A Not So Gentle Leaderby Roger Hild - Tsuro Dog Training
Head halters, in my opinion, are possibly one of the most overused and abusive pieces of equipment ever to have been strapped on the average family pet. As a management tool, they can have a limited place/role to play but that place is NOT on the head and face of the average family pet. The fact is that there is a considerably increased chance for misuse and injury. A little later, in this piece, I will outline some of the risks, safety concerns and injuries which are associated with this collar.
Take a look at the packaging inserts that come with the Gentle Leader. It says, "The Gentle Leader headcollar features two soft nylon straps the collar portion fits high at the top of the neck and the nose loop fits loosely and comfortably around the muzzle." The last half of the statement I find particularly disconcerting and potentially quite misleading. A very large number of dogs that I have observed with this head halter, have clearly been uncomfortable with the nose loop. Some of these dogs owners have stated that weeks and EVEN MONTHS later, the dog still fights the nose loop. Almost always the halter is poorly fitted with the number one problem being the neck strap is too loose. This is usually coupled with a nose strap that has been adjusted too tight (to try to keep the dog from getting it off). I have seen numerous skin abrasions on the muzzle and have photographed some. The abrasions are most often of the friction burn variety clearly not comfortable.
The 64-page booklet that comes with the halter has several statements that I'd like to stop and consider. (Remember this is the packaging and instructions that the average pet owner is going to see when they pick the product up off the shelf.)
- Inside the front cover under the Title "WHEN TO WEAR THE HEADCOLLAR," it says, "During the training period, we recommend that headcollars be worn 14 to 18 hours a day, but only when someone is in attendance. After the training period, have your dog wear the headcollar whenever you want further control."
- Page 1 (in bold type). "Ideally, you will start using the GENTLE LEADER system when your dog is still a puppy, at least eight to ten weeks old." (This writer notes: Why in the world would you need/want to put a HH on an 8 - 10 week old puppy? Is it possible that the marketing behind this "system" envisions every new puppy owner walking through his or her veterinarians doors as their market? Are they asking that along with the routine spay/neuter promotion all new puppy owners are subjected to, the vet now say, "Oh and by the way, you should get one of these to manage your puppy with.")
- Page 5. "The GENTLE LEADER system simulates a natural dog control. Puppies instinctively respond to pressure at the scruff of their necks. The GENTLE LEADER system uses this instinctive response to pressure, applied by the neck strap at the back of the head." (This writer notes: Any properly fitting collar does exactly the same thing.)
- Page 5. "GENTLE LEADER system simulates a pack leader's control. Dogs in a pack respond instinctively when the leader dog encircles the nose and lower jaw of a young dog. The leader dog does this to control behavior and show dominance. The nose strap encircling the nose and jaw acts in the same manner." (This writer notes: Whenever I have observed this behavior from a dominant dog (encircling the nose and lower jaw of a young dog), it has lasted only moments. The animal being subjected to this maneuver, usually quickly relents or submits and then it's over. The leader removes his mouth from the other dog's muzzle and moves on. Certainly no dog would be subjected to this kind of dominant gesture for 14 to 18 hours a day!)
There are some who are opposed to all aversive control of behavior and all forceful methods of training (I am NOT among this group). I find it interesting that many within this group readily use the HH. This is a clear contradiction; do they not realize this system utilizes a tremendous amount of aversive control and force? Page 5 in the booklet, "Wherever the nose goes the body follows. No matter what breed or size, it provides 'power steering' and leadership." The term "power steering" implies just that (power steering is where a small amount of effort is multiplied and generates a tremendous amount of irresistible force). Used as directed, the HH uses maximum compulsion, the dog complies because the forces are overwhelming and there is no other choice.
- Page 11 (under fitting instructions): Buckle the neck strap at it's pre fitted position. It should be snug like a belt so that one finger can NOT fit between the strap and neck." (This writer notes: I have checked hundreds of GL's after they have been supposedly "properly fit," in almost EVERY instance, the neck strap was far too loose. On a number of occasions, I have fit the collar as instructed only to have the owners loosen it days later because they thought it needed to be loose - this has sometimes resulted in some of the injuries I have noted.)
- Page 14: "How Will Your Dog React To GENTLE LEADER? Use of the GENTLE LEADER system with thousands of dogs has shown that some dogs, when first fitted with the GENTLE LEADER will try to get it off." (This writer notes: the book then goes on to try to rationalize/explain why this is only natural. In fact the statement is misleading to the extent that it is not "some dogs" that fight the nose loop and try to get it off, but almost ALL dogs fight it or in some way attempt to get it off. Why is it that so many trainers, in recent years, have dedicated themselves to devising protocols for conditioning dogs to accept this HH? If the collar is as natural and "gentle" as the promoters would have us believe, dogs should accept it much more readily. The fact is that the degree of conditioning being advocated is necessary because the dogs experience the collar as so aversive.)
I think it's time for a quick review of some history. Going back about fifteen or so years (to the late 1980's), the "Gentle Leader" was then known by it's original name, the "Promise collar." Looking at a book that came in the packaging of the then Promise collar, it called it, "Promise, The Natural Behavior Management SystemTM." The marketing brain trust, behind this system, adopted the new name ("Gentle Leader") to try to reinvent the product and present it in a more politically correct fashion. They sought to create an image of "gentleness" when sometimes it really is anything but gentle. The "Promise" system made reference to the nose strap as the "leader loop," and talked about using pressure here (around the muzzle) in much the same way a pack leader might assert their authority. The GL has removed all references to the term, "authority" and to the name of the nose strap as the "Leader Loop," though not it's function.
Most people are not mechanically astute and accept the marketing suggestion that this HH exercises gentle control. Lets look at the principles of leverage in order to understand what forces are really at work on the dog. If I try to remove a nut from a bolt using only the strength in my hand, I probably will not be able to turn the nut. I can then take a wrench and using much less hand pressure, generate enough force to easily turn the nut. This twisting action is torque. The more leverage (the longer the wrench) the more torque I can generate. The dogs head sits atop his spinal column (just like the nut and bolt example I gave). When the HH is on as instructed, the muzzle acts like the handle of the wrench and the small amount of pressure the handler uses (to turn the head) is translated into irresistible torque on the dogs neck.
I have seen dogs on the "Flexi," H.H. combo (a combination I especially hate to see) and witnessed them get hurt. I have seen dogs suddenly run forward only to have their head and neck severely rotated to the side and back. I have seen dogs hit the deck and scream while they seemed to have difficulty moving for several seconds (almost a similar reaction one has when they hit the nerve in their elbow i.e. "funny bone".)
Now the folks at GL have said they will investigate every report of injury which is attributed to their HH but that is a statement which (IMO) means very little in a practical sense. In an instance like I described above, how does one demonstrate an injury? It likely would be very small and over time such small injuries might accumulate. Suppose there is some unusual medical picture that develops (a syndrome of some sort) and suppose it was related to improper use of the HH, how does one prove it?
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Addendum to the article on head halters
After writing the above piece, I was often asked about the "Walk-Well" head halter I promote on my web site. Questions such as the following are sometimes directed my way:
"My question is, since I have never had the need to use a Gentle Leader, what is the difference between the GL and the Walk-Well Convertable Collar you sell on your website?"
This is a fair question that has come both from great fans of the head halter as well as from those who don't like it at all. Part of the answer lies in the "path" I followed to get to where I am today. I won't get into too many personal details but in brief:
- I began dog training in a fairly conventional (read Neanderthal) manner got good results liked what I was doing continued training in this fashion for several years.
- Got introduced (and convinced) to use tidbits in training. Used "lure-reward" system with puppies. Still used collar and leash corrections as well. good results enjoyed including the puppies.
- Allowed myself to get lured into nearly pure positive training (conditioning only). Results started to suffer. I worked at it, got real good at it and results weren't bad. Found most average pet owners couldn't grasp it and over time many student accomplishments and all standards were starting to slip. Had to continually be "lowering the bar."
- Started using the HH (head halter) as a means to improve my rather dismal results. Had some degree of success BUT didn't like some of the things about it. Didn't buy what was being said about it being "non-aversive" but used it because I (being somewhat slow on the uptake) was starting to conclude that aversives were necessary and I wanted to find a tool that "my peers" would readily accept. I could claim to be positive and still use a "politically accepted training collar."
- Use to hate the way the HH fitted some of the dogs I worked with and use to tear the HH apart, rework, restitch and refit. Use to say, "If I made HH here's what I'd change" Someone said, "why don't you do it?" SO I did.
- Had several "re-conversion" experiences began retraining with a blend of methods I have learned over the years and using alot more balance from those methods which I had learned early on.
- I hardly ever use HH's anymore but still do for particular things where I do feel it has something to offer.
I am quick to point out that I did say in my orrigional article that I do see some limited applications where they can be a useful tool. Often when I am asked for a HH, I will determine what the reason for the request is and more often than not will help the person address the problem without the HH. This usually means I loose the sale of the actual HH but I believe it is my responsibility (when asked for my professional opinion and people are paying for my services) to do what is best for the client and their dog. At time of writing this addendum, the last HH I sold was in a situation that I felt it was totally appropriate for as a short term management strategy. They have since enrolled in some classes and the dog is doing well, mostly on a flat collar, off the halter.
Reproduced with permission from the author, Roger Hild, Tsuro Dog Training