Busting Myths About the Gentle Leader

Earlier we talked about why I use and recommend the Gentle Leader head collar. There are quite a few myths out there about it, so let’s explore those now. Some people say that it’s inhumane. They say that dogs hate it. I frequently hear that it’s dangerous, since a dog could injure his neck while wearing it. All of these statements are untrue.

Let’s start with the accusation that the Gentle Leader is inhumane. In order to be inhumane, a device must cause pain or injury or it must be frightening to the subject. The Gentle Leader does not cause pain in dogs any more than a regular horse halter hurts horses. There are no sharp prongs that dig into the dog, nor are there electric shock currents to zap him. It doe not frighten the dog with sudden jerks, jabs, sprays, or noises. It works on simple leverage, much like any of the front-attach harnesses. When a dog pulls on the Gentle Leader, he finds his head guided around in a circle so that he ends up looking back at his handler.

Next, the risk of injury. This accusation always strikes me as funny, since when my dog injured her neck and upper back, the veterinary chiropractor specifically recommended that I use a Gentle Leader on her to minimize the chance of re-injury. Layla was actually paralyzed for a short while due to 2 herniated discs, and the risk of re-injury (including becoming paralyzed again) was unknown. My vet was concerned that a standard collar or harness would put pressure on her injured discs, especially if she lunged or jerked on the leash suddenly, and didn’t want her to wear either one.

People who claim that the Gentle Leader can injure a dog usually express concern about a whiplash-type injury to the neck if the dog hits the end of the leash quickly or with great force. They say that the Gentle Leader will snap the dog’s neck. This ignores simple physics. If a dog hits the end of the leash while wearing the Gentle Leader, it will start to turn him towards you. If he has a lot of force behind his lunge, that force will flow through all of his body, turning him further towards you. This means that a dog walking to the end of the leash may just be turned slightly towards you, with his body still facing the direction he was going, while a dog lunging to the end of the leash will end up with his entire body facing you. I believe the risk of injury to actually be less with a Gentle Leader, since in a standard collar the dog would receive a harsh jerk to his sensitive throat at the end of a lunge.

Here’s the truth: the Premier company and the co-inventor of the Gentle Leader, Dr. R.K. Anderson, have investigated numerous claims of neck/whiplash injury caused by the Gentle Leader since it was first put on the market, and have never been able to confirm a single case. If the Gentle Leader was hurting dogs, we would know by now. It’s just not happening.

Lastly, we come to the claim that dogs hate the Gentle Leader. This is most often due to incorrect fit. If the back neck strap is not adjusted snugly enough, it will slide around and annoy the dog. This may also cause the nose band to be adjusted too tightly, which is restrictive and will also annoy the dog. If your dog doesn’t like his Gentle Leader, check the fit! You should only be able to fit one finger under the neck strap, and the nose band should be as loose as it can go without coming off.

I can tell you that in 8 years of professional training with thousands of dogs, I have only found 2 dogs who I felt were too upset by the Gentle Leader to use it. Both dogs were Pit Bull types, and one ended up having an infected tooth. The other one had some scars on his face and was generally wary about having his face touched, so likely had some past history of pain there.

It’s true that dogs often need to adjust to the Gentle Leader. However, in my experience, dogs don’t paw at a Gentle Leader any longer or more violently than puppies paw at their very first collar or harness. I find that this adjustment process goes incredibly quickly and is just not a problem. Simply associating the Gentle Leader with pleasant things for 1-2 days will usually do the trick.

I hope this helps to clear up all of the common misconceptions about this great training tool! Like any tool, the goal should be to only use the Gentle Leader while training, then transition away from it. Have you heard any of these myths before? What training tools have you found to be the most successful when working with your dog? I look forward to hearing from you!

4 responses to “Busting Myths About the Gentle Leader

  1. What is your take on the GL supressing behaviors? At work a lot of the dogs wear them and on many it has a slight calming effect. But on a few dogs it seems to actually hinder performance and they seem really shut down when wearing one, even if they are past the point of pawing at it. Do you think that has more to do with never being appropriately conditioned to enjoying wearing one?

  2. I have personally used a GL on two dogs. Neither adjusted, despite it always being associated with pleasant things. I tried it with Lok to stop his pulling on the leash. Not only did it not stop the pulling (he just pulled nearly as hard with his neck sideways, that can’t be good for him) but he completely shut down, shut me out, stopped responding to his name, and walks became even more miserable. After a couple weeks of this, I stopped using it.

    For Jun, it worked beautifully for her pulling and she was very pleasant on leash, but in two years of wearing the GL, she never stopped hating it and pawing at it. She got to the point where she would refuse to come out of her crate when she knew I was going to put it on. She would go up to strangers and rub her face on their legs to try to get it off. She came across as sweet and friendly, but as it turns out she is really not comfortable with strangers. I believe that the hatred of the GL suppressed her expression of fear which made me more likely to allow contact with people she really did not want to have contact with. I didn’t protect her, which I believe was at least part of the cause of the problems we’re dealing with now. When we started b-mod, I quit using the GL and she was instantly more relaxed on leash, though more likely to express fear by barking and lunging (I never saw this behavior on leash with the GL, even though the fear must have been there). Maybe I am totally off base, but the first veterinary behaviorist we consulted with said she saw the same things in her dog.

    I don’t dispute that what you say is true for most dogs, and I bet had I known how at the time, I could have conditioned my dogs to wear it (Jun now wears a muzzle with no discomfort or pawing and wags her tail when she sees it). But given what I’ve seen with mine (and granted, they are “special cases”) it would not be my first choice to use. If I did use it, I would make sure to properly condition a positive CER to it before just slapping it on a dog’s head–but if I were going to take the time to do that, I don’t know why I wouldn’t just train my dog to walk on leash and collar in the first place!

  3. I used the GL for two days on my giant schnauzer. It worked great, until I noticed it had rubbed the flesh of of her nose. I made sure it was adjusted appropriately, So dissappoited.

    • Lisa,
      I would definitely have to say that the GL was not properly fitted on your dog. Loose leash walking???? No pulling! How in the world could a GL rub the skin off? As a professional trainer and someone who has used the GL since its conception in the 80’s. I have only seen this happen with any headcollar when the nose loop is tightly fastened and the neck strap is drooping and slack. Add to that the dog is still pulling. This is a complication with anything continually rubbing a dogs skin. You can’t blame a product for operator error.

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