Muzzles are some of the most misunderstood, but most important, tools in dog training. It is a way to keep your dog and others around her safe while providing opportunities for training. A muzzled dog is not a bad dog, and may not even be a dog that bites. However it is a dog whose people are being proactive and safe.
Why Use a Muzzle?
Muzzles are useful for many different reasons, including:
- Situations that you just want to be extra-safe. For example, someone who has a very friendly dog who has not been around many children, may choose to use a muzzle just to be safe when introducing the dog to a new child. That way, they can focus on maximizing their dog’s comfort without worrying about an accident
- Increasing safety during a training or social situation for a dog that has a history of being aggressive or reactive. See below for more details on this.
- Preventing people from approaching a dog that needs space. Many of our clients with very cute but shy dogs are thrilled that they don’t need to keep telling people to give their dogs room to feel comfortable. The muzzle does that for them.
- Using in emergency situations, such as when the dog has had an accident or injury. Many dogs will bite when in pain and scared, when they wouldn’t bite otherwise.
As a recent personal example, I took my dog Jazz to a new veterinary clinic (yes, I am a veterinarian but like many other veterinarians I prefer to have another doctor also evaluate my pets for their wellness visits or when they are sick). Jazz likes people, but sometimes becomes anxious in new situations. Although he had no history of aggressive behavior towards people or at a veterinary clinic, it was a new situation for him so I wanted to be prepared. I was able to quickly condition him to a slip muzzle using treats. Once he was comfortable, the dog-friendly handling by the doctor and staff, plus more treats, led to a positive and successful visit.
For many of our clients, a muzzle provides a safer way to allow their dog to be a part of the family and family’s activities, rather than being in isolation. It is also a great way to improve safety while working to improve a dog’s aggressive or reactive behavior. The muzzle allows the clients to relax, and focus on the behavior modification, rather than worrying about whether their dog will hurt someone.
Types of Muzzles
Muzzles come in two basic “flavors”: slip muzzles and basket muzzles. Both have their benefits and drawbacks. I strongly recommend that all dog parents positively condition their dogs to be comfortable in a muzzle. Like the list above shows you never know when it can be useful sometime during your dog’s life.
Description: These are the type of muzzle that you might see at a veterinary hospital. They are made of solid or mesh fabric, and are open at the end. They usually have a quick release snap for the neck strap.
Pros: They slip on quickly and are quick to fasten. They are soft, and sometimes are easier to fit for dogs with very short noses. Depending on the fit, some dogs may be able to take small treats while they have the muzzle on because of the open end. Also some dogs seem to prefer the softer feel of the slip muzzles. These usually are easy to clean by hand or in the washing machine.
Cons: When fitted properly, they are snug around the muzzle. Because of this, dogs wearing these muzzles can’t pant well to cool off. A dog shouldn’t be in a slip muzzle for more than about 10-15 minutes, and shouldn’t use it when outdoors where they could overheat. Some dogs, such as short-nosed breeds like English Bulldogs, can overheat easily so I recommend a shorter time for them. If a slip muzzle is loose enough for a dog to open the mouth to pant, then it is loose enough for the dog to bite at the open end.
Description: These muzzles are stiff and cover the dog’s entire mouth. They can be made of hard or soft plastic, coated wire, or leather. They can be relatively solid, like the Jaffco muzzle, or more open, like the Baskerville Ultra muzzle.
Pros: These muzzles cover the dog’s entire muzzle and mouth. In addition, the basket part of the muzzle is often loose around the dogs’ nose, allowing them to open their mouths. Therefore, these muzzles provide protection while still allowing the dog to pant, drink, and (depending on the muzzle) eat. They are better for longer term usage, and I advise clients that they can wear it for about an hour at a time while supervised. Plastic and wire muzzles are usually easy to clean.
Cons: This isn’t exactly a con but be aware that although panting is possible, these dogs may still not be able to pant quite as well as when they are un-muzzled, so be aware of this when you are using it outside. Most basket muzzles have buckles that need to be threaded, so putting them on takes a little longer than a slip muzzle. Leather muzzles can be are difficult to clean, especially if you are using food for training. Sometimes it is challenging to find a basket muzzle that will fit a very short-nosed dog, and some dogs may be in between sizes.
Muzzles are like Seat Belts
When you go for a drive, you do your best to drive safely and follow the rules of the road. However, every time you drive you also buckle up your seat belt so in case something unexpected happens and you have an accident, you are protected. You don’t buckle up, then go looking for a post to run into to test the seat belt.
I like using an analogy that muzzles are like seat belts. When you muzzle a dog for any reason, its important to follow the “rules of the road” to keep your dog comfortable and minimize the chance of an accident happening. In other words, you don’t want to muzzle your dog and then knowingly put him into situations where he might feel that he has to use his teeth. Even though he may unable to bite, that can harm his mental health.
For example, if your dog fights with other dogs in the dog park, don’t muzzle her and then let her loose around other dogs. This will only prevent her from biting another dog. It won’t keep your dog from getting bitten if another dog becomes aggressive, nor will it help with the underlying causes of your dog’s problem behavior. In fact, it can make her behavior worse, not to mention potentially cause the other person’s dog to become fearful of dogs.
When using a muzzle it’s important to teach your dog that it is a great thing and not something that is stressful or a punishment. Muzzle conditioning is a gradual process, whereby you associate something positive (usually treats) with the sight of the muzzle, then for your dog slipping their nose into the muzzle, and finally for wearing it. We’ll post more details about how to muzzle condition in a future post.