Head Collars & Their Implications

Head Collars & Their Implications

November 01, 2021

Are head-collars aversive?


In recent years, head-collars have had their rise and fall in dog training. While there are some dogs who are trained to wear a well fitted head-collar and have loose leash manners, their purpose is commonly attributed to controlling a dog who is deemed 'unruly' on the lead. This is to provide a tighter rein on their ability to pay attention or investigate other things in their environment and necessarily causes discomfort due to pressure on the sensitive nose area and through their body. While the average guardian doesn’t view such equipment in this harsh light, the more we learn about dogs and training methods, the better we can inform ourselves and make the best decisions for our dogs’ wellbeing. For headcollars, this means it’s time not just for professionals, but for guardians in general, to step away from their use and focus instead on improving training methods and their application.

Some people have recommended the use of head-collars to teach a dog how to walk on lead, or when working with a reactive dog. The advertisements for them often spout a ‘cure-all’ for issues our dogs can experience on the lead. While they can indeed provide a person with more control over the direction of a dog’s gaze, the fallout for them is both a spike in stress, increase in stress signal displays, increased discomfort and a reduction in enrichment during their walks. Their use as a ‘solution’ in training lead walking is, therefore, ethically problematic and counterproductive to our training goals.

Do head-collars even work?

To the contrary, preliminary research has suggested that dogs might not actually be pulling any less than if they were on a harness. This is not to claim that the guardian's experience of the pulling hasn’t lessened; the head-collar may have in fact improved the experience on the human-end of the lead. This could be because the point of ‘pulling’ is no longer coming from the dog’s torso; the strength and sensation of pulling has been transferred to the dog’s sensitive muzzle and neck. Additionally, they cause discomfort and sometimes pain for a dog when they try to turn their head away. If they can’t help themselves and pull towards a distraction, the pressure is directed onto their muzzles and through their body, twisting their neck around with force into an unnatural position. Studies suggest that head-collars can in fact worsen the reactivity of a dog by further reinforcing negative associations of pain when they are triggered by something they are sensitive to, such as cars or other dogs. If used in conjunction with a short lead or handling technique that enforces the dog's head to be held high, the dog is prevented from engaging with their environment whatsoever; the ‘walk’ turns into just that - trotting mindlessly next to their human handler in discomfort with no enrichment or freedom.

As you know, training by creating unpleasant experiences for our dogs when they do things we don’t like (called “positive punishment” i.e. smacking a dog on the nose for something you don’t like) is against our ethos. We aim to build relationships based on mutual trust and respect by using humane, force-free, science-based training methods, based on our dogs' natural instincts. While we cannot speak for every case, head-collars are very unlikely to be the best option for the vast majority of dogs and their handlers.

What can you do instead?

Loose leash walking is an important skill that we want to teach by rewarding our dogs for making good choices. We set them up for success by giving them foundational skills prior to exposing them to distractions on their walks. Adding distractions gradually and increasing the difficulty of environments at your dog’s pace, rather than expecting them to be fine with everything, maximises your training successes. Furthermore, exploring the world through sniffing and mooching is critically important for a dog's mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Under the right circumstances, and applied in the right way, a double-ended lead attached to the front and back clips of a well fitted harness may be the appropriate alternative tool. The double clip setup can provide an extra point of attachment in situations where you need to quickly stop your dog from spinning or lunging towards a trigger while minimising risk. For people who are at risk of falls or injury, this setup can provide extra stability and reassurance to ensure the safety of both themselves and their dogs should a difficult situation arise. Read more on this setup here.

As strong advocates of enrichment and letting our dogs be dogs on walks, we strongly urge guardians to strive to meet the mental, emotional, and physical needs of their dogs regardless of equipment used. Besides training, maybe consider long line walks in nature: you might find that both of you enjoy them much more anyways.

The next time someone asks you about head-collars, consider sharing this information with them so they can make more informed choices.