Headcollars vs Harnesses – are headcollars aversive?

When my border collie JJ became reactive, around the time of adolescence, I was advised to use a headcollar to give me better control of the 25kg dog that lunged and barked when he saw something he considered a threat. I was happy to take the dog trainers advice, assuming they knew best and worried about my dogs reactions and the thought of ‘what if he gets away from me?!’

I ordered a K9 halti, one of many different brands of headcollar available at the time. Which ever brand you buy, headcollars are based on horse halters and aim to work in the same way, ‘control the head, control the body’. This should allow me to direct JJ away from dogs and people when he was reacting.

However, JJ hated the headcollar and would spend most of the time trying to paw it off his nose no matter how many treats and how much praise I sent his way. Yes it gave me more control over my dog, but it did not prevent reactions and the tightening of the headcollar around JJ’s muzzle when he lunged forward or pulled on the lead left a sore on his neck a couple of times. I changed the headcollar for a larger size to prevent the sore, but he didn’t hate it any less.

It was during my studies in animal behaviour and welfare that I began to question the effect of the headcollar on JJ’s stress levels. He clearly found it uncomfortable, was this adding to his stress? Could this mean he reacted more rather than less?

I changed back to a harness after reading lots of reviews of the Perfect-Fit harness which allows you to attach a lead both at the back and the front so you have more control over your dog and can steer them away from trouble.

JJ did not fight the new harness, although he didn’t like me putting it over his head, but luckily the Perfect-Fit harness can be unclipped so I can put it on without him having to put his head through. One problem solved!

Did JJ stop reacting to strange dogs and people? No! The harness was not an instant fix. Although he did pull much less in the harness than the headcollar. For his other issues it would take a long term behavioural modification plan to desensitise him to things that he found stressful and change his emotional response to them. Good job I was studying to be a canine behaviourist 🙂

Its a few years since JJ has worn the headcollar, but I always wondered if it really did make his behaviour worse. So when it came to planning my dissertation for a degree in animal behaviour and welfare, I knew what question I wanted to answer.

The findings from my research are summarised in an article I have written for Dogs Today Magazine which you can find here.

Of course every dog is different and my results showed that some of the more chilled dogs didn’t seem to mind their headcollars, but those with behavioural issues such as barking and lunging at people, dogs, moving vehicles etc. demonstrated a higher level of stress when wearing theirs compared to a harness. Its worth noting that studies conducted on horses wearing certain headcollars also have a higher score on the grimace scale (an indicator of pain).

I understand owners reliance on headcollars to control large or unruly dogs, but we should never rely on a piece of equipment to fix our dogs behaviour. The underlying cause for the behaviour must be addressed for long term success and a happy dog.

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