There are several reasons I prefer to avoid head harnesses when possible. For one thing, head harnesses require that the dog be conditioned in advance to tolerate the harness. (The easiest way to do this is by pairing the harness with treats, while the harness is still in your hand. Then you can build up gradually to putting the harness on the dog, all the while using lots of tasty food.)
A dog who is not conditioned properly to a head harness may literally run away when he sees it, or spend the entire walk rubbing his head on the ground and pawing at the harness in an effort to remove it. Even when dogs are slowly and carefully conditioned to the harness, in many cases they continue to appear uncomfortable in it.
Another issue is that head harnesses remove most of the dog’s options. Depending on how the leash is handled, the dog may not even be able to look in the direction he wants. This can exacerbate anxiety – although in many dogs, their behavior becomes so subdued in a head harness that the handler fails to realize the dog is profoundly uncomfortable. What’s more, head harnesses require that the handler relearn leash skills. Jerking the leash when a dog is in a head harness is cruel at best and dangerous at worst.
The good thing about head harnesses is that they generally provide an extremely high level of control over the dog (this is the flip side of taking away the dog’s options, of course). They can therefore be useful in situations where the handler, or others, literally risk injury when the dog is walked on any other kind of equipment. I sometimes use head harnesses (after first trying other equipment) in cases such as those involving dogs who can easily pull down their handlers (even when wearing a front-clip harness) or dogs who outweigh their handlers by a great margin.
I had a client here in Los Angeles with two 90-pound dogs who had to be taken on regular walks. The owner only weighed about 100 pounds, and the dogs were literally pulling her off her feet on walks. For that client, a head harness was the tool we wound up using until the dogs had learned to walk politely in a body harness – but again, it wasn’t the first tool we tried, and the head harness was only used as a temporary measure, due to the safety issues.
The bottom line, regardless of whether you use a collar, body harness, or head harness, is that equipment only manages a dog’s behavior. Training is required to teach proper leash walking manners. I’ll begin addressing that topic soon – but first (in my next post), I’ll wrap up the discussion of equipment by talking about leashes.
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