Muzzles—Not Just for Aggression Anymore!

Nan Arthur for Karen Pryor Clicker Training

Times are changing

For many people, the idea of a muzzle evokes a long-standing association with aggressive dogs. That impression can create feelings of fear and worry when people hear about or witness a dog in a muzzle. There is no denying that when many people see a muzzled dog, they envision the likes of a Hannibal Lecter character (a monster, but in fur)!

But, muzzles are not just for aggression anymore. It's high time to dispel those negative mental images. Rather than vilifying muzzles, it's time to appreciate muzzles for all the good things they can do for dogs.

The vet view
One place to begin is with some insight from the veterinary community. Jeannie Brousseau, RVT (Registered Vet Tech), with the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA, once said, "Muzzles keep a good dog good."

Think about a typical vet visit with your own dog. Is she nervous, worried, anxious, or fearful? Many times dogs displaying those emotions are taken "to the back," where they receive routine, care such as vaccines. This is usually done to save you anxiety, in case your dog panics when handled for these procedures, and also to avoid bites. If a dog taken away from the owner shows any signs of biting, the dog is often muzzled—usually on the spot, and sometimes with a quick, but invasive, gauze wrapped around the snout.

If your dog has never worn a muzzle or been made to feel comfortable with one, there is a good chance that having one placed on her face abruptly could cause future handling issues, and more terror, the next time she has to visit the vet. This experience and reaction could easily generalize to not only the vet staff, but to other situations that might feel threatening to your dog when people approach your dog's head or face.

Start early and reap benefits for routine and emergency care
Being proactive and teaching your dog to love her muzzle before your next vet visit will minimize the handling, and/or the restraint by the vet staff. When you teach your dog to love wearing a muzzle, you can bring your dog's muzzle with you to the vet. Play fun muzzle games with the muzzle, and the end result will be that your dog will not have to be manhandled to get a muzzle on her when she needs to be examined or taken to "the back" for treatments.

If your dog is ever injured or hurt, having her comfortable with a muzzle can prevent a bite to the veterinary staff members trying to help your dog. If your dog bites someone at the vet, even if your dog is in pain, that bite is usually reported to the local Animal Control agency. As a result, in most states your dog will have to be placed in quarantine for approximately 10 days, adding insult to injury.

Keep in mind that if your dog is injured or in pain, placing a muzzle on her before you try to move her or transport her may also prevent a bite to you or to anyone else trying to help your dog get safely to a vet.

Touch can mean treats and trust
Teaching puppies to accept a muzzle is a wonderful way to work on general touching and handling. This training also teaches puppies to keep their mouths, and those sharp little teeth, away from you. Working on muzzle training produces the wonderful association between human hands and treats: "When hands come near my face, good things happen." With this motivation, puppies are quick to focus and learn to get their faces in the muzzle, and not to use your hands for teething.

The more puppies associate wearing a muzzle with a fun game, the quicker handling and touching exercises go overall, making it easy to make contact and reinforce touching other parts of the dogs' faces and bodies. If you have any remedial work to do with your dog in the area of handling, husbandry, or grooming, teaching your dog to wear a muzzle is a terrific way to desensitize common handling around the face and ears, before moving on to additional behavior modification for those sensitivities.

It is important to realize that desensitizing to handling and similar experiences takes more time than just teaching your dog to be comfortable wearing a muzzle. The time will be worth it in the long run, as your dog will feel safer. So will you, and others who might need to handle your dog. Take the time to associate the muzzle, and all the handling components necessary to fasten it, with pleasurable experiences. When you reward and reinforce with amazing food, you make the process even more agreeable for your dog.

The positive associations that go along with muzzle training will lead your dog to trust you. When you are more relaxed, your dog will be as well, making any process much easier.

Types of muzzles.


Muzzles for new situations, new friends, and new challenges
The use of a muzzle has been an important tool in behavior modification if a dog is reactive. The muzzle allows you to be safe as you work around other dogs, or around people. Work with an experienced trainer, of course. If something goes wrong or if a boundary is crossed unknowingly, the muzzle will prevent your dog from biting, giving you peace of mind in a training class or similar situation.

Muzzles are also a valuable safety tool to employ when introducing another species to your dog during a desensitization program.
Muzzles are also a valuable safety tool to employ when introducing another species to your dog during a desensitization program.

Traveling abroad with your dog is still another reason for teaching your dog to love a muzzle. More and more countries now require dogs of certain types and/or weights to wear muzzles. A ruined vacation might be in your future if you travel with your dog and have not taught her to enjoy wearing a muzzle. France, for instance, requires muzzles for larger dogs.

There are places right here in the United States where muzzles are now required. More and more cities are requiring breeds like pit bulls to wear a muzzle in public. Malden, Massachusetts, and Jefferson City, Missouri, have joined the ranks of cities that require pit bulls to wear muzzles, for example. These rules may not seem fair, but they are better than an outright ban on a breed like in Denver, Colorado, where pit bull and pit-bull-types are outlawed in the city.

Read more about muzzle uses and benefits, types of muzzles, sizing/fitting and more at Karen Pryor Clicker Training.

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