ClickerSolutions Training Articles

A Case for GLs

I love Suzanne Clothier -- just bought her new book -- but she wrote an article about head collars that I strongly disagree with. I think head halters are a wonderful device for management, for safety, and for getting a reinforceable behavior in die-hard pullers. Do I pop them on every dog? No. I much prefer to teach a dog to walk on a flat collar or harness from the beginning. My dogs have never worn them, but I own one, and if Pax goes through a particularly out-of-control adolescent period, I won't hesitate to condition and use it temporarily.

Let's look at some issues...

  • Management. The head collar itself doesn't teach the dog a darn thing. It can, however, be used to prevent a dog from dragging you all over the place (undoing your training) until you've taught him to walk on a loose leash.
  • A head halter is not a magic cure for a pulling dog. Dogs can, and will, learn to pull on a head halter, just as they learn to pull on a choke or prong. It should be used in conjunction with a training program -- reinforcing for desired behavior -- even if you never plan to wean the dog off of the head halter.
  • Safety. If a person is young, small, elderly, fragile, or disabled, a head halter can be an extra level of safety, sometimes making the difference between having and not having a dog. Even a very calm dog can bolt unexpectedly, pulling someone down. I'll never forget when my Newf caught sight of my husband and bolted. His leash was tied to a belt loop on my jeans. Fortunately, the loop broke. Had it been around my waist, I think he'd have broken my back -- or at least injured me badly.
  • The head halter can help set you up to succeed. In order to train a dog to walk on a loose leash, you have to have reinforceable behavior -- and you have to be able to maintain a high rate of reinforcement. (Failure to do so is probably the biggest mistake I see, head collar or no head collar.) With a distracted dog or a confirmed puller, how can you do that? With a head halter, you can circle the dog to regain lost attention. Plus, dogs tend to be more subdued when wearing the halter, also giving you more opportunities to reinforce.
  • "Leading the dog by the nose." You're not -- no more than you're leading by the neck with a regular collar. Ideally, a leash, no matter what it's attached to, is a tether for safety, and the dog learns to walk next you (as opposed to learning "don't pull"). If the dog is manically pulling, it's learning exactly what you don't want it to learn. The head halter makes it easier for you to keep your dog from undoing your training. You don't use a head halter to hold the dog in position -- he should still be learning to walk on a loose leash.
  • I've never heard of any scientific study that compared a lifetime of results of prongs versus anything but choke chains. I *do* know that the GL company aggressively tracks rumors of injuries resulting from use of their products and actively solicits customers to report injuries. The fears about potential problems simply have not been borne out in reality. If you put a head halter on a flexi, and the dog were to bolt to the end, sure, there's a risk of injury. Don't do that. Use it correctly on a short leash, and if you need to regain attention, pull *sideways* to circle him, not up and back.
  • And because it was brought up, let's talk about whether the GL is aversive. There are two separate issues that people raise -- and they are unrelated. One is "The GL is aversive because dogs don't like to wear them / are subdued when wearing them." The other is "The GL is an aversive because it decreases pulling."

    First, let's address the "my dog hates to wear it" issue. Most dogs freak out when you first start using it. Most dogs react the same way when you begin using a collar and leash as well. Do they like head halters? I would guess that no, they don't. So they probably are aversive.

    BUT WAIT. What if you condition your dog to the head halter, associating it with all good things? Many, many people do that, and their dogs cease to react to the head halter. Obviously the halter is no longer an aversive. Have we committed a crime by initially exposing the pup to an aversive stimulus and then counter-conditioning the response? If so, we commit the same crime when we condition to a collar and leash -- or to nail clippers or to grooming or to being restrained or to be intimately handled.

    One other point -- some time ago someone posted the abstract of a study that examined the physiological response to a head halter. The study found that even the dogs who rolled and pawed at the halter did not have the physiological responses associated with increased stress. Nor did the dogs who appeared to be "calmed" by the halter. (Conclusion: the pawing is not "stress" and the calming is not "shut down.")

    Second issue -- "the GL reduces pulling." As I already mentioned, the GL itself doesn't really stop pulling. It makes pulling more difficult because the dog has lost leverage. It is much more difficult for an animal to pull against pressure on his head than it is against pressure on his neck and shoulders. (That's why horses are worked in head halters, not collars.) There is pressure when the dog pulls, but frankly, I equate that with the pressure exerted by a regular collar.

Bottom line, in my opinion -- the GL is a tool that can be used or misused, just like any other tool. I equate it much more to a flat collar than to a prong or choke, which work on pain, not leverage. No matter what, it doesn't teach the dog to walk next to you on a loose lead anymore than a choke or prong does. And, minus reinforcement for correct behavior, many dogs learn to pull on it, just like many learn to pull on chokes and prongs.

I first recommend that people teach their dogs to walk on a flat collar or harness. However, if someone isn't willing to do that, has a dog that outweighs the person who is walking it, or is elderly or physically disabled and could be injured if pulled over by an unexpected lunge, I'm going to continue recommending a properly-conditioned head halter. The head halter can be associated with good things so that the dog won't dislike wearing it, doesn't hurt the dog, doesn't have the potential of misplaced aggression (as with prongs), and makes walking safer.

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2002 Melissa Alexander


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