Are Head Halters Cruel?

are head halters cruel

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As I write this, I am working with a sweet pair of smaller labra-doodles, from the same home but each with their own issues. One, I am working on the standard prong collar that I tend to use for most of my clients. The other, I elected to take a different approach, and am instead guiding him through my program with a combination of head halti and e-collar.

I think that surprises many people, as the former is often applauded as a positive tool, while the latter demonized as a torture device. The thing is, neither is true.

The reason I decided to use a head halti for this specific dog is not because head haltis are kinder than prong collars (prongs being my preferred method) but simply because this specific dog has a diagnosed tracheal issue.

As I speak about in my article, Do Dog Collars Cause Collapsed Trachea? a prong is actually one of the safer tools one could use on a dog with these issues, but I wanted to play it extra safe as this specific case needed some more significant behavior modification.

I chose the halti as a leash tool not because it is better — actually, in reality it’s quite the opposite — but strictly because it will keep all pressure away from this dog’s neck. Training is about flexibility and the ability to pivot for the dog in front of you, and that is what we are doing.

Are Head Halters Better for Dogs?

The truth of the matter is, even though I occasionally do use head halters for some unique cases, I actually vastly prefer the prong collar as a leash tool. And honestly? While they can be useful in some cases, I kind of hate head halters, and I think dogs share the sentiment.

After being a professional dog trainer for several years, (and a dog walker for the years before that, and a shelter volunteer and intern before that) it is genuinely bewildering to me that head halters are considered a “positive tool” to solve pulling.

I hesitate to call any tool “bad” as I know it should be assumed the tool be used correctly before being judged of its kindness and effectiveness. But the specific feel-good marketing practices of popular halters such as the Gentle Leader really pose it as a do-no-wrong, foolproof tool, which already isn’t the case. And even with a lot of conditioning and “proper use,” there are still some very major design flaws that make it far from ideal for many, if not most, dogs.

While often marketed, sometimes right in the name, as a “gentle” tool, head halters really can actually hurt dogs and cause more problems than they solve. Some of the downsides to head halters for dogs are:

  • Risk of eye damage
  • Postural harm from torque
  • Falling off or breaking easily
  • Not suitable for brachycephalic dogs (info in this article)
  • Pressure can not safely be made more gentle/firm by handler
  • Has to be conditioned before use
  • Can be dangerous for energetic dogs

I’ll be going over these risks and downsides in more detail below. But if there are so many potential risks and downsides to head halters, why do I sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) use them?

cute dog sitting under blanket

The answer is that every tool has a place, and with the right application every tool can help fill gaps to ensure every dog gets the care and training they need. With the specific dog I am working with, I erred on the side of caution by picking a leash tool that would not place any pressure on the neck or upper chest of the dog.

With the knowledge I have of the tool, I am able to anticipate its downsides and take extra precautions to make it work for the dog in front of me.

But for the average dog? Head halters simply aren’t the tool I would use or recommend, even for their main selling point: stopping pulling.

Do Head Halters Work for Pulling?

The makers of head halters love to claim that they are the perfect training tool to stop pulling, and this is how most dog owners use them. The marketing is fantastic, with the biggest brands fully convincing dog owners that head harnesses (especially their head harness!) is the gentlest, most positive way of fixing your dog’s pulling behavior.

But how positive can a tool be if you have to go through a long and often arduous conditioning process just to get the thing on? Through experience I can tell you that dogs take even to muzzles must faster and with more grace than a head halter. The conditioning process is a painstaking one to even make it to your first leash session.

And that’s if you do the conditioning process, at all. Many dog owners forego the process entirely, simply fitting the tool and heading out the front door whether their dog likes it or not. Simply positive!

Once the tool is on, the dog will begin to pull. When pressure goes onto the leash, the strap over its nose diverts all the force to their muzzle, and pulls their head in the direction of the handler. For sensitive, already-gentle dogs, this is sometimes not an issue. For dogs that genuinely pull (ie, the target market for head halters) this can be painful or even cause the dog physical harm.

This makes things generally easier for the person at the other end of the lead, as they will have more leverage against their dog’s pulling. This can be a real blessing to dog owners who are not as strong as their dog, or who have pain or mobility issues. This leverage makes most dogs easier to manage (compared to if they were wearing a flat collar or harness) but it does not train the dog.

In my dog walker days, I had many dogs that used the head halter. Not one of them was actually trained to heel or even walk with a slack leash; each and every one still pulled through the odd posture and discomfort. One pulled so much when he was excited by something that I often had to physically grab him by the collar or the strap would push up so close to his eyes that I feared he’d severely hurt himself (yes, with the tool properly sized).

Dogs will not inherently learn not to pull from the head halter, just as they will not inherently learn from any tool going on.

Application is important, even more so for a tool like the head harness.

The Downsides to Head Haltis for Dogs

So what are the actual downsides to head halters for dogs, and why do I so adamantly prefer prong collars as the kinder tool?

The truth is, head halters are actually a vastly more aversive tool than a prong collar, for a number of reasons.

1: Eye Damage

The first is the aforementioned scenario, in which a dog can actually harm their eyes by continuing the pull. Some dogs are extremely persistent when they are focused on something or intent on meeting another dog. Trust me that most dogs will absolutely still pull when on a gentle leader, it will just be easier to control for the dog owner. When a dog is insistent and pulls against a great amount of pressure, the thin straps can slide back far enough to risk damage to the dog’s eyes. Not very positive.

2: Torque Damage

The second is the pain and possible muscle damage from torque on the tool. The way a head halter works is by twisting the dog’s neck under pressure. The nose is pulled in the opposite direction of the dog’s pulling, and all that force creates torsion, forcing the dog into unnatural and potentially harmful positions.

The marketing of head halter manufacturers likes to claim that some of the pressure is redistributed to the back of the neck via the collar strap; this is true, but only if the dog is pulling in a backwards motion, as they might if they slam on the breaks while you walk past them. If your dog is out front pulling against you, it is all on the nose.

This torque becomes even more dangerous for dogs that are particularly excitable. Maybe your dog walks great on the leash, until a squirrel or rabbit rushes by.

Imagine a dog going from zero to sixty, so to speak, which is a very real scenario for many dog owners. A dog of any size suddenly running out and hitting the end of the leash on a “gentle” head halter is a recipe for disaster. The dog will hit the end of the leash, and instead of getting an uncomfortable but safe correction on a prong collar, their neck will twist very suddenly and with tremendous force.

Reactive dogs see a similar pain when wearing head harnesses; a sudden thrashing at sight of another dog or a human can cause some very painful and even physically damaging consequences from wearing a head harness, where a prong would provide steady control without causing physical damage.

This is the difference between the “cruel” prong collar and the “gentle” halter. One can cause some very serious damage to your dog, and it’s not the one that the masses are lead to believe.

3: Material Quality & Reliability

I tell my clients when they ask about prong collars: it’ll probably outlive the dog.

The same is not true of head harnesses and haltis. Even higher-quality versions are still made of nylon straps and plastic buckles, which get dirty, damaged, fray, and break easily.

If your dog gets a hold of the head halter and decides it would make a good chew toy, you’ll be out another $20 replacing it. If the nose strap slips off and the dog chomps down, it’ll also need to be replaced. And if you’ve been using it daily for a year or two, you’ll probably also need to replace it just from regular wear. When compared to the single $30-40 cost of a herm-sprenger prong collar (check exact price on amazon), the long-term cost of poor materials shows.

What’s more is that these materials can actually put your dog in danger by breaking suddenly without a safe backup. While I stand by my frequent stance that all tools can fail; this is why I always back up my tools, usually with a double-clip leash (see here on amazon) or by securing a carabiner to the dog’s regular flat collar.

This is incredibly difficult to do with the longer positioning of the head halter strap, which makes tool failure more of a big deal. If the head harness randomly breaks when your dog runs, you could easily end up in a situation where you can’t get your dog back.

4: Not Suitable for All Types of Dogs

Head halters are simply not going to work with the anatomy of all dogs. Because they rely on a dog having a nose long enough that the lead can fit comfortably without falling off, brachycephalic “snub-nose” dogs like boston terriers, pugs, and boxers are not candidates for their use.

Even dogs with “normal” length muzzles can still run into issues with a well-fitted halter slipping off when pressure is placed at odd angles.

So while some tools like slip leads, prong collars, and even harnesses can be used on just about any otherwise healthy dog, haltis actually are only useful for dogs of specific anatomy.

black tan and white short coated dog

5: Poor Leash Communication

When we condition and use a prong collar with a dog, the goal is always to teach the dog that the leash should always be slack, so as to create a zero-tension baseline. From there, it is the handler who applies and releases pressure to communicate with the dog, not the other way around.

This can be done with a head halter, in the right hands. For example, it is what I am teaching my current client dog with whom I elected to use one. However it considerably more difficult and nuanced to apply pressure, and must always be slow, gentle motions.

Leash corrections can absolutely not be given on a head halter; any sudden or firm pressure is going to be ill-received by the dog, and is going to run the risk of applying torque to the neck.

For the client dog with whom I am using a head halter, we are also utilizing e-collar training, in hopes of transitioning the dog off the halti entirely. By using both together, the owner and I are able to make corrections without putting force on the dog’s neck, but long-term the goal is not just to relieve pulling, but to actually teach the dog communication, boundaries, and engagement on the leash and in public.

We are using it as a training tool. Again, under normal use as described by the manufacturers, head halters give the dog owner leverage; they do not actually train dogs not to pull.

6: The Long Conditioning Process

Dogs do not inherently take to the head harness. It’s an incredibly unnatural feeling to have weight and pressure put on the dog’s muzzle, and it’s unnatural for the dog to wear something over their face.

This is why we take time to condition muzzles for dogs that come in for aggression training. Dogs need to take time getting used to the sensation, become comfortable wearing the muzzle, and then get used to wearing it for longer periods of time, when applicable. This conditioning process can take some time.

It’s even more arduous for head halters, as we are ultimately applying pressure to the tool, not just asking the dog to wear it. Even the weight of the leash can be really uncomfortable for the dog.

Getting the dog to tolerate wearing these “gentle” tools is often a battle, with a long process of using food rewards to get the dog comfortable. No other leash tool requires such a laborious process to get dogs even wearing the tool. We can get dogs wearing prong collars, flat collars, slip leads, and usually even harnesses without a huge fuss for most dogs.

The head halter is the only tool out there where you have to teach the dog to tolerate wearing it.

7: There Is No Relief

And at the end of the day, all of these come wrapped up neatly in possibly the biggest downside of all: the tool is always at least a little uncomfortable, not just when pressure goes on.

The way that a lot of these head halters work is by clipping the leash beneath the dog’s muzzle, with the weight of the lead hanging on the strap. So not only is the strap always over the dog’s nose in a very unnatural way, it is also receiving uncomfortable pressure from the weight of the lead. When attached to a prong collar, the base pressure of the lead is practically nothing. But on the muzzle, it weighs this thin strap down and causes some discomfort whether the dog is pulling or not.

Unless you are taking great measures to counter this as a handler, this is going to feel yucky for the dog. And most dog owners, understandably, don’t have the years of experience needed to know how to to lessen the discomfort for their dog.

Head halters are, at baseline, uncomfortable.

Are Head Haltis Positive?

As a trainer who has used — and sometimes still does use — a wide range of tools for training dogs, I really struggle to see where the positivity lies in head halters.

The marketing is surely there: the makers of head halters love to tout how kind and gentle a tool it is. That is, until you actually put it on, and the dog ends up wrenched around by their head with intensely focused force. Having used it, and even using it now as a temporary method, with the nuance required, I just have a hard time seeing it as anything but an aversive tool. And not one I care to keep around long-term.

And dogs just straight up don’t like them. A large number of dogs will continue to detest them even with a long conditioning phase. Of all the dogs I’ve met with gentle leaders, I’d say that around 80% of them still fight the leash or pull in some capacity.

So many dog owners get guilted by this marketing, thinking that if a tool has “gentle” in the name that it must be the “right way” to be a dog owner. Meanwhile, even a proper fit with a lot of work put into even getting the dog to wear it without fussing is still, to the dog, uncomfortable.

Head halters, and the way they’re taught to be used by their makers and by trainers, are more of a pulling management solution than a type of training. Meaning, the dog is not trained through measured correction and reward; it is simply less mechanically capable of pulling the leash, which gives the illusion of a chance in behavior. Make no mistake: this is how the tool is taught, not a flaw in method.

And the management itself is achieved through discomfort and sometimes pain. With no long-term learning, we can’t even call this discomfort a “correction.” The behavior persists, and so does the pain.

So if these tools can cause discomfort, why am I using one for right now? I’m using one because most tools have a place in training. The dog in front of me gave (a behavior modification dog with a known tracheal issue) gave me reason to play it safe with tools applied to the neck, even though a prong collar would have also been fine — it was a call I made as a trainer, and I am applying my years of experience to offset the negatives of the tool.

Again, I’m not out here to say that haltis can never be used well — after all, I’m incorporating them into my training right now, for a very specific case.

But the absurdity that head halters are an all-around kinder and more positive tool than often-demonized but objectively safer tools like prong collars or e-collars is a type of reaching that makes it difficult to take the rest of the argument seriously. There is a deep denial about these “positive tools” that ends up hurting the dogs.

Ultimately, the dog decides what is aversive, not the human.

Author: Kimberlee Tolentino

Kimee has worked hands-on with dogs for over ten years, and today serves the role of head trainer and owner at Lugaru K9 Training in Port Orchard, Washington. Kimee has been a shelter volunteer, a dog walker, dog behavior intern, a dog trainer, and now specializes in behavior modification for pet dogs.