Today I wrote a post for a training list about head halters being my tool of choice in training. I thought I would share it here with all of you.

Don’t get me wrong, I want all of my dogs on a flat collar– it is easier on so may levels. However, I want the great beahaviour I can create with a head halter. So my goal when first putting a head halter on a puppy is to get it off as fast as I can — but keep the good behaviour that is established by using the halter.

Here is my post;

Head halters vs collars — here is my firm belief;

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 his environment then dogs on a head halter.

Think of how we create drive and intensity in a dog’s behaviour (be it for a retrieve, a recall or in schutzhund work to create intensity for bite work).  You hold the dog back using their opposition reflex to create more desire towards the intended target.


That is what you are doing when walking your dog in a distraction filled environment on a flat collar or harness where you can’t control what the dog is focusing upon.

At first, (potentially as a puppy) the dog might just have an innocent curiosity as he walks by something that grab his attention. He looks, alerts, ears come up, perhaps a low woof. But each time the dog is dragged away from the distraction (be it other dogs running, children skipping, wildlife  etc) on his flat collar and lead you are helping to the evolution of this curiosity into drive towards– and potentially aggression targeted at those distractions.

With a head halter you turn the dog’s head away from the distraction and hold his head towards you as you back away say 6 -10 steps then give the dog his head to as it is now an “ItsYerChoice” moment. If the dog chooses to lunge back towards the distraction, you repeat the back away process — controlling access to any reinforcement the dog my gain from his environment.  If instead the dog chooses to focus on you when you drop your leash and give him the choose — brilliant — you keep walking creating an opportunity to reinforce your dog for a good choice (ignoring distractions while walking with you).

I have used a head halter on every dog I have ever trained since 1990. My goal when I put one on a dog is to get one off as fast as I can. So I am comitted to training every time I walk my dog on a head halter — reinforcement comes from me — not the environment. I did try with Buzzy (born Sept 1996) to raise him without a head halter. I failed miserably and put one on him in the spring of 1997.

The halter allows me to create great rehearsals of behaviour so that when I fade the use of the halter  I end up with a dog on walking ona flat collar but with the good responses that were established while on the head halter.

I then have a dog I can walk on a loose leash anywhere under any distraction, plus I have a dog that understand what are the “good choices” he has available to him when faced with the choice of a distraction.

I am not saying all of this is not possible with some dogs on a flat collar but I am saying this reality IS possible with ANY dog on a head halter (and in my opinion you will get there faster).

Take a highly distraction filled environment and with many dogs, especially the motion sensitive ones, you are paralyzed when faced with big-time distractions.

If there isn’t enough (value for the dog) with you (ie your cookies are not compelling enough if you are luring or the history of reinforcement is not convincing enough) your dog will continue to stare at or lunge at the distraction — thus allow the dog to look to his environment over you for his source of reinforcement when faced with similar distractions in the future.

Thus resulting in a big reason for weak recalls and handler created aggression.

There will always be nay sayers who want to finger point at head halters as a potentially injurious tool. When I worked on the AHA committee for the “Humane and Ethical Treatment of Animals in Training” I can tell you we saw proof of dogs being killed by trainers (some in “puppy classes”) with a leash and collar.   Proving that any tool can become a weapon if used incorrectly.

The key is education. In my career I have found that very few people know how to properly;

1)Acclimatize the head halter (by playing games etc)

2)Swiftly yet humanely turn the dog’s head away from distraction & present choices for reinforcement during these sessions.


3) Fade the use of the halter but keep the good behaviour it created.

Once that knowledge is in place a head halter is something no on would do without — it would become as important to a dog’s training as a leash and collar.

FYI, I have a chapter at the back of my book Shaping Success dedicated to teaching how we use a head halter here at Say Yes.

Today I am grateful for tools like head halters. I could not imagine the frustration of raising a motion sensitive Border Collie without one (oh wait, I can, I tried it with Buzz  “. . .  ooh look something shiny!”)