All right, gang. Today, we’re going to be talking about muzzles.
This is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately. As a veterinarian in general practice, I often need to briefly muzzle dogs for medical procedures – which can occasionally be upsetting for owners. And with my behavior clients, I often suggest using muzzles as a management tool for certain situations that might otherwise be risky for the humans or other dogs involved in our training plan.
Regardless of the context, some owners are on board right away when the “M” word is mentioned… but others are hesitant, or even downright opposed to using one. The stigma against muzzles is real!
The most common objections I hear from my clients boil down to a few main points:
- It’s cruel to make dogs wear muzzles.
- I tried one once, but my dog hated it.
- My dog isn’t mean! She doesn’t need one.
- I don’t want people to think she’s vicious.
Are these valid concerns? Absolutely! Let me first say, that I can definitely sympathize with these worries. I do NOT want your dog to be uncomfortable or frightened of any training tool we use. And I also understand the social pressure we all face, to have a “nice” pet who would never bite anyone under any circumstances.
So, let’s unpack these myths in a bit more detail.
Myth #1: Muzzles are cruel, and dogs hate them
Fortunately, I’m happy to assure you that this isn’t the case at all! I jokingly call this “Lady and the Tramp” syndrome – as anyone who remembers the classic Disney movie will undoubtedly understand. In the film, a visiting relative declares that Lady is vicious after she’s framed for attacking a pair of scheming cats, and forces her to wear a muzzle. It’s awful, and humiliating, and unfair! Lady is miserable, and her doggy friends are horrified and sympathetic to her plight.
This is what many pet owners picture, as soon as the idea of muzzle training is broached – a dejected, sad-eyed dog who believes she’s being punished.
But is this really our goal?
It’s very true that if you just grab a muzzle and strap it on without any preparatory work at all, your dog isn’t likely to be very happy. Just like leashes, collars, and other stuff we ask our dogs to wear, a muzzle can feel strange at first! But with a little extra time and effort, they can learn that wearing the muzzle = awesome things, like treats and training games.
Here’s an example of some “quick and dirty” muzzle training in the clinic with my boy Gatsby, which would be easy to do with any dog in a veterinary setting. Both videos were taken during the same session, and he had never worn a muzzle prior to this. As you can see – the snacks are flowing, and he’s not unhappy about it in the least!
Another quick example, below. This pup is a current student of mine, who’s learning to wear a basket muzzle for vet visits. Notice what a great job his awesome owner is doing, of giving him choices and building duration as he offers to put the muzzle on himself. This is what I love to see! 😊
I have several behavior patients who routinely wear a muzzle when they come in for training sessions, to keep everyone safe if something unexpected happens. They’re just as excited to see their muzzle as any other dog is about their leash or harness for walks, because they know it means they’re going for a car ride and a fun training visit at the clinic.
Note that there’s nothing magic or even particularly unusual about these pups. ANY dog can learn that their muzzle is fun to wear, so never fear! If your pup needs one for walks, training sessions, or veterinary visits, you can have him doing the happy dance when he sees it in no time.
Myth #2: Only “mean dogs” need muzzles
This particular myth has more to do with us, as humans, than it does with our dogs! Unfortunately, there is a tendency for many pet owners to believe that the canine world is divided into two camps: nice dogs who never bite, and mean dogs who do.
This is 100% not true, and I always encourage my clients to think about things from the dog’s perspective when these concerns arise.
The truth is, ANY dog can bite under the right circumstances. This isn’t a character flaw, or a cause for shock and dismay – biting is a normal, species-specific behavior for dogs when they feel threatened or afraid. It’s also perfectly normal for a dog to lash out defensively in response to something painful, just like us!
So it should come as no surprise that in a veterinary setting, we often expect that our patients may bite us. We sometimes have to restrain them, poke them with needles, and invade their personal space. They may be feeling sick or in pain, and it’s understandable that they might object to being touched or handled. This doesn’t make them bad dogs! But if I need to do something that may make your pup uncomfortable, I’m probably going to slip on a muzzle first. That doesn’t mean I think he’s vicious… it just means I want my staff to be safe.
No judgement, I promise!
Any dog, no matter how sweet and tolerant, may need a muzzle under certain circumstances – such as being brought to the vet after being hit by a car, or attacked by another dog, or when they’re scared and hurting for some other reason. So do your pup a favor, and take a few minutes to do some quick muzzle training at home when you have a chance. Just like sitting, coming when called, and walking nicely on leash, it’s a good “life skill” to have.
What about outside the vet clinic?
Many of my behavior patients wear a comfy basket-style muzzle in certain situations, as a safeguard to prevent problems. This might include off-leash play with a carefully selected playmate, in the case of a dog with previous aggression issues; or for a hike in the woods with a dog who barks and lunges at strangers. For these pups, the muzzle allows them to engage in training or enrichment activities that we might otherwise have to avoid completely, for safety reasons – which is an incredibly valuable thing!
Myth #3: People will assume my dog is vicious if they see her wearing a muzzle
I will admit, this one is tougher. Unfortunately, there can be a great deal of social pressure to have a “nice” dog who never shows any aggression, no matter what. This often isn’t realistic to expect, for the reasons we’ve discussed above!
From a professional standpoint, I can assure you that your veterinarian, trainer, or behavior consultant is NOT judging you or your dog if we suggest using a muzzle. We know that sometimes, dogs get upset and might bite! We just want to do our job safely.
For many of my behavior clients who use a muzzle with their dog while “out and about,” it’s often very helpful in discouraging people from approaching – which can make the outing much more pleasant, for pups who are fearful or reactive toward strangers. In that case, embrace the stigma! If it allows you to walk your dog in peace, it’s not a bad thing.
If you like, you can even decorate the muzzle with fabric paint, or bedazzle it with rhinestones to make it look more friendly. Some companies, like Bumas, will even custom-design a muzzle in whatever colors you choose – which helps tremendously, if you’re nervous about the Hannibal Lecter look.
The bottom line?
Muzzles don’t have to be scary or unpleasant for your dog, and they can be incredibly helpful in a variety of different situations. So embrace them, when they’re needed!
For more information on how to train your dog to wear a muzzle comfortably, check out The Muzzle Up! Project – their website has some great articles and instructional videos to help you get started. 😊