Oz Working Dogs - Assistance & Working Dog Equipment

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Dog halters

March 8 2012

I have an 7 month old Golden Retriever named Knightley who I am training to be my assistance dog, however I am having trouble training him to walk nicely on a loose leash. As I have problems with my mobility and Knightley is very strong already, I really can't have him pulling. I have used front attach harnesses, and I think they are great and are definitely my first choice for stopping pulling. The only reason I wish to use a halter now is that Knightley is starting to wear an assistance dog vest, so can't wear a front attach harness as well! Anyway, I have some issues with halters on dogs, so have a read and make up your own mind.


For the lazy owner who doesn't want to - or physically can't -  train a good loose leash walk, halters have the potential to be an incredible crutch. Putting one on a badly pulling dog for the first time must seem like a miracle for an owner, and to them, they see no reason to ever take it off the dog. Halters and front attach harnesses were designed as training equipment, not permanent equipment however, so I believe it is very very important to transition back to a flat collar for multiple reasons.

There is potential for injury in a halter, especially from ill informed owners either accidentally or deliberately jerking the head of their dog and straining or even fracturing their neck. It is particularly serious when the dog is at the end of a long leash and the owner may not realise, turning quickly away and wrenching the dog's head and neck. The force build up in a long leash is very nasty. This is the reason halters say in their instructions not to use more than a six foot leash, but frankly even a six foot leash to its full extent is going to make a dog very sore.

Knightley learning that having things around his muzzle is
good!!! I wrap the string around his muzzle briefly then take
it off and give him a treat. At first all I did was hold it in front
of him then give him a treat. Then I pressed it gently on the top
of his muzzle, then treat. Eventually we got up to where you see
in this photo, and he is quite fine with it. I would take lots of
breaks to play and have fun to create as many positive
associations as possible.
Now for my primary objection to a halter. I have used two brands of halter on my seven month old puppy, a Gentle Leader and a Comfort Trainer. Previously to even putting a halter on him I did a LOT of counter conditioning (CC) where I put twine/wool etc across and around his muzzle, even making a loose makeshift halter. Every stage of this was accompanied by lots of treats, praise and fun. I had been waiting for the Comfort Trainer in the post from the US but wanted a halter for a specific event, and because it hadn't arrived decided to buy the Gentle Leader as a temporary solution. When I got the halter home I spent a good while introducing it to Knightley, bringing it out from behind my back and giving him treats simultaneously, to tell him that this halter is a bringer of good things! I gave him more treats as I brought it closer to him, and eventually taught him to put his muzzle into the loop himself with clicker training. I didn't want there to be any force at any stage.

When I finally put it on, he obviously didn't like it, but didn't go mad trying to get it off. Certainly all my work with CC had helped with getting him used to having things on his face. I only kept it on for a minute or two at first. Then slowly longer. Then we went for a short walk outside. Then a longer one.

Knightley all kitted out for the event with the Gentle Leader on.
He wasn't trying to get it off as we walked along, but if he went into a down he would paw at it. I did as much CC as I could as the event was the next day, which went very well, and I don't think I could have managed as well without it frankly. A front attach harness could have done a reasonable job and frankly he would have learnt more from that but it wouldn't have worked with the vest he was wearing - which was my original problem. I would have rathered use a front attach harness which is what I have been using until now.

I got the Comfort Trainer in the post two days later, which I prefer in many respects. It has a light coloured nose loop, which is less visually disturbing for a light coloured dog. It is made of a much softer nylon, which is going to be easier for the dog to accept as it will be more comfortable. The muzzle loop is looser but it still gives you good control over the head.

However, it was around this time I was starting to notice his reactions when putting on the halter. I had previously read about the psychological impact of head halters, and had been against using one on Knightley for that reason, as well as it being in my opinion a crutch for real training. However, in the case of that particular event, I couldn't risk being pulled over in the crowd as Knightley is pretty strong, which is why I decided to give halters a go. I thought I would use one for three-four weeks for the benefit to Knightley's loose leash/heeling knowledge, then we would go back to training loose leash normally.

I am starting to think I won't use it for the full three-four week period now. The idea behind the psychological impact of halters is that they press on the muzzle, which is what a dominant dog will do to assert itself to a weaker one. Really a halter keeps a dog in a constant state of submission, which to many dogs is stressful. From what I have read some dogs are more susceptible than others to the psychological effects of halters. I have noticed in Knightley's case that the halter seems to inhibit his normal drives and pleasures. On a walk he isn't interested in having a good sniff, he seems a bit dull and doesn't look around himself but just plods along beside me (I walk slowly with a crutch), he isn't interested in picking up sticks which is usually something he LOVES, even his food drive seems reduced although he will take food placed right in front of him. I do find the impact is less in high distraction environments, such as the event I went to - but even there he wasn't his normal self. On a quiet walk with nothing but a bird or two to look at, he becomes a bit of a zombie.

Now, my puppy is anything but a zombie normally. He loves the world, he adores people, and he loves carrying bits of the world - the bigger stick he can find the better and he'll just walk along wagging madly at the fact he has something in his mouth. He loves looking at things, he is very observant and notices everything far before I do. He is smart and quick and eminently trainable.

However, when that halter goes on he isn't the Knightley I love.

I am not giving up totally, I will do more CC.... but for Knightley I think maybe he feels the halter is asking too much of him. He is a completely clicker trained dog, which means I have virtually never done anything to him by force, and have always had a lot of respect for him.... and a halter really is forcing him to do something and is maybe lacking respect for him - I sure wouldn't want it on my face!

We shall see, but for now I am not happy with halters as an equipment choice for my pup and have started training again on a flat collar whilst continuing CC with the Comfort Trainer. I'll update this page as we progress.

23 April 2012

So, it's about 6 weeks later than the previous discussion. I decided to try a third and rather different halter in the hope Knightley would tolerate it better. Interestingly, he did.

I am still not happy with halters in general, but I know they can be very useful tools for some dogs. Like all training equipment, some will work with certain dogs, some won't.

The halter I ended up buying for Knightley was one I had previous thought about but had gone for the Comfort Trainer instead.... the Infin8 by Black Dog, an Australian company. It is a bit of a mixture of collar and halter, and instead of fastening under the chin, it fastens at the neck like a martingale collar does. The part that goes around the dogs muzzle is completely adjustable, so if you want only a slight pressure, you can make it very loose. Knightley certainly copes with this a lot better. The idea is you start with the muzzle loop quite tight, and over time loosen it until the halter is doing very little to help control your dog. It becomes little more than a collar, which makes the final transition to a collar much easier.

However, apart from lots of counter conditioning and finding the right halter for your dog, which does help to a certain extent... there is relatively little you can do for the dog who is negatively affected by halters.

6 June 2012

Well, I am rather sorry to say I am still using the Infin8 halter, which partly shows how good I find it and shows that Knightley tolerates it quite well, but also shows that I am not putting enough effort into training a proper loose leash! Naughty me. It is very hard to do with mobility issues... I need some extra hands for giving Knightley treats as my hands are full of crutches and leashes! I'm going to get help from a professional trainer I think because I really haven't made much progress for months.

The Infin8 halter really is a good halter though, and very adaptable to however you want to use it. You can find it on eBay, the there seller sends all over the world from the UK for a reasonable price that works out slightly better than ordering direct from Black Dog here in Australia.

I still do believe that the most important thing to do is to put lots of time into training a good loose leash. Halters do have many problems and your dog will thank you for choosing a flat collar. I believe a dog isn't actually trained until it can walk obediently on a flat collar, and obedience is something we should all at least strive towards with our dogs!

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