Muzzles are great. Why do we stigmatise muzzles?
As a dog behaviourist, I work with many dogs with aggressive behaviour. Despite most of the behaviour usually stemming from fear or anxiety, aggression is still aggression, and although dogs are normally loving to the people they know, any dog is capable of aggression if put into a situation they aren't comfortable with.
This can be something as simple as taking your otherwise friendly dog to the vet, or someone letting their off lead dog run up to your dog at the park. We all have bad days. So do dogs.
Unfortunately, seeing a muzzled dog is more likely to evoke a disgusted response from the public than it is to evoke an appreciative response. But the owner of a muzzled dog is actually being incredibly responsible and should be applauded. Dogs can be muzzled for a variety of reasons and not just for aggression. Some use it as a preventative for vet visits. Some muzzle their dogs to stop them picking up and eating stones chronically.
So when does muzzling your dog become a negative?
Sadly, a lot of people wait for their dogs to show aggressive behaviour before popping a muzzle on them to control the behaviour without ever having pre-conditioned it. The basic meaning of pre-conditioning is getting your dog used to wearing a muzzle before they actually have to. If ever they have to. Simply shoving a muzzle on your dog will usually result in them becoming even more fearful or aggressive because now there is an unknown object attached to their face.
Taking the time to get your dog or puppy used to wearing a muzzle is one of the best things you can do for them. Wearing a muzzle should evoke a good feeling, not a negative one. Once muzzled, your dog can learn social etiquette with other dogs (if appropriate to the behaviour modification plan), stay safe at the vets and avoid ingesting harmful objects.
Lizzi is an owner of an extremely reactive rescue Rottweiler called Max and has been working with me using desensitisation, counter-conditioning and management to make her dog more manageable and more comfortable on walks. Instead of lunging at dogs from 50m+, he can now be around dogs at 10m whilst remaining focused on his owner.
"Muzzle training has given me the confidence to approach other dogs, people and situations I wouldn't have dreamt of without a muzzle. It has been a training no-brainer for my dog/person reactive rescue dog." - Lizzi Forde
So... how do you get started?
First, you're going to need a muzzle. Avoid fabric muzzles as these are designed for vet visits and don't allow your dog to open their mouth for panting or drinking. Check out Baskerville, Baskerville Ultra or if you're looking for a splash of colour, Bumas do a nice range of customisable biothane muzzles. Make sure they comfortably fit your dog, aren't too tight and fit securely around the head. You can cut a hole in the end of certain muzzles to deliver treats or squeezy food through.
Step 1: Sight Hold the muzzle, praise and feed your dog for looking at it. If your dog has previous bad experience with a muzzle, they might run away to begin with. Don't follow them, let them come to it in their own time. For extremely fearful dogs, this may take a few sessions. Take your time until they are relaxed next to the muzzle and focusing on you. Mess with the straps and click/unclick the attachment to get them used to the sound, praise and reward.
Step 2: Feel Hold the muzzle near your dog, wait for them to touch it with their nose, then praise and feed your dog. You can put a bit of squeezy food on it to help. Repeat until they are actively nose bumping the muzzle.
Step 3: Muzzle-In Put some squeezy food, peamutt butter or high-value equivalent in the end of muzzle, hold and let your dog put their nose in and lick the food out the bottom. Praise calmly and let them freely take their nose out when they want to. Don’t move the muzzle towards them at any point. When practicing this, you can say “Muzzle On” when you hold the muzzle out for them to put their nose in. If your dog is apprehensive about putting their nose in the whole way, break it down into stages.
Step 4: Muzzle Pressure Whilst your dog has their nose in the muzzle licking food, walk backwards slowly so they have to follow you and press their nose into the muzzle to keep up. Make it fun!
Step 5: Straps With your dog's nose in the muzzle, fiddle with the straps. Flop them behind your dog’s ears, move them around. Repeat until they are happily licking the muzzle without a care.
Step 6: Wear It When your dog is fine with their nose in the muzzle and the straps moving around their head, you can then click the straps together, feed some more squeezy cheese through the muzzle and then take off. You want the short amount of time they have it on to be spent thinking about the yummy food in the muzzle.
Step 7: Build Duration Start to build duration by feeding intermittently whilst they are wearing the muzzle, or asking them to do a trick or heel next to you whilst wearing it. I like asking my dogs for paw or to chase me around for a game before feeding and taking it off. This takes their mind off the muzzle.
You can then take it on walks or get them wearing it for 10 minutes on and off every now and again to keep them used to it.
Learn visually? Here is a video of me muzzle training my dog Bowser.
I hope you've found this post helpful and it has opened your mind to the benefits of muzzle training. If you need any further help, get in touch.