Review: head halters in general, Sporn head halter in particular

First, head halters in general:

Head halters are based on the same haltering idea used for horses. The difference between a dog and a horse, however, is important. Both major differences stem from sheer size: a horse is large. A dog is not. When you pull back on a horse’s halter, the horse’s nose comes into the chest, keeping the spine in alignment. If for some reason you pull sideways, the sheer strength, muscle, bone structure and tendon mass are going to ensure you can’t hurt them. (In fact, with a toss of that great big head they could hurt you.)

A dog doesn’t have that size. When you pull back on a halter with the lead attached under your dog’s chin, it twists his face back and up, putting a great deal of pressure on the spine. In addition, his spine isn’t nearly as strong as a horse’s spine; he simply doesn’t have the bulk necessary to protect it from us humans. For this reason alone, I generally consider head halters to be far too dangerous to use. All it takes is your dog bolting after a squirrel once, you tripping, or constant pressure as your dog pulls against you for damage to be done to the spine.

When I saw the Sporn head halters, which clip in the back and keep the spine in alignment, I decided to give it a try on Cash and see what I thought.

I got Cash used to the head halter via treats so that he was no longer trying to get it off (itself a danger, since dogs can injure themselves attempting to remove it), and took him and Lily for a walk. He was equally stressed/calm as when I use the stop-and-sit method, less stressed than when I used a slip chain. When I pulled gently back on the halter to bring him by my side, it did keep his spine in alignment. These are all pluses.

A minor downside was that if he stopped to sniff something and I pulled gently, because it attaches behind his ears he still felt like he was being pulled backward. Same for if he ducked his head to try and take it off; pulling his head up created more undesirable pressure. This was resolved by not pulling at all, but rather calling his name and offering a treat. If that didn’t work, I tapped his side to get his attention. I would imagine that halters that hook from underneath don’t have this problem.

More importantly, I realized how much pressure there is against his nose. Proponents of head halters usually suggest they are a more humane method of controlling a dog who pulls, but after feeling the pressure Cash brought to bear, I’m not sure I agree. What amazed me even more is that when we finished, his face didn’t bear the little mark across his nose that comes from a dog pulling, which means he was pulling far less than other dogs do.

Because Cash is trained to walk on a loose leash, he really doesn’t pull a lot. I decided to ask him to walk farther back simply so I could see if he’d be bothered by me bringing him gently to my side. While it didn’t bother him, he didn’t figure it out, and he was happy to pull. If I had added in treats I’m sure he would have figured it out, but I was more interested in the ramifications of a untrained pulling, and what that would be like.

In addition, though I never worry about my dogs taking off after squirrels, I did today. As we were walking Cash saw a squirrel race up a tree. As he always does, he stood up tall and ached to run after it (but stayed beside me). The difference this time was purely in me: I suddenly realized that if he bolted, when he hit the end of his leash his entire body weight would come slamming forward onto the thin bones of his face, right below his eye sockets and over his nasal airway, with no muscle, cartilage, thick skin, fur, or tendons to help absorb the impact or support the bone. Perhaps the ones that attach under the chin would work a bit better here, swinging the dog around, using his head as the focal point. However, that would put the pressure against the spine where it joins the skull and is the weakest part of the spine, so I’m not sure that’s any less dangerous overall.

I shortened my leash so that if he did bolt, it would pull him up before he gained much speed for impact, and we kept walking.

In short? Cash was better than I would expect from most dogs, and I still felt like even though it kept his spine in alignment, it put him at more risk than I was willing to take (especially since he, unaware of the risk, was far more willing to pull).

I would recommend this product for someone with a young adult or older dog (where the bones are fully formed) that is having trouble not pulling and has tried all other options, to be used very gently, on an only slightly loose leash, in conjunction with positive reinforcement training. (The goal being to get them off it eventually.)

I would strongly suggest avoiding any of the face harnesses that attach under the chin, as both the face and the spine are in danger. (And that’s not mentioning the slew of dogs who pull so much their faces end up raw. I would think those dogs should be taken off them RIGHT AWAY when the owners realize their dogs are starting to get injured.)

Having now worked with these, I can honestly say… I don’t see how they’re supposed to be more humane. I’ve used prong and slip chains on myself; I’d rather that than a string across my face that could actually cause serious damage, and frequently causes raw, angry skin across the bridge of the nose.

If you MUST use a halter-type harness, use something that attaches in the back to protect your dog’s neck. Otherwise, don’t use them at all.

Does anyone have studies on these? I’ve looked, and found only anecdotal evidence for nearly everything.

Jenna

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2 thoughts on “Review: head halters in general, Sporn head halter in particular

  1. I have used both types of halti on my GSD and she was able shake her head free from them whenever she really felt the need. They are not safe at all. Less than a week ago I went out with the Sporn halti on her , the type that clips up from the top of the neck. We came across a neighbour with a Jack Russell x, it was on a lead and was not provoking my GSD, but she lunged at this dog and when she realised this would not work she moved backwards between my legs and shook herself free of the halti and collar. I was left standing with lead and halti in my hand and no dog attached. My dog grabbed the small dog by its body and me , my partner and the small dog owner had a hell of a time trying to get my dog to release the small dog. The small dog died from crush injuries, and I had to make the horrible trip to my vet to put my beautiful GSD to sleep. I have two cats which she has never harmed and now I am grieving for my dog. The owner of the small dog was understanding as her dog was getting on in age but my dog was only 4 and it is a dreadful thing to put down a healthy dog. I would have been better off without the halti and using a strong martingale collar and maybe the two dogs would still be alive. It sad how many people are effected by the deaths of these two loved dogs. I rang the manager of the pet store where I bought my halti and told him to get that particular style of halti off the shelf because it did not have a safety strap. He was very arrogant and said it was a isolated case. I said isolated or not two dogs are dead and a lot of people are grieving. The vet said my dog got the halti off because she very I smart, but the design is faulty and I definitely had the halti on securely as per the manafacturers instructions. Could be that Shepherds have narrower faces and slip the halti off easier but this collar was fitted and selected for me at the pet store as being a safe alternative to a normal collar. Now I am sad because nothing will bring back either of these treasured dogs.

    • I’m so sorry to hear this, (and sorry it took me so long to respond), and unlike the pet store owner, not surprised. The face harness, including the Sporn one I was talking about here, are very easy for a dog to escape. There is now a face harness called K9Bridle that I should review at some point that’s safer physically than all the others, and even it still comes off. (The difference being it has a snap so it attaches to the dog’s collar. If it comes off, you still have hold of your dog.) I’ve even seen big-headed dogs come out of face harnesses — a Rottweiler and a pit bull both jump to mind.

      I can’t figure out why none of these harnesses (except the aforementioned K9Bridle) don’t take the very simple step of attaching an extra line with a clip to snap onto the dog’s collar for safety purposes.

      Body harnesses aren’t much better, either. The back clip harnesses are mostly built to HELP dogs pull, and most of the front-clip ones will come off if the dog sucks backward, just like the face harnesses.

      You’re right, the safetest thing is a collar that tightens down instead of coming off; martingale, slip line, slip chain, a rope slip leash, or even a prong collar. But definitely not a face harness. I’m so sorry for your loss, and thank you for adding this insight so others might avoid the same thing.

      Jenna

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