Today I made a decision: no more head halters for my dogs. I know people who don’t use them because they think halters are just a band-aid, and that they prevent people from teaching their dogs how to walk properly and so on. Some compulsion trainers see them as “soft”, as an excuse for people not to show their dog who’s boss. Others find them to be a nuissance for various reasons.
But I have decided to stop using head halters for this reason: my dogs don’t like them. I am (re)reading Suzanne Clothier’s tremendously important book Bones Would Rain from the Sky, and she is inspiring me to listen to my dogs. I mean really listen, not just see and hear what I want to see and hear. More on this in another post.
So sure, both Hannah and Mira have learned to tolerate halters and each will stand up on their hind legs, put their front paws on my thigh and poke their noses through the halter loop. They will then stand perfectly still while I do up the halter, and walk nicely once it’s done up. I have shaped this and followed techniques advocated in Shaping Success, which obviously worked very well. But Hannah will not take a treat while I do this, which tells me that she is not happy. And Mira’s ears and tail are down when I pull out the halti, and they only come up when she’s sure I have a treat. In other words, they do it for the reward, and because I ask, but they don’t like it.
Kestrel is a different story. She will allow me to do up the halti, but after two months she is still pawing and scratching away at trying to get it off. And then I get annoyed and have to stop and tell her to “quit” and pull her up off the ground and untangle her. We do this half a dozen times a walk. Yet I can walk her to the park on a flat leash if I just put enough effort into it, playing tug and keeping her attention on me. So why not just do that? Why make her be so miserable and have me get in a cranky mood when we’re supposed to be having fun?
(Kestrel, having arrived at the park on a flat collar)
You’ll notice that I have not mentioned Ross. This is because I have never used a halter on Ross. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Suzanne Clothier talks of seeing “the light go out” in a dog’s eyes when you push the wrong way. Ross is so clear with this that I have never been able to use any form of compulsion with him at all. Ever. I just can’t. He looks at me and it is so, so, so clear when I even put a toe across that line. So I have never used the slightest form of compulsion with Ross, and that includes never using a head halter. And guess what? He’s by FAR my most well mannered dog on a leash.
Now why can’t I learn from that? The answer is simply that slapping a head halter on a dog is far easier than how I taught Ross to walk nicely on a leash. And seeing as I keep bringing in new dogs, and that I have more dogs than I have time to properly train, the head halter has become my quick-fix tool. Is it better than other options, such as choke chains, leash corrections, prong collars and the like? I do believe so. But they still are a tool of compulsion.
And that’s the other reason I have decided not to use head halters anymore, i.e. they are compulsion tools. The reason they work is because they control the dog physically – they compel the dog to behave in a certain way, which is what “compulsion” means. Now I completely understand the reason people advocate their use, as I have repeated and believed this myself: they prevent the dog from doing things you don’t want, while you can shape them to do what you do want. With my red dog, Jaz (a fear-biting foster I lived and worked with for 10 months), the halter was a saving grace because I could run her on my bike without fear of her lunging at a passing person and pulling me off my bike. And since she was not safe to run off-leash in public, and since she desperately needed exercise, this was the best option I could come up with at the time.
In hindsight, however, I wonder if the halti didn’t make her worse. Another things head halters do is tone dogs down. Many dogs will be more subdued and quiet while wearing one. Why is this? Well, in addition to the obvious reason that it can’t be pleasant to have such a thing on your face, they also put pressure across the ridge of the nose. Have you ever watched a dog correct another? They will reach over and bite the muzzle of the offending dog, pressing down with their teeth right about where the muzzle strap of a halti will press down when the halter is done up.
In other words, the halti is serving to ‘correct’ your dog. In many dogs this probably isn’t a really big deal, but in a sensitive dog, I suspect this can lead to rather adverse responses. Take a dog who is fearful of people, or another dog, or whatever. The dog starts to lunge at that scary person-dog-thing, and immediately feels pressure on its muzzle. Translation: scary thing = the dog gets a correction. Now, isn’t that exactly what we are trying to avoid, i.e. having the dog receive a punishment around the thing that scares her?
Again in hindsight, what a head halter has allowed me to do is take dogs into situations that otherwise they would be problematic in. So by putting a halti on, I can safely (from my perspective, not from the dog’s) take the dog into a social situation that is over the dog’s head.
Some dogs do fine with this kind of “flooding” experience, and become desensitized and therefore improve. Others, however, get worse. If the dog is continually being put in a situation that is upsetting to them, and then not only not being able to respond properly because it doesn’t have proper control over its body, but is receiving constant corrections from the muzzle strap, I can see that this might serve to heighten a dog’s reactiveness.
So today I am retiring my head halters, and am going to find a better way to help my dogs behave in the way that I need them to in stimulating situations. This is going to mean more work for me but it will only help me become a better partner for my dogs. And that’s what it is all about, for me anyway: developing the best relationship possible with my dogs.