Muzzle Up!: Why Every Dog Should Be Muzzle Trained

Every dog?

Yes. I believe every single dog should be muzzle trained. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every dog needs to wear a muzzle in public, of course (though you should periodically do so to maintain the training!) but I am a firm believer that every dog should be trained to accept a muzzle.

So, why do I believe that? Not all dogs will bite, so why train all dogs to a muzzle? The short answer is that you should train your dog to accept a muzzle as a proactive measure. Any dog, no matter how placid and sweet, has the capability to bite. In today’s society, we often forget that while dogs are beloved pets, they are animals first with strong instincts toward self-preservation. Unfortunately, we can’t tell a dog, “There’s a thorn in your paw – I’m going to take it out but it will hurt for a moment” and expect them to understand that. The dog will react to the pain of the thorn being removed (and the pain from it being in a paw in the first place!) no matter how much you try to explain it to them.

On top of this, sadly, you may not be the one handling your dog in an emergency. Often the person handling your dog at their state of highest pain is a veterinarian and vet techs, who your dog may not accept as “not dangerous” if they are already stressed and hurt.

The second part of this is that muzzles aren’t just for aggression! Many people use them to stop dogs with pica (compulsive ingestion of a variety of things) from eating things off the ground either while they work on training, or as a management tactic if the training has failed. For those who want to use public transportation, dogs are often required to wear a muzzle on buses or trains.

Personally, I’ve used a muzzle with my own dog as an extra visual signal that people shouldn’t just come up to touch him all over. He’s never been a bite risk and likely never will be with the extensive training we’ve put in, but on days when I just don’t have the energy to deal with counter-conditioning and working with him on trust issues, he is in a muzzle. It vastly decreases the amount of people who see him and coo “Oh what a cute dog!” while reaching for his face. That extra space gives me the room and energy to step aside to work with him, or decide that I’m not up for that work and vacate the area.

Grem also considers his muzzle part of his “working” gear. His focus zeroes in on me when it goes on, and he will greet people with friendly tail wags, but I am the person he keeps his eyes on.

Now with all this backstory and justification above, let’s talk muzzles. What ones should you use? What ones shouldn’t you use?

The safest, most effective, and most comfortable muzzle type is a basket muzzle. These are the ones people think look “scary” but they are genuinely the best option. In a properly fitted muzzle, the dog can pant, drink, and take treats. These muzzles are a particularly good option for dogs who are reactive and need counter-conditioning, but are a bite risk in the event of an unexpected trigger.

For dogs with relatively “standard shaped” faces (Labradors, Beagles, etc) I recommend the Baskerville Ultra. It’s the muzzle I’ve used with my own dog for about seven years now, it has barely any wear/tear, and he’s comfortable in it. It’s been perfect for working on his reactivity, and has been visible enough that it signals he may need more space.

If your dog is extra tiny or has a short face, (or you have the money to splurge for your regular-shaped dog) I recommend BUMAS muzzles. They come in cute, flashy colors and they make ones tiny enough for even the littlest dogs. They’re also perfect for dogs like french bulldogs, boxers, and pugs, who have very short muzzles. The biggest con of these is how expensive they are, but they are the best of the best.

If your dog has a long face, my suggestion would be to find a lightweight greyhound muzzle. These are specially adapted for the long face of greyhounds, but they also work quite well for dogs like German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Rough and Smooth Collies, and other long-nosed breeds.

My biggest piece of advice is to never use a mesh muzzle for any longer than twenty or so minutes, never in heat, and never during exercise. This means that if you’ll be out for a walk, on a long vet visit, or it’s warm, don’t use a mesh muzzle.

“So do I just put on the muzzle and that’s that?”

Valid question, and the answer is no! For proper muzzling, you want to condition the dog to love, or at least be neutral to, his muzzle. This means training the muzzle without leaving it on for long periods of time at first.

  • When first beginning, place a delicious treat in the muzzle and hold it out to your dog. Allow them to take the treat and back out. Repeat often for short bursts each day until they are enthusiastically shoving their face into the muzzle.
  • Next, use something longer-lasting like peanut butter and smear it inside the muzzle for them to lick. This builds duration of the muzzle. Many dogs at this point will willingly shove their face into the muzzle without food present to see if food will magically appear.
  • Once they’re comfortable with it for longer periods of time, work on fastening the muzzle, leaving it on for 10 seconds, and taking it back off. Slowly increase the amount of time the dog is wearing the muzzle, including sometimes leaving it on just to hang out around the house.
  • Once you’re up to 15 or so minutes, you can take a short walk with it on. Increase the amount of time the muzzle is on for walks gradually, and reward heavily while out on a walk with the muzzle on.

The biggest piece of advice here is to go slow! Dogs don’t naturally love having things on their face, but muzzle training is an invaluable skill to have in your back pocket. When I started working with Grem’s reactivity, it gave the people around us a very visual “please stay back – he’s not comfortable” cue. Because people no longer rushed him (or at least asked before approaching) we made progress with making him feel safe and comfortable with people much faster.

Happy muzzling!

Relaxing in a yarn store in a down-stay while my fiance and I looked at yarn (he’s the knitter – I just like the colors).

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