Friday, January 17, 2014

The Head Halter: A Love/Hate Relationship

Piper in Hobby Lobby picking out dog bed material.

 Although I've raised puppies for guide dog organizations for several years, it wasn't until I switched to raising for St Francis Service Dogs that I started using the Gentle Leader, generically known as the head halter. To date I'd had plenty of experience walking dogs with flat collars, martingale-type collars, chain collars and Easy-Walk harnesses. Each one has its pros and cons. But the head halter was something new altogether.

 A dog's head halter reminds me of a horse hackamore. The hackamore is a type of training equipment often used to transition a young horse from halter to bridle. Briefly, it allows you to guide the horse not by a bit in his mouth, but by pulling reins attached to a noseband. The noseband exerts pressure on the horse's nose, chin and face.

For a dog the Gentle Leader works on a similar principle. The leash is attached to the nose loop, and when the dog pulls away from the handler, pressure on the dog's nose redirects his forward momentum, causing the dog to slow down or turn towards the handler instead. In that sense it makes walking a strong, active young dog much easier and less strenuous, which is great for the handler.

Piper at 4 months having lunch, wearing the Gentle Leader.
However from the first time Piper wore a Gentle Leader, at about 10 weeks old, he disliked it. He rubbed his head on the floor, on my legs and shoes, on the furniture, he tried to peel it off with his paws. Not being blessed with opposable thumbs, this was not possible. When I mentioned Piper's distaste for the halter, the trainer suggested I put the GL on whenever he was about to do something pleasant, like at mealtimes, chew time, fun walks, etc. This I religiously did but Piper wasn't buying into the Gentle Leader = Good association. You know the saying, "To call a spade a spade?" If Piper could talk he would have his own name for the Gentle Leader and I don't think he'd use either the word "Gentle" or "Leader". Maybe it's good dogs can't talk.

Piper at the Lynx train station, Charlotte, NC

Piper is nine months old now, and wears the Gentle Leader most times we work together. When it's first put on, what follows is intermittent head rubbing, snuffling and snorting along with some comments from the audience present such as, "Is that a muzzle?" and "Oh, has he been bad?" and "He really doesn't like that, does he?" You learn to gracefully shrug off these comments. Eventually Piper settles down in his GL and walks reasonably well. And the GL does give me great leash control. But somehow I can't help feeling it changes his personality. Piper seems a different dog with the GL on, not as happy and bright as he would be otherwise. However, Rules is Rules, and Piper, just like all the other service dogs in training at St Francis, must learn to use the Gentle Leader. It's a fact of life.

There is an important reason the school trains their dogs in the use of head halters. While a puppy raiser or a trainer can be capable of managing a young dog on a leash, when the dog is matched with a disabled person, loose-leash walking may start to fall apart. And dogs can quickly sense when to take advantage of a person. So their new partner needs to have tools to fall back on, one being that the dog can be easily walked on a Gentle Leader.

St Francis PR outing to downtown Roanoke.  Dogs L to R:  Newton, Shasta, Bijou (hidden), Lexi, Joli, Piper, Jeter.

This makes sense I suppose. It is encouraging when I notice Piper forgets he has the GL on for long stretches and life is good. Maybe it's my imagination, but these episodes seem on the increase. Head halter or no, Piper does LOVE working. Wearing his Gentle Leader may be a little daunting, but as one dog aficionado told me, "It's kinda like getting used to wearing a bra." Ha! Glad there's no leash attached to one of those!

Piper and I join a Southeastern Guide Dog outing to downtown Charlotte. Piper is seated between Patti (L) and Beverly (R). The guide dogs in training are wearing martingale collars.

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