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Head Collars – and why they are a brilliant training aid.

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

The use of head collars on dogs is often misunderstood, and most people don’t know how to use them properly.

So, why use one? Think about what happens when your dog notices a distraction that he wants to investigate. If he is on a flat collar or a harness, then he can turn his head towards the distraction. You have no control over where the dog focusses his attention. Looking at something is the very first part of a dog’s prey drive, and looking towards a distraction (a dog running, a jogger, a moving car) is reinforcing (rewarding) for a dog – it’s the start of a chase! This means that the dog is getting his rewards from the environment instead of you. Why is this important? Well, it means that if the dog learns that the environment is more rewarding than you, then he will be less likely to put his attention and focus on you, and therefore he’ll be less likely to listen to you. This is NOT what you want!

“A dog in training on a head halter receives more reinforcement from their owner than dogs on a flat collar and a dog in training on a flat collar receives far more reinforcement from his environment then dogs on a head halter.”

Susan Garret, 2010.

When a dog is distracted his focus shifts to something other than the task in hand. This is what distraction means. Often, the distraction is more interesting, fun, and otherwise rewarding than what’s currently going on. Once the dog is distracted it’s often difficult to get his attention back. this is the point when the person with the dog gets frustrated, annoyed, despairing, or otherwise upset. The dog’s frustration level is also by this time increasing as you try to hold him back, because probably by this point, he is pulling towards the distraction, perhaps barking or lunging, and generally getting over-aroused. Let’s think about what’s going on in this situation now. We have a dog that’s now actively trying to get towards the distraction and we’re trying to hold him back. This engages something called an ‘opposition reflex’* in animals (and us humans too). The more you hold someone back from what they want, the more they want it. This principle is used to advantage in training drive in dogs (think about police dogs who are super keen to get to the criminal). You train this by throwing something that the dog is keen on getting, and you hold them back a bit before releasing them to it. By this point they are charged up to run towards it.

This is what happens when you have a dog on a flat collar or harness, and they get held back from the distraction with the lead. They become even more keen to get to it. Their frustration builds and then their behaviour becomes more extreme – you then have a dog who has transformed into a Tasmanian Devil at the end of the lead, who is barking, whining, spinning, snapping, growling and lunging. This is bad enough with a 15lb Westie but think what it’s like with an 80lb German Shepherd!

When you have a head collar on a dog you have control of where the dog looks. Think about jockey’s who control racehorses. They don’t do it with a harness around the horse’s shoulders, or a collar around their neck. They have either a head collar or a bridle. And the point of control is not from behind the head (either the neck or shoulders), but from controlling the muzzle. When you have control of a dog’s muzzle, you can direct where they look, and then turn them away from the distraction.

This then becomes a ‘choice point’ for your dog. Do they choose to put their focus on you and then get rewarded, or do they try to look back at the distraction? If it’s the latter, then they are probably too over-aroused, so you need to move them further away from the distraction, and then see what their choice is. If it’s to look at you, then reward and end the session/walk. Always end on a good note. If the dog still chooses to look towards the distraction, then move away further until you get to a distance where they can focus on you, and then reward, and end the session/walk.

When training your dog, you must learn to take the ‘success moments’ and finish there, even if that means that your dog only has had 5 mins of his walk. You need to learn how to take advantage of this and ‘ditch the routine’. You can exercise your dog another way at home if you’re worried that he’s not going to get enough exercise. Be creative about how you interact with your dog! Every moment of every day is an opportunity to build your relationship – and it might only take 30secs to have a positive interaction with your dog that makes the difference to him choosing to listen more to you next time. Make that 30secs count!

* The 'Opposition Reflex' - In horse-racing at the starting blocks, the horses are restrained by the gates, a pistol shot is fired, which scares the horses, and they are momentarily restrained by the gate, and when they are released, they ‘explode’ out of the starting gate. Their ‘drive’ is to get away from the ‘predator’ (in this case the scary noise of the pistol). In training police dogs to ‘attack’ a human it is used to excite the dog who then wants to go chase, but they are held back, increasing their frustration until when they are released, they power into their chase drive. These are examples of using the ‘opposition reflex’ to increase whatever instinctual drive is there – either to chase in the case of a predator (dog), or to flee in the case of prey (horse).

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