Training Equipment: Collar, Harness, or Halter?
What's Best for Your Dog?
"I'm a Good Dog! Do I Have to Wear This Thing?"
There are 5 basic types of collars commonly used in dog training.
1) The flat, or buckle type collar,
2) The slip collar or choke collar,
3) The martingale (a “choke” collar designed for whippets and greyhounds),
4) The Cesar Millan collar,
5) The prong collar.
Of these 5 the least intrusive, the most comfortable, and the most humane are 1) the flat collar, 2) the prong collar, 3) the martingale, 4) the slip (or “choke”) collar, and 5) the Cesar Millan collar.
Note: I listed the prong collar as the second most comfortable and second least intrusive. That’s because despite the negative hype, when used properly prong collars distribute pressure around the dog’s neck in an even way. In fact, if your dog pulls and pulls and pulls, the prong collar is more humane than a flat collar, which with especially large dogs can sometimes cause damage to the dog’s throat. That rarely happens with a prong collar.
The purpose of any collar is to provide information to the dog: let’s walk, wait, go left, go right, come around, etc. And believe it or not, the collar that provides the most information in the least intrusive and most natural way is also—you guessed it—the prong collar!
Remember, these are training tools. Once your dog is trained not to pull and to walk nicely on the leash, you’ll be able to use a simple flat collar on all his walks.
Harnesses were originally made for draft animals like oxen and Clydesdale horses, animals who pull heavy loads. Their use in dog training was, until fairly recently, primarily restricted to dogs with throat and neck issues.
As with collars, there are several types of harnesses. In fact, there are so many different types and designs that it would be difficult to list them all. So here are three of the most popular types.
1) The puppy harness, which comes in many different types and designs (this is one of the most popular models),
2) The standard harness, which also comes in many different types, designs, and materials, from leather to nylon,
3) The no-pull harness, which attaches in the front and back.
Remember, most harnesses were made for animals that pull things for a living. The no-pull harness is different; it has a double leash, which attaches to the dog’s chest and back, so that when he pulls forward he feels pressure from both. He quickly learns to adjust his forward momentum to incorporate the two, and usually begins to walk without pulling.
However, harnesses were NOT designed for training a dog to heel; to walk next to you on a loose leash. Some trainers may prefer using a harness to a collar, but the fact remains: it’s more natural for a dog to learn to heel while wearing a collar than while wearing a harness. If you don’t like the idea of having your dog wear a collar, then the best option is the no-pull harness. It doesn’t teach a dog to heel, but it does keep him from pulling (usually).
Halters (sometimes called head halters, though that’s redundant) are the least effective equipment for teaching your dog to heel. They’re designed so that when a dog pulls he has a negative experience of feeling pressure on his snout, pulling his head to one side.
They’re also the most aversive, meaning they create the most highly negative/punitive experiences for the dog. They feel natural on a horse, but the reason dogs dislike them is very simple. Horses are a prey animals. They evolved to avoid predators, which can be seen in how far apart their eyes are on their head. They have far more peripheral vision than dogs. So wearing a device that creates a side-to-side movement feels natural to horses.
Dogs, on the other hand, are predators. They have a narrower range of vision. They need to have total control of their head movements as they move forward. The head halter causes a dog to lose control over his need to keep his eyes focused forward. This is why it can take several weeks to get a dog acclimated to wearing a head halter. Once the dog is broken in on the device, he learns not to pull because that’s the only way he can control his ability to keep his eyes focused forward. It’s also why, if you stop using the device, the dog will automatically go back to pulling. In other words, the dog hasn’t learned anything about how to heel or how to walk nicely on the leash. He’s simply been punished for doing what Nature has designed him to do: move through space freely, with eyes focused forward.
Interestingly, while head halters are very popular with trainers who are opposed to the idea of dominating dogs, they were actually designed to exert dominance! In a 1989 article in The New York Times, co-designer of the Gentle Leader, Ruth Foster, describes some of the thinking that went in to the device.
The Times: "She says the halter succeeds because of a dog’s instincts. 'You will see the pack leader putting his mouth around the mouth of the other dog, applying pressure to the top of the nose to show dominance,' she said."
The Bottom Line
The upshot of all this is pretty simple. Collars are usually the best option for training a dog to heel. The best collars for training are the flat collar or the prong collar. Harnesses are fine for puppies, but they’re actually designed to teach dogs to pull. And it’s much more difficult to teach a dog to heel using a harness than a collar.
Head halters feel unnatural to dogs, and create deeply negative experiences. In all the years since the Gentle Leader was first put on the marketplace, I have yet to meet a dog who didn’t hate wearing one. Every dog I’ve ever met who was forced to wear one, hated it. I’ve never seen anything close to that kind of antipathy and discomfort in dogs wearing a prong collar. That’s one reason why, in my opinion, head halters should never be used on any dog for any reason.
Remember, the purpose of any training device—collar, harness or head halter—is to provide information to the dog: let’s walk, wait, go left, go right, come around, etc. And in my experience, the device that provides the most information in the least intrusive and most natural way is the prong collar. It’s like power steering for dogs.
Anyway, that’s how I see it.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”