Muzzles are an incredibly useful tool, often undervalued due to the stigma associated with them. Even if your dog does not need or require use of a muzzle, I still recommend playing the muzzle game with them and conditioning them to it to just have fun learning a new object with your dog. You never know — one day, a fun new skill may come in handy in an emergency situation.
There are three primary steps to my positive muzzle training method including the introduction, the association, and the reinforcement. This article is most useful when paired with my YouTube video “How to get Your Dog to Love the Muzzle” as the two together best support the learning process for the owner and a successful conditioning process for the dog.
In the video, I walk you through why muzzles are useful, what type of muzzle to look for, how to fit a muzzle, and most importantly, how to build a positive association with the muzzle and your dog.
Before we get into the methodology, here are a handful of reasons you may want to consider a muzzle:
- Your dog is dog-selective or dog-reactive
- Your dog is very fearful of strangers
- For emergencies when veterinary care is required and your dog is very painful
- Your dog is fearful of children
- Your dog can be aggressive
- Safe introductions of unfamiliar dogs
- You want to practice introducing them to new things in a fun way
Routinely, muzzles are used as a safety barrier to prevent biting, most often out of fear. Dogs also possess the fight, flight, and freeze response to frightening stimuli and if your dog’s response is to bite, a muzzle can help prevent injury to another person or animal.
Conditioning your dog to a muzzle in a positive way can actually reduce their stress level in an environment where they typically feel stressed. For example, if your dog is fearful during veterinary visits, not only does the muzzle make handling safer for the staff, but it also can be calming for your dog to wear, being that you have reinforced the muzzle as something that elicits happiness for your dog with proper conditioning. As the staff works with your muzzled dog, wearing the right kind of muzzle also means that they can safely provide positive food reward through the muzzle to help further lessen what may normally be a stressful event for your dog.
The type of muzzle you purchase is an important part of the process in ensuring a positive experience for your dog. The muzzle should be non-restrictive, (not hold the mouth shut) to allow for panting and drinking. You should be able to easily feed treats to your dog through the muzzle, and you will want to make sure that the muzzle is not too large or too small so as to be as comfortable on the face as possible. The muzzle shown in the photo (and the video) is a Baskerville Muzzle purchased on Amazon.
Proper muzzle conditioning can be simplified into these three steps:
(1) The Introduction: When introducing the muzzle to your dog, let them explore it right as you take it out of the box as if you are opening something fun and new like a BarkBox. After it’s out, place it on the floor in an open area where they are not confined or pushed to be in close proximity with the muzzle. Let them explore it on their own, and then begin offering some food reward around the muzzle and in the muzzle while it is on the floor.
(2) The Association: The association an animal has with any object is learned, it is not innate. You are an influence on your dog so remember to be a positive influence when introducing new objects such as the muzzle. To positively associate the muzzle, the key is to take it slow and not rush things. The following steps should be practiced in order repeatedly until your dog is not just comfortable with each step, but excited about playing the game with you.
- Start by showing the muzzle, removing the muzzle, then offering a food reward in rapid succession. Repeat.
- Load the muzzle with food reward, offer it, when the dog takes the food reward out of the muzzle, remove the muzzle. Repeat.
- Place your treat just out of reach in front of the muzzle and encourage your dog to put their head in the muzzle. As they enter the muzzle with their snout, move your fingers into the muzzle and offer the food reward. Repeat.
- Repeat the step above, however, add in a pause prior to giving the treat through the muzzle. Repeat.
- Snap the muzzle clip together but keep it wide enough to drape over your dog’s neck. Offer a treat on the other side of the strap so your dog puts their head through the strap to retrieve the treat. Repeat.
- Slide the strap over your dog’s neck so it hangs around their neck — offer treats.
Place the muzzle on their face, offer treat, buckle the muzzle on, offer treat, adjust the straps for proper fitting, offer treat. Take the muzzle off, offer treat.
(3) The Reinforcement: If your dog does not have a positive association with the muzzle at this point, (tries to paw it off their face, is acting anxious — panting, whale-eyed, or other signs of stress, you are moving too quickly for their liking. Take a step back and try again slower whilst keeping a positive frame of mind and calm, reassuring tone.
Now that your dog has a positive association with the muzzle, you want to continue to reinforce that positive association.
Increase the duration of wearing the muzzle slowly while offering random reward during wear. Start with 30 seconds, build up to 2 minutes, then 5 minutes, then ten, and so on each time you practice, increasing duration a little bit more. Allow your dog to drink water through the muzzle and play with the muzzle on.
Change locations. Encourage movement with the muzzle on and take your dog for walks as a positive activity with the muzzle in place.
Practice wearing the muzzle in the exam room at the veterinary hospital even if your dog does not need the muzzle on in the exam room, (this is all about building positive associations).
All in all, muzzle training is just a new game to play with your dog. New games should be fun and exciting for your canine friends and lead to positive behaviors that contribute to overall happiness for both you, and your dog.