Should I muzzle my dog?

Muzzling a dog often gets a bad rap but it really shouldn’t.  Firstly, let’s look at the reason why guardians choose to place a muzzle on their dog.  The instinctive answer is that their dog is ‘dangerous’ and ‘may bite’.  However, in my experience, this is rarely the case.  Most guardians place a muzzle on a dog because they know their dog is uncomfortable in a given situation and, through the dog’s stress response, may ‘react’ directly and with force.  In my experience, in the real world, that rarely happens and rarely happens without the dog giving off signals of possible intent first. 

Secondly, the muzzle may be on the dog because it has a tendency to ‘graze’ and pick (and eat) undesirable things from the ground.

Thirdly, it may be a pup that is overly ‘mouthy’ or a service dog in training etc etc etc.  The list can go on as each dog and each dog guardian will have their own reason for why they wish for their dog to sport a muzzle. 

These guardians are to be considered ‘responsible’ guardians.  We all know that the instant reaction ‘other’ people tend to have is that the dog with a muzzle is dangerous.  This is just sheer ignorance of the fact and the dog guardian should disregard opinions like this.  Placing a muzzle of your dog is one of the most responsible things any owner can do.  Not only does it reduce the chance of your dog ‘reacting’ adversely to other dogs or people, if that is the reason you have fitted the muzzle, but it also gives you confidence that you can focus on the training and development of your dog in a safe and controlled manner.  Further, if the muzzle training is done right, which I will detail below, then your dog will raise its confidence levels to as it will have a positive association with the muzzle and look forward to having it put on.  Confidence in training is one of the magic ingredients to success in training.

Doing this lets everyone know that you put the safety of them and your dog at the heart of your dog development and training endeavours.  Remember, your dog is learning and finding its way and you are protecting it from doing harm during this process.  Further to this, if you are keeping yourself and your dog safe, then you should really not care what other people may think.  Personally, I would prefer to see a dog muzzled coming up to me than an over-exuberant (playful?) unmuzzled dog.  A bite from an over-energised playful dog is still a bite and can hurt every bit as much. 

If you view the muzzle as a temporary training tool which is a positive addition rather than a negative one, then it will make for a happier training relationship.  In this respect, as stated above, I have detailed below a step by step guide in how to ‘muzzle train’ your dog in order that not only does it accept the muzzle but it actually looks forward to it.  This works because you will be teaching your dog that when it gets the muzzle on then good, if not great, things will happen. 

If you were to suddenly introduce a muzzle, which is, let’s be honest, a restrictive item for a dog, without preconditioning it to it then not only will your dog hate it but you will also learn to hate it also. 

The steps below will create a positive relationship between the muzzle and your dog. 

Step 0.  This is a foundation step.  The aim here is to just have the muzzle nearby but with neither you or your dog focusing on it.  Throw a treat on the floor for your dog (a bit away from the muzzle).  Next throw the treat a bit closer to the muzzle but not too close.  Do the same again but this time a bit closer.  Now reset and throw a treat to the place you threw the first treat then, again, another treat slightly closer to the muzzle and finally even closer to the muzzle as before.  Each time taking care not to pay any attention to the muzzle or your dog.

Step 1.  Now just lift the muzzle and let your dog see the muzzle directly but at a bit of a distance and give him/her a treat/praise then put it away. 

Step 2.  Repeat step 1 but each time move the muzzle very slightly closer to your dog (ensuring that he/she remains calm and happy for you to do so).

Step 3. Repeat the above until you can (lightly) touch your dog’s nose with the muzzle and then move it away again and give him/her the reward.  If you can do this repeatedly without your dog moving away or reacting negatively then you can introduce a command “muzzle” whilst you give him/her the treat.

Step 4.  Repeat step 3 but this time issue the command, then touch your dog’s nose with the muzzle and then issue the reward.

Step 5. Assuming all good up until this point then issue the command, place the muzzle gently at the tip of his/her nose (as if you were going to put it on its nose), move it away again and give him/her the reward.

Step 6. Repeat step 5 until you can lightly put the muzzle all the way on his/her nose but don’t clip it and remove it after a few seconds.

Step 7. Repeat step 6 but increase the duration on his nose before you remove it and give him/her the reward.

Step 8.  Once you get to about 30 seconds with no reaction then gently clip together the muzzle, unclip it immediately and remove the muzzle then reward your dog.

Step 9. Repeat step 8 but increase the duration (clipped) before removing and rewarding your dog.

Step 10.  Once you get to about 30 seconds or so with no adverse reaction from your dog then keep the muzzle on and give him/her a treat (or treats) through the front of the muzzle.  There is no need to remove the muzzle just now just wait a few seconds more, issue the command ”muzzle” and reward him/her again through the front of the muzzle.  Once you have done this 3 times remove the muzzle, take a break and then start over again.

Step 11.  Once you get to this stage your dog should have pretty much accepted the muzzle and now we need to build his/her positive experiences with it.  To do this we should start positively interacting with him/her while he/she has got the muzzle on (playing games, doing some training etc) which should embed his understanding that the wearing of the muzzle means good things happen.

Step 12. Once he/she has accepted the muzzle then (pre-walk) put the muzzle on your dog and then go through the pre-walk routine and go for a brief (minute or two) walk.  Once you get back in. Get your dog to sit, remove the muzzle, then give him/her a treat then proceed to remove the lead etc.

From herein it is just a matter of lengthening the walk duration until you are satisfied that your dog not only shows no adverse reactions to seeing the muzzle but, moreover, actually gets excited about it.

Note: Although you can take all of the precautions for your dog other guardians may not be as responsible and may have an uncontrolled dog off-lead bounding about all over the place.  If this is the case then you just need to manage the situation and create distance, body block or lift up your dog.  There is little to be gained by trying to reason with them as they clearly have no idea of basic dog etiquette and you will be creating conflict with no feasible positive outcome.  Further, it could be that they are seemingly happy to put their own dog at risk of attack, injury or even involvement from the dog authorities so it is unlikely that they will take sage feedback from you so don’t waste your time trying to reason.