Muzzles Schmuzzles…Not “Just Another Piece of Kit!”
Basket muzzles allow completely free mouth movement, drinking, panting and treat delivery © Rachel Brix

Saying the word “muzzle,” suggesting the use of and/or using one, or seeing a dog wearing one can have negative connotations for some. But why? Perhaps because we have become used to seeing guard dogs or so-called aggressive dogs wearing them. They are used by the military, armed forces and law enforcement. We see them in cartoons and we also see them in regions where Breed Specific Legislation decrees that certain breeds have to wear them (based purely on appearance), and in sports such as greyhound racing. These are just a few examples, but it still seems to be somehow entrenched in our psyche that “muzzles are for aggressive dogs.”

I often have dog guardians ask me if they should put a muzzle on their dog. They worry about what other people might think. Even when I recommend the use of a muzzle for specific circumstances, people are not always happy! So, let’s take a closer look at muzzles.

Why Should We Use One?
The most obvious reason is bite prevention and public safety. In order to protect others, their dogs and not fall foul of the law, a muzzle may be a sensible precaution while a dog is undergoing a behavior modification program to treat an underlying issue. Muzzles should not be used simply as a “quick fix” but as an aid to ensure safety in public while a solution is sought. For instance, we might be working on some great desensitization and counterconditioning work with a reactive dog who is very nervous among other dogs. We keep him at a suitable distance and everything is going well, but then he is bombarded by an unfamiliar dog off leash with his guardian nowhere to be seen. Had our dog not been muzzled he, under these challenging circumstances, may have felt forced to bite. In the worst-case scenario, the guardian may lose control and drop the leash. With the dog muzzled, however, we can ensure he causes no damage.

We might also use a muzzle for “new beginnings.” Say we have a new dog with a reactive history, or maybe he’s been rehomed or rescued and we’re introducing him to our existing dog. Perhaps our dog is starting to integrate with other dogs and is a little too boisterous or has lacked the opportunity to interact for a long time, maybe through illness (or lockdown!) and now he’s able to. Sometimes such dogs desperately need interaction off leash but are a little too “full on.” A muzzle gives us the ability to allow our dogs a free rein and the safety to do this.

Maybe we need to conduct a short procedure. Perhaps we’re grooming our dog or need to extract a tick or a  thorn from a dog who does not like to be touched in a certain area. Muzzles allow us to safely proceed. However in the case of grooming, their use should be short term because we should also work on desensitizing our dogs to the procedure so that they can accept and eventually enjoy our touch, a soft cloth, soft bristles and, finally, combs and sturdier grooming tools and touch all over their body. The same may be said for nail clipping or the aforementioned tick or thorn removal. Remember, too, that if a dog is in pain, even if he’s the most placid dog, he may react unpredictably, so a muzzle may be necessary. Veterinary staff may also frequently use muzzles for their own safety. While much work is being conducted within the profession to make the environment more pet friendly and less intimidating, if you feel your dog will require a muzzle, fit it yourself prior to your visit inside the surgery.

Muzzles are also used to aid with other behavioral issues such as coprophagia, general scavenging, licking, chewing and to prevent bodily self-harm etc. Again, the intrinsic solution to the problem should be sought with the aid of a qualified behavior professional.

What Muzzle Should We Use?
Guardians often seem to choose the soft material muzzle or mesh muzzle. Unfortunately, while these may look nicer to us, they are not kinder to dogs. The most suitable muzzle for use is a Baskerville or basket muzzle. Soft muzzles tend to clamp the dog’s mouth shut and do not allow panting or free mouth movement, with minimal to no drinking. Thy are really only useful for a short grooming session or vet visit. Baskerville muzzles allow completely free mouth movement, drinking, panting (which is especially important on hot days) and free access for treating.

Introducing a Muzzle
It’s no good getting your muzzle and then simply clamping it on your dog’s head – he will probably hate it and try his hardest to remove it! You have also risked creating a negative association, meaning it may be harder next time to put the muzzle on. Muzzles, like any other piece of kit, must be introduced slowly. This way the dog will adapt perfectly to it regard it as an extension of his regular gear, such as a collar, harness or leash.

The steps you take to do this can be adapted depending upon your dog. Some dogs may be especially nervous of the muzzle, while others may not. I like to use a treat stick/bar for the purposes of muzzle training so that you can extend it through the muzzle at various lengths. The dog must be completely happy at each stage before progressing to the next.

Steps for Introducing a Muzzle

  • Lay the muzzle on the ground and leave it there for a few days for your dog to investigate.
  • Move the muzzle a little on the ground, play with it a little, move it with your foot, pick it up, let your dog sniff it.
  • If your muzzle has a clip fastening, clip/un-clip as some dogs become fearful of the noise when fastened.
  • Put a treat on your hand and have the muzzle on the same hand – allow your dog to eat the treat – repeat several times.
  • Hold the muzzle out firmly, holding a treat stick through the outside of the muzzle nose piece (the treat will be poking right through into the inside of the muzzle so that most of the treat is extended). Allow your dog to put his nose just in and eat the treat.
  • Progress with the above until just a little of the treat stick is protruding and dog is putting his full nose inside the muzzle.
  • Progress with the above until the dog is putting his full nose in the muzzle for 3 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds etc. Build duration.
  • Now place the strap around the dog’s head, loosely to begin with.
  • Progressively tighten the strap.
  • Leave muzzle on for 1 minute in the home and progressively build time, engage in play. When the dog is happy you can eventually use the muzzle for your desired activity.

There are many ways of introducing the muzzle and this is just one of them that I find to be effective. If a dog is excessively anxious, the program will need to be broken down into even smaller steps.

Resources
Backman, M. (2016). Why It’s Important to Teach Your Dog to Love Wearing a Muzzle. BARKS Blog
Baragona, K. (2017). Making Peace with Muzzles. BARKS Blog
Brix, R. (2019, May). Busting the Muzzle Myth. BARKS from the Guild pp. 25-27
Domesticated Manners. (2010). Teaching A Dog To Wear A Muzzle (Muzzle Training)
Muzzle Up Project. (n.d.). Muzzle training: Cultivating calm
Stapleton-Frappell, L. (2019). Battling the Stereotype. BARKS Blog

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