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Head Halters – Management Or Training Tool?
Training enables a dog to collaborate with the human, providing the leader with a desired behavior based on mutual respect, and yes, I’ll call it love. A training tool is any prop used by the trainer to inform the dog what is desired, and help him achieve the correct behavior. A training tool can be faded out when the dog understands the behavior, and finds pleasure and utility in delivering it.
For example, a pinch collar, used gently and correctly, can show a dog that it is possible, and desirable to walk nicely on leash without pulling. Used as a training tool, one can fade the pinch collar out, but retain the polite leash walking. One can also use the pinch collar as a management tool, rather than as a teaching device. If the trainer fails to show the dog how to avoid the collar, the dog will pull when the collar is off, and walk nicely only when it is applied. Other dogs pull despite the presence of a pinch collar because they learn to tune it out. In that case, you have achieved neither training nor management.
Management is the act of making it impossible for a dog to do the wrong behavior. (Example: put the dog in a crate where he cannot chew the furniture.) Training is a process during which you give the dog opportunity to do the wrong behavior, but teach him to offer a desired action instead. (Example: leave the dog out of the crate, but teach him to chew only his toys.)
Both training and management are useful techniques. Most dog trainers tend to use them both, sometimes simultaneously. Take housebreaking. We crate the dog as a management device. We watch the dog closely when loose, take her outside at the appropriate moment, calmly praise while she is going, and assign the behavior a name. The name then becomes the command. This is training. So housebreaking consists of both techniques.
I believe strongly in management. But training is the essential component which actually changes the relationship between dog and owner. It is not enough to stop the dog from doing a naughty behavior. Ideally, we stop the dog from wanting to do that behavior. If I have to confess a bias or a preference for one versus the other, I would have to own up to preferring training over management.
Too often I hear of dog trainers who declare that a given dog will never be off leash reliable, so they simply recommend the dog never be taken off leash. I have worked with clients who were told by previous trainers that their dog would never get over dog aggression so the dog should never be taken off their own property. To my way of thinking, this is simply recommending management when we don’t know how to do the training.
Not long ago I changed my view of a particular tool. A year ago, I would have called the Halti head halter a management tool. I knew that dogs stopped pulling when wearing it. But I did not believe that dogs could generalize the behavior and continue walking politely once the head halter was removed.
I was wrong.
It turns out that the Halti is either a training tool or a management tool depending on how you use it, just like the pinch collar. It is simple to use the Halti as a management device. Desensitize the dog to the halter using treats. Walk the dog on the halter, simply being careful not to wrench his neck by yanking hard or by letting him lunge. It’s that easy. When the dog begins to forge, his head is turned to the side and he finds himself unable to pull. If we let the dog constantly try and fail to pull, we might be satisfied. After all, we wanted to stop the pulling, and we did. But in this example, when we remove the Halti we also remove the good behavior. Take off the halter and the dog pulls.
Why? Because the dog has not learned his owner prefers him walking at side with no tension on the leash. He has merely learned that it is either uncomfortable or impossible for him to do anything else. As soon as it is possible to pull, he will.
I discovered actual training with the Halti quite by accident. Some of you may chuckle and find that my discovery is no revelation to you. But it was a bit of a surprise to me. Before Frank the Labrador came into my life, I used halters only occasionally. When the elderly lady with no money for lessons came with the wild adolescent St. Bernard, I taught the dog to tolerate a Halti and sent them on their way. I congratulated myself on giving her a good management tool, and warned her she’d have to use it for life. The client was thrilled.
Then Frank came along. I nicknamed him The Pirhana. Four months old. Razor sharp baby teeth. Zero bite inhibition. Major leash puller. He didn’t feel in the least bit uncomfortable strangling himself on a flat collar, as he dragged his owners down the street. They put a pinch collar on him and Frank didn’t notice or care. In other words, this adorable little Labrador puppy didn’t much feel connected to humans. He was insensitive to their needs, didn’t want to be petted, and didn’t respond to their form of training.
I took Frank in to train him and just like his owners, I found that Frank didn’t respond very much to me either. This is unusual for me because most often, using good Pack Leadership, treats, toys and motivational body language, dogs quickly enjoy and respect me. I then pass that relationship back to the owners and show them how to grow it further. But Frank was different. Frank didn’t care.
In sheer desperation I put a Halti on the little booger. But I didn’t use it the way many owners do. Many owners use it passively rather than actively. To use it passively, as I described earlier, merely put the halter on the dog, and he quickly discovers he can’t pull. He will spend much of his time ahead of the owner, hitting the end of the leash and self correcting due to the presence of the Halti. You get better walking, but only in the form of management, not training because when you take off the Halti, inevitably, the pulling resumes immediately.
I used the Halti actively, as a training tool. Each time Frank attempted to pass me and go as far as the leash/Halti combination would allow, I gently guided him back to my side with a gentle and smooth rearward motion of my hand. The instant Frank was at my side, I dropped by hand an inch or two. As a result, the instant Frank was by my side, the slight pressure of the Halti on his muzzle faded away.
Of course, Frank was a headstrong little booger and I had to make that adjustment a hundred times the first day. But we make gentle, micro-adjustments thousands of times a day when we drive a car. Even driving straight, we must make many small adjustments of the wheel to continue steering on our path. The same is true of the Halti. Neither Frank nor I viewed these adjustments as corrections because nothing about them suggested that he couldn’t immediately try the same behavior of pulling. And he did. Many times that day.
The second day I noticed that I was still compelled to gently guide Frank back to my side many times, but not as often as on the first day. I never let him get more than six inches out of position before making the adjustment. What Frank felt was mild pressure on his face when attempting to pull ahead, and an instant relief of this pressure when walking at side.
A Halti is so light weight that if the dog does not pull, he hardly knows it is there. Unlike a Gentle Leader, the Halti does not put a constant flow of pressure behind the skull. The Gentle Leader is a wonderful tool when we want that constant, gentle pressure behind the head. It really is a calmative for reactive, nervous dogs. But Frank wasn’t nervous, he was simply oblivious to human concerns.
Here’s what happened. I walked Frank multiple times daily on the Halti. Every day I noticed that he needed fewer and fewer reminders to walk at my side on a loose leash. He got used to it. Although he never minded the huge leash corrections his owners gave him on a pinch collar, he did mind the feeling of pressure on his face the Halti delivered. Therefore, the puppy decided he’d rather avoid that. Constant small experiences showed him that if he tightened the leash, pressure turned on. If he loosened the leash by walking at side, the pressure turned off. During that week, he further figured out that if he never tightened the leash, the Halti never pressured him at all. So by week’s end, Frank walked at side with hardly a reminder adjustment at all.
Management, as we said, simply makes it impossible for the dog to do a behavior we don’t like. Training helps the dog not want to do the behavior we don’t like. I still wasn’t sure whether I had trained Frank or whether I had managed him.
So I took the Halti off, attached the leash to his flat collar, and went for a walk.
Frank walked like a dream. He had generalized the behavior of walking nicely on the Halti, to walking nicely without it. Frankly, this was a surprise to me because I had viewed the Halti with preconceived notions: I thought it was only useful as a management tool. But in this instance, I had actually trained with it because I was able to fade out the tool, and retain the behavior.
But something even more profound occurred during this process. Remember that Frank was also an uninhibited biter and that he didn’t much care about human contact? With the Halti and training technique, Frank began to realize that I was relevant and important to his life. As a result, he stopped biting me, and even began to solicit and earn affection.
Being a curious sort of person, I used this same technique with the next five or six terribly pulling dogs I trained. In each case, I showed the dog that forging ahead turned the mild Halti pressure on and walking right next to my left leg turned the pressure off. Each dog, within a few days, was able to walk nicely without the Halti.
There are two morals to the story. First, the Halti is not just a management tool. You can train with it, and if you do as I describe, you should be able to discontinue use of the tool, and keep the new good behavior. Second, a management tool can become a training tool if you open your eyes to the possibilities. I know I did, and it has placed one more valuable tool in my toolbox.
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