Veazie Veterinary Clinic
1522 State Street, Veazie, ME
(207) 941-8840

Gentle Collars

Gentle Collars: Follow My Lead

By Amy Marder, V.M.D.


Does your dog pull on leash? Use your head–and your dog’s–with these training collars.

In the shelter, Sharon and Emmy seemed made for each other. Sharon felt as if she had visited a thousand times looking for that special dog. At the age of eight months, Emmy was a lovable Doberman cross in need of a home. But she was also large, strong, and completely untrained.

After completing the adoption papers, Emmy bolted from the shelter with her new owner, nearly dislocating Sharon’s shoulder in the bargain. Understandable, thought Sharon, after the stress of the shelter. Unfortunately, Emmy’s on-leash behavior failed to improve at home. Clearly, this was a canine that hadn’t a clue as to what constitutes a polite promenade.

Fortunately, a new type of collar that fits over a dog’s head offered a gentle, humane training method that helped their relationship blossom. Before discovering it, however, Sharon and Emmy traveled the more usual route of canine-confining tradition.

When first faced with the problem, Sharon consulted friends at a pet-friendly store, who recommended the use of a choke collar. Although Sharon found the choke collar easy to apply, it seemed cruel. Watching Emmy, who still did not know how to walk on a leash, repeatedly dash to the end of the lead and “choke” herself was a definite put-off. Even pulling to the point of gagging and coughing did not deter the young dog. Sharon, afraid Emmy would injure herself, had reached her wit’s end.

She reported her experience to her friends at the store whose next recommendation was to try a prong, or pinch, collar. What they presented her with looked like a medieval torture device: basically a large choke collar with metal prongs that dig into the dog’s neck when pressure is applied. Sharon was horrified at the thought of hurting Emmy, however, and left the store empty-handed.

Finally, Sharon consulted her veterinarian, who recommended a training collar she called the Promise system. The Promise head collar (previously called Gentle Leader) consists of a “mother dog control strap” that fits tightly around the back of the dog’s neck, plus a connected “leader dog loop” that fits snugly over the dog’s muzzle and continues down to a “control ring” situated under the chin, where the leash is connected. As part of the system, an indoor control lead, a training book, and a brochure detailing how to fit and apply the collar are included.

The idea behind this and similar head collars, such as the Halti and Mikki Walkee, is that they control the dog’s head and nose, instead of applying force to the dog’s neck as do traditional choke collars. And where the dog’s nose goes, his body is sure to follow.

At first, Sharon was reluctant to use the new system because it looks so much like a muzzle, but she soon became a believer when she saw its dramatic effect on Emmy. Although the Rowdy pup tried to rub the head collar off at first, within 10 minutes, Emmy was walking next to Sharon–no forging ahead, no pulling at all!

Sharon and Emmy’s problem is a common one. Unfortunately, their solution has not yet become as common. Most people continue to struggle with their choke chains for years, jerking and tugging ineffectively on their best friends’ necks–supposedly the “strongest” part of a dog’s body, according to choke-chain aficionados.

But things are slowly beginning to change. In a recent article in The Veterinary Clinics of North America, Advances in Companion Animal Behavior, Susan Myles, a professional dog trainer and coordinator of the International Network for Ethical Training, wrote that dog trainers who prescribe only choke-chain training demonstrate “a poor understanding of … proper techniques and senseless devotion to tradition.” She also points out that “using a choke chain effectively is a difficult skill to master. Dog trainers often take years to learn the skill, sometimes damaging a dog or two along the way.” More than a few dogs have suffered eye hemorrhages and tracheal injury from handlers using a choke chain too forcibly.

Instead of choking or pressing on the dog’s throat, head collars simulate a pack leader’s control, according to Robert K. Anderson, director emeritus of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the University of Minnesota, and a co-developer of the Promise system. In a dog or wolf pack, the dominant leader exercises control by holding the muzzle of subordinates with his mouth. The head halter acts like the lead dog’s mouth by encircling the nose and lower jaws.

Owners need to be aware that although a head collar may look like a muzzle to those unfamiliar with it, it by no means functions like one. A dog wearing a head collar can fully open his mouth, eat, drink, pant, and even carry a ball or stick. And just a warning: although aggressive dogs will be better managed when they are wearing the halter, they can still bite.

In addition to providing excellent head control, head collars offer another benefit: they work with little pressure, so strength is not needed. It is certainly the method of choice for the big-dog-little-owner syndrome and for people with physical handicaps.

Like more and more obedience teachers, I recommend the Promise system in my obedience classes for owners and dogs that need a little more control than routine collars provide. Although the system is helpful for treating some behavior problems, I stress to owners that the Promise system is designed to make conventional training easier. After the eight-week course, in which most of the dogs learn what heel means, I instruct owners to gradually wean their dogs onto a plain collar.This is not always possible, however, and some dogs and owners just always do better when using the Promise system.

Unlike Anderson, who recommends that his Promise halter and the indoor control lead be worn “like a pair of shoes” and removed only at bedtime, I advise owners to use it only when walking their dogs or when extra control is needed during training sessions. Anderson also likes to begin training with the system during puppyhood. Although it is very effective in puppies, in most cases I find that there is no need to begin using the halter until the dog is five or six months old.

While head collars are probably the best and most humane training devices available at the present time, they do have drawbacks. Some dogs manage to slip out of the Halti when backing up (not a problem with the Promise collar). Also, these collars are easily confused with muzzles, and so can cause reactions of fear in some people. The producers of Promise are planning to overcome this soon by coming out with “designer” halters of plaid or a western-style bandanna pattern.

Owners have to be prepared to get past their dogs’ initial reaction to head collars. Many dogs don’t like the halter at first and act like bucking broncos attempting to get it off. Most dogs, however, quickly respond if plenty of praise, “happy talk,” and food treats are used.

Finding a good head collar is the final obstacle. Promise is available only through veterinarians or through the Promise Helpline (800-333-1231). Other head collars, such as the Halti and Mikki Walkee, are available through pet supply catalogs and in some pet supply stores.

Making the effort to get a good head collar is worth the effort. Working with your dog’s instincts will be a lot more effective and gentler on you both.