I’m going to be honest here: I don’t have a boatload of experience in muzzle training dogs. When done wrong (which is most of the time) it results in a dog who is too distracted by the muzzle to act as they normally would. Training this way can be helpful, but also leads to people being over-confident. They say, “Ah ha! My dog is cured!” They whip off the muzzle, dog is no longer distracted, dog attacks whatever the muzzle was keeping them from attacking.
Problem not solved.
Some fear is healthy. The kind of fear that keeps people from putting their dogs in situations where the dog might bite is very healthy. Over confidence can be a dog killer. (Your dog bites someone else’s dog… a cat… your kid… your dog will likely pay for it, possibly with their own life.)
Like anything, in bad situations a muzzle can be harmful. A dog who’s biting out of fear will likely feel more fearful if the training was rushed. They can’t defend themselves, they don’t try, the fear is compounded, they seem “cured,” muzzle comes off, fear levels have risen, bites happen faster.
So for these reasons, I generally don’t use muzzles. I find safe distances and work there. As the safe distance decreases, we move closer without needing a muzzle.
That said, there are some cases where a muzzle is going to make life easier for everyone, and properly trained with they can be useful tools. For instance: we all know and love Doc, my beloved asshole goober.
Doc loves cats. I should say, Doc loves to chase cats in a non-playful way and I’m actually a bit afraid that if he caught one, he’d kill it. My honey, Quin, has three cats. Now, we’ve done a lot of work with Doc so he’s pretty good with cats in homes (as opposed to cats outside), but it’s not worth the risk. Someday I believe he’ll be totally chill with cats in homes, but until that day, we like to play Hannibal with him.
No, seriously, his muzzle makes him look like Hannibal. His muzzle is also something he’s very comfortable wearing and will even play in, he can pant in, he can drink in, and rests gently on his face. His muzzle has been a game changer. No longer do I worry every time he leaves the family room to go check on the cats, because I know that it would take a LOT of effort on his end to hurt one of Quin’s cats. I mean, he’d have to squish them with his paws, and they’re quick little buggers. I don’t have to worry that if I’m snuggling on the couch (with dog, cat, or Quin) that I might be woken by a cat-dog fight because I didn’t catch the body language change in time. I can actually relax, which means Doc can relax. Ahhhhh.
Now the trick with muzzle training is to avoid those first two problems: distraction and over-confidence. I’m going to handle the second one first by saying: don’t get over-confident. Know that however awesomely you muzzle trained, maybe it wasn’t awesome enough. When you think your dog is no longer reacting to the thing you wanted them to stop reacting to, look at how long it took, then multiply by 4. That’s how long you should keep her muzzle on before you try anything without it.
“But Jenna!” I hear you cry. “It took me two months to get Freddo to stop going after the postman! Now she just sits on the porch and watches him. She’s ready!”
Is she? Or is she thinking, Ahh, there is the cunning postman. I’m going to — damn it, what is this thing on my face? Oh, right, it’s the thing. I shall ignore it. Now, the postman is coming up the drive… ready to attack… muscles taut… is this thing wiggling now? Perhaps my human thinks I’m in costume? God, humans are so weird. Whoops, postman is here! ! I haven’t had time to properly amp up because I’ve been thinking about this bone-doggit face thingy! Well, I shall let him escape this time. Next time, dear post man…. next time… (Note: this has been a dramatization. These are actors, not actual dogs.)
You need enough time to pass to make bone-doggit sure that your dog is no longer thinking these thoughts before you remove that muzzle. Four times whatever it took to get her to that place, at least.
Now on to the first part: muzzle training so it’s not a distraction.
First of all, a properly fitting muzzle is key. It should not come off if the dog tries briefly, because you wouldn’t want it to come off in a fight. (I hope this seems obvious.) You do want all the straps to stay in place, not go wobbling off somewhere else. Ex: a strap that goes from between the eyes to the back of the neck should stay put, not wiggle down until it goes from between the eyes to below the ear. Even if the muzzle still wouldn’t come off at this point, that’s got to be annoying (and distracting) to your dog.
The other thing you want is for the muzzle to be comfortable. A basket muzzle is safer (for your dog and whatever your dog wants to bite) and more comfortable than those little cloth muzzles that hold their mouths shut. (Until they don’t. I have had dogs leave blood blisters because they could still open their mouth juuuuust enough, and I’ve seen dogs simply tear them apart.)
Because I don’t use muzzles a whole lot, I have limited experience with brands that do and don’t work. I can tell you this: First, I want more air flow than a plastic muzzle with holes punched into it gives, so I’m looking for a muzzle that has a cage appearance Second, most dogs pull a muzzle off by hooking their claws into it or rubbing it against something so that it pulls down over their nose, as impossible as that may seem, and then dangles around their necks. This means that a muzzle with that between the eye strap is likely to work much better than one without. Now, hopefully your dog will be so comfy in her muzzle that she won’t need that strap. BUT, if the worst happens and your dog is suddenly doing the Mortal Kombat battle, you’re going to want to be sure the muzzle isn’t going to come off over her nose because of a flailing paw (or mailbag).
The one I use for Doc is this one:
Well, okay, not this EXACT one, but this brand: Bronzedog. I like the leather band across the nose, protecting their nose from the wire. I like the metal wiring, because if my dog needs to correct another dog (“Hey! That was too rough!”) and goes to nip, that metal is going to feel enough like a correction that the other dogs respond appropriately, so my dog isn’t and doesn’t feel defenseless. The between the eye strap stays in place and the adjustable jaw straps mean that I was able to let it out to accommodate Doc’s massive jaw muscles. I also pulled this image instead of a more average sized image because this brand actually makes muzzles that are breed-specific. So in this image the basket part is much longer than it would normally be because a greyhound’s muzzle is much longer than most dog’s. The one I got for Doc (who is a mix) was the pit bull version, because his head is noticeably that shape and size. Finally, I like the wiring because, even though it makes my dog look like Hannibal, it provides a TON of airflow. I’m more interested in my dog’s safety and comfort than how he looks. (Granted, if I’m walking Doc into a house where I need him muzzled — maybe they have cats — I warn people first that he looks like Hannibal, because I’m very conscious of that fact.)
I did have to poke a few more holes in the leather straps to make it fit right, but hey, it’s leather: you can do that.
(Note: I found this link and image by going to Amazon and searching for “wire basket muzzle.”)
Recently I worked with a client who had a common and similar type of basket muzzle made of rubber. There were two immediate problems, and one I held in reserve:
- The between the eye strap kept sliding down, and was useless.
- The rubber “bar” across the nose cut directly across her nostrils, annoying her because it inhibited air flow.
In reserve: the rubber was soft enough that if she’d had to correct another dog for being too pushy, she couldn’t. Her nip was inhibited — obviously — and the rubber simply gave. How much would this matter? I don’t know, but it was something I noted in the back of my mind.
The nice thing about it was that, while Doc can cause bruises with his wire muzzle when he gets excited and tries to lick your face, the rubber muzzle didn’t have that issue. Worthwhile, I think, if you bruise easily or have little kids, as long as you find one that fits better.
What am I really saying? Muzzles are hard to find in pet stores; like jeans, be prepared to try them on, and if you buy them online, be prepared to send it back until you find the right one.
Okay, so you have your muzzle and you’re prepared for muzzle training! I ought to make a video of this, but since I haven’t yet, here are some muzzle training steps.
1. Feed them.
Drop the muzzle in their bowl. Dump their food in the muzzle. Now, most of it is going to go out the sides, and any normal dog won’t dip their face into the muzzle to eat, but will nudge it out of the way. That’s fine, I don’t care. I’m just getting them used to the idea of having this thing near their face and nose, and I’m creating positive associations with it. “But I feed my dog raw and it gets goopy!” I hear you cry. Yeeeaaah. You’ll have to wash it afterward. No biggie. I frequently skip this step unless the dog (or human) is very muzzle-shy.
You can either cup your hand below the muzzle and drop treats in (they will fall through into your hand; the idea is to get your dog to put their face in to lick them up) or simply put canned food, peanut butter, kong paste, jelly, etc on the inside of the muzzle so they stick their face in to lick it up. Whatever you use, make sure it’s belly-friendly; your dog is about to get a lot of it.
When you’ve found the magic ingredient that gets your dog to stick their face in there and leave it in there for a few seconds (longer, preferably) while they eat, use it. A lot. In the span of a few minutes you can go through a LOT of peanut butter. Messy, but treat it like a game: go outside, wear clothes that need to be washed anyway, laugh at the peanut butter all over your dog’s face. Remember, we’re creating GOOD associations. When your dog is happily diving into that muzzle and keeping their face in there to lick off every last bit of jam, then…
This is where most people start getting hung up. They think, “Ah ha! I shall buckle it!” Don’t do any such thing. Just start pulling the straps up over the back of your dog’s head. Mess with them. Flop the ears through. Give little tugs so it moves while she’s trying to eat. Pull them straight up, then drop them across her skull. We’re not being sneaky; we’re being as obvious as possible We want to find every way we could lose our grip and the straps could fall across her so that when (not if) it happens, it’s no big deal. At first, Freddo will pull away because that’s weird. Just keep doing it until she couldn’t care less.
5. Attach — Freely
Assuming this is not a quick-release muzzle (I have yet to see one, though it’s a great idea), slide the strap through the buckle. DO NOT BUCKLE. This is easier said than done, because with one hand you’re holding the muzzle and treats while with the other hand you’re trying to wrangle two straps up, and with your third hand you’re trying to put one of those straps through the buckle. Only… y’know… three hands. If you feel yourself rushing to try and get it done before gravity pulls the muzzle off (because you had to let go to use that hand), stop. Come back to it later. Your goal here is NOT to get the muzzle on your dog. It’s to simply have the experience of messing around with it some more. If lucky, you’ll figure out how to pull one strap through the buckle while she works on her kong paste. If you’re not, come back later and try again. The more messing around you do here, the more relaxed she’s going to be about it staying on later. No rush. That said, once you do get the strap through the buckle, DO NOT put the buckle tongue through the hole. “But the strap just slides free….” I hear you whimper. Yeah. That’s cool. Just keep giving her more treats through the muzzle until the strap works free on it’s own, or she notices the muzzle and pulls it off. Repeat.
Okay, so now you can put the strap through and she pulls it off, but consequently she’s learned she’s not trapped and she’s getting treats, so even though she’s pulling it off, she’s not panicking. WOOT WOOT! Do the same thing, but when she goes to pull it off, see if you can distract her. With treats first, then you can give a little nudge and offer a treat again. We never get beyond a little nudge, and that’s only to get them to put four feet back on the ground instead of one or two in the muzzle. Don’t worry about this too much. If she lays down and pulls it off, see if you can (laughingly — this is a game) unhook her nails from it and give her a treat before she pulls it off. Kind of like… uh… a game. >.> Who can do which first? As you do this, she’ll stop pulling it off every time. Instead, she’ll try, get distracted, try, distracted, try, succeed. That’s fine. (No treat when she succeeds, but you can still love on her and tell her how cute she is. Treats are only for when her nose is in the muzzle.)
STOP RIGHT THERE, YOU HUMAN. Yes, you’re going to put the tongue of the buckle through the hole. But don’t put the excess strap through the keeper. If she’s gotten good at wear it/pull it/get distracted/pull it/distract/pull it/take it off, then when she tries to pull on it after you’ve buckled it you’re just going to distract her. If she won’t be distracted, we want that strap loose. A quick upward tug will pull the tongue out of the hole, and the muzzle comes off. We’re providing her with some resistance, but again, we don’t want her panicking. If we can’t distract her and she starts worrying about the muzzle not coming off, yank that strap so it unbuckles and comes off. We want her to have the experience of it not coming off right away so we can REWARD her for leaving it alone. We do not want the experience of her trying to get it off, realizing she can’t, and freaking out completely. If you’ve done the previous steps a lot, this step only takes a few minutes. After a few repetitions of her cycling through muzzle on/pull at it/it doesn’t come off/reward/repeat, and muzzle on/pull at it/it doesn’t come off/pull harder/it comes off/repeat she’ll realize that just because she can’t get it off immediately doesn’t mean it’s stuck forever. There’s no reason to panic; it will come off it if hast to. Instead she should look around for a treat. That said, there’s no reason to tuck in that strap until you’re in a situation that’s dangerous, so you can do this for days. Which brings us to the last bit!
8. One Week Later….
Once I could distract Doc from pulling his muzzle off just by saying his name and tossing him a treat, I left it on him. For. Hours. After about five to ten minutes he stopped trying to take it off and I didn’t need to distract him any more. Then he started moping. I mean, come on. He’s got this weird thing on his face. It doesn’t really stop him from doing much (though you’ll want a water bowl deep enough to account for the muzzle going beyond her nose; we don’t want it bumping the bottom of the bowl and stopping her from drinking), but it’s weird. If I only ever put it on him when I want him to learn something, like don’t eat the cats, the cats will distract him from getting used to the muzzle, and the muzzle will distract him from getting used to the cats, and I’m spinning my wheels. So instead, I’m going to put it on him when there’s not any big distraction. And then I’m going to leave it on him.
You’re going to feel so guilty. They’re going to look sad. “Mom. I can’t play with this thing on my face.” (Yes, they can.) “Dad. Why did you make me go as Hannibal for Halloween? I wanted to be a Ghostbuster.” Be strong, fellow humans! Once they stop moping, they’ll realize it’s no big deal. You can help by giving treats, love, and play while they’re wearing it. Convince them that it’s business as usual. (That said, don’t wear yourself out. Let go of the guilt. They’ll let go of the mope. It’ll be okay.)
It took Doc two days, wearing the muzzle for about six hours each day, before he stopped moping. Then he tried to play tug and he noticed it. Then he sulked for half an hour. Then he stopped sulking. Then by day three he realized he could still play chase-me games and running games. By day four and five — now only wearing it when I was around before and after work — he started acting like himself. (This is when I learned that getting licked by a dog wearing a metal muzzle can bruise. >.> Bad, Hannibal! Bad!) Note: I started on days I would be around for six hours at a stretch. Don’t ever leave your dog unsupervised with a muzzle on. If they catch a toenail while itching and you’re not there to calm them and fix the problem, panic can result and the situation can get bad and bloody fast.
Once Doc stopped moping and started playing, he also went back to following the cats when they left the room… only I could take the chance to let him creep up, sniff, and get spat at and batted in the face. It also meant he had the chance to show me he could be gentle with the cats so I could more often reward that behavior. Up close, he started to realize that they weren’t squirrels and he started to relax, too.
Later, when he was playing with dogs but still muzzled and one body-slammed him too hard, he whipped around and corrected. I’m sure he thought he nipped them. They probably thought he nipped them, too. It was actually the metal hitting their shoulder, but it worked just as effectively; they veered off and didn’t do it so hard again, and he didn’t lose confidence. The fact that he felt he COULD nip told me more than anything that he wasn’t muting his communication skills because he thought he couldn’t back it up, but rather that the muzzle had just become part of things.
Does my dog look like Hannibal? Absolutely. Do I have peace of mind? God, yes. That alone sped cat training up SO VERY MUCH. With the muzzle we made more progress in a week than we’d made in months. Now he seems like he could be fine with them without the muzzle… but I’ll leave it on for four times longer, just to be sure.
All that said, there’s another aspect I haven’t mentioned, which I will briefly. It is: the other animal. Muzzled or not, I wouldn’t let him approach and sniff the cats if I thought it would traumatize the cats. I wouldn’t take a dog who is muzzled to a dog park because while they can’t injure (or rather, they’d have to work really hard to do so), they can still badly scare another dog. My goal is to leave EVERYONE in better shape than they were, and that includes the animals who come in contact with Freddo. I wouldn’t take Doc to a cat sanctuary to work with cats, because it would emotionally scar those cats. I’m going to work with cats that I know won’t be terrified, and I would work with dogs who could shrug off any muzzled attack because their own confidence is high, until Freddo has learned that Mortal Kombat battles don’t work, but appropriate corrections and walking away does.
So, if you’re worried your dog will hurt someone or something… get a muzzle. Buy yourself some peace of mind, train your dog so they have peace of mind, too, and move forward. It’s awesome.
Note: No postmen were hurt during the writing of this blog.