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Muzzle Training your Dog: Why, When & How

The sight of a dog in a muzzle is often followed with a hushed chorus of whispers from passers-by. ‘There must be something wrong with him.’ ‘That poor dog’ ‘She must be a bad dog.’ It can go on, and it can lead to a real feeling of shame among guardians who want or need to muzzle their dog in public. 

There seems to be a perception that only the most dangerous of dogs need to be muzzled
So, when I am asked as a dog trainer about "what kinds of dogs need to be muzzle trained?", there can be a bit of confusion when I say - all of them.

A muzzle is a piece of safety equipment no different than your dog’s collar or leash. It is there to prevent accidents and as such, it is a valuable skill to have in your training arsenal. Yet, the stigma attached can prevent pet carers from taking the leap and implementing its use in their dog management and training plans. 

Of course, preventing a dog from biting is a big reason but there are many more.

Why a dog may be muzzle trained: 

✔️ To prevent them from eating rubbish, faeces or other non-food items on walks.
✔️ As a safety measure in areas where dog baits have been reported.
✔️ To reduce stress at the groomer or vet, should the use of a muzzle be requested (I mean reduce stress for your pet AND vet/groomer by the way!)
✔️ To minimise risk when implementing a behaviour modification plan.
✔️ To reduce stress and save valuable time in the case of a medical emergency.
✔️ As a means of encouraging others to respect the space of a dog who is not comfortable around strangers or unknown dogs.
✔️ To allow access to locations or events where the policy is all dogs are muzzled and leashed.
✔️ In the case of breed specific legislation that requires the dog to be muzzled by law, regardless of their history.

Most dog trainers say that muzzle training your dog is a bit like getting pet insurance. You don’t need it until you do! And if you haven’t already got it when you need it then it’s simply too late.

For example, should an incident occur where your dog is seriously injured (such as a car accident) and you need to transport them, there is a significant chance that you would need to muzzle them in order to move them safely. 
It is not uncommon for a dog that is in serious pain to lash out and bite, even their most beloved human

By conducting proactive muzzle training with your dog so that they feel really good about wearing it, you may be able to significantly reduce their stress levels should you require to muzzle them in an emergency. 

Another common scenario is in the vet clinic or on the grooming table. We all know that in some situations and despite our best efforts, visiting the vet or groomer can be stressful for your pet.

However, this is slowly changing thanks to incredible initiatives such as Fear Free™ Pets, developed by US Veterinarian,” Dr. Marty Becker. This resource provides online and in-person education to veterinary professionals, the pet professional community and pet owners.

Should your pets require a procedure that the groomer or vet requests they be muzzled for, you may be able to significantly reduce your dog’s stress levels throughout the process if they have been trained to love wearing their muzzle.
“But my dog hates wearing her muzzle!”
It is crucial that when training your dog to wear a muzzle (or in any training context for that matter) that you work at your dog’s pace and allow them choice and control over what happens to them during the session. 

Most often when a client tells me of their dog’s hatred for their muzzle I do a little bit of investigating. Generally, I find that no prior training was conducted. More often than not, the dog had the muzzle forced on and strapped up and really when you think about it a little bit, it is not all that surprising that they hate it.

How would you feel if I came up to you and forced a balaclava over your head? If when you resisted I forcefully restrained you and then secured the mask so that you couldn’t remove it yourself?

Yes, I am being just a little bit dramatic here. But, as much as we shouldn’t anthropomorphise our dogs, sometimes I feel that making a comparison like that helps us to understand our dog’s perspective.

It is important that you understand I do not say these sorts of things in order to shame people who may have done this with their dog. The fact is that so many people just don’t know that there is another way and it reminds me of one of my favourite quotes:

“We do the best we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.”

How to choose the right muzzle for your dog:

But, before we get into how to train this invaluable behaviour, first we need to purchase the right muzzle for our dog. 

Adoptable Atticus from Monika's Doggie Rescue
Photo Credit: Nathan Arneaud

As with everything we do with our dog, their comfort and safety are paramount when selecting what kind of muzzle will be purchased. 

Personally, I find myself regularly recommending the Baskerville muzzle as I have found it to provide the best safety, comfort and security compared to other muzzles I have used in my training career or my previous work in rescue. 

However, the type of muzzle that you choose will depend largely on your dog’s shape, size and the function you are using it for. This comparison chart may help you select the right muzzle for your dog.

The main things I generally look for in a muzzle are: 

✔️ Correct sizing for the comfort of the dog and to ensure the muzzle remains secure.
✔️ The dog’s ability to pant normally while wearing it.
✔️ The dog’s ability to drink while wearing the muzzle.
✔️ My ability to deliver treats through the muzzle.

Now for the fun part – Training! Remember I am not just saying this because I’m a massive nerd and I love training dogs but also because your dog needs to love it too. Training should be fun for everyone! 
If you don’t feel like it is, then please consider getting the help of your local force free dog trainer

Tips for Muzzle Training your Dog

One of the most important things to remember when working on muzzle training (or again, any training!) is that your dog is the one who is in control of the session

If your dog doesn’t want to do something, do not make them! Because that is a really great way to help them begin to dislike their muzzle or whatever other training exercise you are trying to work on. 

Instead, if you are having difficulties ask for less by making the task more achievable for your dog

If for example, you are having trouble getting your dog to put their snout into the muzzle consider whether maybe rewarding them a bunch times for just looking at the muzzle would help, then for leaning their head in the general direction of the muzzle, then sniffing the muzzle and so on ... 
Rather than going straight for putting their snout inside. 

This is a common theme in a lot of training. If it is too hard, make it easier! Either by lowering the criterion/criteria or by thinking of some foundation exercises you can do to help your dog begin to understand by working on a simpler task. Just don’t keep beating your head against a brick wall if it’s not working! Because sometimes the slower way can be the faster way. 

Another option is working on a foundation behaviour like a chin rest as is demonstrated in the Kikopup Muzzle Training video below. 

Muzzle Training Video : Kikopup / Dogmantics Dog Training - Emily Larham 

What I really love about this video are the foundation exercises that Emily provides on her YouTube channel along with this great muzzle training instructional video (If you aren’t already subscribed to her channel I would absolutely recommend that you do so). 

But, this is just one way to train your dog to wear a muzzle. There are so many force free options available to pick from! Every dog is different and some techniques may work more effectively than others, this can also depend on the handlers' training experience and what they feel comfortable doing as well. 

Just remember that no matter how you decide to train this behaviour that your dog is the one who is in control, so please listen to them if they are asking you to slow things down.

Muzzle training is such an important life skill to add to your dog’s repertoire. With the steady rise of co-operative handling practices among pet parents it is my greatest hope that we can begin to eliminate the need for our pets to fear us or our intentions when the time comes for a nail trim, to wear an Elizabethan collar (the cone of shame), wear a muzzle, be given ear medicine or any other handling that traditionally had involved forcing our pet to comply.

The two biggest things to take away from this article, whether in application to muzzle training or any other handling with your dog are:

1) to be proactive and 
2) to listen to your learner

Starting any kind of training on a neutral baseline is will almost always be easier and less time consuming than if we allow our pet to learn to dislike the training from the get go.

To learn more about Muzzle Training, watch this video:

Disclaimer: This article provides general advice regarding muzzle training. Every dog is an individual and requires an individual training plan to address any behaviour targeted for change. If your dog feels uncomfortable around strangers, dogs or anything else to the point that you feel the need to muzzle them, please contact your local, qualified, force free dog trainer for help!

written by Jess Sandstrom, May 2019 for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved)

About the Writer

Jess Sandstrom from Howling Success Dog Training and Behaviour has been working with dogs professionally since 2012. 

Beginning in Rescue she then moved on to complete formal qualifications in Dog Training: Diploma of Canine Behaviour Science and Technology (CASI); Statement of Attainment in Dog Training (TAFE); member of Pet Professional Guild AustraliaAssociation of Pet Dog TrainersAssociation of Animal Behaviour Professionals.

Jess believes that by helping her clients create a deep relationship which goes beyond the basic dog/owner dynamic, this benefits not only the team she's working with, but greatly reduces the risk of dogs being surrendered to shelters or abandoned due to behaviour which may be labelled as ‘antisocial’.

She uses science-based, positive reinforcement techniques, allowing both person and dog the space to learn how to communicate with each other without the use of force, and allowing their relationship to flourish. 

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