A Dog's Eye View: Head halters and harnesses — times have changed

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Sandra Kruczek

When I trained my first dog not to pull on his leash in the 1950s, the only equipment we used was a choke chain and a 6-foot leash. The method used was punishment, or what is called “avoidance learning.” Our dogs learned to avoid a jerk on the leash by responding to a command such as “heel” or “sit.”

Thankfully, our equipment and methods for teaching dogs have changed dramatically since then. We now have so many more choices of equipment that are effective and gentler on our dogs and us. Effectiveness isn’t our sole criteria in teaching our canine companions. Our long-term relationship and trust from our dogs is a major part of training. We combine the use of this more modern and less averse equipment with positive reinforcement strategies — most often in the form of high-value food rewards. Halters and harnesses are recommended for teaching dogs to walk or jog on a loose leash.

Head halters

Head halters work with dogs using a similar premise as with horses. The saying is “control the head, and you control the horse (or dog).” Halters need to be fitted carefully to the size of your dog. And as with all equipment, it is an aid to teaching, not a fix in its own right. Careful use of the head halter can be quite effective in controlling the dog. Improper use of this halter, combining forceful jerking or “correction,” actually can cause physical pain and injury. Be sure to solicit the help of an experienced trainer for proper instruction.

There are many different types of head halters on the market. Two that we like are the Gentle Leader and Halti. The Gentle Leader fits a snugger on your dog’s head while the Halti can be a little looser. Recently, I worked with a dog that had more skin around his head and jaws, so the Halti seemed a better choice for him.

Harnesses

The biggest problem with traditional harnesses is that the leash attaches to the back of the harness behind the dog’s shoulders. This is designed to facilitate dogs bearing down with their front legs. It’s what harnesses were designed for in the first place — pulling (just ask any sled dog driver). However, this type of harness is ideal for small dogs and for senior dogs that do not pull on leash.

We like “control” harnesses for active pulling dogs. These have a leash attachment ring in the center front of the harness at about chest level. The leash is attached to the front so when your dog pulls forward, his body is turned toward you. It doesn’t give him the pulling power of a rear-hooked harness.

Two types of control harnesses we use are Easy Walk Harness and SENSE-ation Harness.

Depending on the owner’s diligence and consistency, training can take days, weeks or months. But it’s worth the time and effort. Take advantage of the advancements in equipment and knowledge of behavior when teaching your pet. It’s nice to know we have so many choices to fit our needs.

Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training with more than 25 years of experience.

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