When standing at a pet store, it can feel like there are endless options for collars, leashes, and harnesses. Choosing the best product for you and your dog can be a chore. While there is no perfect option and the right choice depends largely on the activities you are hoping to perform with your dog, one of my favorite devices for initial training is the Gentle Leader. And you don’t just have to take my word for it, as the Gentle Leader was developed by the intrepid veterinary behaviorist, R.K. Anderson.
The Gentle Leader is a head collar designed with one loop that fits over the dog’s muzzle and a second loop that clips behind the dog’s head. It is then attached to a leash and applies pressure to the dog’s muzzle when there is tension on the leash. Compared to traditional collars and leashes, I find that the Gentle Leader (and other head halters) is superior in ability to reduce pulling and help turn a dog’s head (and subsequently attention) towards you when in distracting situations. As noted by some of my wonderful readers (see comments below), the dogs that will benefit most from a head halter, are those that are just beginning training and/or have low impulse control. A young Labrador that wants to run across the street and greet every dog and human he encounters, a terrier that wants to dart off after every rabbit he sees, or a hound that sticks her nose to the ground and follows every scent she gets a whiff of regardless of treats offered, are all examples of dog’s with low impulse control. A Gentle Leader helps reduce the desire to pull by putting pressure on his/her muzzle when the leash is tight and offers a negative reinforcement by removing pressure from his nose when he chooses to stop pulling. The important part to note however, is that you should also be working with your dog to improve impulse control by pairing the negative reinforcement offered by release of pressure with a positive reinforcement oriented obedience training program.
When fitting a Gentle Leader, the loop around the muzzle should be loose (although not so loose that it can slide off) and the loop behind the head should be snug (but you should still be able to fit two fingers underneath the strap). The principle is that the snug strap that clips behind the head keeps the Gentle Leader in place, while the part around the dog’s muzzle only tightens if the dog is pulling against the leash. As a side note, many people originally struggle with placing the Gentle Leader on a dog. Remember, you have to pull the muzzle loop up to slide it over a dog’s muzzle (see videos below).
When first fitted in a Gentle Leader, many dogs will dislike the feel. especially if not trained to accept the gentle leader. This is the same effect that can be seen the first time a puppy wears a collar. In fact, I feel like this also happens with toddlers and restrictive clothing. If it is easy to take it off, they will. As a result, it is important to train your dog so that he is comfortable and happy to wear his Gentle Leader. I recommend a few basic steps when training your dog to wear the Gentle Leader.
- Step #1: Associate the Gentle Leader with good things (aka treats). In order to do this, I recommend having a treat bag/dog food handy and rewarding your dog for taking an interest in the Gentle Leader. In the video below, I use a command “touch” to encourage Glia to interact with the Gentle Leader. When she touches it with her nose, she gets a treat. You might notice she even offers me one touch on her own that I miss and don’t reward at the end of this video. Ideally, especially when just starting, try to reward all interaction with the gentle leader.
- Step #2: Once your dog is comfortable and excited to see the Gentle Leader, the next step is slipping it over the dog’s nose. Ideally, this behavior can be trained using the “clicker” method and rewarding the dog for increasingly accurate behavior of not just touching the gentle leader, but actually getting his/her nose into the right section. If your dog isn’t clicker trained, then luring through the loop can work well also. In the second part of this video, I lure Glia to place her nose into the Gentle Leader.
- For those of you with some dog behavior training, you probably noticed that Glia does freeze up slightly when I clip the Gentle Leader behind her head. She also does a couple of potential stress licks and half look-always after the Gentle Leader is on. This means, that we still have some progress we could make in how comfortable Glia is with having the Gentle Leader put on. However, typically once we start walking, she will lose all stress signals.
- Step #3: Have your dog wear the gentle leader for a short period of time. Distract with treats and training and then remove the Gentle Leader. Soon your dog will barely notice when the Gentle Leader is on. Then it is time to take the Gentle Leader for a walk.
- Step #4: Go for a walk. Make sure to reward for loose-leash walking and heeling. Many dogs will try to rub the Gentle Leader off, but reward them for walking well with it on and soon they will look forward to seeing the Gentle Leader come out. After all, anything that signals a walk is a good thing right?
Once your dog is trained to tolerate the Gentle Leader, I find that it is one of the best products out there to aid in training loose leash walking. Most dogs seem more reluctant to pull with their head compared to pulling with their neck/chest. Additionally, it is so much easier to encourage the dog to turn towards you for attention training during distractions. This really is my favorite accessory for Glia to wear when I know that we will be in crowded and distracting situations.
Below is Pawsitively Intrepid’s rating for the Gentle Leader:
|Fit/Comfort||Reduction of Pulling||Appearance/Style||Safety||Durability||Ease of Use||Overall Rating|
Fit/Comfort – The only reason I give the Gentle Leader a four here is due to the fact that most dogs need to be trained to wear the Gentle Leader. Without some training, the first few walks with a Gentle Leader mostly consistent of the dog attempting to scrape the Gentle Leader off of their face. Once acclimatized, I find this product to fit most dogs very well. However, short-faced breeds (brachycephalic) like pugs and Boston terriers may be the exception.
Reduction of Pulling – Compared to other products on the market, the Gentle Leader is my favorite aid in training loose leash walking. However, no product will train loose leash walking for you – I recommend pairing all no-pull training aids with positive reinforcement to achieve a dog with great loose leash walking skills.
Appearance/Style – The Gentle Leader comes in a variety of colors to fit every dog’s style. However, some think it looks too much like a muzzle.
Safety – I have yet to see a dog pull out of a Gentle Leader completely (I have seen a muzzle loop slide over the nose when not appropriately fit). Additionally, having control of a dog’s head assists when preventing dog to dog nose contact and helps turn a dog away from consuming a potentially dangerous food item/litter when on a walk. (In the category of safety for the dog, as a quick disclaimer, please be aware that if your dog has any history of neck injuries, halters may not be the best option as they can put stress on the neck when/if a dog pulls his head against the leash.)
Durability – Glia has multiple Gentle Leaders, but her original one was purchased in 2012 and still works great.
Ease of Use – The Gentle Leader gets a 4 in this category also, because the fit can be a little difficult for a new user to figure out. Once you have put one on twice though, it is very straight forward.
Now that I have given my thoughts on using a Gentle Leader, I would love to hear yours? How does the Gentle Leader work for you and your dog? Do you have any preferred halters/harnesses that you like to train your dogs with?
Or if you want to read another blog article on head collar use in dogs, check out this nice article by Dr. Sophia Yin, who was one of my favorite veterinary behaviorists. Although she sadly passed away recently, her website is still up and running with many good training resources.