Are “Gentle Leader” Collars Dangerous? How to Choose Safely

If your greyhound pulls at the leash a lot, you may be investigating different collars.  The Gentle Leader (similar to Halti) has great reviews, but would it work on a greyhound?

As with any collar, the Gentle Leader is safe only in the hands of a well-informed owner.  Because its use involves more preparation, a Gentle Leader is only appropriate for use by greyhound owners who are willing to take the time to use it properly. 

What is “dangerous” is developing a chronic shoulder or back problem from your greyhound’s leash-pulling; or, even worse, the risk of being pulled to the ground.  All collars are risky!  This article will help you sort through these risks, so you can decide for yourself whether a Gentle Leader would be a safe option for your greyhound (check Gentle Leader price here).

Table of Contents

The Gentle Leader: invented to save dogs from euthanasia

Lily’s Gentle Leader (not quite the same as the Halti) was co-invented by Dr. Robert Anderson and Ruth Foster. Dr. Anderson was an animal behaviorist who was a professor emeritus at the Univ. of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. Ms. Foster was the president of the National Assoc. of Dog Obedience Instructors. 

“The Gentle Leader was featured in 2003 in an exhibit by the Smithsonian Institution in the top 100 innovative inventions of the 20th century.” 

University of Minnesota’s CENSHARE (Center to Study Human and Animal Relationships, founded by Dr. Anderson

Dr. Anderson was inspired to invent it while he was in charge of animal control for the city of Denver.  At the time, dogs who could not be controlled were often euthanized.  Dr. Anderson saved countless canine lives, rehabbing many dogs who had been dismissed as unmanageable, using his Gentle Leader.  

One Reader’s Case Against the Gentle Leader Collar

Recently, a Facebook commenter, “Emma,” was critical of my use of a Gentle Leader, rather than a Martingale, for my greyhound, Lily:

May I suggest you stop using the nose leash? This type of leash can injure the dogs neck & make walking very uncomfortable for the dog.

Perhaps try a wide greyhound collar with a leash , this will enable your dog to freely lower its head in order to enjoy sniffing new scents, which is also beneficial to a dogs digestive system. As a dog trainer I prefer a suitable collar & long leash when walking a dog because I know it is more comfortable for the dog.

I have never heard of a dog trainer (including myself!) ever recommend a Halti ! They can seriously damage the dogs neck, they restrict the dogs natural instinct to lower their head to sniff scents & should be taken off the market ! Good, patient training is the ONLY answer for any breed of dog & that is what every dog owner should be doing for the well being of their dog. Actually, more of my time is spent training the owners than their dogs!!”

Emma from Facebook

Making Safer Collar Choices by Analyzing the Facts, Rather than by Emotion

A simple risk/benefit analysis reveals that Emma’s assertion is false that a Gentle Leader is more dangerous than a Martingale. Certainly, every collar has its dangers, which are greatly reduced by proper and careful use.  

…and, right up front, Lily is quite happy and comfortable in her Gentle Leader, sniffs like a bloodhound, and we are both in far less danger now, than when she was in a Martingale (my story of how I ended up using the Gentle Leader on Lily is coming up).  She can eat, drink, bark, pant, and snarl with complete mobility.

We all agree that for either collar to injure the dog, it must exert enough force against a part of his body to injure it. It’s also true that the longer the leash, the greater the chance of injury, because increased length gives the speedy greyhound more momentum (which would increase the force at the stopping point). 

The difference lies in the dog’s reaction to the feel of the collar.  The Gentle Leader is soft and comfortable…until the dog pulls forward. Upon pulling, this collar applies pressure behind the dog’s neck. It’s not painful, but it immediately gets his attention – It’s where his doggie mom, back in the day, would have grabbed him to correct him or keep him safe. The dog instinctively corrects his behavior at the first pull, and remembers not to do it again.  The danger is diffused before it can escalate, which makes this collar safe. 

With a Martingale, many dogs will just pull and pull and pull…

Granted, Martingales are safer than standard flat collars; but we all have seen dogs straining against them, gagging and wheezing through compressed tracheas.  Reports of injuries to the trachea, esophagus, and thyroid from neck collars are certainly real.  Even if you have fitted the Martingale correctly, that doesn’t change all that pressure going against the dog’s throat, if he pulls.

Another hazard is that a bullet-headed greyhound can slip a Martingale. My greyhound, Shannon (AKA Houndini), could throw any Martingale, any time.  After a while, he realized that this behavior was frowned upon, at least on walks.  Yes, careful fitting will reduce the chance, but only if it’s refitted regularly….when was the last time you refitted your hound’s Martingale?

A Gentle Leader is very comfortable and far more escape-proof.  Even the Humane Society recommends them, stating, 

“…the head collar is good for strong, energetic dogs who may jump and/or pull. Because the halter is around your dog’s muzzle, instead of their neck, your dog loses a great deal of leverage and [he is] unable to pull on the leash with the full weight of [his] body.”

The Humane Society the United States

A Valuable, Cautionary Tale, which Should be Read by Gentle Leader Users

Emma’s Facebook comment had an interesting response from “Richard,” who told me the following anecdote (keep in mind, it’s about the Halti, which is somewhat different, but safety lessons can still be learned here):

“The first and only time I used a Halti my hound escaped from the Halti because it irritated him so much. Upon escape he ran into a main road and attacked a small dog on the other side of the road. Luckily the other dog was mainly shaken and not badly injured. Needless to say I returned the Halti. Never again.”

Richard from Facebook

There are five critical lessons in Richard’s experience:

1.  Read and follow all instructional material that comes with the collar.  The Gentle Leader comes with very specific written instructions and a video, regarding not only how to fit it properly, but also how to control the leash while walking.

2.  Fit the collar properly.  If your dog can slip out of his Gentle Leader, it is not fitted properly.  If he’s trying to break out of the collar, instead of having fun on his walk, it’s not fitted properly.  

3.  Try it at home, first. Greyhounds can get very stubborn about wearing something new, whether it’s a sweater, a TheraPaw boot, or a Gentle Leader. It is, however, nonsensical that Richard’s greyhound was driven to attack another dog, because his collar was irritating him.  

This, however, is one of those instances in which a person’s prejudice against racing can cloud his judgement, to the point where he’s not really thinking through the problem to a logical solution.  Racing haters just cannot get past that it looks like a muzzle (not that there’s anything wrong with muzzles…).

Each racer usually wears two different types of muzzles, each of which is far more cumbersome than a Gentle Leader.  Even if the dog never raced, he is still of a breed that does fine with something worn on the face.  With adequate preparation and correct use, your greyhound can and should be comfortable in his new collar. 

So, if your greyhound doesn’t take to the collar right away, it’s OK to start slow.  The first time you clip on the leash, try it in the house, or in your fenced yard.  Another way to help your dog adjust is to put on the Gentle Leader, but clip the leash to his Martingale, walk a bit, and then switch it to the Gentle Leader.  Even this should be done at home, first.

If your dog won’t keep his paws off the collar, make sure it’s not too tight.  Run your finger around all parts of the collar that make contact with the dog, checking for any imperfections or twists in the fabric that might be making it uncomfortable. 

Once you’re sure of the fit, help him adjust to it by feeding him training treats through it.   For a very resistant dog, put on the collar for a few minutes, several times a day, and spent some pleasant time petting him, feeding him training treats, brushing his coat. 

Once you finally set out on the first walk, have his regular collar with you, so you can switch to it, if there’s a problem. If you want to be extra cautious, again, have him wear both collars, and switch off, giving a training treat whenever he walks nice in his Gentle Leader, until he’s happy in it. 

4.  Train yourself, too. To control a dog on a Gentle Leader, one must be mindful that, should he pull, draw the leash downward.  Because this is the opposite what you would normally do, it’s important to remember that you, also, are learning something new.  

The first time Lily and I were charged by another dog, I momentarily forgot, and pulled up on the leash.  I quickly saw that this was wrong, and, luckily, remembered the instructions said to use a downward motion.  It was very effective.  The Gentle Leader did its job in a situation that could’ve been a real disaster. 

5.  Denial is not just a river in Egypt.  A greyhound’s greatest instinct (next to napping) is to run.  Whether it is the urge to chase, or to escape, one must be ready for this behavior at all times, when walking a greyhound.  Never forget that your greyhound, in an instant, may bolt from a scare or decide to chase something. 

Another thought – and this goes for any collar – it is extremely dangerous to allow your dog to gain enough momentum to bolt to the end of his leash.  This warning goes for any breed, as well; but it is even more important with greyhounds.  Obviously, they are fast and strong, but they also need only a few steps to reach an incredible speed.

Why I Use a Head Collar on my Greyhound

I used the Martingale for over twenty years. As I mentioned, the greyhound would occasionally bolt, and I’d wind up with an aching back or pulled shoulder.  If, at this point you are thinking I must be quite a weak, puny specimen, you are correct.

I was able to stop these injuries by training my dog to heel, and switching from a 6’ leash to a 4’ leash.  

In spite of Emma’s over-simplification that people (like me) need to be trained, training is not the answer to everything, especially with greyhounds. 

For example, greyhounds have a particular habit of bumping people to get their attention.  When your greyhound bumps you, it tends to be unexpected and below your center of gravity; making it easy to knock you off your balance…badly.  Yet, you do not want to “train” them out of this important means of communication and bonding. 

One morning, a few years ago, I was walking Lily, when we approached a couple who were walking a Weimaraner.  I sensed tension between the two dogs, so I moved Lily right up beside me. When we passed without incident, I relaxed. In that moment, Lily dropped back a step, just out of my peripheral vision, and bumped me behind the knees. I was airborne so suddenly, I didn’t even have a chance to put my arms out to ease my fall. I landed hard on my chin, breaking my jaw and several teeth. My chin required both internal and external stitches. The extent of these injuries was so severe, the urgent care center referred me to a Level One Trauma Center, meaning a hospital that has a doctor for every part of the body, 24/7. 

It took me a long time and many more walks to figure out exactly what had happened.  It was so subtle, even the Weimaraner’s owners couldn’t tell what had gone wrong. 

Once I realized it (when she almost sacked me again), I did my research, which led to the Gentle Leader.  Lily and I worked very hard on our Gentle Leader skills. I have no regrets, and a lot less trouble with my shoulders and lower back. 

These days, I have a sore shoulder from splitting wood, but the only time it hurts during a dog walk is when we use the Martingale (which my husband still prefers). 

Gentle Leader Vs. Halti

The Halti is a bit different design than the Gentle Leader.  A lot of people like it.  I haven’t tried one, so I won’t judge it; except to say that there’s a lot more, materially, to the Halti.  

From what I can see in the photos, it appears to be more restrictive, especially around the mouth. It also is meant to be used in conjunction with the dog’s regular collar, which is going to make the sensation different. 

The Gentle Leader, by contrast, is an extremely simple design – Two simple fabric loops, plus the clips and leash ring.  

Martin Deeley, a founder of the International Association of Canine Professionals, sums up why the Gentle Leader was perfect for Lily and me, when he said, 

“The head halter is very good when the owner is small and the dog is strong.”

Martin Deeley, Founder, International Association of Canine Professionals

Speaking of comfort, another reason I don’t put Lily’s Martingale on too often is because it rubs the hair off of her throat.  I do not use any collar on her when she is in the house.

Resources for Further Exploration

By Gail McGaffigan

The owner of the Greyhound Homecare website and YouTube channel, Gail has had retired racing greyhounds as pets since 1997. Please visit our channel, too!