The Gentle Leader® Headcollar and Training System for Dogs

By Dr Peter Neville (TRAINING MATTERS: Tackling pulling on the lead)

Laws of physics show that pressure causes counter-pressure, and in the world of dogs, this means that if a dog walks on a tight lead he will pull against the pressure being applied to his neck. It’s as simple as that, and while dogs may want to pull ahead of their owners when out for a walk for many different reasons – to get to the park, to meet the dog on the corner of the street or because he feels it’s his job to lead the group wherever they are going, huge numbers of owners have terrible trouble trying to stop themselves from being pulled along uncontrollably by their dog or even pulled over!

While there are many ways to train a dog not to pull on the lead, a highly innovative product designed especially for dogs has proved extraordinarily successful at doing just that, helping dogs and their owners to relax and enjoy their walks more and relieving many tired arms! All round the world over the past decade, the Gentle Leader® has given an invaluable starting point to owner’s whose dogs have learned to pull against their ordinary collar or one of those horrible long outdated choke (check) chains and helped inspire a whole new era of kind effective training methods for dogs.

The Gentle Leader® is much more than just a canine headcollar, it is actually scientifically designed to stop dogs from pulling by working on their natural reflex systems and to enable us to apply a form of control that mimics one of the important natural physical methods of social communication between friendly dogs in a pack.

The Gentle Leader® was designed in the USA over ten years ago by one of the world’s top human/companion animal relationship experts, Professor Bob Anderson and Ruth Foster, then President of the National Association of Obedience Instructors and has sold millions around the world. It has been available in the UK for over seven years and is now widely used by members of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, animal welfare societies and Veterinary Surgeons.

It is available in three sizes and, unlike other headcollars, is fully adjustable to fit all sizes and breeds of dog to the contours of each individual’s face (provided it has a nose – sorry, but Pekingese and very flat faced Boxers miss out on the benefits of the Gentle Leader®!). Many other headcollars are not adjustable and brands rely on a range of sizes to cover the huge range of dog face shapes and sizes, with the result that so many don’t fit snugly and ride up painfully into the dog’s eyes or flap loosely and annoyingly across his lips.

Made of strong, soft, nylon webbing for maximum comfort, the Gentle Leader® consists of a nose loop and neck strap which are joined together by a unique double ‘d’ ring. This ring is specially designed to transfer pressure from the nose loop to the neck strap, which fits high up on the dog’s neck, just below the ears. Unlike a normal collar, the neck strap should be snugly fitted, so that it is barely possible to insert a finger between the strap and the dog’s neck. When the dog reaches the end of the lead while wearing his Gentle Leader®, some of the tension is transferred via the Double D ring to the back of his neck.

Puppies instinctively relax and go quiet when their mother picks them up by the scruff of their neck to transport them. If they were to struggle or wine they may well be jeopardising their lives as she may be moving them away from danger and need to transport them as quickly and quietly as possible. And so, as this reflex is usually maintained to some degree into adulthood, we find that the pulling dog also often relaxes automatically because of the mode of action the Gentle Leader®, thus releasing the pressure on the lead to leave him calm and relaxed and walking gently through choice by his owner’s side instead of pulling on the lead.

The Double D Ring, which facilitates this marvellous reflex action is one of the main structural components that define the patent for the Gentle Leader®, and the Gentle Leader® is the only patented headcollar in the world because of it’s unique effect. But more than stopping dogs from pulling on the lead, (which is, incidentally, one of the common difficulties that owners always cite in surveys of dog behaviour and training problems), we find that because the dog is relaxed and happy to be lead along on a Gentle Leader®, he is also much more in contact with his owner and thus more capable of being trained in other areas of basic obedience.

But the Double D Ring and its reflex effects is not the whole story behind the success of this innovation. The nose loop is also important scientifically. It is evident when watching a group of dogs or wolves playing that a relaxing response occurs when one dog grasps the bridge of another dog’s muzzle. When play gets out of hand and one wants to cool things down, or simply subdue the excitability of another lower ranking pack member, he will gently place his open mouth over the bridge of the other dog’s nose and push down. The other dog usually responds by reducing the intensity of his part of the game, and in some cases ending the game completely.

The muzzle grasping action is gentle and reassuring, never aggressive or injurious. When a dog pulls on the lead while wearing his Gentle Leader®, pressure is applied across the same socially sensitive area, the bridge of the muzzle, and the nose loop pulls the nose down gently towards the dog’s chest and holds it in much the same way as his pack mate might do in wanting to slow the game. And so the dog calms down through choice, sometimes very noticeably and very quickly, much to the owner’s delight.

With the Double D Ring simultaneously transfering end of lead pressure to the back of the dog’s neck, both response points are being triggered with often what seems to be a miraculous effect on calming the previously excitable or frantically pulling dog. The dog’s instinctive resistance to the redirected pressure causes him to stop pulling in order to relieve the pressure on his reflex points rather than pulling against the pressure.

The Gentle Leader® also provides power steering for dogs. Obviously wherever a dog’s head goes, the body has to follow and so being in control of the dog’s head via the lead and Gentle Leader® automatically gives an owner more control than with an ordinary collar. Virtually every other animal in the world is lead or managed by the head (imagine trying to control a horse or a camel with a neck collar!!) that one wonders why it became the norm to manage dogs by the neck!

Aside from making walking on the lead so much easier, better control is especially important with dogs who develop certain types of behaviour problem. If a dog lunges towards people or other dogs, for example, the owner can gently steer him away without yanking and inflicting pain, discomfort or injury on the dog’s neck. This is vital in the case of canine aggression which is often an emotional response to fear or apprehension about the approach of another dog or person. The reactive dog instantly becomes aroused and ready to protect himself using one or more of four main coping strategies – fight, flight, freeze or appease.

While restrained on a lead the dog is really limited to a choice of fight or appease as he cannot run away and freezing is pointless as he is clearly visible to the threat. If the appease option fails to make the other dog ignore him or walk away and so give him relief from his feelings of apprehension, he may be forced to employ the fight option and growl, bark or threaten to attack the approaching dog or person, even if they haven’t even looked at him yet!

On an ordinary collar or choke chain the owner may yank the dog back and tell him off if he lunges at the threat, but the pain he feels will usually only simply increase his feelings of apprehension and will make him more likely to lunge sooner next time he finds himself in a similar situation. By walking this type of problem dog on a Gentle Leader® instead of a collar, trainers and behaviourists often find that if the dog lunges, the pressure that is automatically applied to the reflex and response points on his nose and neck helps to relax him and feel that his owner is managing the problem for him.

The calm, communicative dog can then be rewarded for adopting other ways of coping with the apprehension, such as finally perceiving that approaching dogs/people are not threats at all and so can be ignored, or that a simple appeasing gesture, such as dropping the tail or ears for a second, will be all that is needed to say an acknowledging ‘hi’ to the other dog and deflect any potential threat in a quiet and normal doggy way. More than this, the dog no longer anticipates the formerly associated pain and discomfort that used to be inflicted involuntarily by his owner via his collar or chain at the mere sight of another dog/person. With practice and a steady supply of friendly dogs/people to encounter an aggressive dog wearing a Gentle Leader® can often be rehabilitated very quickly indeed, but best of all, such problems are so easily prevented if a puppy or young dog is walked on a Gentle Leader® from the day he first goes out on a lead.

Every Gentle Leader® is supplied with full fitting instructions and a self-help training advice sheet. Correct snug fitting, like when we fit a shoe, is essential for the headcollar’s unique dual action to have full effect. Too loose and it will rub and move around, too tight and it will cause discomfort. The tighter the neck strap, the looser the nose loop can be and it will sit further back from the corners of the dog’s mouth, making it very comfortable to wear, and enabling the dog to drink, pant, bark, eat and play until any tension is applied via the lead. It is quite normal for a dog to resist the Gentle Leader® at first as the sensation of the nose loop on the face and neck strap may feel strange initially.

The nose loop is also visible to them and they may try to paw it off, but most dogs soon settle down. It is often the case that the more a dog protests in the first few moments, the better he ultimately accepts it, a situation also found when fitting a headcollar to a young horse for the first time. After fitting the Gentle Leader® the dog should be taken for a short, interesting walk in order to take his mind off the strange feeling of wearing a head collar.

He should be encouraged to walk and follow his owner on a loose lead and encouraged to walk along with treats or praise, never dragged or forced and most soon realise how much more comfortable a Gentle Leader® is to wear than pulling along and being pulled on a normal collar. Once a dog is used to wearing his Gentle Leader®, he can be walked and trained far more easily, and is also very helpful when extra calm restraint is needed, for example, for grooming, visiting the vets, administering eye or ear drops etc. All in all, the Gentle Leader® really is a remarkable product.