Last week, I shared the personal experience that convinced me all dogs should be taught to wear a muzzle comfortably during times when you’d never dream of the day your dog might need to wear one.
On occasion in my dog training work, I actually do have to recommend to a student that they have their dog wear a muzzle in certain situations. This might be to protect a dog from itself, as in the case of dogs that have developed the habit of eating items that then need to be surgically removed. When we are not actively supervising such a dog (ready to use our “leave it” and “drop it” cues, as well as to pay the dog every time it considers picking up a forbidden item but voluntarily leaves it alone), something like an Italian basket muzzle can prevent the dog from swallowing dangerous objects.
Or we might have a dog wear a muzzle to prevent a bite when we are working with a dog that has been displaying serious aggressive behaviors. A muzzle protects everyone in such a case. It protects others from being bitten, it protects the dog’s owner from liability issues and it protects the dog from learning that biting is a sure way to get the distance it wants from scary things.
Although our goal in such training is to never put the dog in a situation that is beyond its skill level at that point in time (so that it never has a reason to bite) as we gradually work our way up through increasingly difficult scenarios, sometimes we make a mistake or sometimes “life just happens,” thrusting the dog into a situation out of our control and beyond the dog’s threshold despite our best efforts.
I like basket muzzles like the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle because it’s easy to feed the dog food rewards through this type of muzzle. I also like the JAFCO (clear) Muzzle, especially if you drill a bigger hole in the front for easier treat delivery, as one of my enterprising students once did. However, with a little more creative treat delivery technique, a traditional Italian basket muzzle can also be used.
I generally prefer basket muzzles over the mesh or cloth variety because dogs need to pant in order to regulate their temperature, but most mesh or cloth muzzles need to fit snugly in order to be effective, thus preventing a dog from panting freely. Basket muzzles allow dogs to open their mouths to chew, pant and even drink water while wearing them. Still, cloth and mesh muzzles are quick and easy to put on. They’re also easy to carry in a pet first aid kit. For quick tasks that may cause certain dogs to bite (including nail trims or veterinary checkups), or for emergency use, you may want to have one of these on hand even if you also have a basket muzzle for your dog.
Most people are initially reluctant when I suggest that their dog should sometimes wear a muzzle. They worry that muzzles will look scary to other humans, causing people to judge them and their dog and they worry that their dog will feel miserable wearing one.
To make a muzzle seem less scary looking, you might choose a colored or patterned muzzle like the cloth Happy Dog Muzzle or a brightly colored Birdwell Enterprise basket muzzle. Or you can adorn any muzzle of your choice to give it a cheerier appearance. You could sew bright patches onto a cloth muzzle or wrap portions of a basket muzzle with colorful cloth ribbon and then stitch the ends. Keep in mind that your dog’s muzzle may get pretty dirty at times, so choose materials accordingly.
To help your dog learn to feel comfortable while wearing a muzzle of any kind, I suggest planning on doing the following exercises over the course of about a week or two for a few minutes several times a day. Move on to the next step in the process only when the current step is easy for your dog to tolerate. This means that your dog should be thinking “yippee” not “oh, no” when it sees the muzzle appear.
- Let the muzzle dangle casually over your wrist while you do things your dog looks forward to. You might wear it while you prepare and present your dog’s meals, whenever you pick up your dog’s leash (assuming your dog loves to see the leash come out), or even just as you play with your dog.
- For basket muzzles, put a treat into the muzzle and hold it up so that your dog can eat the treat out of it as if it were just a deep dog dish. For cloth or mesh muzzles, hold the muzzle open on the ground, nose down, and put the treat on the ground inside the snout of the muzzle for your dog to eat.
- When your dog loves the game in step two, begin to hold the straps of the muzzle up behind your dog’s ears without clipping the clasp closed yet, letting your dog eat the treat then back out of the muzzle if desired.
- Assuming your dog is no longer feeling spooked when you hold the straps of the muzzle up in this way, actually clip the clasp shut and get ready to feed, feed, feed your dog treats through the muzzle. You should have treats pre-cut into strips that fit easily through the openings in the muzzle. Dried duck jerky seems to work particularly well with many basket muzzles. You may prefer to have a gooey treat you can let your dog lick off your fingertip (like peanut butter) for mesh or cloth muzzles which won’t give your dog as much room to chew. Take the muzzle off and be boring at a point when your dog isn’t trying to paw it off.
- Gradually build up to having your dog wear the muzzle for longer and longer periods. While the muzzle is on, it’s time for fun and games. When the muzzle comes off, be your boring old self again.
- Once your dog is comfortable wearing the muzzle, put it on now and again during fun times rather than only using it when there may be trouble. If you don’t do this, your dog may get the idea that the muzzle coming out actually signals that trouble is on the horizon.
My advice to every dog owner is to go out and get a muzzle now (if you haven’t already). Start getting yourself and your dog used to it right away, even if it seems like you’ll never need to use it. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, as the old saying goes. Then, if ever there is the need for a muzzle, you’ll be able to use it as a management tool in whatever crisis arises without causing your dog any additional stress.