If your dog pulls on leash, a head halter, like the Gentle Leader®, can make outings a walk in the park! Head halters for dogs work a lot like halters for horses. A head halter fits around your dog’s snout, enabling you to control her head. If you can control your dog’s head, you can control where her body goes, too. But before you and your dog hit the road, you’ll need to help her get used to wearing a head halter. A horse trainer doesn’t just throw a halter on a baby horse and start dragging him around! The trainer takes time to gently introduce the new halter. Dogs deserve the same slow, patient training.
Manufacturers provide detailed instructions about helping your dog get used to the feel of a head halter. The main idea is to introduce the halter gradually and teach your dog to associate it with pleasant things.
Nose in the Hole
The first step is to teach your dog to put her nose into the head halter. Hold a treat in one hand and the loop of the head halter (where your dog’s nose goes) in the other hand. (Use something really tasty, like soft liver treats, cheese, pieces of hot dog or chicken.) Put your fingers holding the treat through the loop, and let your dog nibble on the goodie. Then move the treat a few inches away so that your dog puts her nose into the loop on her own. When her nose is in the loop, give her two or three tiny treats. Remove the head halter when she finishes the treats. (Don’t give her anything after you take off the halter. She only gets to eat treats when she’s wearing it.)
Repeat this exercise until your dog eagerly puts her nose into the loop to get her treat. Then, over three to five training sessions, you can slowly increase the time that your dog keeps her nose in the loop. As you progress, remember to give your dog a treat every few seconds, as long as her nose stays in the loop. If your dog really likes her kibble, mealtime is a great time to work on this exercise! If she’s a picky eater, using super-delicious treats and training right before mealtime, when she’s hungry, will work best.
Snapping the Halter in Place
When your dog happily puts her nose into the loop of the halter and will keep it there for at least 10 seconds, you can move on to the next step: securing the halter on her head.
1. Start by sliding the loop onto your dog’s nose.
2. You should see two dangling straps. These go around your dog’s neck and snap together right behind her skull. Hold a treat between your fingers, and let your dog nibble on it while her nose is in the halter loop. With the other hand, take one of the dangling straps and gently lift it up until the snap rests right at the base of your dog’s skull. Hold the strap as if you were preparing to snap it to the other strap.
3. When your dog finishes eating her treat, let the strap fall and remove the halter from your dog’s nose.
4. Repeat the steps above 8 to 10 times or until your dog seems completely comfortable.
5. Repeat steps 1 through 3, but instead of removing the halter, bring the second strap up to meet the first one while your dog finishes chewing her treat. Snap the two straps together.
6. Immediately give your dog another treat. Then unsnap and remove the halter.
Practice putting on and taking off the halter for 5 to 10 more training sessions, gradually increasing the amount of time your dog wears her halter. Continue to feed her tasty treats while the halter is on. When you take the halter off, stop delivering treats. Between repetitions, you can make slight adjustments to the halter’s fit. Read the manufacturer’s directions, provided with the product, to learn more about how to do this.
Wearing the Halter Is Fun
Now that your dog is used to putting on her halter, you can teach her that it’s fun to keep it on. Start with sessions lasting only two to three minutes, and gradually work up to longer periods of time. (Aim for 15 to 30 minutes.) It’s important to help your dog associate the halter with things she loves, like treats, bones and other chews, play and outings. Before you feed your dog her dinner, put on her head halter. (You don’t have to clip on a leash.) As soon as she’s done eating, take it off. Put on your dog’s head halter and play a game of tug or fetch. Take off the halter as soon as you stop the game. Put on the head halter, and then give your dog a special bone to chew. Again, remove the halter as soon as she’s done or loses interest. For safety reasons, be sure to supervise your dog whenever she’s wearing the halter.
Using the Halter on Walks
After a few days of short sessions, during which your dog wears her halter and then gets good stuff, you can clip on a lightweight leash and take her for a five-minute walk. Take treats with you, and feed them to your dog when she’s walking beside you, wearing her new halter. If your dog pulls, the leash will tighten and her head will turn to the side. When this happens, encourage your dog to come toward you. When she’s close enough, the leash should go slack again. Make sure it stays completely loose unless your dog pulls and causes it to tighten. (Don’t tighten the leash yourself.) She needs to learn that if she stays close to you, the leash will stay loose and she can walk comfortably.
What If the Head Halter Bothers My Dog?
If your dog tries to paw at her head halter or rub it off on objects or people, you might need to introduce her to it more slowly. For a few days, go back to the steps outlined in the sections above called Snapping the Halter in Place and Wearing the Halter is Fun. Just focus on associating the halter with things your dog loves. Don’t clip on a leash yet. When your dog seems more comfortable wearing the halter without a leash attached, you can try clipping on the leash again. Say “Let’s go!” in an upbeat voice and walk a few steps with your dog. If she walks without fussing with the head halter—even just a couple of steps—praise her enthusiastically, and give her a really tasty treat. Continue to walk, popping a goodie into your dog’s mouth every few steps, as long as she’s not fussing. After a couple of minutes, remove the halter and take a break. Over several sessions, gradually make the short walks longer, remembering to keep periodically giving your dog treats when she’s not pawing at the halter. Over time, as your dog becomes more and more comfortable wearing her halter, you can give her fewer treats. Eventually, you won’t have to give her treats at all. She’ll associate the halter with walks and fun outings, and she’ll be less likely to object to it and fuss with it.
If, at any time, your dog paws at the halter or rubs her nose on things or people to get it off, avoid yelling at her or yanking on the leash. Instead, pull up on the leash, applying gentle, constant pressure so that your dog’s nose points upward. (This way, she can’t get a paw over the leash or under the halter straps to remove the halter.) Wait calmly for your dog to stop fussing. The instant she does, release the pressure, letting the leash go completely slack. Immediately reward your dog with a few tasty treats. The more you reward her for good behavior when she’s wearing her halter, the more good behavior you’ll get. Use this technique every time your dog starts to fuss with her halter. If you’re consistent, your dog will learn that it’s much more fun to accept the halter and enjoy walking with you.
To learn more about leashes, halters, harnesses and collars, please see our article on Walking Equipment for Your Dog. Please see our article on Teaching Your Dog Not to Pull on Leash to learn how to train your dog to walk politely. If you need help with training, don’t hesitate to contact a professional, such as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT). For information about how to locate a CPDT in your area, please see our article on Finding Professional Help.