Muzzle’s get a bad reputation. Many people see muzzles as a last resort for aggressive dogs who are out of control. But muzzles don’t have to be that way!
Muzzles can be a very helpful tool for many dogs. In addition to keeping dogs with a bite risk safe and able to enjoy a larger variety of activities, they can prevent dogs from eating rocks and other items while out hiking. They can also be a cue to others to give a dog who is nervous, in training, or not feeling well more space. And they can be used in an emergency situation to make it easier to treat a painful, stressed dog without worrying about a bite.
A well-fitted muzzle still allows a dog to take treats, drink, and pant comfortably. They should not be something to fear or avoid.
Since this blog post is part of a series on living an active life with a dog who exhibits reactive behaviors, we will discuss when you should consider having your dog wear a muzzle on a regular basis when out and about. But first, let’s take a look at why ALL dogs should be trained to wear a muzzle.
Why All Dogs Should Wear a Muzzle
Like learning how to relax quietly in a kennel or walk on a loose leash, learning how to wear a muzzle is an important life skill that all dog’s should have. Sure, a well-adjusted and well-trained dog may not need to spend much time in a kennel, on a leash, or wearing a muzzle, but there are situations that will require these skills.
As a veterinarian, I see dogs in these situations on a regular basis. Does your dog need to spend a day at a veterinary clinic for surgery or to have a dental cleaning performed or even for a diagnostic work-up? If so, then your dog will need to be kenneled for part of the day. And there is a big difference in patient comfort between dogs that have learned to comfortably spend time in a kennel vs. dogs that have anxiety surrounding being left in a kennel.
The same is true for a muzzle. At the veterinary clinic, I often work with dogs who are painful and stressed. Dogs that in other situations have never shown any inclination towards biting. But biting when someone is hurting you and not stopping (even if they are hurting you in order to help you) is a normal response.
If your dog is comfortable wearing a muzzle, placing a muzzle during painful care can reduce the stress for your dog and everyone working with your dog. Even better if your dog has a muzzle that they are used to wearing and you can bring with to veterinary visits.
Most veterinary clinics have fabric muzzles, but if you are training your dog to wear their own muzzle, I recommend basket muzzles. I will discuss the reasons why later in this post.
Also, in addition to acclimating your dog to a standard basket muzzle, I recommend getting your dog used to an emergency shoe-string muzzle.
A shoe string muzzle is exactly what it sounds like. A shoelace, rope, or even a leash can be turned into an emergency muzzle to be used if your dog is injured while out hiking or walking and tries to bite when moved.
The video below shows how to apply a shoe string muzzle made out of a leash.
When Should a Reactive Dog Wear a Muzzle?
Dogs should wear a muzzle during walks, hikes, and other activities when an owner is concerned about their dog biting, wants other people and dogs to give their dog space, or if their dog eats items along the trail.
In a previous blog post, we talked about reasons why it is important to use secure gear when out and about with a reactive dog. And one of the biggest reasons is that it reduces handler stress and anxiety.
If you spend your entire hike worrying about a stranger reaching down to pet your dog without asking or about a friendly off-leash dog running right up into your dog’s space, a muzzle can help you feel more confident that even if something happens, you dog cannot bite a person or another dog.
This will help you relax and will in turn help your dog relax. Remember that study about dogs matching their humans levels of chronic stress? And remember how high cortisol levels correlate with increased reactivity? These are the reasons it is important that you are not stressed while walking and hiking with your dog, especially if your dog is working on reducing reactive behavior. Your dog will respond to your anxiety and over arousal, with anxiety and over-arousal of their own.
So if you will feel more comfortable with your dog muzzled, then you should muzzle your dog. If dogs can learn to wear goggles like Rex Specs comfortable (just google “dog googles” for some fun pictures) then they can hike just as easily in a well-fitted muzzle.
But always remember: The muzzle itself will not fix a dog’s behavior. The muzzle will help keep every safe and help you feel calmer, allowing you to continue safely working on desensitiziation, counterconditioning, and other behavior modificat that will allow your dog to become calmer and more confident.
It is also important to note that not all muzzles truly prevent biting. This article by Dog Gear Review title “Did You Know That Not All Muzzles Are Bite-Proof?” has some excellent photo examples of styles of muzzles that my still alow some level biting.
Choosing and Fitting a Muzzle
A well-fitted muzzle to be used when out hiking and adventuring should allow your dog to take a drink, take treats, and fully pant. It should also be secure enough that it will not slip off. Depending on the shape of your dog’s face it may mean that you have to try a few muzzles on before finding the right one.
Typically, you will need to measure the circumference around your dog’s muzzle at it’s widest point. And you will also need to know the length or your dog’s muzzle, from in front of their eyes to the tip of their nose. So before your start shopping for a muzzle, make sure to get your dog’s measurements. There is a lot of variation between dog’s face sizes and shapres.
For many dogs, a muzzle shape like the Baskerville Muzzle will work well, but if you have a very flat-faced (think pug or bulldog) or a very pointy nosed (think german sheppard or collie) dog, then you may need a different style.
Baskerville makes 2 different muzzle styles, the Ultra, which is what fits the best on my dogs, and the classic (which is made for longer nosed dogs).
The image below is a Baskerville Ultra Muzzle. (Clicking on the image will take you to the product link on Amazon. I am an Amazon Affiliate and ear with qualifying purchases.)
You can see the Ultra style placed on a dog in the following video.
As you can see in the video, a properly fit muzzle should not press against the dog’s nose or eyes. And it should allow the dog to pant easily.
The baskerville muzzle is nice, as you can easily feed treats through it. However, be aware, that since you can feed treats easily, this also means that there are gaps for your dog to bite/pinch other objects.
If you have a dog with a face shape similar to a border collie, Dog Gear Review has reviewed the Baskerville Muzzle with Mia the border collie. She has also review several other styles of muzzles at this point, including a beautiful biothane muzzle from Trust Your Dog.
If you don’t think your dog will fit well in a Baskerville muzzle and are looking for some recommendations for hard to fit dogs, check out this article by Journey Dog Training.
Another great resource for finding different muzzle styles, is the Muzzle Up Project. They have a nice muzzle equipment guide article. You can find a lot of other good resources on their website also!
How to Train Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle
Once you have selected a muzzle that fits your dog well, it is time to start training your dog to wear a muzzle comfortably.
This process may take a while. And it should be fun for your dog. Remember the stress signals that have been discussed in a previous post and try to make sure your dog is not demonstrating any stress during this training session.
- Find your dog’s favorite treats (we have a whole blog post about finding your dog’s favorite treat).
- Bring the muzzle out to show your dog.
- When your dog shows interest in the muzzle (i.e. sniffing the muzzle, etc), mark that behavior, and give your dog a treat. If your dog knows a “touch” command, you can ask for that behavior.
- If your dog is already comfortable with buckles snapping and a collar being placed on, you can secure the muzzle around your dog’s neck (but not over the nose yet) and keep the flow of treats coming.
- When you take the muzzle off, stop the treats.
Keep these training sessions short. Only 5 minutes or so and work your way through the following steps over the course of several days.
After your dog is excited to see the muzzle and comfortable wearing the muzzle around his or her neck, start asking your dog to place their nose in the muzzle.
- You can lure your dog to put their nose in the muzzle by holding a treat inside the muzzle (through the opening designed for feeding treats while your dog is wearing the muzzle).
- Let your dog work at their own pace. If they are too nervous to place their nose in the muzzle, back up a step and make sure they are comfortable just touching the outside of the muzzle with their nose first. (Again watch for all those stress signals).
- If your dog is comfortable reaching into the muzzle for a treat, give them the treat. But don’t try to put the muzzle on yet.
- Once your dog is a champ at taking one treat at a time from inside the muzzle, grab more treats or a treat that takes longer to eat and offer several treats in a row to encourage your dog to keep their nose in the muzzle for longer.
Can your dog comfortable keep their nose in the muzzle to take multiple treats? If the answer is yes, then it is time to start delaying the reward.
- Wait 1-2 seconds to give the treat the next time your dog places their nose in the muzzle.
- Then wait 5 seconds the time after that.
- Keep extending the time until your dog is comfortable keeping their nose in the muzzle for 10-15 seconds.
- Then start reaching behind your dog’s head when you offer the treat. Again make sure you aren’t seeing a re-emergence of stress signals.
- If your dog remains calm and comfortable, clip the straps and secure the muzzle. Make sure to offer several treats while the muzzle is fastened. Only leave the muzzle on for a few seconds the first time.
- Gradually increase the length of time your dog wears the muzzle and always associate muzzle wearing with good things like eating a meal, play time, going out for a walk (if that isn’t stressful for your dog), etc.
Here’s a printable version of this training process from the Muzzle-Up Project.
Have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments section below!
But hopefully this article has encouraged you to work with your dog to ensure they are comfortable with at least an emergency muzzle being placed.