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Dog Muzzle Training: Low-Stress Handling for Dogs

Dog in red muzzle.Dog in red muzzle.
Dog in red muzzle.Dog in red muzzle.

Table of Contents:

  1. The Dog Muzzle: Not “Mean” or “Bad”
  2. The Benefits of Muzzle Training a Dog
  3. How to Muzzle Train a Dog in 8 Easy Steps

When most people see a dog wearing a muzzle, they often think, “Oh my gosh, that must be a bad dog!” Substitute the word “aggressive,” “dominant,” “mean,” or “vicious” for “bad” and you’ll have a better understanding of what most people think about dogs wearing muzzles. We would like to change your perception of these dogs and the words we use to describe them, and to help you better understand the need and use of a dog muzzle. There are many dogs in many situations that can benefit from wearing a muzzle comfortably.

The Dog Muzzle: Not “Mean” or “Bad”

When we see dogs that may have a tendency to bite, snap, growl, or struggle, many of us describe them as “mean” or “bad.” By using these negative descriptors, we are assigning these dogs with a negative motivation they do not have. Similarly, dogs do not act out of spite. If we look at why dogs exhibit these behaviors, the vast majority are fearful, in pain, or confused. When dogs are fearful or confused, they will try to signal their owners through body language. When we ignore or don’t understand these signals, their fear may turn from avoidance to defensive or even offensive aggression (biting). Our best bet is calming our dogs through low-stress handling techniques. However, in some situations, we may be unable to dial down their fear level enough to ensure they won’t bite. Therefore, to safely handle these dogs (since we can’t rationalize them), it is best to use a dog muzzle.

The Benefits of Muzzle Training a Dog

Training your dog to wear a muzzle comfortably has multiple potential benefits. Your vet may be reluctant to bring up muzzling to you because of its negative connotation. If you tell your vet your dog is muzzle trained and why, you arm your vet with information to help make the experience less stressful.

Muzzling has many benefits. The following list gives you some helpful tips about dog muzzles and how they are best employed.

  • If your dog wears a muzzle comfortably, everyone relaxes – you, your dog, the vet, and the techs. It’s actually best to take your own dog muzzle, since you know it fits, your dog is used to it, and they can eat with it on.
  • Muzzling a fearful dog can be challenging, and escalates a dog’s fear and stress. If the muzzle is applied when a dog is already fearful at the vet, it becomes just another scary thing that can sour your dog on veterinary visits. Application of the muzzle at the vet’s office makes the dog associate it with other objects of anxiety (needle pokes, restraint, pain) and it will become harder and harder to apply. Associating the dog muzzle with positive things at home (favorite foods, your attention, playtime) means it is not a predictor of bad things.
  • Many dogs who are even mildly fearful of the vet’s office (or groomer) don’t like being held closely. Without a muzzle, fearful dogs must be ‘hugged’ to allow handlers to restrain them without anyone getting bit. This ‘hug’ can also escalate fear and struggle. A muzzle allows handlers to use less restraint, which keeps them below the critical level of fear during exams and procedures.
  • An injured dog may try to bite when handled because of physical pain. If they can comfortably wear a muzzle, you can safely muzzle them and handle them to get them to the vet.
  • If your dog becomes fearful around other dogs and may escalate to a bite, they will need to wear their muzzle in public places. Of course, it’s best that your dog not be exposed to other dogs if they’re fearful enough to attack. Allowing a muzzled dog to be around other dogs may increase their anxiety, and permit them to practice lunging and barking behaviors. Never allow a muzzled dog to interact with one that is not muzzled – they may start a fight and not be able to defend themselves.
  • If your dog doesn’t like having their feet handled (or ears, etc.), muzzle training can allow you to trim their nails and apply ear medications at home without fear. Of course, your pet can also be trained to enjoy these procedures without a dog muzzle if you start early.

How to Muzzle Train a Dog in 8 Easy Steps

Below are the steps we recommend for muzzle training. When muzzle training (or doing any training), it is critical that your dog be relaxed and comfortable throughout the process. Only progress to the next level if they’re comfortable, and be prepared to return to a previous step if needed. If your dog has ever shown or starts to show any signs of aggression directed at you (growling, showing teeth, lunging, snapping, nipping, or biting) do not attempt training without guidance from your veterinarian or an animal behaviorist.

Patience is key, especially if your dog has been muzzled before. In that case, you will have to overcome any negative associations your dog has already made with the muzzle.

Steps:

  1. You will need to buy a basket muzzle made of plastic, leather, or wire. Your dog should be able to open their mouth for panting and eating while wearing the basket muzzle. Leather and canvas muzzles that hold the mouth shut are not safe for any extended period of time. They do not allow adequate panting (many dogs pant when they are anxious or fearful) and, if they vomit, they risk aspiration (breathing the vomit into the lungs). The basket muzzles also allow the dog to drink and receive medications.
    Examples of muzzles that are acceptable for use are:

    1. Jafco Muzzles. These plastic dog muzzles can be worn comfortably for long periods of time, and allow the dog to pant and take treats. Please order the option with the additional hole in front that makes using treats easier. Your vet can help you size it, and there is sizing information on the website.
    2. Morrco Muzzles and Hotdog All Dressed, Inc. – Morrco Pet Supply and Hot Dogs All Dressed, Inc, sell muzzles for all dogs including “difficult to fit” dogs such as small, large, and flat-nosed breeds.
  2. Begin by letting your dog explore the muzzle. Don’t try to put it on them yet, but place it in on the floor nearby, allowing them to investigate. Smearing peanut butter on the outside can be a good way to get your dog interested in it. Then, graduate to putting a treat on the inside. You can leave it around the house so that treats can be found whenever your dog approaches the muzzle. Watch that your dog is not chewing on the straps. If this is the case, only make it available during supervised periods. Take your time during this step. If starting early, you can do this for days or even weeks.
  3. Once your dog is seeking treats from the muzzle, turn the muzzle upright and feed your dog from it as if it were a cup. Hold the straps back out of the way, and wait for your dog to put its face into the cup. Don’t push it toward your dog even slightly. It may be helpful to stand at your dog’s shoulder facing the same direction (this will help later in the process, especially for sensitive dogs). If you don’t have time, just lay it beside their food dish, so that it will be associated with every bite. Again, practice this until your dog is completely comfortable and seeking treats when they see you pick up the muzzle.
  4. Once your dog is putting its nose into the muzzle like a bowl, begin practicing the “muzzle up” command. Ask your dog to sit, then present the muzzle with a long narrow treat stuck through the end (Pupperoni® treats, or peanut butter on a spoon work well). Say, “muzzle up.” Again, be sure you keep the straps from flipping up and startling your dog. Allow your dog to stick its own nose down into the muzzle, and as long as they keep their nose in the muzzle, they can earn treats. Repeat the process if they remove their snout from the basket. Most dogs will be running to their owner when they see the muzzle, and enthusiastically pushing their snouts into the basket after one week of the above training. If your dog needs more time, allow it. If your dog is very relaxed after only a couple days, still stay at this level for a full week so that a very positive association will be made with the muzzle and no subtle anxiety signals are overlooked.
  5. Continue to periodically do the above exercises, but also begin to touch and move the straps over your dog’s head during the “muzzle up” exercise. It is helpful to have soft treats smeared in the muzzle for this part, so you have hands free. Gradually move the straps higher so you can touch them together behind your dog’s head, and then gradually work on starting to buckle. If your dog stops eating, pulls out, or looks worried during this part, go slower. Typically, dogs will allow you to buckle the muzzle, finish giving the treat, and then quickly remove the muzzle by the end of the second week of training. Many sensitive dogs feel safer and more relaxed with this step if they’re facing the same direction as their owners (as opposed to being face to face). If your dog is rubbing, pawing, or avoiding the muzzle, you have progressed too quickly. If you are having any trouble, please call your vet so they can troubleshoot with you.
  6. Continue to do the above exercises, but also begin to elongate the amount of time your dog can stay in the muzzle while being kept VERY busy. Try asking your dog to do many quickly-paced commands, giving them a treat for each successfully completed task. As time goes on, you will be able to be less active and still keep the attention away from the dog muzzle.
  7. Continue to do the above exercises, and also do fun activities in the muzzle like playing games, walking, riding in the car, etc. Know your dog, and be sure it is a very favored activity. Don’t be afraid to get creative.
  8. Typically, after four to six weeks of training, most dogs are able to wear their dog muzzles comfortably around the house without much apprehension. You should still go back to remedial practices and rewards periodically that keep your dog accustomed to wearing the muzzle.

Hopefully, at the end of this process, your dog will be able to wear its muzzle without any stress. For maintenance, you should run through each step once a month. When getting ready for vet or groomer visits, practice a few minutes daily at least a week in advance.

Finally, when you see a dog come into the lobby of your veterinarian wearing a muzzle, remember: This dog is not mean or bad. They are simply fearful, in pain, or confused.

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