When and How to use a Dog Head Halter
Head halters are just one of the many forms of tether & control for dogs and this article is not to say they are the best or the most suitable for every dog, or every breed. It is written to simply look at how they work and how best to use one.
What is a Head Halter?
A head halter consists of a strap that goes around the dog’s nose and usually another strap that goes around their neck, generally just behind the ears. The leash fastens to the halter via a connection point or ring, either under the dog’s chin or at the top of the head behind the ears. This connection point is attached to the nose strap. When the dog begins to pull, the design of the halters causes the dog’s nose to be turned down or back towards you which makes it physically difficult for it to continue pulling. There are a few specific reasons behind the design of the head halters and while brands might tweak little details, in the main they will try to fulfill these key functions:
- The neck piece should sit right up behind the ears and be firm enough that only two fingers can slide in comfortably. The reason for the neck piece sitting up high behind the ears is to keep the dog’s head in the ‘forward’ position just like when you see dogs at conformation shows with the check chain up high behind the ears. This puts the head and neck in a working position which is helpful for being in ‘training mode’.
- The firm fit by measuring with two fingers is also part of this for two reasons. 1) It keeps the neck piece in position and talking to the dog’s brain instead of just flapping around. 2) It keeps the head halter in place securely to prevent the nose piece being pushed up or down the dog’s muzzle and more importantly, from being pushed off the dog’s head altogether.
- Most will have some version of ‘jaw straps’ instead of just one thin nose piece and this helps keeps the muzzle component in place better but importantly, aids in moving the ‘whole head’ not just ‘dragging on the snout’. A skinny nose piece, especially on a strong, tall dog that is twisting, is like trying to control the dog with a piece of string across its nose and cuts into the nose. The jaw straps + nose strap, just like a horse halter, allows movement of the whole head rather than dragging on the nose.
- A connector to the collar. This is even more important in brands that do not have jaw straps as the thinner nose piece can easily become loose and fall or be pushed over the dog’s muzzle and suddenly the dog can get loose. Having a connector to the collar means that even if the dog’s halter did slip off, they are still connected to an anchoring point on the dog.
- A swivel action connection point for the lead to clasp to. This is a safety item so the handler can start to turn the dog and ‘invite’ it to follow rather than ‘yanking’ it to change position.
Why Use a Head Halter?
Some dog owners leap at using head halters because their dog pulls and especially with big or strong dogs, it quickly becomes a case of massively opposing forces when the handler is using their body weight to counteract the dog’s strength and weight so they can win the ‘we’ll go here’ argument instead of being dragged along. It can be very hard to turn a determined dog on a harness or a flat collar in those situations. Having ‘control’ of the head allows turning of the face but it is never right to be yanking or using brute force with this tool.
Susan Garrett, a well-renowned dog trainer cites: “A dog in training on a head halter receives more reinforcement from their owner than dogs on a flat collar and a dog in training on a flat collar receives far more reinforcement from their environment than dogs on a head halter.” (Susan Garrett, 2010; Head Halters VS A Flat Buckle Collar)
Yes, head halters help in reducing pulling. If you control the dog’s head/face, their body must follow where their head is turned, but think also about communication.
There is a saying that ‘whatever we feel, goes straight down the lead to the dog’. Makes sense that if the lead, and our feelings, is connected to the head versus the muscly neck, then the dog will be more ‘connected’ to us.
Head halters can also be recommended by trainers for use in reactive dogs. Not only does the owner have better control of the dog physically to break a lunge but by controlling the head, it is quicker and easier to control the face for snapping. The owner can also quickly divert their dog’s attention from the stressor by turning the dog’s head away from the other animal or person that it may be reacting too. Visually removing that stressor from sight and controlling the most dangerous part of the dog (their mouth) with calm, controlled leadership, takes the dog from anxious & reacting to ‘refocussed’ quite quickly.
The use of a head collar can greatly speed up the process of training dogs to focus on their owners and perform fun, polite behaviours instead of reacting to other dogs, people and stimuli. When used correctly, a head collar can even help control anxious dogs so that they can calm down enough to focus and take treats.
Being able to walk in place is a massively important life skill!
This is most especially true for bigger & taller dogs. You’ll never know how much fun it is to go skiing, end up on your belly being dragged along a road or grass or getting up-ended because your feet got caught up in their feet, unless you’ve walk trained a big dog!
If you are a really dedicated owner and put lots of time into the training and practice, any dog can be taught its place for walk training using any tether item – a flat collar, slip lead, harness, martingale, whatever.
But this is where a head halter does shine. With the dog tethered using a head halter, its place at your hip instead of out front or moving across in front of your body, teaches them so quickly about position and once you train position, its way easier to train turns (left & right) when you are turning across a dog’s head instead of its body.
Why does it matter?
With a small dog, there’s still a chance you’ll get skittled but you’re more likely to win the war of physical counter balance. With a bigger dog, GOOD LUCK! Once a dog is triggered, their ability to move with force into a lunge, leap or twist is very quick. If the dog is out front of the handler, it is incredibly hard to get them back into the position of control and ability to turn, which happens when they are at your hip or close to.
Training via a head halter for positioning, command obedience & turning, or stop to ‘focus’ helps turn dogs that are triggered by the environment into dogs paying attention to their handlers. Moving on to other tether methods once this skill is strong is very easy.
Before we move on, buying and whacking on a head halter as only a means to keep the dog close by yanking its head is NEVER the correct use and defies everything they were designed to be used for. A head halter is a training tool, not just a control tool and not all dogs need a head halter! Most small breeds can be taught position or have control exerted with a flat collar or harness.
How to choose a head halter?
If a head halter is cutting into the skin on the muzzle under the eyes, is rolling around the face or slipping farther back onto the dog’s neck, it is either not fitted properly, is the wrong size or it is not being used correctly. There should be no tension whatsoever to cause loss of hair or skin but it shouldn’t be so loose that it moves around the dog’s face.
It is really important that the Head Halter you select for your dog fits their head shape. There are several brands available and each will have slightly different sizes, fit, builds and styles. Some come with a ‘connector’ that attaches to the collar as a double back-up and some don’t.
If the dog doesn’t like the head halter, having some form of back-up connection is not a bad thing in case they slip the head halter. These days, most people are used to seeing dogs with head halters but occasionally someone will think they are a ‘muzzle’ so pretty colours can help dispel that issue!
When first purchasing a head halter, it is a good idea to take your dog with you and get help making sure you have the right brand for him/her and it is fitted correctly. The nose strap should be a comfortable fit & sit without being too close to the dog’s eyes. A good measure for whether the brand suits your dog is that the nose strap should be around 1cm from the dog’s eyes.
Training a dog to wear a halter
If we just throw the dog into a halter and expect them to go ‘no worries’ we probably will find failure. Start by using a really high-value treat like shredded BBQ chicken, tiny cheese cubes or whatever their treat kryptonite is and only use that for the halter training sessions.
- Start by showing your dog the head halter and producing a treat to create a positive association with the halter.
- Now let your dog take a treat through the halter by placing it gently near/over your dog’s nose and offering a treat through the hole where the nose would go (do not fasten clips a this stage).
- Once your dog is comfortable with placing their nose inside the halter, you can continue to do up the clips and treat with lots of rewards. Be sure to not rush this process, it may take days, weeks or possibly even months for your dog to feel comfortable wearing the halter, but the time spent at this training stage will be worth it.
- Have your dog wear the halter whilst with you around the house and offer rewards for good behaviour. IMPORTANT: Head halters are not design for tethering or extended wear and a dog should never be left alone whilst wearing one.
- Once they are comfortable wearing the halter, you can progress to adding the lead and going for a short walk of around 5 minutes in a quite place, preferably your own backyard. If your dog walks nicely, offer huge rewards and praise so your dog associates the halter with a positive experience.
- Gradually extend these walks until you are confident that your dog is happy to walk with the halter.
- If your dog tries to remove the halter, distract it with treats. Never tell it off for trying to remove the halter, it will only create a negative association with wearing it.
- Once your dog is walking comfortably at home, you can return to your normal walking places.
- Keep up the distraction treating when needed.
For more advice on head halters, visit us with your pooch, in-store, seven days a week.
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