A muzzle is a helpful tool to keep everyone safe while you’re working to improve a dog’s social skills or trying to manage aggressive tendencies; some dog owners even have their dogs in a muzzle to prevent them from eating things on walks. In particular, the muzzle protects the dog who’s wearing it, as the fallout from a bite can include quarantine, legal action, and euthanasia. With a muzzle on the dog, you can turn even a scary situation into a positive, successful learning experience.
Reasons for dog muzzles
All dogs have a bite threshold, the point at which they're stressed enough to bite. This threshold may be reached easily or take many stressful triggers to get to that point. In all cases when reaching the bite threshold is possible, a dog wearing a muzzle is at much lower risk of hurting a human or another animal.
A muzzle is beneficial for the following reasons:
- To safely handle a fearful or injured dog
- To safely do a medical exam or groom a dog who is likely to bite
- To prevent injury to people or other animals in a variety of scenarios
Some examples of those scenarios include introducing your dog to a new person, introducing your dog to another dog, or going for a walk where there might be off-leash dogs who approach.
A muzzle can be a wonderful tool to show you are being responsible — doing everything you can to keep everyone safe. You can then try to educate people about the dangers of allowing their dogs or kids to approach dogs they don’t know.
Be sure to fit your dog's muzzle appropriately, so you can enter the above situations and not worry about it slipping off and your dog biting.
Types of muzzles
There are several types of dog muzzles, including:
- Plastic basket muzzle: This is the best all-around muzzle for protection, fit, and training. It allows the dog to breathe and pant easily and drink water, so it can be worn for extended periods. And a dog wearing a basket muzzle can take treats for rewards during training.
- Leather muzzle: These vary in design, so be sure you choose the basket style so that your dog can pant, drink, and receive treats. These are often able to be customized to fit your dog’s muzzle perfectly.
- Grooming (mesh or fabric) muzzle: The dog can't pant, drink, or eat treats with this muzzle on, so it should only be used for very short periods and is only recommended for brief medical procedures, such as vaccinations.
- Metal basket muzzle: These muzzles are typically recommended for shepherd-type dogs who have an elongated muzzle. They have the same benefits as a plastic basket muzzle but are better fitted to some dogs.
- Emergency muzzle: In an emergency, it’s possible to create a muzzle out of gauze, a leash, or rope.
Getting a proper fit is critical. You want the muzzle to be secure but also for your dog to be comfortable wearing it without any chafing or irritation. Manufacturers of good muzzles provide a size chart and guide, so you can measure your dog to determine the fit. When a perfect fit isn’t possible, you can add padding (moleskin, foam bandage, etc.) to protect the dog’s fur and skin. Adding a carabiner under the muzzle to attach to the collar is another point of safety to help ensure the dog cannot remove the muzzle.
The Muzzle Up Project is a great resource for people looking to outfit their dogs with muzzles. The website has comparisons of muzzle types, recommendations for fit, success stories, and support.
Teaching your dog to wear a muzzle
Use the following steps to teach your dog to comfortably wear a muzzle:
- Start by sitting in a chair, with a clicker, and putting the muzzle between your knees with the opening facing the dog. Remain still during this process, eyes looking at the muzzle and not making any noises.
- When your dog touches their nose to the muzzle, mark this behavior with a click or a “yes” and then give a high-value treat. Give the treat away from the muzzle; this encourages the dog to learn by trying to figure out what gets them the treat rather than luring them into the muzzle.
- You’ll start with them touching their nose to the muzzle. As they do that, consistently you’ll ask for more — moving to a nose going in before you mark, then a full snout before you mark.
- When your dog is consistently putting their entire snout in the muzzle, you can add the cue “muzzle up” or another cue of your choice exclusive to this.
- Begin cueing the dog to put their snout in the muzzle. When they do, you can now start offering treats through the muzzle. This helps work on duration, or how long they will comfortably wear the muzzle.
- To progress to putting on the straps, put some peanut butter on the inside of the muzzle, cue “muzzle up,” and then buckle the straps while they finish the peanut butter. Continue building up the duration they can comfortably wear the muzzle in this setting by buckling the strap and continuing to feed them treats through it.
- Start off in short increments, and most importantly, do not remove the muzzle if the dog is fussing. Be sure to distract them, offer some treats, and then remove it when they are calm. Taking if off when they are fussing will teach them that fussing works, so they will likely have a shorter threshold for wearing the muzzle.
- Begin to take the dog for short walks with the muzzle on. You can even put the muzzle on in the house while you are spending time with them.
To help build the positive association, make sure during the learning process as well as once they are acclimated, the dog is wearing the muzzle to do fun things as well as things like veterinary and grooming visits. If the muzzle is only put on during times of fear and/or stress, it can ruin the association.
Training with the muzzle
With the dog comfortably wearing the muzzle and focusing on you, practice basic cues, giving praise and treats generously. Then, take the muzzled dog for a brief on-leash walk in a low-traffic area (with few people or other animals, depending on what the dog reacts negatively to). Give lots of high-value treats through the muzzle, and allow your dog to enjoy sniffing, marking, rolling — whatever makes it a great walk for the dog.
Repeat your short walk daily in different locations. When the dog is able to focus on you without becoming overly excited or fearful, try moving closer to the source of the dog’s fear or anxiety (people, other animals). Each dog will vary as to how quickly they can progress. Some dogs can move 10 feet closer at a time; for others, 2 feet is a big challenge. Be careful to keep the distance between the dog and the people or animals wide enough that the dog doesn’t become overly excited or panicky.
If at any point the dog does become excited or fearful, move farther away from the people or animals and raise the value of your treats. For example, if you normally reward with dog biscuits, give bits of cheese or cooked chicken instead. It’s a good idea to always carry a variety of treats because it can help a dog to stay focused and interested in you.
Next, build up the traffic by walking in places where more people or other animals are passing by. Recruit people with whom the dog is comfortable and have them appear, approach, and give treats. Even if the dog isn’t afraid of people, this is a great way to reinforce that good things happen when your dog is out and about wearing a muzzle.
Practice, practice, and more practice! Every day, work at getting closer to the source of the dog’s fear or anxiety but do it at the dog’s pace. If you try to progress too quickly, your dog will have a more difficult time focusing and changing their behavior and emotions. Keep in mind that change will take time — and every dog is an individual. Genetics and life experience, or lack of experience, will be different for each dog.
Disclaimer: Best Friends Animal Society is not responsible for any injuries to anyone using the techniques described in this article. Any person using the techniques described here does so at their own risk.