Why It’s Important to Teach Your Dog to Love Wearing a Muzzle

By Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A of The Muzzle Up Project

Training your dog to love wearing a muzzle can be invaluable if faced with an emergency. Photo shows Jambo, Staffy trick dog champion (left) and German shepherd Tessa, both of whom are required to wear muzzles in the area where they live because of breed specific legislation. Courtesy Louise Stapleton-Frappell
Training your dog to love wearing a muzzle can be invaluable if faced with an emergency. Photo shows Jambo, Staffy trick dog champion (left) and German shepherd Tessa, both of whom are required to wear muzzles in the area where they live because of breed specific legislation. Courtesy Louise Stapleton-Frappell

How wonderful would it be if dogs were conditioned to love wearing their muzzles early on so that if they needed to wear one later in life, it would not be an aversive event for them?

The following scenarios illustrate why muzzle training is important for every dog:

Aggression

If he bites, I’ll muzzle train him.

All dogs have the ability to bite. Most dogs display various warning signals prior to biting. These signals may be obvious, such as snarling or growling, or more subtle, such as ‘freezing’ or a quick flick of the tongue. Signals can happen extremely quickly and may not always be noticeable, so why wait for a bite to occur? When conducted properly, muzzle training will not create additional stress for a dog or interfere with an aggressive dog’s training plan. On the contrary, it ensures both dogs and humans stay safe in the event of management failure. It also protects the aggressive dog from developing a bite history, which carries ramifications that can severely limit quality of life.

If he bites again, I’ll muzzle train him.

If a dog has already bitten another dog or human, muzzle training should be the first priority. Muzzle training does not take the place of a thorough desensitization and counterconditioning protocol – as well as possible pharmacological intervention – to help reduce a biting dog’s fear and aggressive behavior, but it does prevent unnecessary suffering.

Puppies

My dog is a puppy. Why would he need a muzzle?

Puppy training is all about socialization. The goal is to prevent future behavior problems by giving the puppy positive, safe experiences with as many different people, dogs and stimuli as possible. Often, muzzle training is left out of the socialization mix. While puppies don’t need muzzles, the socialization window is a prime opportunity to form early, long-lasting positive associations with a muzzle and handling around the face. Most puppy classes now focus on desensitization to nail clippers, brushes, vacuum cleaners, and more. It’s time to add muzzles to the mix.

The Veterinarian

My dog already hates the vet.

Many dogs are afraid of the veterinarian. The fact that at many veterinarian’s offices they need to be taken “to the back” to be restrained and muzzled for various procedures, often adds to that fear. While muzzle training will not erase the fear of various veterinary procedures, it is still a critical component to any fear-free vet training program in that training a dog to love his muzzle lowers one of the many stressful components of a vet visit. Instead of having to wear a cloth muzzle, guardians can bring the dog’s usual muzzle – the one loaded with positive associations – with them. Eliminating chances of a bite helps vets and technicians perform a more thorough examination, reduces the need for anesthesia for certain procedures, and also opens the door to do further desensitization and counterconditioning to all types of procedures and restraint.

The “Normal” Dog

My dog doesn’t bite. He doesn’t need a muzzle.

Every dog has the ability to bite. The chance of a bite increases manifold when a dog is in pain or injured. By pre-training a non-aggressive, socialized dog to love wearing a muzzle, guardians can act to prevent additional suffering if their dog has an emergency, instead of stacking a new stressor onto an already stressful situation.

Remember: Desensitization and counterconditioning help a dog to enjoy wearing a muzzle and realize that muzzles predict snacks, walks, and a myriad of other good things in life. With a properly fitting basket muzzle in place, that risk of damage, of litigation, and threat to public safety greatly diminishes.

This information is also available as a PPG Educational Handout.

6 comments

  1. I’m so glad you are promoting muzzle training! I believe it’s a wonderful tool for all dogs. Any dog if faced with a traumatic enough situation may resort to biting as a defense. It doesn’t matter how well trained a dog is in those situations. If your dog is hit by a car and suffers a compound fracture he can know every command under the sun, but his pain and fear may cause him to bite those who are trying to help him. When that dog wears a muzzle all humans helping him can focus on his medical treatment without fear and anxiety and without the need for heavy restraint by a “stranger” vet tech. I feel like this leads to a better experience with less anxiety for my dog and the potential for a better medical outcome.

    With that in mind I’ve trained my dog to enjoy the muzzle before he ever needs it, so that if/when he does need it he won’t experience any added anxiety due to the muzzle. We started by playing with the muzzle in the house and I just asked him to voluntarily put his nose in the muzzle and I would click and treat. We worked up to going for long runs in the park with the muzzle. My dog has learned that the muzzle means he is going for a walk and reacts same way most dogs react to a leash. Leashes, collars, muzzles – these are all tools we use to keep our dogs and fellow humans safe. If properly trained a dog shouldn’t view the muzzle any differently than his leash.

    I’m a believer. Thanks for spreading the word!

  2. I have a 1-1/2 yr old GSD rescue that I’ve had since he was 10 months old. He was never properly socialized or trained as a puppy. He had no bite inhibition. He nipped my Petsitter and tried to nip the vet. I had no choice but to train him with a muzzle, he accepted the muzzle and I feel confident that we can safely continue training and working on his fearful behavior without anyone getting hurt. I’m glad to have found support from other people using a muzzle

  3. Thanks for your comment! Without proper training, muzzles can be aversive and anxiety-provoking. The good news is, through training, muzzles can be safe and humane, and dogs can learn to associate them with good things like walks, playtime, and off-leash hikes.

    The two training techniques used in muzzle training are desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization is when a dog is introduced to a fear-evoking stimulus at a level that does not produce any fear. The level of stimulus is increased as long as the dog continues to be absolutely fine, showing no signs of fear. So, as an example, a person afraid of heights may reduce his fear by going to the first floor of a high-rise building, then the second, gradually working up to higher distances provided he is not feeling afraid.

    Counterconditioning is when a dog encounters a fear-evoking stimulus followed by something intrinsically good and rewarding. The pairing builds a Pavlovian response over time, so that the dog learns to associate the stimulus with good things instead of fear-evoking things.

    Used together, desensitization and counterconditioning will help your dog feel comfortable with wearing a muzzle.

    When I first launched The Muzzle Up! Project, I never predicted its potential impact on muzzle education, awareness, and the lives of humans and their dogs. Supporters from across the globe have amazed and inspired me, sending photos of their dogs living full and enriched lives while wearing muzzles. Most importantly, feedback from supporters shows how we as humans can use the foundations of animal learning to train dogs to enjoy wearing their muzzles.

    Muzzles don’t have to mean a prison sentence for a life bereft of enrichment.

    When muzzle training, I advocate the use of parameters and games so that dogs not only tolerate wearing their muzzles, but enjoy wearing them. Many plans end with putting the muzzle on the dog, when in fact securing the buckle of the muzzle strap is just the beginning. After all, just because a dog is OK with wearing a muzzle for a few seconds doesn’t mean he has learned to play, run, or interact with the environment while wearing it.

    Some dogs are uncomfortable moving their heads when wearing a muzzle. Other dogs freeze when they get outside, unsure whether it is safe to sniff or run. Still other dogs need help learning to eat and move while wearing one.

    You can address all these factors tvia training, using the principles of operant and classical conditioning to facilitate play, loose and comfortable body movement, and teach a variety of games and activities. Together with the dog’s humans, I use the dog’s favorite motivators to make muzzle time rewarding and fun, whether it be fetch, soccer, nose work, or simple agility moves.

    The results are heartwarming and beautiful. Imagine a fearful dog gaining confidence and weaving around agility poles while wearing a muzzle. Or a shy dog running toward the muzzle from across the room in order to place her snout in the basket, eagerly anticipating her reward. These aren’t just pipe dreams; training makes them possible for dogs of varied breeds, backgrounds and temperaments.

  4. I understand your points in this article and I’m trying my best to think about muzzles with an open mind, but are they not, inherently, an aversive for a dog? Even at very young ages, dogs don’t like to have things around their face. In my experience, the energy and time spent endeavoring to muzzle train a dog would be better spent teaching him/her “emergency” commands that achieve the same goals?

    Again, I’m open to being educated and looking forward to hearing your thoughts 🙂

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