Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tools of the Trade

When I say tools, I mean all things we use to manipulate our dogs’ actions. The obvious ones are tools that attach the dog to us, or vice versa in some cases, in a physical way: leashes, harnesses, and collars.
When I am out and about with Will, our favorite is to go au naturel: attached by nothing than the emotional bond between us. Like riding bare back how I imagine it. Like Ted and Merle, described in Ted Kerasote’s “Merle’s Door”. In reality, for many person/dog teams that is not always possible, either because owners haven’t done enough training and rely on a leash to keep the pooch out of trouble, or leash laws prohibit such freedoms.
In the olden days, what collar and leash to use was straightforward: mostly choke chain, prong or flat collar sometimes, and a six-foot leash. Done.
Nowadays, we have many choices. The traditional “you-do-or-else” devices are still available, together with the considerably new over-the-counter shock collar, but in addition we have collars in funky colors and fancy materials, collars with a loop that tightens only somewhat around the dog’s neck, and a number of harnesses with various functions. To select the right one can be an overwhelming task for a layperson.
If you're following my posts for a while you probably noticed that I don’t train with discomfort or pain, or the threat of it, and most everyone who comprehends and is committed to positive reinforcement methods agrees with me and opposes choke, shock and prong collars, like I do. A little bit a different story regarding halters that fit around the dog’s nose. They come under different brand names: Halti and Gentle Leader are probably the ones most people are familiar with, and are frequently recommended as an acceptable, dog-friendly tool by progressive trainers, humane societies and veterinarians.
In my opinion, these nose halters are anything but positive. Far from it, they irritate and agitate most pooches to no end. Dogs are stressed and anxious, forever paw their noses, or slide their head along the ground, person or furniture in an attempt to get that thing off. I recently got an email from a client who informed me that they started their spunky juvenile on the Ruff Love program, suggested by Susan Garrett, who is a renowned clicker trainer friends of mine, who I respect a lot, hold in high regard. The Gentle Leader, apparently part of it, caused the pooch to rub her face so much that is swelled in a couple of places, and they wanted to know what they could do to stop her from doing that. Perhaps you can guess what my answer was, and yes, my caring clients took it off and hopefully tossed it in the trash.
Dogs that don’t actively try to remove the nose harness might withdraw and shut down, seem depressed and lifeless. Some shake, urinate or hide as soon as they see that thing.

There are good reasons why dogs reject head halters with such intensity and persistency.
The nose is a very important and sensitive part of a dog’s body. A muzzle grab is a natural correction mom dog and superior elders give, likely because it is effective. One local trainer fitted a 10-week-old, nervous puppy with one with the explanation that it would decrease anxiety since the mother dog corrects that way. Huh? Imagine someone putting a device around a sensitive part of your body and drag you around – or string you up in the air. Would that make you less anxious?
Or allow someone to manipulate your head without telling you which way you should be turning. But be careful, cause a wrong move could leave you with a sore neck, even when you are not yanked. Yanking, though, happens a lot with dogs, which can cause spinal and soft tissue injuries. Yes, I know, the instructions explain how to use it properly, but in real life owners, and some trainers misuse it. I witnessed a high-profile one hang a dog reactive Border Collie on a Gentle Leader, and when I see dogs walked in neighborhoods and parks, I wonder who ever came up with the misnomer. A more appropriate name would have been: Nose Pawing-, Neck Twisting- or Vivacity Extinguishing Leader. Then again, euphemisms are used for anything that sounds nasty enough to make one feel bad.
In addition, the head halter allows the human to control the dog’s head. That is the whole idea behind it. Yet, that is where a lot of communication happens. Dogs use their nose to gather information, and face and head to tell “others” how they feel and what their intentions are. A pooch might want to lower or turn it to give appeasing signals to an oncoming dog or person, but is prevented to. Not being able to “speak” freely increases anxiety, especially in a dog who already might feel leery about certain stimuli. Ironically, it is often the reactive dog that is fitted with a head halter.
Because the sensation the nose halter produces comes very close to a natural correction, there is ample room to mess up your training. A perfect heel or sit, or offered attention, doesn’t change the feel and the dog might still perceive being corrected. Confusing? Yeah! In addition, a dog that’s irritated doesn’t learn very well. I am talking about the deliberate, concentrated learning that takes place in a class, and obedience practiced on walks. It’d be like you expected to focus on quantum physics in a scratchy wool sweater on naked skin.

When a dog is distressed about the head halter, he is conflicted about the walk as well, and by extension you. Maybe he waited all day for you to come home, and then he’s fitted with that thing that feels so unpleasant, and the entire walk becomes a punishment.
Fact is that most dogs hate the Gentle Leader, even when introduced to it carefully. They want to avoid it - and the hand that puts it on. Not good. Dogs should always have a positive association to a human hand, especially when it's close to where the teeth are.
In my line of work I meet many dogs that bite the hand that feeds them, and that is not normal. Observations with feral and stray dogs showed that they don't attack the ones they are bonded with or belong to. Let's not forget that dogs don't have hands, so the only way they relate to hands is how they experience them, like a child would relate to a dog's mouth - and dogs in general, depending on if she was licked or bitten. I am not saying that the Gentle Leader causes dogs to bite, but if hands, on a daily basis or several times a day, poke, jerk, pin, knuckle bite, scruff and/or force a contraption around the pooch's nose that feels so unpleasant, he wants it to stop. The bite, then, is defence, not dominance.
Fact is that some dogs reject a head halter more than a prong collar. Not that I am for prong collars. I don’t like any tool that leaves room for Joe and Jane Frontporch to mess up the pooch and the relationship they ought to have with him, and the prong collar does that - but also the head halter, no matter what brand. If it isn’t perceived as gentle by the dog, it isn’t gentle, and it annoys me that pros who are opposed to other forms of aversive tools continue to promote them.

When me and my Will venture somewhere that requires her to be leashed, I put on her blue body harness and clip on her heart studded, red six-foot soft Italian leather leash I bought in a boutique in Banff, Alberta. Will is a diva and walks in style, but I like the lightness of both. If we can’t go au naturel, I at least want a feel to it as close as possible.
If your dog is really overpowering you, check out body, not nose, harnesses that control the dog from the front. The Sense-Ation harness comes to mind, or the Freedom Harness I just discovered thanks to dog guru Pat Miller, and that I really like. For everyone else, a comfy flat collar or normal body harness, and a light leash kept loose is best, because you prevent restraint anxiety, keep your relationship intact, enhance learning, have physical control, and obey the law.


  1. Hopefully more and more will hear the wake up call. Thanks for working so hard to get the word out. Once again a most excellent Blog.

  2. I've always hated gentle leaders, I always felt no matter how much conditioning work you do dogs never like them - I feel the same about muzzles, I always try to do aggression work without them, but sometimes you have no choice. I was at a dog event recently and we were standing in the field with a number of dogs and every dog that had a GL on was throwing himself to the ground and rubbing to get it off.

  3. Tristan, I agree regarding muzzles, but if necessary I send people to to watch the desensitizing video. The best I ever found.