By Heather Pyne
Head collars are a common training tool used around the world for dogs and I see the appeal, in fact 12 months ago I would happily recommend them as a temporary training aid, positively introduced of course for some dogs to assist with excessive pulling. But as my knowledge grew, as I critically assessed every training method and equipment and task we used and trained and as I stopped going along with what other organisations did simply because they're bigger or older, it became apparent that often head collars compromise a dogs welfare through stress and use as an aversive training tool.
As you probably know, if you follow us at Pawsitive Squad, there are 2 things we stand for above all else - welfare and evidence. A recent study comparing stress (assessed through temperature and behavioural assessment) of dogs in head collars vs harnesses found that the dogs in the study showed significantly more behavioural signs of stress than dogs in harnesses AND that the external body temperature changes which indicate stress were also significantly greater in dogs in head collars than in harnesses. Therefore based on the evidence we would argue that head collars are less welfare friendly.
We've explored the evidence, now lets explore what the specific concerns are with head collars:
1) Dogs noses are incredibly sensitive. Structurally their are lots of nerves around the dogs nose and the layer on skin on top is thin meaning it is a more sensitive area of the dog. Applying pressure around such a sensitive area can be uncomfortable and painful for dogs.
2) Head collars usually do one of two things - either they are a fixed shape which can easily ride up into the dogs eyes, again causing discomfort or they tighten around the dogs mouth which again causes discomfort.
3) Usually relies on negative reinforcement and positive punishment which though effective is again contradictory to good welfare. They work like this: dog pulls, head collar applies significant pressure to nose (and usually rides up into eyes or clamps mouth shut), this pressure causes discomfort so the dog stops pulling because they are trying to decrease their pain and discomfort. I've said it 1000 times but ill say it again. If you are happy inflicting pain or fear on your dog then you shouldn't own one.
4) They're often negative for socialisation/habituation/counter conditioning/ desensitisation, especially in more naturally anxious dogs . If your dog sees something they are unsure of and they move towards it or look at it and their head is physically turned away from it you're removing the opportunity for your dog to process and reinforcing their fear sending completely the wrong message to your dog.
5) tight leads and lead corrections (which we do not allow at Pawsitive Squad but are common place in the canine industry and with dog owners) cause the dogs neck to jerk sideways when in a head collar even when the tension is slight, again causing pan.
6) finally, it restricts your dogs perceived ability to protect themselves. Imagine walking around a busy environment with your hands tied behind your back - would you feel safe? What about if another person ran towards you shouting and got up in your face? Its the same for your dog when they're in a head collar. This often results in the dog going quiet and submissive in the head collar OR going the other way and being over reactive.
So, I've said all this BUT despite knowing this we do VERY OCCASSIONALLY allow the use of head collars ONLY when the handlers disability means that if the dog were to suddenly pull on a collar or harness the persons disability means they are unlikely to be able to hold on under that pressure because ultimately the head collar does take some strength out of a tug. BUT when we do allow this, it's under a carefully managed program including:
⚫️We do not start to use a head collar until the dog is fully leash trained so that the dogs lead is reliably waling on a loose lead, minimising pressure on nose. Before beginning head collar training the dogs (as with all our dogs) are expected to be muzzle trained.
🔴 We (again as with all our dogs) have an objective canine welfare behavioural assessment system which we use to ensure the use of a head collar is having a minimal impact on welfare and if it is, then the dog is withdrawn from the program if no other welfare friendly and safe equipment is found to enable the young person to handle their dog.
🔵We never use head collars in new situations or places our dogs may feel anxious or around off lead dogs.