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Book Review
Dog Training with a Head Halter
by Miriam Fields-Babineau

Review by: Kate Connick, Sept. 2002

I recommend and use head-halters with clients' dogs, where appropriate. Halters are certainly not the answer to all training problems, but they are tools that have a place in one's training arsenal. One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome with halters, however, is an owner's resistance to using one. Hence, I looked forward to this book, hoping that it would serve to validate halter use, explain clearly the method for using one, and attempt to troubleshoot problems that might arise along the way. It was my hope to recommend this book to any halter user.

Invitingly well-illustrated with colorful photos, this paperback appeared to be the answer to my hopes. How puzzling when I actually read the content. Halters are typically used with positive-style, reward-based methods that tend to avoid heavy corrections. One of the primary selling points of halters, in fact, is that one can use physical leverage to gently steer a dog, rather than needing to use leash-jerk corrections. Yet this book reads oddly like a very traditional training book, where the author replaces choke-collar jerking with head-halter tugging. Surprisingly, the tone of the book is adversarial, as it harps on themes of dominance and control.

Although I do believe in establishing leadership and setting boundaries for dogs, I felt like telling the author to lighten up. It appears that she views every misbehavior as some act of dominant rebellion on the part of a dog. In discussing sit-stays, for example, she suggests that it may take longer to teach the very young dog or "one that is very old, such as over eight years." Her conclusion is that "the older dog has problems accepting your authority after being the boss most of his life." My first thought is that he might just be a little arthritic.

In terms of training, the author lays down the law, "you'll definitely need a head halter for the training process." Regarding leash walking, she describes what sounds like classic, choke-collar methodology:

"All turns should be 180 or 90 degrees. They should be sharp and quick... You are walking forward in the Heel. Scruffy moves ahead of you. You are to tug down and back as you say, 'No!' You can also do a 180-degreee turn to the right as you pull down and say, 'No!'... He's a foot or more behind you. Slap your left leg and say, 'Come on, boy!' in an enthusiastic tone of voice. When he catches up, praise him. If he doesn't, then tug down and forward in short bursts until he does catch up."

The author graduates from using the halter with a standard leash to using it with a long-line. If a dog fails to come promptly when recalled, "pick up your leash and give a sharp tug as you say, 'No!'"

I can't recommend this book, because the manner in which the author recommends using halters (i.e., employing leash-tug corrections, and using them with long-lines) flies in the face of my understanding of proper halter use.

The product Gentle Leader is aptly named, as a halter is intended to guide a dog and correct it merely in the form of gentle pressure around the muzzle and back of the neck. If the dog attempts to pull, steady pressure is applied. When the dog stops pulling, that pressure disappears. Thus, the dog learns to walk without pulling via negative reinforcement (assuming, of course, that the dog wants to avoid the muzzle/neck pressure, which not all dogs do). Halters are not meant to be tugged or jerked, and I would imagine that such handling carries the potential to damage a dog's neck. If, in fact, the author does not mean to give a traditional leash-correction when she uses the term "tug" on the leash, then she should have expressed that more clearly. As it stands, that is the very impression that she makes on the reader.

Given the training style, I don't understand why the reader would have any interest in using a halter as opposed to a traditional neck collar. It is not clear to me why the author's vision of halter training is any more humane than collar-jerking. To be blunt, the golden retriever does not appear delighted in some of the photos. His posture is quite submissive - head ducked, tail low, and tongue licking his nose. I couldn't help but wonder if the same dog trained on a pinch collar might not look cheerier. The photos of the Jack Russell terrier puppy are almost laughable. The halter and heavy, leather leash with the big brass clip probably weigh as much as the dog itself.

The author is not even consistent. She never does present a cogent case for halters as opposed to collars. She first advocates halters as the only necessary piece of training equipment. Then she recommends not using them on toy breeds, in part because, "a simple turn or quick tug and release is sufficient to correct them while using a regular buckle or snap-on collar." Well, aren't there some bigger dogs where that might be the case, as well? A few times she mentions that halters are especially helpful with dominant, hard-pulling dogs who are not food motivated. This left me baffled. Are they for all dogs, as she initially asserts, or not?

Between the author's attempt to be comprehensive about dog training and her poor organization, the focus on halters seems to take a backseat. As a result, she neglects to explore meaningful halter-specific issues in sufficient depth. In fairness, she explains sizing/fitting nicely, and there are several photos illustrating the various brands of halters.

Yet there are other issues that are either glossed over or completely ignored. She doesn't detail ways to acclimate a resistant dog to a halter. She basically says that he'll forget about it once's working. Well, what if he doesn't? She doesn't revisit the topic until chapter 6 (distractions and dilemmas), although she discusses putting the halter on the dog in chapter 2.

She never mentions that some dogs - no matter how carefully introduced - will never accept halters. Or that others will learn to drop their heads and bull forward, pulling almost as hard on the halter as on a neck collar. Nor does she explain the problems that might arise with halters themselves, like hair wearing away on the top of the snout. Although she warns ominously that "an ill-fitted, improperly used head halter can have devastating effects," she never fills us in on what the potential devastation might be, nor on the kind of bad fit and poor usage that might cause it. Sometimes it feels like the dogs in the book just happen to have halters on their faces. She just as easily could have written "Dog Training with Bandanas."

One could argue that her general approach to training is legitimate, albeit forgettable. Some of her advice is puzzlingly quirky, such as calling an old-fashioned shake can a "No Jump Box." She insists that "the worst word you could use is 'okay' to release your dog from work," and she advocates "break" as a release word instead. Maybe it's just me, but "break" sounds an awful lot like "stay" to these ears. Nonetheless, there is nothing in her presentation or content to make the general information striking. The writing style is bland and generic. The thing that is supposed to make this book unique is the focus on halters, and that is where the author dropped the ball.

In discussing the transition from working with the dog on a halter to working completely off-leash, the author admits that "many dogs associate their training devices with behaving." Until reliable, she recommends resorting to the halter whenever distractions arise. As well, she advocates having a pull tab on the dog's neck collar as "the means of backing up your command," which I found amusing. It brought me back to wondering why the reader would need a halter in the first place. The author herself says, "the fewer training devices you have to employ during the (training) process, the easier it will be for everybody." For the average dog, doesn't halter-training just add an extra, unnecessary step in training?

Well, no. You see, the author sells head halters. And this is the genuine reason for this book.

The introductory chapter is a shameless infomercial for the brand of head halter that the author designed and markets, as well as for halters in general. Rather than presenting halters as a one option in training equipment, she brazenly asserts, "Not only is the head halter the easiest means of controlling your dog, it also renders all other training devices obsolete." This, of course, is rubbish.

She heavy-handedly lays on the moralistic, emotionally manipulative, nonsensical propaganda about how halters are humane, painless, fast and natural - to the exclusion of all else. She insists that one must use a head halter "to be assured that your beloved pet will learn to behave and will not be hurt in the process." Except for toy dogs? The icing on the cake is her mantra to "teach the dog using logic, not pain."

Well, I have news for the author. There are plenty of dogs that panic at the restraint of a head halter. I know; I own one of them. Although I do use halters where appropriate, I'm also well aware that there exist dogs that will never accept halters no matter how carefully one conditions and prepares them. It is nothing short of cruelty to force a dog like this to wear head-shackles when there are other training options available. For a dog like this, halters are stressful and interfere with the animal's ability to learn. The mark of a sensible trainer is the ability to adapt methods and select tools that fit the particular animal. This author has no such flexibility. But hey, she's gotta make a living.

The bottom line is that this book is a disappointment. The author does little more than present traditional training exercises that happen to involve dogs that are wearing head halters. She is not convincing that a head halter is preferable to a neck collar for training the average dog. Nor does she acknowledge the limitations of halters. Her self-interest in promoting halters is obvious and interferes with her credibility. If you want a general guide to training, there are better options. If you want to learn about halters, this book just doesn't do it.

For a quick article on head halter use, take a look at How to Use a Head Halter.

Dog Training with a Head Halter by Miriam Fields-Babineau.
Published by Barron's, 2000. ISBN: 0764112368

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