There are many different brands of head collars for dogs these days. Popular dog head halter brands are Gentle Leader, Halti, NewTrix, and the ones that we carry on our website, the Comfort Trainer and the K9 Bridle. Head collars give you a lot of control, but dog’s can take several weeks to get used to them. This post gives instructions desensitize your dog to a head collar.Â I also have a blog post with fitting instructions for the Comfort Trainer.
While the Comfort Trainer (pictured below) seems to be the easiest head collar for dogs to acclimate to, anything on the dog’s nose bridge seems to be a bit annoying. If you had your dog as a puppy, you might have noticed that the regular collar also took time to get used to. Kind of like your first bra. :
What are Head Collars, anyway? They are like horse halters, the ones without the bit in the mouth. Most of them work by having the leash attach under the dog’s chin. When the dog pulls, gentle pressure from you will redirect your dog. No leash pops required (or desired). Do NOT let your dog go forward on a tight leash, or they will figure out how to tense up their neck muscles and “pull through” the head collar – meaning you might as well have a flat collar on the dog.
So how do you get your dog to like this head collar instead of running for the hills when you bring it out? If you’re reading this before you even got the collar, you’re in luck! It’s much easier for a dog to learn slowly with a new head collar, than have already worn and hated having the head halter on.
The training process is the same, but the amount of time you stay at each level will be longer if your dog has already had a negative experience with the head collar. For each item listed below, you will do the part that’s listed, then 1/2 of a second later, feed your dog a tasty, special treat, rather than one they’re already used to. Or toss a toy – just do something that makes the dog very, very happy.
The steps below are for the head halters that attach under the chin. They’ll need to be slightly modified for the K9 Bridle, Canny Collar, or NewTrix, which attach behind the head. Head collars are not muzzles (your dog can open their mouth while wearing a head collar), but the feel is similar to a muzzle. If you have to acclimate your dog to a muzzle, use the counter-conditioning steps given below for that, as well.
At the beginning and between steps, put the head collar behind your back. If your dog looks nervous at any point, back up to an easier level and then figure out more steps to add in between. These are just suggestions. I expect this to take several sessions. Going too quickly will just stress your dog out. If your dog is happily moving along, then it’s fine to continue. If your dog starts flopping on the ground like a fish, then take it easy on them, but don’t remove the collar. Distract your dog to make the fussing stop, then take the head collar off after a little bit. That way, fussing doesn’t cause you to take it off.
- Show the dog the head collar.
- Touch the dog’s neck and show the dog the head collar.
- Touch the back of the dog’s head with the head collar
- Touch the dog’s nose with the head collar.
- Attach the head collar around your dog’s neck, but like a regular collar – just let the nose loop hang down. Take it off after 1 second.
- Repeat the above, taking it off after 2 seconds.
- Feed the dog a treat through the head collar (from now on, the treats you give will all be through the nose loop of the head collar.
- Put a bit more of the nose loop over the dog’s muzzle.
- Leave the nose loop on for 1/2 a second longer. Repeat this step until the dog will allow the nose loop on the face for several seconds.
- Put the nose loop on the dogs muzzle and then bring the straps behind the head, without clipping them. Immediately release.
- Repeat the above, keeping the head collar on the dog 1/2 second longer each time, until they can do it for several seconds. Feel free to treat while you wait.
- Put the head collar on all the way. Toss a ball or feed treats. Take a step, then take the head collar off.
- Repeat as above, but a little longer. Playing fetch is great at this stage.
- Eventually, attach the leash and go for a walk with lots of treats.
You can also say Leave It, if that’s a cue your dog knows, whenever she fusses with the head collar. Pulling up gently on the halter will focus her back on you, then you can click and treat for the lack of fuss.
Make sure that the head collar is fit properly. For the Comfort Trainer, Canny Collar, Halti, and Gentle Leader head collars, the neck strap should be fairly snug, just one finger fitting between the collar and the dog’s neck. The Gentle Leader’s neck strap will be tighter than the Halti or Comfort Trainer. On the Gentle Leader head halter, adjust the nose loop so that it’s as loose as you can get it without the dog pawing it off – usually it’s just to the edge of the nose leather.
When you start using this for walks, have the head collar hidden in your pocket. Get everything ready for your walk – poop bags, keys, treats, clicker, etc. If you can have them sitting out and ready far in advance (like 10 minutes), so much the better. Then take the head halter out of your pocket, show it to the dog, and ask, “Do you want to go for a walk?” Then put it on the dog, give her a treat, attach the leash, and head out. That way, she gets the reinforcement of going for a walk right after putting this strange head collar thing on her face.
If your dog happens to be one of the dogs that likes walks, but runs and hides when the head collar comes out, you need to do the steps above more slowly. You can also put the head collar on partway during a walk, rather in the beginning. Or when you take it out, if he runs away, you can head out the door without him. Or just set down the keys and leash and wait for him to come out of hiding. When he does come back, give him a treat. go through some of the steps above and then put the collar away, or if you think your dog would be okay with it, put the head halter on, give him a treat, and go for a walk.
All set, except – the leash! For head halters that clip under the dog’s chin, use the lightest leash you can get. In particular, the clip of the leash should be small, so as not to weigh down the dog’s chin. It’s weird enough already to have something on your nose, much less have it weigh 10 pounds! Use the smallest leash clip that is still safe.
How long should this take? Every dog is different. Some dogs, usually the furry-faced ones, get used to this in one walk. Most dogs take a few weeks. Some never like it. If your dog has had the head collar for a month or more, and you’ve gone through the steps to acclimate him to the head collar, your leash clasp is light, and yet he still flops around a bunch on the walks, this collar is not for you. You might try the Comfort Trainer before you give up altogether, as dogs do seem to get used to them more easily. Go through all of the steps above. If it still doesn’t work, try the Easy Walk harness instead. It has most of the physics of the head halters, and works almost as well (but not quite) without the fuss!
Click here to see a great video of a dog getting used to a head collar.Â Your dog may take more time at each step.Written by Grisha Stewart, Ahimsa Dog Training, Seattle Tweet This Post!