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I’ll never forget being at nearly 10,000 feet in elevation on a gorgeous Colorado hike with several other dog trainers when we rounded a curve and came across a responsible dog owner who had her dog not only on leash (although dogs were permitted to be off leash and “under voice control” in this area), but in a muzzle. We stopped in unison and loudly thanked the dog owner. And, we were truly thankful because she was taking a preventive action to protect her dog as well as potentially protecting other dogs or people from her own.
Why do dogs need muzzles?
A woman putting a basket muzzle on her dog. Photography ©MilanMarkovic | Getty Images.
Somewhere along the line, muzzles have gotten an unfortunate and undeserved reputation. There are many reasons a dog owner might need or want to muzzle their dog, including but not limited to:
- The dog loves to eat animal poop.
- The dog is in an area where poisonous plants or other harmful things to ingest are present.
- The dog has a medical issue that the owner needs to prevent the dog from biting or licking something on the dog’s body.
- The dog is going to the veterinarian’s office and that’s the one place that makes her nervous, so an ounce of prevention is in place.
- The dog has a history of nipping at/biting humans or other animals.
- The dog is a sport dog used to wearing muzzles in competition.
- The dog has general anxiety and has been trained to relax when wearing a muzzle.
What to remember about dogs and muzzles
It’s time to put aside human judgments on this valuable tool. Having said that, it is vital to introduce a muzzle that won’t have your dog running at the sight of it. Never hold down your dog and just slap on a muzzle — you won’t get the positive results you are hoping for.
Like many trainers, I believe it’s useful for all dogs to learn to be calm while wearing a muzzle. For one reason, if your dog is injured in his lifetime, he may very well be muzzled while receiving care at the vet’s office. Dogs in pain can bite — even your best friend who is currently looking at you all doe-eyed and who has no bite history. If your dog is injured and has been trained to accept a muzzle calmly, that helps keep your already stressed dog from adding yet another stressor when the muzzle is put on.
There may also be a time in your dog’s life when a muzzle protects her from licking or gnawing on parts of her body that need to rest and heal. And, there are indeed cases where a dog has nipped at other dogs or people, and a secure muzzle adds safety for the dog, as well as others the dog encounters. What the muzzle cannot do, however, is “fix” a behavior issue, such as snapping at others. A muzzle is a preventive management tool, but it is not a cure-all. You might have heard the expression “Management always fails,” and we say that because management can be fraught with human errors, such as neglecting to properly latch a muzzle, close a gate, shut a door, etc. Also, equipment can break or become worn out.
How to train a dog to wear a muzzle
If you are going to use a muzzle, you need to know how to properly introduce your dog to it. I go very slowly and move at the dog’s comfort level.
- I start with the muzzle on the ground and allow the unleashed dog (working in a secure environment like a room in your home) to approach and sniff the muzzle that is filled with dog-satisfying, novel treats.
- I allow the dog to sniff and nudge the muzzle and get the treats out.
- From there I move to putting the muzzle near the dog’s nose and praise and treat if she doesn’t move away.
- I very slowly work up to having the dog put her snout inside of the muzzle. I put peanut butter or cream cheese inside the muzzle and hold it to the dog’s nose to let her lick all the good stuff out of the muzzle.
- When the dog is totally comfortable with inserting her nose into the muzzle, then — and only then — do I very briefly hook the muzzle’s latch behind the dog’s ears. I leave it on very briefly, then remove it.
- Then I put it on and off several times over the next few days, leaving it on a few minutes longer each time.
I never force a dog who is uncomfortable in a muzzle to wear one. If a dog becomes uncomfortable while I’m training him to accept a muzzle, I back up to the place where the dog was OK with it and increase my reinforcement while I slow down my pace in terms of latching it onto the dog.