Don’t Choke, Be Gentle


            “A choke collar is unnecessary and inappropriate; after all they call it a choke collar for a reason,” says Dr. Robert K. Anderson. In 1985, Anderson developed what he believes is a better way to train dogs, using a kind of halter for dogs called the Gentle Leader.

            At first glance the gentle leader might resemble a muzzle because a part of the apparatus fits around the dog’s muzzle. However, it’s categorically not a muzzle. Instead, the Gentle Leader is more like a horse halter – but it’s for dogs.

            Anderson is a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health/College of Veterinary Medicine – Minneapolis. He explains that he helped to devise the Gentle Leader understanding the dynamics of how canine resistance works.       

“When you yank on a dog’s leash and (a chain-link training or choke collar) choker in one direction, the dog can’t help but to pull in the opposite direction; that’s how that works,” he says. “At best you’re the dog is only confused. At worst, the dog learns to pair pain with you. And even worse, you might injure your dog.”

            The Gentle Leader halter collar does not put any pressure on the dog’s throat. There pressure point is on the big muscles at the back of the neck, and a noose fits around the nose and lower jaw. When the handler pulls up on the leash, the Gentle Leader pulls the dog’s nose up, slowing the dog down.

            Using a Gentle Leader is like power steering for dogs. Want to turn right, simply move the leash to the right and the dog will do the same. That’s because wherever a dog’s nose and head go, the body will follow. .

            Anderson maintains the Gentle Leader and other brand name halter collars – such as the Halti – are the best tools available for dealing with dogs who take their people for walks, weaving all over as if they’re avoiding land mines.

            According to the 2001 American Humane Association Guide to Humane Training, chain link slip collars or training collars are no longer recommended because when used improperly they may cause dogs to choke. The Guide does recommend halter collars.

Anderson, who is now 81, says he was first convinced there had to be a better way back in the 1950’s when he was director of animal care and control in Denver, CO. “We would take in these anxious dogs who were very scared. The approved method (of controlling and training problem dogs) was pretty punitive back then,” he says. “So, we’d use these harsh methods and the dogs would get worse, becoming more anxious and more afraid. Instead, I decided to try to motivate with food.”

            Anderson’s began using the closed fist of his own hand as a target with yummy smelling cookies hidden inside. He taught the dogs to target his hand, an approach he still endorses. “The target is created so the dog has something to focus on,” he begins. “Your hand is something you always have with you. Once trust is gained, we eventually begin to reward with food intermittently. In psychology, this is called the variable ratio schedule. I call it, Las Vegas dog training. Just as people are motivated beyond belief by the mere possibility of a pay off, so are dogs.”

            His hand wasn’t enough; Anderson also wanted equipment to help calm aggression and/or fear in anxious or nervous dogs. He says that the Gentle Leaders and halter-type collars do just that.

            He explains, “When a mother dogs pick up puppies at the back of the neck, the puppies go limp – this is same idea. The way the Gentle Leader is fitted, it creates a natural calming neurological response.”

            When it comes to aggression and/or fear, Anderson adds that behavior modification is still required from a competent dog trainer. “Our equipment doesn’t eliminate the reason for a dog’s fear or aggression. After all, it is just equipment. But it does make it possible to work with these dogs – and ultimately save lives of dogs who might otherwise be euthanized. “

            Anderson adds, “Still when all is said and done People train dogs – the equipment doesn’t train them. But we don’t to have to train inflicting pain. After all, don’t they deserve better than that? We’re supposed to be talking about our best friends.”

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services