Head Halter Training for Dogs

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What is a head halter or head collar?

A head halter, also known as a head collar, is a behavioral tool to guide or lead a dog. The collar has two loops—one loop fits high on the neck just behind the ears while the second loop encircles the dog’s snout or muzzle. Depending on the brand of the halter, the leash will connect under the dog’s chin or behind the ears.

Although a dog’s mouth can be gently pulled closed when pressure is applied to the nose loop of a head halter, the head halter is not a muzzle. A dog attempting to bite someone can still bite with a head halter. If you need a tool to prevent your dog from biting, then it is best to consult with a behavior expert who can guide you in the management and training needed to reduce the risk of a bite.

What is the purpose of a head halter?

Head halters provide more physical control than standard harnesses or flat collars. As the dog pulls forward, the nose loop puts pressure on the snout, gently guiding the dog’s head into a slight turn. A small amount of pressure applied with the leash will guide the dog’s head away from a stimulus of interest, allowing the hander to easily redirect their dog. This can help walk a strong dog, who may be difficult for the handler to control, particularly if the dog becomes excited and pulls. Head halters can also help keep a powerful dog from pulling away or pulling her handler to the ground.

"Head halters provide more physical control than standard harnesses or flat collars."

The relief of pressure as the dog’s head turns is rewarding to the dog. It is essential to promptly relax the leash as she begins to change position. The release of pressure is rewarding to the dog. If the leash remains taught, the dog will experience steady pressure regardless of whether she pulls forward or turns away. Thus, there is no reward for turning away from something of interest and no motivation to refrain from pulling.

To further facilitate training, in addition to releasing pressure on the leash, you can reward your dog with treats and praise (see the handout “Using Predictable Rewards to Train Your Dog” for more information).

For safety reasons, the leash should never be snapped or jerked when the dog is wearing a head halter or neck injury could result. Dogs with neck injuries should not wear a collar around their neck or snout and should be fitted with a body harness. Though an escape is not likely, it is best to use the head halter in combination with a regular buckle collar or properly fitted harness. Some dogs are very proficient at escaping from equipment.

What are the different types of head halters?

Individual brands of head halters vary stylistically. When you have a choice, select a design that seems to provide the most comfortable fit for your dog’s head. More importantly, as described above, there are two main functional differences in the location of the leash attachment: under the chin or behind the ears.

Examples of halters with the leash attachment under the chin are the Gentle Leader® and the Halti™. With an under-the-chin attachment, you can easily guide your dog's head by gently pulling the leash to the side. If your dog is next to you, lifting the leash upward will direct your dog’s nose upward. This type of head collar can also temporarily close the dog’s mouth in an emergency—for instance, if a dog is about to pick something dangerous off the ground.

Examples of halters with the leash attachment behind the ears are the Canny CollarTM and NewTrix Easy WayTM. When the leash is pulled, the collar tightens slightly over the bridge of the dog’s nose, which triggers her to lean back rather than pull forward.

How do I get my dog to accept the head halter?

  1. Identify something that prompts a positive emotional state in your dog, such as a delicious small treat or favorite toy.
  2. Let your dog see the head halter and immediately provide the tiny, amazing treat or toy to please her.
  3. Repeat this process several times until your dog appears as happy at the sight of the halter as he does when you show him a treat or toy before continuing to Step 5.
  4. Begin showing the head halter with the nose loop held open.
  5. When your dog shows interest in the head halter, offer the treat in a manner that it is actually inside or ‘framed’ by the nose loop—when your dog reaches toward the treat, the tip of her nose will enter through the frame.
  6. Repeat, gradually moving the treat further back but still within the frame of the nose loop. Your dog will need to place her nose further into the nose loop to take the treat.
  7. When your dog is comfortable placing her nose entirely through the loop, begin to clip the two ends of the neck strap behind your dog’s ears while she eats her treat.
  8. Once the head halter is clipped, feed several treats in rapid succession or play with a favorite toy for a few seconds.
  9. Repeat Steps 8 and 9, gradually lengthening the duration that the halter remains on your dog. Avoid removing the halter while your dog paws or rubs the nose loop. Instead, try to distract him with treats until he has stopped rubbing for a few moments, then unclip and remove it.
  10. If your dog looks comfortable wearing the head halter, even with brief pauses between treats or toys, attach the leash and practice walking this way indoors.

How do I make sure it fits properly?

Each brand of head halter includes sizing instructions—please refer to the package insert to select a good fit or consult with a behavior professional. Your dog should be able to eat treats, pant, drink water, and play with a toy while wearing a head halter. The halter should not interfere with your dog’s ability to open her mouth.

"The halter should not interfere with your dog’s ability to open her mouth."

How do I train my dog with the head halter?

The head halter can be used as a guide once desired behaviors have been trained. Remember only to apply gentle pressure on the leash. The head halter will amplify any pressure you apply.

The first step is to teach the verbal cues that you need. For example, if your dog tends to pull forward toward certain stimuli, teach the ’heel’ or ‘leave it’ cues using reward-based methods. First, practice in a quiet environment and then add distractions. With the head halter in place, you will be more secure if your dog does not immediately follow the verbal cue—the strength of your dog’s pull will be reduced, and, if the situation is urgent, it will be easier for you to turn your dog away from the stimulus. You will be in a more secure position to regroup and help your dog be successful.

If you are concerned that you, your dog, or another person or animal might be in danger, please consult with a behavior professional who can help you teach your dog using reward-based behavior training exercises. The head halter is meant to be a safety net once your dog has learned the necessary verbal cues and has achieved a relaxed emotional state. Some dogs appear more relaxed when the safety net of the head halter is in place.

Can the head halter be combined with other equipment?

Yes, and it should. Some dogs can slip out of the head halter. A second leash should be attached to a buckle collar or harness for safety.

The head halter can also be combined with a basket muzzle if necessary. Some regions require certain dog breeds to be muzzled in public or when being transported. Some dogs also need to wear a basket muzzle in certain environments, such as the veterinary office.  A Gentle Leader® is the easiest to combine with a basket muzzle because of the fit and strap design.

It is always a great idea to consult a behavior specialist for guidance in fitting and conditioning the head halter—it can be tricky. Be sure to find someone who understands the importance of gentle handling and positive reinforcement.

Related Articles