The “Gentle Leader” is one of the most popular forms of head-halter. (Other versions include the Halti and the Canny Collar; most of the points I make here about the Gentle Leader apply to them as well.) A head-halter slips over the dog’s nose, allowing the leash to lead and control the dog’s head itself instead of just the neck (as in a neck-collar) or the shoulders (as in a harness).When I first began training dogs, I was not a big fan of the Gentle Leader. I thought (as I still do) that it is overly-hyped as being the “humane” way to control your dog. Many dogs just don’t like wearing it and struggle to get it off; what is “humane” about that? I also disliked the lack of freedom it gives dogs, as giving them freedom to make mistakes is an essential part of rehabilitating their behavior by correcting it, redirecting to acceptable, peaceful behaviors, and rewarding the change.
However, after working over the past several years with closing in on five hundred dogs of all sizes, breeds, temperaments, and behavior issues, I’ve come to rely on the Gentle Leader as an essential tool that I always carry with me in my bag of tricks. It is not the standard “go-to” collar that I recommend for most dogs with typical issues (like pent-up energy, over-playfulness, not listening, barking, jumping up, or fear/anxiety); but there are a handful of dogs I’ve found for whom the Gentle Leader is a godsend: nothing else will work, whereas the Gentle Leader allows amazing control, progress, and therapy.
The cases in which I rely on a Gentle Leader involve dogs who pose real and sudden danger to other dogs, people, or the handler/walker him/herself. First of all the Gentle Leader gives the handler control over the dog’s head, and even mouth, by essentially leading it around by the nose. Many dogs will simply stop lunging and snapping at all, when the Gentle Leader is on; and if they ever begin to lunge or snap, there is almost no risk of them making contact and causing damage. All it takes is a quick gentle pull away, and the dog’s mouth closes and head is steered clear of the target.
The second benefit of the Gentle Leader is in the positive, rehabilitative therapy it can provide if used int the context of an intelligent training plan. Aggressive dogs will almost all benefit from the twin medicines of desensitization and counterconditioning (the first means being around enough dogs/kids until your dog gets used to them; the second means turning what your dog expects to be an anxiety- or aggression-producing situation into a relaxing, enjoyable, fun, delicious one). But if your dog is a safety risk, you can’t get close enough to his “triggers” to desensitize and counter condition. Welcome the Gentle Leader. Now even fairly inexperienced and anxious handlers can have enough control over their dogs to safely get close to triggers, which gives them the opportunity (if used properly in tandem with other tools like treats, balls, toys, bellyrubs, clicker, etc.) to show their dogs a new, happier way of interacting.
If your dog doesn’t have these major sorts of issues, you can still use the Gentle Leader but I don’t encourage it. First of all, as I said before, many dogs just don’t like the feel of something strapped to and pulling on their nose. Why subject a dog to this who isn’t a safety risk and can be perfectly well controlled with less invasive apparatus? Second, a truly well-behaved dog is one who follows the owner’s lead and stays out of trouble not because he’s being pulled by the nose, but because he’s LEARNED to behave that way, and likes it. If you always lead your dog around by the nose, your dog won’t get into any trouble – but also won’t learn NOT to. Then you aren’t likely to have much control over him once you pop off the leash, say in a dog park.
So my overview of the Gentle Leader Head Halter (and other similar head halters/collars):
- Gives handler great control over dog’s head and mouth
- Allows handler to avoid dangerous situations
- Allows for safe rehabilitative desensitization and counterconditioning
- Can be uncomfortable to wear
- Doesn’t give a dog much freedom to learn off-leash obedience
In short, try the Gentle Leader if your dog has ever drawn blood on another dog or person, or if you are scared of him lunging or snapping at dogs, people, or anything else. Make sure your dog doesn’t hate wearing it (you can use positive reinforcement to help this), and call a professional to help guide you in using the Gentle Leader in therapeutic situations to help your dog become more peaceful and social.
Next installment (part V): The Glorious Martingale!