Why should I muzzle train my dog?
There may be an occasion in the future when your dog needs to wear a muzzle. For example, muzzles are often recommended as a temporary part of the behavioral treatment plan for dogs that ingest dangerous objects. Also, if your dog is injured and in pain, they could bite a person trying to bring them to safety. By proactively teaching your dog to relax while wearing a muzzle, you will be able to use this valuable tool if necessary.
If your dog is treated for aggressive behavior, then a muzzle may be recommended to ensure the safety of others. Muzzles can be helpful during certain behavior modification exercises, such as desensitization to being handled at the veterinary office. Muzzles may also be used in specific contexts as part of a behavior management plan.
Think of a muzzle like a seatbelt. The seatbelt is there to prevent an injury in case of an accident or sudden difficult situation. A muzzle is the same: it is a way to prevent a problem. Certainly, every time we fasten a seatbelt in the car, we hope we will not need it, but if we do need it, we are grateful it is there and a normal thing to wear.
Basket muzzles are a great tool for safety and management for many dogs. Some dogs with short snouts (such as pugs, bulldogs, and similar brachycephalic breeds) can learn to wear a cone or “lampshade” collar as an alternative.
What types of muzzles are available?
There are two common types of muzzle: the basket muzzle and the sleeve muzzle (usually nylon or mesh). Basket muzzles are preferred. A properly fitted basket muzzle will allow the dog to open its mouth, pant, eat treats, and show body language signals – but will prevent a bite.
In comparison, the sleeve muzzle is snug, and it does not allow your dog to pant or show signals such as snarls to indicate fear. It also does not allow the dog to easily take training treats, which makes it more difficult to implement counterconditioning, an effective behavior modification tool. In general, sleeve muzzles should be used only in an urgent situation when there is no other alternative, and only for very short periods of time.
Muzzles should not be used to prevent a dog from opening its mouth or as a tool to stop barking.
How do I choose a muzzle for my dog?
Every dog’s nose and face shape is unique. There are many shapes and brands of basket muzzles available, including custom-fit basket muzzles designed specifically for your dog. It is worth the time and effort to find the right muzzle fit for your dog.
Choose a muzzle that is sturdy enough to prevent a bite, allows your dog to pant and eat treats, does not sit on the soft nose flesh or nostrils, does not touch the eyes, and that your dog cannot remove on their own. Ask a veterinary professional, experienced trainer, or behavior consultant for help, as they will be familiar with the many muzzles available and will help to point you in the right direction.
How do I train my dog to enjoy wearing a muzzle?
Once you have selected a muzzle that is a good fit, it is time to start training. Start when your dog is feeling happy and ready to work with you. You will need your muzzle; many tiny, soft, delicious treats; a marker word or clicker (see handout “Clicker Training” for details); and a quiet place to work, free from distractions. Consider having a second type of treat available for the dog to easily lick, such as spray cheese, squeeze pouch baby food, or squeeze pouch peanut butter.
If your dog is already familiar with shaping exercises, it is usually simple to teach them to wear a muzzle using this technique (see handout “Puppy Behavior and Training – Training Basics” for an overview).
"The first goal of muzzle training is to show the dog that putting their nose into the muzzle is a very positive experience."
The method described here is for dogs who do not have a pre-existing fear or worry about being muzzled. If your dog has an existing fear of this equipment, or shows significant avoidance to the process, consult a behavior professional for coaching and guidance.
The first goal of muzzle training is to show the dog that putting their nose into the muzzle is a very positive experience; it is a fun, easy way to get a treat.
Let your dog see the muzzle
To begin, simply let your dog see and sniff the muzzle, then reward. Do not try to place the muzzle on the dog, just give treats when your dog interacts with the muzzle. Keep sessions short, just 1-2 minutes at the most.
Teach your dog to enter the muzzle
Next, teach your dog to enter the muzzle. You will need a treat that you can easily insert through the slot of the basket from the outside of the muzzle. Many basket muzzles have an enlarged area that is a designated feeding slot. If yours does not have this slot, you may be able to enlarge one of the openings.
Consider what the muzzle looks like from your dog’s point of view. They should be able to see the treat being inserted through the opening.
- Cup the muzzle in your hand, with your hand facing the ceiling. This allows you to support the basket and minimize the pressure on your dog’s nose.
- Turn the muzzle so the opening is facing your dog.
- Place a treat so the dog can see it through the basket.
- When your dog makes any move toward the basket, push the treat through the basket into your cupped hand so the dog can easily eat the treat while barely placing their nose into the basket.
- After a few successful repetitions, gradually wait longer and longer before inserting the treat into the basket. Eventually, your dog should place their entire nose into the basket before you insert the treat.
- Once your dog will easily place their whole nose into the basket, offer the basket in different orientations to confirm that your dog is highly motivated to enter the muzzle, even if they need to turn their head slightly to the left, right, up or down.
- Next, introduce motion. For this step, squeeze cheese, baby food, or peanut butter can be helpful. Present the basket; when the dog inserts their nose, feed lickable treats through the front of the basket. Now, try taking a couple of steps backward, still holding the muzzle. Will your dog walk with you in order to keep her nose inside the basket?
- Once your dog can move their head in different angles, and once they are willing to walk forward to get into the basket, begin closing the straps. Most dogs who are accustomed to wearing a flat buckle collar around their neck will quickly adapt to having the muzzle secured—the muzzle strap should feel the same as a collar. Immediately feed your dog treats once you have secured the strap.
- After 1–2 seconds, stop feeding, unclip the strap, and remove the basket. As the dog becomes more comfortable, you can leave the basket on for longer periods.
- Once your dog can tolerate the basket for 10 seconds, ask them to do one of the fun tricks you have taught. Examples might include sit, touch, target, lie down, or give paw. Choose the ones they like the best! Deliver the food reward through the basket.
Gradually build up the time that your dog wears the muzzle. A dog can wear the muzzle for an hour or more, as long as you give them water if they are thirsty.
If your dog is comfortable in new environments, consider bringing your basket with you on walks, on field trips, to different rooms in the house, and to different parts of the yard. Practice in many different situations and locations so the muzzle behavior begins to feel normal and is tolerated as well as a leash and collar.
What if my dog is reluctant to approach the muzzle in the early sessions?
If your dog shows reluctance or hesitates, resist the urge to coax or lure them to come closer. If you do, the dog may rush forward, grab the treat, and back away. The pattern of rapidly snatching the treat and backing up is the opposite of the desired behavior and means your dog is too fearful to continue training. If your dog is fearful, it is best to work with an experienced behavioral professional.