toolbox".