Lead your dog by the head
September 2011 / Centre Daily Times / State College, PA
We've all seen the image of a well-meaning dog owner stumbling along the sidewalk behind his or her beloved dog. The owner is yelling, "Heel! Max, Heel! Come, Wait, Heel!" as the dog, gagging and drooling all over himself, pulls mightily forward at the end of the leash, paying no heed to his owner's futile commands. I often encounter beleaguered owners who aren't certain whether they are walking their dog or their dog is walking them.
Pulling on leash is one of the most common behavior problems in dogs. From the dog's point of view, pulling on leash makes perfect sense. The dog moves forward, burning energy while doing so, and gets to sniff the new scents available on every new mailbox post and telephone pole. Once outside, the world is an olfactory amusement park for dogs, and their noses often lead them to the end of the leash and beyond. Add to this the possibility of greeting people and other dogs around every turn, and these enticements can create a virtual sled dog out of almost any breed.
Traditionally, owners have relied on some sort of neck collar to control and/or train their dog. Chain collars (colloquially referred to as "choker collars" or "choke chains") were particularly popular as training tools for many decades, and some dog trainers continue to recommend their use. The chain collar was designed to reduce pulling by pinching the dog's neck when the owner pulls sharply at the leash. Another commonly seen collar is the prong collar, which relies on poking the dog's neck with metal prongs when he reaches the end of the leash. Then there are the standard nylon buckle collars, which are helpful for some basic control but have no significant training value when it comes to excessive pulling.
Many animal behaviorists today recommend instead a head halter or body halter. In fact, research studies have shown that the head halter effectively reduces pulling while risking less damage to the neck and spine than chain collars. Head halters also are easier for owners to use in that the timing of corrections need not be as precise as that required for a chain collar to correctly reduce pulling.
A head halter is designed to reduce pulling by distributing pressure around the dog's head, rather than focusing all of that pressure on the front of the dog's throat. Similar to harnesses used to lead horses, head halters have a strap that clasps behind the dog's ears and a second strap that wraps around the dog's muzzle, just in front of the eyes. When the dog pulls forward and the leash becomes taut, the pressure of the head halter causes the dog's head to turn to the side while simultaneously slowing his body. When used appropriately, head halters dramatically reduce the effort required by owners to stop their dog's pulling.
For flat-faced dogs or other cases in which a head halter is inappropriate, there are body harnesses that reduce pulling as well. In particular, those that attach to the leash at the front of the dog's chest are ideal for slowing the dog as he is turned slightly by his own pulling.
I have been recommending head halters to families of pulling or lunging dogs for over 10 years, and owners are often amazed at how easy and enjoyable their walks finally become!