How to Utilize the Gentle Leader and Similar Head Halters in Dog Training
I don’t often condone much less recommend the use of dog training collars because most often these references refer to: choke chains, prong or pinch collars, or even shock collars. However, I do on occasion recommend the use of The Gentle Leader ™ and similar head halters.
I almost ALWAYS recommend a head halter for dogs that show ANY kind of aggression: dog aggression, human aggression, wheel aggression (wanting to chase scooters, cars, roller skates), and even fear aggression.
A properly fitted head halter gives you the ability to control the offensive body part; the snout and mouth. Although a dog can still eat, drink, bark and bite with a head halter on, it allows their owners to control their face and snout.
Imagine your dog races, accidentally off leash, towards a dog aggressive dog. Dog #1 is wearing a gentle leader head halter and his owner is able to pull his face upwards and keep his gnashing teeth from biting your dog, dog #2 is on a choke chain, prong collar, or buckle collar and because of his great range of motion in his neck and face he is able to lash out and deliver a bite despite his owner’s best attempts to keep him from biting your dog.
Although this is not necessarily the dog aggressive dog’s fault (since the other dog was off leash), accidents happen!
Now imagine that you are the owner of the dog aggressive dog; which collar would you prefer? I would want the ability to control my dog’s snout and mouth in any
instance where he might be aggressive or deliver a bite.
People who have never had an aggressive dog think that these dogs should be left at home and never taken out in public or around other people or animals. However, you cannot work on behavior modification and helping problem dogs if you simply lock them up and never teach them appropriate behavior.
BUT, as the owner of a dog that has aggressive tendencies you want to be in as much control as possible and the idea of your dog showing aggression is usually horrifying for you and fills you with shame. Good people often get aggressive dogs, or dogs with problems and they have to deal with people who judge and blame them!
My second dog, a female Rottweiler, was excessively dog aggressive for most of her life. She is the reason I am a dog trainer. I couldn’t lock her at home and HOPE that her problems would leave and she deserved a shot at a normal life with on-leash walks throughout neighborhoods and parks.
I began using Gentle Leaders the year that they came out because it gave me control of her mouth in cases of emergency. She was NEVER allowed to be off leash because I could never trust her around other dogs, so although she was always on a leash sometimes other dogs were not. And, although she could still bite with the Gentle Leader on, I could usually manage to control her face if another dog raced our way. Every time I took her outside the house where there could be other dogs, I knew she was a HUGE liability! The Gentle Leader allowed me to have more control and lessen my fears that there would be an aggressive incident.
This simple device allowed me to keep her safe (from the repercussions of a serious dog fight) and it kept other people’s dogs safe because she never had a chance to bite or attack another dog because I was a dutiful owner!
This early orientation with the Gentle Leader helped solidify its importance while training and working with dogs with aggression.
Like it can help an owner that has problems with dog aggression, it can also give owners of fearful dogs and dogs with a tendency toward human aggression more control by controlling the snout which houses the teeth. It also tends to keep people from wanting to run up and pet the dog, because some people think it is a muzzle, although it is not.
I have also never trained a Service Dog that was not trained with and acclimated to the Gentle Leader; it simply gives people with limited physical ability more control of large dogs. When used correctly a 5 year old child could easily walk a Great Dane.
How Does it Work?
- Could you imagine putting a choke chain on a horse? Halters are used on horses to give people more control, the same principle applies to dogs and head halters!
- Not only does it give you more control of the snout and “biting area” of the dog, it also gives the owner increased control over pulling, lunging, and other naughty leash behaviors.
- When your dog pulls and he is wearing the Gentle Leader, pressure is applied BEHIND his head and ears. Dogs dislike being pulled and when you pull on his collar or leash, he wants to pull back by pulling you forward…the Gentle Leader uses the same principle by placing the “pull” on the back of the head making your dog not want to continue to pull you forward when he feels this pressure.
How to Begin Utilizing This Tool
Make sure it is sized appropriately! A halter that is too loose can cause rubbing, abrasions and pain! Although it may seem too tight, it is crucial to make sure it is tight like the instructions recommend. This is not a “collar” the control and pulling is not going to the neck, it is focused around the nose that is why having it this tight does not hurt or bother your dog. A correctly fitted head halter should fit like a “Y”.
DO NOT use a head halter that is not adjustable under the nose piece. There is another popular, sometimes cheaper head halter that is not adjustable under the snout, and because it cannot be tightened the fabric strap can pull and even run in your dog’s eye. The ability to adjust the halter under the nose keeps this from happening.
DO NOT keep the snout portion loose enough for your dog to pull off. Once your dog is successful at slipping his dew claw under and pulling off the Gentle Leader, you are in for an eternal struggle because he knows it can be done! It is best to keep this knowledge from him!
This process is like acclimating to hard contact lenses, don’t put it on and leave it on for long periods. You must familiarize your dog to it SLOWLY for this to be successful!
ALL DOGS BUCK, some scream, and others throw horrifying temper tantrums. These tantrums can be totally normal, since they have never had anything on their face before, just don’t give in by taking it off or you will be setting yourself up for even more drama next time!
The less drama you put up with the first time, the less you should see during subsequent training sessions.
- Get your principles of positive reinforcement and fantastic treats ready!
- Every time you take it out have a click and treat fest! Your dog should dance with excitement at the sight of his new head halter!
- Hold the snout portion open and make your dog stick his snout in it as you click and treat. Don’t click it on for now, just click and treat for his nose coming through.
- Next just let it rest on his face and click and treat, putting it on and taking it off for treats.
- After he has no problems with that, it is time to click it in place and treat. Don’t leave it on for too long and do not apply any pressure.
- Once he has gotten use to it being on; begin putting it on him before meals and any other fun times during the day. It should be associated with good things.
- Next take him for a walk but DO NOT attach a leash to it yet! It is the pressure on the back of the head when they pull that is normally the cause of fits and tantrums. Just allow him to acclimate to the halter without applying any pressure yet.
- Finally once he is thrilled to see it and happy to have it put on and can wear it for short periods, it is time to get him use to the pressure.
- I get a leash with 2 clips; I clip one end of the leash to his buckle collar and one end of the leash to the head halter. This way I don’t always have to have pressure or pulling on his head, unless he is pulling me!
- The one problem I see with head halters is that: they don’t go away when the dog is good or makes good decisions; most people continue to pull on the leash or apply that pressure. Having a leash attached to his regular buckle collar allows you to utilize his buckle collar most of the time and only apply pressure to the head halter when needed.
- This use of two ends of your leash also helps teach him how to behave with just a buckle collar on!
I like the Gentle Leader and similar head halters that are adjustable under the muzzle, I think they can be a marvelous training tool.
If your dog has aggressive tendencies, I think they are essential in providing control and insurance against an incident, possibly for a lifetime.
However, if you are just utilizing this tool because your dog pulls on the leash or you could use more general control, it is my belief that you should remember it is a “training collar” and use it for its purpose to train and teach, not as something to use for a lifetime!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.