Updated: May 12, 2022
What are your thoughts on the use of muzzles? Have you trained your dog to wear one, or has the need never arisen? How do you feel when you see a dog wearing a muzzle?
There are certainly mixed feelings amongst dog guardians regarding muzzles; a tendency exists to shy away from a muzzled dog because of how they look. But is this stigma which persists really deserved? Are all muzzled dogs a bite risk and struggling with aggression? Let’s explore this by looking at some of the reasons a muzzle might be used.
Situations In which A Muzzle Is Useful
If your vehicle were to breakdown, or you were involved in a road traffic accident, a muzzle is an excellent safety precaution if your dog is not comfortable being handled by others. Similarly, if an emergency visit to the vet were needed because your dog was injured, unwell, or in pain, it would be absolutely invaluable. Even if they have never bitten before, we cannot predict how they will respond when not feeling at their best or hurting, faced with a potentially stressful situation.
It is always worthwhile investing the time to visit your veterinary clinic during quiet periods to sit in a corner of the waiting room with your dog, feeding them tasty treats while they experience the sights, sounds and smells and watch goings on, without the pressure of having to be examined. This will make routine visits for health checks and booster vaccinations, etc a lot easier, and less stressful for you both.
The same also applies to grooming. If we plan on having our dogs professionally groomed, we can work alongside the groomer and arrange some getting-to-know-you visits, making the whole experience as pleasant as possible for our dogs. Just doing a little bit at a time and going at the dog's pace can be a big help; we can also do our bit by working on cooperative care skills at home. However, they still may not feel fully comfortable being handled, bathed, clipped, or having their nails trimmed by someone else, so a muzzle may be needed.
Some dogs will eat anything and everything within their reach; therefore, a muzzle is often the only way to prevent them from consuming undesirable or dangerous items such as faeces, rocks and stones, foods which may be toxic, or other non-food items which pose a danger of internal blockages and injury. One of my dogs has recently been diagnosed with Immune-Mediated Polyarthritis, and a side effect of the steroid treatment is that he often feels ravenous, and has started to scavenge on walks. Wearing a muzzle means that he can still enjoy the freedom of having a good sniff when out and about, because he isn’t able to consume anything unsavoury which might make him ill, if he spots something before I do!
Dogs with a very high prey drive present a risk to other animals, including pets and wildlife, so a muzzle is a must-have piece of kit to ensure that no other animals come to any harm. For those with a bite history, or who may present a bite risk through fear, reactivity or aggression, a muzzle can provide peace of mind and protection. A basket muzzle is the ideal style for walks, as your dog will still be able to drink and pant easily, and it will also allow you to deliver frequent treats! The muzzle should be sufficiently long so that the nose doesn't press against the end of it, and wide enough to allow them to open their mouth comfortably.
An advantage of the muzzle stigma is that guardians of dogs who need space can use a muzzle as a visual deterrent for those troublesome “but all dogs love me!” people whom otherwise may try to approach. It may also make people think twice about allowing their children or dogs to rush up to yours. For reactive dogs, the “don’t worry, he’s friendly!” brigade are a real nightmare; the sight of a strange dog hurtling towards you at speed, with the owner loudly assuring you that their pet just wants to play, is enough to send your blood pressure sky-rocketing!
Some countries have regional breed-specific legislation, which means that dogs which are classed as a “dangerous breed” should be muzzled whenever they are in a public place. This would apply to breeds such as the American Bull Terrier, Mastiffs, and Rottweilers. There are also occasions when it is a legal requirement for a muzzle to be worn in public. In some European countries, it is compulsory to muzzle your dog when using public transport, unless they are fully contained in a carrier. One may also be required at certain dog-friendly tourist attractions and shopping centres.
As you can see, there are lots of reasons why teaching your dog to be comfortable wearing a muzzle is a great idea. If you haven’t yet muzzle-trained your dog but you would like to do so, there are a few things to bear in mind….
Some Guidance for Use
A muzzle is a safeguarding tool which clearly has enormous benefits when you cannot manage certain situations, but any piece of equipment has the potential to be aversive if not fitted and used correctly. It needs to be carefully conditioned before use so that the dog has a positive association with the muzzle, and is happy to wear it. To ensure that your dog always feels safe while wearing his muzzle, there are a few cautionary points…
It is vital that it is not used as a quick-fix, however tempting that might be. Your dog should always be supervised while wearing a muzzle, in case he attempts to remove it or it becomes caught on something and induces panic and/or injury.
The really crucial point is this: although you might feel more relaxed when your nervous, anxious, or reactive dog is wearing a muzzle around others, if you place him in situations that he cannot cope with and hasn't yet received any help towards changing his emotional responses, flooding will occur and he is going to feel an awful lot worse. You can read more about flooding here: Hand-feeding Fearful Dogs: Fool-Proof or Faux Pas? (trailiepawsforthought.com)
When wearing a muzzle, your dog cannot defend himself; using his "weapons" is no longer an option available to him. However, a dog in this emotional state will still appear threatening to other dogs, and sometimes this can be as traumatic as receiving a bite. Not only is it very unfair on your own dog, it also impacts on others. Just because the muzzle provides damage limitation by preventing the dog from using his teeth, it does not mean that he can cope with approaching or being approached by things that might scare him. The act of biting can still occur and the behaviour can still be rehearsed and strengthened, despite the dog not being able to cause injury.
A behaviour modification plan based on counterconditioning and systematic desensitisation MUST be put in place in order to work towards achieving a positive conditioned emotional response to each of the dog's triggers, by working at a safe distance and within the dog's coping threshold. Emotions drive actions, so we need to address the root cause of the behaviours we see, rather than simply suppressing them by using a muzzle as a band-aid.
When used correctly, we can see that a muzzle is a very useful tool in many situations, and isn’t something which only aggressive dogs wear. They certainly don't need to look menacing; in fact, there are some lovely bright colours available now! Every guardian should consider muzzle training their dog and, as always, it is well worth getting some help from a qualified professional to guide you.
So, would you like to know where you can find resources to help you? Read on for some links to essential information...
There are some brilliant resources available through the Muzzle Up! Project. Here is a link to their home page: The Muzzle Up! Project | Muzzle advocacy, Education, and Training (muzzleupproject.com)
Here you will find a link to a training plan, how to introduce your dog to a muzzle, how to desensitise and counter-condition, troubleshooting and tips, etc:
Here you will find equipment guides, a comparison guide, help with measuring and fitting a muzzle, plus much more!
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