23 November 2011


A standard 6-foot leash and flat collar is universally accepted as the norm for walking and training dogs, but for large or powerful dogs, such basic equipment offers the handler very little in the way of effective restraint or ease of control. 

With pet stores stocking a huge range of leads, collars and other equipment that claim to resolve unruly on-leash behaviour, deciding what to choose for the best is a confusing and daunting prospect.  As well being an effective tool for the facilitation of training of desirable behaviour, training equipment should not cause the dog physical or emotional distress when used as the design intends, and so with manufacturers using words like ‘gentle’, ‘natural’, ‘kind’, ‘comfort’ and ‘easy’ to describe their products, it’s reasonable to assume that these training aids are humane.  Head-collars are a popular choice to control various on-leash behaviours, from plain old pulling to aggression, but in my experience of speaking with clients and watching dogs being walked, I have yet to meet a single dog that appears to enjoy wearing the type of head-collar known as a ‘muzzle-clamping head-collar’.  Muzzle-clampers include the Halti, Gentle Leader, Cannycollar and GenCon.  Dogs are just miserable wearing these, and many learn to fear the sight of them.  This is because muzzle-clamping head-collars, as the name suggests, are designed to tighten around the dog’s muzzle and head in some way, which the manufacturers describe as producing ‘calming pressure’.  However, because all of these popular head-collar brands when under tension fit so tightly around the dog’s head, the ‘calming pressure’ that the manufacturer told you about is actually felt as pain, which is why, for the dog whose only crime is to pull on the leash, these head-collars work to stop pulling behaviour ~ dog pulls, feels pain around its head, backs off, leash goes slack.  The ‘learning theory’ terminology for this training sequence is ‘positive punishment’ (+P) followed by ‘negative reinforcement’ (-R), and when wearing the head-collar the dog learns that in order to avoid pain, it needs to not move too far away from its handler’s side.  In addition to painful pressure, muzzle-clamping head-collars can make nervous dogs and those who experience frustration on-leash feel even more trapped than they do already, which can exacerbate fear, active-defence behaviour and aggression.  I know this, because I have worked with and rehabilitated such dogs.

If we look at the dog’s natural reflexes, it is a fact of physiology that dogs move INTO physical pressure, not away from it.  Moving INTO pressure is why dogs pull against a taught leash, pull away when we try and hug them close, and generally resist being pushed and pulled about.  This is due to the ‘opposition reflex’ (thigmotaxis, stereotaxis) whereby physical force applied to a dog in one direction elicits thigmotaxic reflexes that cause the dog to increase its efforts in the opposite direction to the force applied.  Dogs also move into pressure when they are stressed.  They lean against walls and push themselves into corners.  This provides feedback to the brain to calm the body down.  This is why anxiety wraps and ‘thundershirts’ are effective at reducing fear ~ the consistent, gentle pressure all over the dog’s body continually feeds back to the brain and so regulates the stress response.  Just as dogs naturally move into pressure, moving away from pain is also a reflexive behaviour, and this is why dogs are so uncomfortable wearing muzzle-clamping head-collars ~ leash tightens, dog feels pain around its head, dog moves away from pain.  If it really was ‘calming pressure’, the dog would pull into the head-collar, not draw away from it.

The manufacturer of one of these muzzle-clamping head-collars claims that the reason why dogs do not pull when wearing their brand of head-collar is because the pressure from the strap behind the ears causes the dog to move back into it, so essentially, the dog continually ‘pulls backwards’ and so walks forwards on a loose leash. However, this manufacturer also says that to achieve this, the correct fit requires the noseband to be loose and the headband to sit snugly just behind the ears, which actually is impossible. The noseband HAS to be tight in order for the headband to fit snugly. It is impossible for the noseband to be loose and the headband be tight. It is impossible for the noseband to be loose and the headband remain in the correct position behind the dog’ ears. In fact in order to get the headband to fit snugly and remain in the correct position, the noseband has to be so tight that the dog’s mouth is completely clamped shut, and the noseband drawn back along the muzzle so far that it rides up into the dog’s eyes. The picture left shows a Boxer wearing one of these head-collars, incorrectly fitted, despite this being the manufacturers own picture! The noseband does indeed have some slack in it, but as you can see the headband is sitting half way down the dog’s neck, several inches from its ears. The first time that this dog swipes at the head-collar noseband with a paw, it will slide straight off its face.

Other common claims by manufacturers of muzzle-clamping head-collars is that the pressure of the noseband mimics the ‘calming’ action of the dominant, parent dog’s jaws around its subordinate, youngster’s muzzle, and that the pressure of the headband and noseband correspond with natural acupressure points on the dog’s head and face. It is true that a wild wolf mother uses the ‘muzzle-grasp’ as a way to elicit passive submission from her very young cubs, but even if all dog-puppies learnt and understood this piece of dominance language (which many do not), it would naturally be an ‘on-off’ grasp, not a sustained grasp, so the continual ‘grasp’ of a muzzle-clamping head-collar is in fact most unnatural (bearing in mind that the noseband of at least one of the popular brands has to be a tight fit in order for the head-collar to remain on the dog’s face). It is also true that acupressure points exist along the dog’s muzzle-flaps and around the ears that when massaged, do produce a calming effect, but what I see are dogs who are far from ‘calm’ when wearing muzzle-clamping head-collars. I see many who are very shut down, sometimes to the point of being unable to move at all, whilst others simply are avoiding the pain of pulling. And then there are those who face-scrape, and twist and thrash about. I have yet to see a dog looking relaxed because the head-collar is massaging its acupressure points.

To some extent, the sensation of a band around the muzzle can help to regulate emotional arousal by sending feedback via touch receptors to the limbic system, the emotional control centre of the brain (the mouth is directly connected to the limbic system), but the noseband has to be nonrestrictive and bring gentle awareness to the mouth area with a light touch (not painful pressure) such as that from the elasticated 'calming band'. 
This effect is lost though when a dog’s defence mechanisms kick-in and kick-back against the restraint and feeling of being trapped when the noseband is too tight, or when it applies enough force to close the dog’s mouth.   

So although muzzle-clamping head-collars are marketed as ‘gentle’, ‘kind’ and ‘natural’, I consider them to be highly aversive as training tools go.  This is why I neither use nor recommend their use under any circumstances.  They clearly cause distress to the dog even when fitted and used correctly, never mind incorrectly, and for the dog who twists and flips and thrashes about whilst wearing one there is always the potential for it to do serious damage to its neck.  However, not all head-collars are bad news.  The reason why a head-collar can be a good choice for walking an unruly dog is the control over the dog’s head that a head-collar provides ~ control the head, and the body follows ~ but we can effectively control animals much larger and considerably more powerful than even the biggest dog with ‘non-muzzle-clamping’ or ‘fixed action’ type head-collars, i.e. those that do not clamp the animal’s mouth shut and tighten around head when the animal pulls.  There simply is no need to use a head-collar that tightens around a dog’s head, causing pain and adding to the anxiety or frustration that a leash-reactive dog is already under. 

What I recommend and use to train large and powerful dogs that display over-emotional behaviour on-leash is a non-muzzle-clamping, fixed-action head-collar, in combination with a neck collar and double-ended, 6’ leash.  First, the head-collar.  'Dogmatic', and George Grayson’s 'Dogalter' (available at B&M stores), are non-muzzle-clamping, fixed-action head-collars with the point of control beneath the dog’s chin:

Dogmatic head-collar

These brands of head-collars do not tighten around the dog’s face but instead provide a non-clamping, secure fit, and allow the handler to gently and effectively turn the dog’s head away from whatever is causing it to over-react without causing the dog to feel pain.  Dogs who have previously been made to wear Haltis, Gentle Leaders and the like, seem to have no problem accepting and wearing a non-muzzle-clamping head-collar ~ no turning tail and hiding at the sight of it, no scraping faces along the ground, no thrashing and twisting.  Even dogs who have never worn any type of head-collar before can be desensitised to wearing a fixed-action head-collar in a matter of minutes, with no backsliding after.  Dogs seem to like wearing these head-collars, which suggests to me that their design and use does not cause physical or emotional distress.

Next, the collar.  A flat, buckle collar is fine to use to walk the dog who rarely pulls on the leash, but for hardened pullers or those who lunge, all that forward motion is concentrated into a single pressure point, encouraging the dog to pull harder and potentially causing damage to the windpipe (picture right).

For hardened pullers and lungers, my neck collar of choice is the ‘limited-action slip-collar’ (also referred to as martingale-style collar).  Unfortunately and incorrectly, this design has also picked up the names ‘half-check’ and ‘half-choke’.  ‘Checking’ or ‘choking’ the dog was never the collar’s intended use, and it should never, ever be used in this way.  When fitted correctly, the limited-action slip-collar remains loose around the dog’s neck when the leash is slack, and when the leash tightens, is designed to apply consistent, non-choking, even pressure all the way around the dog’s neck.  The collar cannot continue to tighten because the action is limited to the correct fit of the collar, i.e. precisely the circumference of the dog’s neck, so when the sliding part of the collar is drawn up, that’s it, the collar fits snugly around the dog’s neck with no further tightening.  This has three benefits ~ 1. The dog cannot back out of the collar, 2. The pressure is not concentrated into a single point so the power of the opposition reflex is diminished, and 3. Using the leash to apply ‘pulsating pressure’ by alternately closing and releasing the collar, stimulates receptors along the inner walls of the carotid sinuses (major blood vessels situated either side of the dog’s windpipe) that send a signal to the brain to lower heart-rate and blood-pressure, which naturally helps to de-arouse the dog and therefore help him to control his emotions:

The closing and releasing of the collar should be just that ~ absolutely NO yanking, snapping, popping or jerking.  The collar should never be used to 'check' or 'correct' behaviour, but rather to apply light, pulsating on-off pressure when the dog is aroused and needs physical help to calm down.  If when you close and release the collar you end up 'rocking' your dog back and forth, you are being too heavy handed.  Your dog should not visibly move when you are working the collar.  I do not recommend all-chain limited-action slip-collars under any circumstances.  The main part of the collar should be made of webbing or soft leather of an appropriate width for the size of the dog.  The sliding part can be chain, as this part of the collar is only ever in contact with the dog's neck when the collar is loose.  When tightened, only the webbing/leather section is in contact with the dog's neck.  Limited-action slip-collars also come as an all-webbing version, with the sliding part as well as the main part of the collar being made of webbing.  Finally, the leash.  The double-ended leash has a trigger hook at each end.  When used in conjunction with a fixed-action head-collar and a limited-action slip-collar, the larger of the two trigger hooks is attached to the slip-collar sliding ring, and the smaller trigger hook to the head-collar control ring.  This gives the handler two points of control, and allows for the slip-collar and head-collar to be used independently of one another.  Most of the time the dog will trot along with barely any tension on either end of the leash because the design of both head-collar and slip-collar allows for the feeling of free movement, but when needed, the dog’s head can be turned towards the handler by applying finger-tip pressure to the head-collar end of the leash, and the stress-reducing action of the slip-collar can be activated by applying pulsing pressure with the collar end of the leash.

I am 5’3” tall and weigh a little under 60kgs.  I work with dogs, often large and powerful ones, who display a range of potentially dangerous on-leash behaviour issues.  I have used the fixed-action head-collar/limited-action slip-collar/leash combo for training Rottweilers, Mastiffs and Great Danes with complete control every time, and with no stress to the dog.  What’s equally important is that my clients can see that their dogs are so much more relaxed in a non-muzzle-clamping head-collar, and feeling in control themselves with the head-collar/slip-collar/leash combo, perhaps for the first time in years, they are able at last to start enjoying walks with their dogs and finally get down to the business of safely and successfully resolving their dogs’ various on-leash issues.

As a dog learns to be less emotional and engage in alternative, acceptable on-leash behaviour, the leash can be attached to the collar alone, while the head-collar is still worn to provide backup control for potentially tricky, beyond-handler-control situations when the small trigger hook can be unclipped from the leash and attached to the head-collar ring in seconds, allowing the handler to remain in control and so deal effectively with the situation.

Of course it’s not the head-collar/slip-collar/leash combo itself that resolves on-leash behaviour issues.  Good on-leash behaviour comes through providing a dog with the right training, and that’s where the guidance of an experienced dog professional comes in.  What the head-collar/slip-collar/leash combo does provide is a truly gentle and effective way of handling a powerful dog, and puts the dog’s owner back in control, both physically and emotionally.  It’s not so much a case of ‘control the head and the body will follow’ but rather ‘relax the brain and the body will relax also’ ~ handler’s and dog’s!

11 November 2011

Behaviour problem trends

I was wondering the other day whether dog-dog aggression cases are on the rise as it seems that I have been dealing with this problem a lot more of late.  It has also felt like I've seen more rescue dogs lately too, so I took a look back over my case-load from the past three years.  The results do indeed confirm my thoughts, with my rescue dog cases having increased from 33% in 2009 through to 42% in 2011, and % dog-dog aggression problems with rescue dogs having also steadily risen.  The other noticable trend is an increase in general training being requested for non-rescue dogs (i.e. those owned by the same owner from puppyhood).

I have broken down my case-load into five types of problem: SDS (separation distress syndrome), dog-dog aggression, dog-human aggression, fears & phobias, and general training.  General training includes basic obedience training (e.g. stay, recall, leash-training), general de-stressing, overcoming hyper-arousal, compulsive behaviour and handling problems, teaching acceptable greeting behaviour (e.g. for dogs who jump up, mouth, etc), house-training, etc.  Although the other four problem types may have included behaviours such as barking, destructive behaviour, house-soiling, etc, these are symptoms of each problem type, not the problem itself.