Managing dog aggression by using a head halter for an aggressive dog

Head halters are similar to what horses wear and controls the direction of your dog’s head (and therefore his or her mouth).  

When a dog pulls on a leash with a regular neck collar, the pressure on their neck and throat can cause discomfort or even injury over time, and can also encourage the dog to pull harder.

A head halter like the Gentle Leader is designed to provide gentle control over a dog’s head and neck, which can help to reduce or eliminate pulling on the leash.

Because they communicate so sensitively to your dog, head halters (or head collars) can be really valuable tools for managing an aggressive dog or dogs that pull and are commonly recommended by veterinary behaviorists and other experts. (1)(2)  

Head halters are easier and far more humane to use than than choke collars, pinch collars, or using leash “pops” (quick jerks to the collar). In fact if you are pulling your dog around with a head halter or head collar you are not using it correctly.

They are particularly useful when it comes time for targeted behavior modification because they will allow you control in case the situation unexpectedly gets heated.

Additionally, your dog can still breathe, drink, and most importantly eat which makes training simpler than when using a muzzle.

Dog wearing a head halter can open their mouths.
By Elf at en.wikipedia  from Wikimedia Commons

Using a Head Halter

Dogs have a lot of power in their shoulders and torso. A neck collar gets pulled down where the collar bone is and where there is a lot of strength.

A head halter, on the other hand, directs the head. The straps got around sensitive areas, so there is far less need for us to exert much force.

But because of this, a head halter must be used differently than we are used to with a typical neck collar, especially if you are used to a dog that pulls constantly or you have been taught to give a sharp jerk on the leash to correct a dog for pulling.

How a head halter works

The Gentle Leader works by fitting over the dog’s nose and behind their ears, with the leash attaching to a ring at the bottom of the halter. When the dog pulls forward, the pressure from the leash is transferred to the halter, which causes the dog’s head to turn to the side and their body to follow. This helps to redirect the dog’s attention back to the handler, as well as providing a physical deterrent against pulling.

Once you have your dogs attention, you should reward them, regardless of whether you needed to use the halter to encourage them.

Combine rewards with gentle redirection

The most effective way to use one is to combine it with teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash first. This way your dog has learned the contrast between a loose leash and rewards, vs the headcollar subtly pulling.

Start this by teaching this in a boring environment to begin with a first, and then slowly increase the various distractions as they learn. The head halter then can be used as a communication device that then says: you are moving too fast or far ahead or in the wrong direction.

If a dog starts to bark, or bite, pulling gently straight up can help to close their mouths, but it can be, and should be, gentle with soft hands.

For strong dogs that pull until their choking and potentially cause damage to their windpipe (trachea), or those dogs that might lunge, or even those dog handlers who don’t have enough strength to manage their pulling dogs, the head halter can be an invaluable tool.

Head halters should never be used to yank or jerk a dog’s head around, as this can cause pain and damage to their neck and spine.

Dogs should be desensitized to wearing one

As with anything new, it’s best way to get your dog comfortable with wearing them, by easing them into it. This is what desensitizing your dog to wearing a head halter (pdf download) can do. Desensitizing a dog to wearing one can make them look forward to the moment you bring the head collar out to put one on in fact!

While some dogs may try to paw head halters off, studies have indicated that despite this, their stress levels do not go up wearing one. But desensitizing your dog to wearing a head halter (pdf download) should prevent this as well as fitting your dog properly to wear one.  

You might be interested in seeing the video post: how to fit and introduce your to a Gentle Leader like a pro.

Types of Head Halters to Consider

The Gentle Leader and the Halti brands have both been around a long time. But there are others now on the market as well. The Gentle Leader head halter in particular comes highly recommended by many veterinary behaviorists. They are very adjustable so it makes it easy to pick one out (see Gentle Leader head collars on Amazon).  Gentle Leaders (now carried the Pet Safe brand) can actually have a calming influence some dogs when they have been fit and introduced properly. 

There are also other brands of halters such as Sporn halter (see the Sporn on Amazon) and the Halti (see the Halti head halter and others on Amazon).  They all vary slightly in design and some may fit your dog better than others.

If you need to use a muzzle in combination with a head collar, the Gentle Leader may be the best brand to go with because of its construction.

Fitting The Head Halter Correctly

Incorrectly fitted, a head collar or head halter could cause your dog to paw at his nose or resist more than they usually would.  A dog might also be able to escape from a head halter that is fit too loosely. The correct fit is even more important for flat nosed dogs and a head halter not always be appropriate.

However, in terms of picking the right size, many brands offer sizes with breed references to go by for picking out the right size for your dog and most are adjustable. The Gentle Leader for example goes by weight and gives you sample breed to give you an idea of what that is.

The Halti allows to pick the right size based on measurements which might be ideal for mixed breeds, or between sizes, or simply if you have doubts. Many staffordshire terriers have large heads for example, so measuring may save you from having to exchange one size for another.

Gentle Leader Size Recommendations

(See Gentle Leader head collars on Amazon).

SizePet SizeSample Breeds
PetiteUnder 5 lbsChihuahua, teacup and toy breeds, puppies (8 weeks or older)
Small5-25 lbsBeagle, Sheltie, Shih Tzu
Medium25-60 lbsBorder Collie, Bulldog, Pug
Large60-130 lbsBoxer, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever
Extra LargeOver 130 lbsGreat Dane, Newfoundland, Saint Bernard

Halti Head Halter Size recommendations

(See Halti Head Collars on Amazon)

SizeNeck MeasurementNose CircumferenceSample Breeds
020-36 cm
11.5 – 14 in
15-22 cm
6.0-9.5 in
Bichon Frise, Mini Dachshund, Maltese, Toy Poodle, Yorkshire Terrier
131-40 cm
12-15.5 in
16-24 cm
6.5-9.5 in
Corgi, Mini Poodle, Mini Schnauzer, Sheltie, Standard Dachshund, Westie
235-48 cm
14-19 in
21-28 cm
8-11 in
Australian Cattle Dog, Bedlington Terrier, Scottish Terrier, Shar Pei, Staffie, Vizla, Standard Schnauzer
340-54 cm
15.5-21 in
24-36 cm
9.5-14 in
Bull Terrier, German Shepherd, Golden Schnauzer, Husky, Labrador, Malamute, Setters, Weimaraner
446-62 cm
18-24.5 in
30-40 cm
12-15.5 in
Akita, Bernese Mountain Dog, Bull Mastiff, Giant Schnauzer, Irish Wolfhound, Newfoundland, Rottweiler
551-73 cm
20-29 in
32-44 cm
12.5-17.5 in
Great Dane, St. Bernard
Halti Headcollar Black Features

Motivations for pulling

Dogs pull for any number of reasons. In the majority of cases, people naturally walk more slowly than dogs. In another majority of cases, dogs are typically under-stimulated in their day-today living. Walks become the highlights of what are ordinarily boring, relentlessly tedious lives so naturally when they get outside they are excited and have a lot of energy.

And for other dogs, particularly dogs who are more reactive to others, the outside world can put them on high alert, raising their heart rates, and adrenaline and making them hyper-vigilant and preparing them for action. The slow moving human slowing them down must be pulled forward.

Calming our dogs before they walk

We can make our jobs easier before they even get out for a walk.

We can make the rest of our dogs lives more interesting so the excitement of going for a walk doesn’t get out of control. With environmental enrichment, we can engage their minds perhaps with play, training or food puzzles, and letting them out to run and play before they are required to be calm on a leash. It also help to desensitize them to being outside. This way, while they look forward to going for a walk, it isn’t the only relief from boredom or overwhelmingly the highlight of their lives.

We can also use their less distracting environments inside to get them used to wearing a head halter, and to also teach them what it means to walk on a loose leash without any distractions first.

Cautions

Head halters can be such a useful tool that many veterinary behaviorists, trainers and other professionals working with dogs recommend them. But there are some considerations you must consider before using one.

Dogs can still bite

But it is important to understand that head halters are not muzzles. Head halters do not prevent biting on their own they way muzzles can. But when used properly, head halters allow you to be in more control in those situations where you absolutely need to have a more controlled and a safer dog.

Do not use a head halter if you still perform “leash pops”

A gentle but firm pulling the leash straight up helps shut the mouth. Head halters should not be used with the old-school style of quick jerks the leash to “correct”. This is unnecessary and can cause injury. Dogs should be free to move their heads and look around.

Head Halters Should Be Used with Specific Leashes

A regular leash not longer than 6 feet are the best leashes to use with a head halter.

They should not be used with a tight leash or a spring-loaded “flexi” leash. Long leashes are not ideal since the handler can’t use the later properly if the dog is too far back or in front.

You should still avoid your dog’s aggression triggers

Also like using muzzle for aggressive dogs, you need to make sure you don’t keep exposing your dog to the things that cause him to be aggressive as this simply makes the aggression worse.  Nor should you develop a false sense of security that you will have a “safe” dog.

How to Handle Dog Aggression with a Head Halter

Gentle leaders and other head halters are essential tools bth for management of pulling/lunging and for behavior modification.

Management

You can walk your dog on a loose leash with a head halter, allowing them to look around, sniff, etc. but if faced with an unexpected situation where your dog starts to pull, lunge or snap, gently raising the leash straight up (only as needed) gives you a lot of control over the dog’s head and mouth.

Some people combine a head halter with a muzzle for safety. The Gentle Leader brand is probably the best brand for this as their construction is simpler than some of the others.

However, while they can be useful in managing an aggressive dog, and in some cases have a calming influence on some dogs, they do not change the emotional state of your dog once your dog becomes anxious or reactive.

You are far better off making your dog a safer pet with a systematic treatment approach such as the one we offer in The Dog Aggression System Every Dog Owner Needs e-book than relying on a head halter or muzzle only.  You should learn how to identify signs of to help you act before the aggression even starts, create a prevention and management plan so that you avoid the circumstances that are causing the aggression.

Then help your dog learn to cope better with the thing that is triggering his aggression with a treatment plan designed to keep his anxiety below “threshold”.  This is a far more humane way to deal with the problem, and most dog aggression can be improved if you only use the right science-proven methods.

Behavior Modification

Head halters allow you to easily reward with food treats than a muzzle does.

In behavior modification that can be used to subtly redirect the head back to you if they become overly focus on a person or other animal. In active behavior modification we do actually want our dog to notice the trigger of his or her anxiety/aggression at a distance or for a duration where they can remain or be encouraged to be calm.

But sometimes we may misjudge where that distance is, or our dog may have having a more reactive day than they did previously. Either way, the head callar can gently steer the dog back to you without adding to their frustration.

Harnesses for Aggressive dogs?

Harnesses will not prevent biting and if the dog is aggressive it could be dangerous reaching around the neck to fit the harness unless he has been conditioned to accept this calmly.

However, harnesses can be still good options dogs that pull or lunge and the no-pull harnesses offer more of a humane control for dogs with short snouts, where head halters won’t work.

Popular no-pull harnesses are the Petsafe Easy Walk No-Pull Harness (multiple sizes), Halti No Pull Harness, the Sporn and the Freedom No-Pull Harness.

If you are interested in learning more about treating dog aggression, you may be interested in purchasing the  The Dog Aggression System Every Dog Owner Needs e-book.

You might also be interested in

How to fit and introduce your dog to a Gentle Leader like a pro.

Using a muzzle for an aggressive dog

5 methods to avoid in dog training

References

(1) Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat, 3rd ed., G. Landsberg, W. Hunthausen, L. Ackerman. Saunders, Elsevier (2013), 10.1016/j.tvjl.2014.03.010

(2)Overall, Karen L. 1997. Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals. St. Louis: Mosby.

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