Not-So-Gentle Leader?

Reader Viatecio has provided us with this collage of photos illustrating just how "comfortable" and "humane" the Gentle Leader really is. During her education as a veterinary technician, it was a rule that all dogs on the campus be handled exclusively with this tool. All but three of these dogs were "students" of this campus.

During yesterdays rant about “humane” training tools, I touched briefly on Gentle Leaders (for more info, see the earlier post, “Positive Bias?”).

One thing that has always bothered me is that 99% of the head halters I see are not sized correctly.

According to Gentle Leader’s directions, direct from their website (which I recommend everyone take a look at, particularly the illustrations):

The Neck Strap MUST:

  • Be positioned as high on the neck as possible, directly behind ears and touching based of skull in back, and above Adam’s apple in front.
  • Not be able to rotate around neck
  • Fit very snuggly (sic) at top of neck so that you can barely squeeze only one finger underneath, like a belt, watch band or shoe.  This is the MOST important part of the entire fitting process!  Please resist the temptation to make the Neck Strap loose – if you loosen it, either your dog will be able to paw the Nose Loop off, or you will wind up making the Nose Loop too tight, or the Nose Loop will rotate causing discomfort.

The Nose Loop Should:

  • Be loose and comfortable so that your dog can freely open his mouth.
  • Be able to move freely from just in front of the eyes to beginning of the wet part of the nose.
  • Rest behind the corners of the mouth
  • Not be so loose that it can be pulled off over the nose (after snap clamp is adjusted).

Premier (the new owners of Gentle Leader) claim that the halter “painlessly and effectively removes the dog’s natural tendency to pull by placing gentle pressure on calming points and eliminating uncomfortable pressure on the throat.”

Painless?  Effective?  Gentle pressure?  Calming points?  I could outline my doubts about each claim individually, and I may do so in the future, but this is the line that ALWAYS frustrates me:

“Not a muzzle…when fitted properly a dog can open its mouth to eat, drink, pant, fetch, and bark.”

This is simply untrue.  When the neck and nose loops are PROPERLY fitted, the dog can not open its mouth fully.  Despite all the talk to the contrary, the reality is that these tools impede a dog’s capability to yawn, hold objects in their mouth bigger than a stick, eat, drink and pant.  They still seem to be able to bark just fine, although the sound is certainly altered by the dog’s inability to open its mouth comfortably.

To illustrate this, Viatecio has graciously allowed me to post the following video.  This was filmed at her school with one of the canine “students.”  This dog has been wearing this tool for FIVE YEARS, and you can clearly see that she considers the tool an aversive.  Most importantly, watch as Viatecio clearly illustrates the PROPER way to fit a Gentle Leader, and the fit that results.


Once again, let me stress that there are situations in which a Gentle Leader is the most appropriate tool.  There are dogs who can use one with a poor fit and not spend every waking minute trying to shed themselves of the device.  There are even dogs who seem to calm down when the Leader is put on, and of course dogs who do “just fine” on the halter and whose owners have just always used one.

That’s great!  Seriously, it is.  Where I get a little negative is when “positive” trainers claim that these halters are somehow more humane than a check chain or a prong collar or ANY other training tool.

A little tidbit to send you all home with – according to the official instructions and Premier’s website, the halter:

  • Can be used with dogs eight (8) weeks of age or older.
  • Can be worn up to 18 hours/day.

First of all, if you want to talk about cruelty, let’s talk about putting an eight week old puppy in a collar that puts all of the pressure directly into his muzzle and spine.  Surely that’s safe for growing bones, right?  Then let’s talk about asking any dog of any age to wear one of these contraptions for 18 hours.  That wouldn’t possibly lead to pent up frustration, right?

When you add up all of these things, the facial injuries, the soft tissue/spinal injuries, the neck injuries, the discomfort of the tool itself, the inescapable aversive the tool provides, and of course the fact that this is not a training tool but a management tool, suddenly the Gentle Leader seems not-quite-so-gentle.  Or at least, not as “gentle” as the people who sell and push these things like they’re the answer to global warming would like you to think.  The reality?  ANY tool has the potential to be abused, and NO tool is inherently “humane” or “inhumane.”  Find a trainer with a FULL toolbox.

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17 comments on “Not-So-Gentle Leader?

  1. Viatecio says:

    As for being able to open the mouth all the way when properly-fitted…I was able to snap this shot with lucky timing on my side (better light conditions would have been great, but I’ll take what I can get).

    My dog’s mouth is as open as she can get it.

    Even when NOT jumping for the ball, she cannot fit it entirely in her mouth, and is reduced to batting it around the yard. I can tell she’s frustrated by not being able to carry it around, but she’s at least content to chase something and work out all her energy.

    I got a similar shot of an opened mouth as she made a dive on the ball. It’s not as drastic as the other one, but it’s obvious that the ball…just won’t…fit.

    Honestly, except for the muzzle pics shown in the post, I don’t actually get up each day with the intent to take such pictures. They just kind of happen.

    And if you happen to have a dog that “does just fine” with a headcollar without trying to paw it off or create any sort of visible injury? Hey, it may not have been the tool I would have chosen, but I’m not going to tell you to fix what ain’t broke. If you want your dog to walk nicely and that’s what s/he’s doing, keep it up.

    • KDH says:

      Excellent shot, Viatecio – this is exactly what I was describing (having a visual aid makes things so much clearer). Just a note, the second link is the same as the first.

      As for your last paragraph, I completely agree. In fact, I feel this way about most any training tool unless I can see something that the owner is not aware of. I’m just tired of being told that one is humane while the other is evil. I’m tired of being called abusive, cruel, or a bully by people who simply operate using a different methodology and have no idea what it is that I actually do. And because they are so stuck in a single method, they have little to no understanding of what’s going on. After being indoctrinated into said methodology, one is lead to believe that the worst positive trainer is still less harmful than the best “traditional” trainer.

      It’s simply not true, and I’m tired of truly balanced trainers sitting back and letting this dialogue continue so one-sided. The second you stand up and question, you’re told that you’re outdated and your methods are based on intimidation, fear and pain. The truth is that true behavourism involves four quadrants for a reason. You can’t simply pick and choose what science to listen to, and while I’m all for clicker training to shape behaviour and lure and treat methods for puppies and calm adults, just because I might also include an aversive training tool does not make me a monster. It simply makes me a trainer that believes it’s just as important to tell a dog WHAT you want as it is to tell a dog as clearly as possible what you DON’T WANT.

      • Viatecio says:

        Yikes, copy/paste fail! Here is the second picture, diving on the ball.

        And when I say “my” dog, she will officially be mine when her time is up at school in December. Any dog of mine will never be caught wearing one of those after what I’ve seen.

  2. Christine K says:

    Another factor is how the head collars interfere with natural dog social language, which can involve many complex and subtle facial/head movements such as tongue licks, look-aways (eye movements or head movements), open mouths, closed mouths, etc–all of which are inhibited and sometimes prevented by a head collar.

    • KDH says:

      See, that’s where I think the Gentle Leader can shine. I can take a dominant, pushy dog and control his head and neck posture around other dogs. This makes him less intimidating and teaches him a new way to greet. The halter is the only tool that makes this possible.

      As for folks who let their dogs interact wearing these things, that just boggles my mind. Oh wait – but Gentle Leader says 18 hours is ok, so….

      • Viatecio says:

        The dog I pictured in my comments is DA and, although we know WHICH dogs she pings on and try to prevent her from even being near those dogs (school imposes a mandatory social isolation on these dogs as long as they are living there, so no interactions take place anyway), the tool has not helped. It makes her controllable, but in order to stop her from fixating and running to the end of her leash, she needs, literally, torqued around so her butt SWINGS in the other dog’s direction. It’s either that or a harsh pop on the headcollar. No redirection with food treats or toy works…believe me, it’s not for lack of trying.

        Again, consistency issue rears its ugly head, but people who work with her on a regular basis tend to know who they’re dealing with.

        However, I feel that managing her this way is way too forceful, does not teach her anything, and if anything, creates more frustration simply because she is being forced to look away via physical means rather than teaching her through more appropriate means (I plan on using an e-collar with her, a pinch collar would be my 2nd choice) that fixating is a bad idea…in a way that she understands, rather than resists.

        (I know this makes her sound horrifically aggressive in terms of behavior, but it’s really not as bad as it sounds. Some dogs she ignores, others she pings on, and that’s when we have to really get physical. And “Getting physical” is NOT my idea of training, especially in this manner.)

  3. Dega Vans says:

    Under the instruction of a past trainer I tried one of these things on my male Great Dane. The trainer insisted that the fight was normal and to just pull his head up and keep walking. Before the end of the class that night I had a bloody pup. At 7 months old he had faught and clawed the head collar so hard he not only had burns from the nylon but claw marks in his face. I got a full refund that night and two weeks later had him heeling beautifully with a prong that he didn’t mind at all. This dog is now 3 years old, and no longer needs any training collar as he is off lead reliable, but if I reach into the dog bin and pull out that head collar he will RUN from me and hunker down in a corner. Clearly this is a “postive” training tool.

  4. Samantha says:

    I’m really happy that I found this post! I have two dogs and therefore, have 2 gentle leaders. My male dog, Tanner, absolutely LOATHES his gentle lead and looks at me with the most pathetic face when I put it on. Mostly he pulls on the leash. He is a great dog and listens really well but he is 60 pounds and I just can’t be pulled all over the place with him. His gentle lead leaves a band on his fur across his nose so I ONLY put his on when we go out for a walk. I notice that he becomes very melancholy because he can not pick up any toys and carry them around. He is that type of dog. Always has to carry something in his mouth. He can not do that with the gentle leader.
    On the other hand, my girl dog, Allie, she’s great with the gentle lead and here’s why. Because she is one of those shy and timid dogs, I think that just having it on makes her feel secure. The main reason she has one is not so much the pulling, it’s the lunging after small bunnies and squirrels and hopefully helping to curb some of her barking. So hers is actually fit a lot more loosely than Tanner’s (and the recommended user guide) because it takes a lot less force for her to get the message. For her it’s more of a reminder that she has me on the other end of the leash and she shouldn’t be trying to dislocate my shoulder.
    So, I’m torn because I leave Allie’s on for a few hours each day with a guide leash (because I am trying to break her barking) and she seems oblivious, and I have to take Tanner’s off immediately as soon as we return from a walk. Also, when I walk Tanner and he pulls in front of me, that “pull and turn the dogs head towards you and they will follow”…no. That doesn’t work. He could care less.
    I even went as far as to email the company and ask if there was a representative or trainer in the area that they could refer me to for a proper fit for Tanner and they said no so I took him to Petsmart and the “trainer” there had to get a package from the shelf and read the directions herself. That was no help.
    If anyone has any other ideas to help me with Tanner please let me know. He is 5 years old and a great dog, I just need to be able to walk him without losing my arm and not ripping the fur off of his nose.

  5. The Halti has helped my dog who is leash reactive towards other dogs, quite a lot actually. When I first got her, due to her experiences in her previous home any neck pressure put her on a hair trigger so a regular collar would make things worse, and a harness did not provide enough control, but after a reactive dog class trainer suggested a head collar we tried it and found it very helpful. I’m not saying it’s perfect but I think it can be a good tool when used properly.
    I also wanted to mention some of your points are not true with all other head collars, and personally I’ve heard a lot more problems with the Gentle Leader.
    The Halti should not restrict the nose or have to be tight on the dog’s neck or muzzle like the Gentle Leader does. My dog has no problem eating, drinking, panting, etc while wearing it (actually the way I acclimated her to it was to have her eat dinner while wearing it.) It also doesn’t have the problem of dogs pulling the nose loop off, and at least in the new version Halti I have, the nose loop is padded for comfort. I can take photos/video or elaborate if you want.

    • Viatecio says:

      Although I am not a large supporter of headcollars in general, the design of the Halti is one that seems better suited to the dog’s head overall. Were a dog ever in need of a headcollar for temporary management purposes in addition to a solid, results-based training program that allows weaning off the collar when control is achieved, the Halti would be my first choice.

      I am aware of, but have never used or fit, designs that have the leash clipping at the back of the neck. This appears almost contrary to instinct, since we are engaging the dog’s oppositional reflex and by pulling the head back, we’re encouraging the dog to pull harder forward. Or, to use more easily understood terms, it is more a true “head harness” than it is a halter-style lead.

    • Marcus says:

      We also have a dog who is leash reactive to other dogs and got him a Gentle Leader on advice from the local obedience school. It has worked amazingly well. We didn’t get it to stop him pulling on the leash but instead for better control of his pointy end (mouth/head) when other dogs come up to us after he grabbed an unleashed terrier in his jaws when it charged at us snarling and growling.
      It give us better control because as he lunges forward it turns his head and so his attention comes back to us almost immediately. He can still open his mouth all the way- we also used dinner time and tug-of-war play time to get him used to wearing it. With the martingale collar we did have he would just keep lunging and lunging. It was almost impossible to get his attention off the other dog, even if we tried to run the other way with treats in his face.

  6. Samantha says:

    That would be great if you could post photos. My dogs are getting used to it. I’ve just succumbed to the idea that; I’m not going to make it as tight as the manufacturer suggests. They say make it so that only ONE finger can BARELY fit behind the neck strap. I’ve made it much looser and my dogs seem to not be running away from me so much when I go to put it on. I still get the same reaction as well when walking them (which is that I am in complete control) and it’s not as tight on their muzzles. It also does not go past the fleshy part of their nose.
    We’ll see how it goes for another week or so. But yes, please do upload the pics of the Halti as well.
    Thank you!

  7. Samantha says:

    Just a quick update, since loosening the gentle lead, (as stated above) my dogs come up to me when I have the Gentle Leader in my hand, and though they do not like it still, they know it has to go on and sit patiently while I put it on. HUGE difference from when it was put on as the manufacturer had it suggested. Ya my dogs still go off to the side to sniff the grass and lunge at other dogs, but I am able to pull slightly on the leash and they immediately stop and just stand and bark.

    • RebeccaClare says:

      Hi Samantha. I have an over excitable 3 year old, Maps, who can’t help but pull on walks, no matter how much I’ve trained her. At the moment she wears a regular harness, which only encourages her in the instinct to pull. After a bit of research I have decided to order the Walk In Sync. It looks to be the least harmful, and most affective harness of it’s sort on the market. Others seem to be prone to chafing, and have buckles in odd places that may irritate. This product also has a money back guarantee, which is encouraging. I’ll let you know how Maps goes once her new harness arrives. It might be a good fit for a dog like Turner.

  8. Sarah says:

    I just have a quick question, what are your credentials? I searched the site for them and couldn’t find them. You should read up on the current recommendations posted by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the studies done to show why the gentle leader is the best option for dogs. Just trying to find out though what your personal credentials are for this personal view.

  9. Sarah says:

    Also this video is a great example of how a gentle leader SHOULD be used, by training the dog to have a say in whether they want to wear it or not. By first training the dog to want to wear it because it becomes a predictor of food, and later a predictor of going on a walk, the dog CHOOSES to wear the gentle leader and will not have the negative reactions posted above.

    Also I would like to point out that you argued that the Gentle Leader has more negative physical effects than a pinch collar or choke collar. I would like to point out that if you look at the anatomy of the dog, the pinch/choke collars place all the stress and pressure on the neck region in the location of MANY essential soft tissue structures like the esophagus, trachea, larynx and more. On the other hand, if you look at the anatomy of the face of a dog and where the pressure is placed (for only seconds at a time when tehy start to pull) it is on the hard bones of the top of the nose and the back of the skull. Even when a young dog is growing, the pressure placed on these places with a Gentle Leader is not enough to cause damage.

    Finally, a dog that is being trained to walk without pulling will more easily be able to interpret when they are pulling/ when the leash is loose based on pressure on their nose than on their neck. The pressure receptors in the thick skin of their neck is unlikely ot be helpful for them to identify when they are pulling vs when they are walking correctly. This is why many stubborn, hard to train dogs, learn much more easily and quickly on a Gentle Leader.

    I am currently a 3rd year veterinary student, and I will say that I have seen so many dogs that cannot be trained to walk with other methods, learn within hours how to walk calmly and correctly with a Gentle Leader. As a veterinary student and someone closely studying animal behavior with a board certified animal behaviorist, it is interesting to see your views on these things. I would urge anyone who has questions about using methods other than choke or pinch collars really do the research on the methods and why things like the gentle leader were invented. The modern behavior research coming out right now really supports the use of these gentle, more positive methods and are more likely to get the results most owners are looking for.

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