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.



Dog walkers unite!

If you’re a dog-walker in the South Bay area, and you’d like to learn dog body language, how to avoid problems, how to get a dog to walk on a loose leash, and how to overcome fear, contact me!

Over the summer I’ll be holding FREE, once-a-month classes for dog walkers and sitters. It’s mutually beneficial; I want to know that my clients’ pups are in good hands, and people like to know that dog walkers have some sort of training! We’ll be using positive reinforcement techniques to learn how to get dogs to walk nicely, and spending time with different dogs each month so I can demonstrate what dog body language to look for, and what it means.

If you’re interested, you can call me at (951) 704-5766, or email me at jenna.b.mcdonald[at]gmail[dot]com.