If you see a dog in a muzzle, you immediately think the dog is aggressive. Right? Well, this is not always true.
Unfortunately, seeing a dog in a muzzle carries the stigma the dog is vicious, but there are multiple reasons a dog might be wearing a muzzle. While muzzles do prevent a dog from biting, they can also be used to prevent a dog from eating things he shouldn’t, like rocks or poisonous mushrooms, to minimize nipping for a dog who plays rough with other dogs, or to give a signal to others the dog is fearful and wants space (people usually avoid a dog with a muzzle).
All dogs should be trained to be comfortable with a muzzle. You never know when your dog may be injured and need a muzzle to prevent a bite when it is in pain. Some dogs become fearful in a veterinary clinic or at a grooming salon and snap out of fear. If a veterinarian or groomer must muzzle a dog, it will probably be with the type of nylon muzzle that holds the dog’s mouth tightly closed, making it difficult for the dog to pant. This only increases the dog’s stress.
If your dog has been trained to wear a basket muzzle, it can avoid stress from that part of the situation. One caution: don’t have your dog wear the muzzle only for veterinary or grooming procedures. If that is the only time your dog wears the muzzle, he will begin to associate the muzzle with these events and will begin to pair wearing the muzzle with these times. Prevent that pairing by occasionally having your dog wear the muzzle on walks or during car rides (if your dog likes to ride in the car) so he continues to willingly and happily wear a muzzle.
Muzzles can be used as part of a behavior modification program for dogs who are fighting in the home or during behavior modification for aggression toward strangers or other dogs. However, it should be noted muzzles are only part of the behavior modification process and should not be used to put a dog in a situation in which it is uncomfortable or in a situation that might trigger aggressive behavior. Proper behavior modification for aggression goes slowly, at a distance in which the dog is comfortable, and with training alternative behaviors. A muzzle does nothing to help a dog feel more comfortable; it is simply a precaution to prevent a bite.
The best kind of muzzle to use for any of the above scenarios is a basket muzzle, similar to the kind you would see on a racing greyhound. There are many different kinds: metal, leather, rubber, and polyurethane. A basket muzzle allows your dog to pant, drink water, or take treats. A well-fitted basket muzzle should have enough space underneath your dog’s chin to allow him to open his mouth and space between his nose and the end of the muzzle. The muzzle should not interfere with his sight or rub his snout. The Muzzle Up Project (www.MuzzleUpProject.com) provides useful information on fitting a muzzle, and there are other good resources for fitting online.
After you decide a muzzle would be helpful for your dog and you have purchased a properly fitted basket muzzle, you will need to slowly get your dog accustomed to wearing it. This process is called desensitization. There are slightly different ways to desensitize your dog to a muzzle, but all steps should be taken only at the speed at which your dog is comfortable with each step and be paired with treats. If you rush this process, your dog will not be comfortable with or happy about wearing a muzzle. If your dog has been properly desensitized to wearing a muzzle, he will willingly put his nose in the muzzle when it is offered. The Muzzle Up Project website has instructions and videos on desensitizing your dog to a basket muzzle, as does the website for Fear Free Happy Homes (www.FearFreeHappyHomes.com).