Introducing a muzzle to a dog can be done for a wide variety of reasons. Conventionally, muzzles are used to prevent biting either another animal or a person, but they may also be employed in stressful situations such as visits to the vets. Muzzles can also be used for dogs that are ardent scavengers and put their own health at risk as a result of eating inappropriate items (discarded food or faeces) when out on a walk or potentially in the garden. Regardless of the reason for your dog wearing a muzzle, it should be introduced in a gradual and positive way free from stress. Grappling with your dog and forcing a muzzle on is likely to create a very negative and scary association for your dog that can spoil future efforts to use it again. Although we should aim to carry out an introductory phase to the muzzle, I have seen many dogs wear a muzzle for the first time and take to it very quickly free from stress, so try not to be overly concerned on your dog's part from the outset and follow my pointers for an extended introduction to ensure the positive association wherever possible.
As a quick aside, the pictured dog is an Akita cross that I assessed in Northern Ireland for the courts after it was involved in a dog to dog incident and a person was injured accidentally in the process of splitting the dogs up. He is wearing a Baskerville Ultra muzzled and it fits him well. You can also see the head strap that runs between the eyes and ears back to the main strap on the neck.
Let me state at this stage that a dog should not be made to wear a muzzle in a vet practice unless it is essential for the safety of others at that time - such as an emergency visit. If a dog is showing high levels of stress or aggression during a regular check-up or vaccination visit, for example, the appointment should be stopped and muzzle training should be undertaken ready for the return visit. Stories of pinning dogs on the floor and in doorways are too common (not to mention traumatic for the dog and could lead to other behavioural problems away from the vets) and are completely unnecessary when the correct approach is taken. I have undertaken numerous behaviour cases whereby we look at the subject of visits to the vets and a dog can change how it sees this with adequate time and effort.
The muzzle I prefer (and recommend in nearly all cases) is the Baskerville Ultra muzzle with the large open vents, which allows good ventilation, drinking and treating through the front. With an optional strap over the head, it also makes it very secure. This excellent basket muzzle is soft, yet secure. You can order them here from Amazon at the regular price.
How to Introduce a basket muzzle - A quick guide
- Let your dog see and sniff the muzzle and reward these actions with food and verbal praise. 2-3 days. 2 sessions per day.
- Drop high-value food inside the basket muzzle (or smear the end with cream cheese or peanut butter) as you cup it in your hand. Allow your dog to place its nose in and retrieve the food. 5-7 days. 2 sessions per day.
- Place the strap around the dog's neck as it retrieves the food and keep it fastened for 10-30 seconds each time. Remove and finish the session. 2-3 days. 2 sessions per day.
- With your dog muzzled and with the muzzle loosely secured on the head, walk your dog about the home and garden using a regular lead to its collar, rewarding with food and praise as you do so. start at 1-minute sessions and build up to the duration of a normal walk if used in public. Make the muzzle more secure once used in public spaces.
- If your dog scrapes at the muzzle, issue a 'Leave it' command and distract your dog with food and interesting activity instead.
Although the above is a very quick go-to guide on how to introduce the muzzle, there are numerous other aspects to consider which I'd like to look at with you. Some may not be relevant depending on why you are using the muzzle in the first place.
When introducing a new basket muzzle (see the video and quick guide above), you must make the experience rewarding, gradual and positive. Placing a lead on your dog and sitting on it may assist you to keep a little more control whilst you do this, otherwise, you may find that your dog walks away mid-session.
To make a start, drop a piece of food (cheese or meat is ideal) into the basket muzzle and bring it up to the dog's nose. The dog will smell the food and press forward to get at the treat pushing its face into the muzzle as he does so, carefully slide the muzzle a little way over the nose so he can get the treat, then immediately remove it praising at the same time.
Do this a number of times without attaching the muzzle or forcing it on, you can use a word like 'Goooood', or even 'Muzzle' whilst you are placing it over the nose. Continue these exercises over a number of days in different places in the house and garden. Refer to the quick guide above for suggested timings and duration.
When you think your dog is ready, secure the muzzle on behind the neck for a few seconds, and then take it off soon afterwards. Do this on a number of occasions gradually increasing the time the muzzle is left on from seconds to minutes and then longer. Make sure it is not too restrictive and tight around the mouth and nose as this can restrict drinking and breathing and could distress the dog.
How to fit a basket muzzle on a dog
Below is a two-minute video of Scooby the Staffie as I work with the owners to ensure that the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle we got him fits correctly. Now, because dog's muzzle shapes vary so much, it's not an easy task for me to state exactly how to go about this. Flat faced dogs can present particular problems with muzzle sizing as it can get in their eyes and cause all sorts of rubbing issues due to a misfit. If you find yourself in this position and own a dog that must be muzzled in public, then search online for 'handmade muzzles' and various options are open to you. This particular issue aside, you can either order a couple of sizes that you think will do the job and return the one you don't need, or another approach is to take your dog to a large pet store and to request that you take a couple out to the car for fitting purposes and come back to pay for the one that fits. There is a simple muzzle fitting guide on Amazon for the Baskerville Ultra muzzle that I use.
Ensure there is enough room around the muzzle itself and that the tip of the nose is not pressed against the end of the muzzle. Er on the spacious side rather than to be restrictive. A quick tip re plastic shaped muzzles, if you find that it is too narrow and maybe needs to be widened for comfort. Using some thin wire, create the shape you want so that it holds the shape when resting and off the dog, and then plunge the whole muzzle in boiling water for a minute and then allow to cool and it should hold that shape once the wire has been removed.
The earlier Baskerville muzzles are more rigid in their construction, but I still like the long snout shape for certain breeds and you might like to look at this model if your dog has a more German Shepherd shape (longer) snout for example. A couple of tips with this particular muzzle. There is a plate at the end near the nose that slides out and often gives a little more comfort. You can carefully snip out the hash type bars at the very front and sand the edges to allow the insertion of treats once it is on.
Possible reasons for muzzling your dog
- If your dog needs emergency care at the vets.
- Making initial introductions to other dogs or other animals and care needs to be exercised.
- If your dog is compelled to wear a muzzle due to a court restriction under the Dangerous Dogs Act.
- To prevent inappropriate eating of food on walks.
- When undertaking behavioural training and you know that your dog may nip or bite a person or another animal.
Concerns regarding the perception of a dog wearing a muzzle in public
I wanted to cover this area as it does come up as an objection quite frequently and although I can understand the owner's thoughts on this, safety is always our primary concern. Once the dog is more settled and we feel that the muzzle can be removed, well, we can remove it, but doing so beforehand (or carrying it 'just in case') is not good enough and fails to fully recognise the need for the muzzle and the protection of other dogs and/or people. I recall a case whereby I advised a muzzle was to be worn by a Labrador at all times when in public and the owner decided that carrying it in case would be good enough. This dog went on to attack a smaller dog quite seriously and you can imagine the awkward conversation when this fact came to light!
Placing a muzzle on a dog can offer numerous benefits as well as preventing the obvious, such as nips or bites. It will help give you space in public with a dog that is anxious around people or dogs for example. Very often when walking in public, you may find that people want to approach you and your dog and this (especially in the early stages of behaviour modification) can be a frustrating issue. I have also seen some dogs change from lunging and snapping at other dogs and or people, to being easier to manage and a little subdued once the muzzle is on. This calmer behaviour can often be a useful advantage as you start a programme in overcoming such behaviour in the longer term.
I asked a customer to put down in writing her thoughts on using a muzzle on her black Labrador, Elsa, as she had some dog to dog aggressive tendencies and I spent a good while explaining the benefits of the Baskerville Ultra muzzle and so here's what she wrote later on in the process - you may take some comfort from it:
Hi Nick, As requested my feedback on using the muzzle with Elsa....
The thought of using the muzzle on Elsa was really disappointing and I was really worried about what people would think. She's a Labrador for goodness sake, everyone thinks they are the most friendly, family orientated, service dogs, and here is one on a muzzle? I thought people would avoid us on the street, they'd cross over the road, she would never get the dog contact she needed to get over her fear/dislike of other dogs.
Up until this point, I'd just been lead walking Elsa, keeping her close to me, crossing over the road if other dogs were coming. Walks were stressful, I always felt anxious about her behaviour as she was unpredictable and 90% of the time she was great, but that 10% of the time was the risk. Previously she had always run around off her lead, she was great with other dogs, she got loads and loads of exercise which was absolutely what she needed for a young dog from working stock. I'd stopped taking her with me places. We couldn't go to pubs or cafes, or into town as she had become unpredictable if people touched her.
Putting her on the muzzle is absolutely the best decision I have made. I can walk her and feel relaxed, we enjoy our time together out and about. It allows me to introduce her to other dogs and build up her tolerance. She has had more interaction with other dogs in the last 4 weeks than she has had in the last 4 months. I can let her walk on the long line and she's getting great exercise. And more important than that, people don't avoid us at all! Quite the opposite, I've had no one avoid us, no one crosses the road, people let their dogs near her. When they ask why she's muzzled and I explain she's had a few bad experiences with dogs and I'm trying to get her exposed to dogs safely to improve her tolerance - I've actually had people say 'do you want her to sniff my dog'. Ultimately I think it is my prejudice that made that initial decision to muzzle her so hard. And the other thing I've realised? Dogs don't judge! The other dogs out there don't care if she has a muzzle on or not, they just run up and sniff her like any other dog!
Elsa is now having a brilliant time running around, going places with me, we feel united again. Thanks, Claire.
Do muzzles make dogs more aggressive?
A worthy question as I've been asked this a few times. In some cases, the dog may feel more anxious when wearing the muzzle and so this could, in theory, increase the dog's anxiety levels. However, if you make the time and effort to introduce the muzzle in the way that I advise above then you shouldn't see this response. In virtually all cases of muzzle use, I see a decrease in aggression and an increase in the owner's confidence levels, not to mention of course the increase in safety! These main factors make all the difference and allow the main job of modifying the behaviour in and a much easier and safer task ahead.
Which muzzle is best for my dog?
The muzzle that does a very good job for the vast majority of dogs is the Baskerville Ultra and can be purchased here on Amazon at the regular price. The muzzle allows excellent ventilation and the dog can drink and take treats and it is a soft moulded design. I am not a fan of the mesh slip-on muzzle as they do not allow adequate ventilation and if it is used, it should only be used for short periods. In some cases (flat faced dogs in particular), you may need to search for a hand made muzzle online so that you submit the various measurements to fit your dog.
Is the use of a muzzle cruel?
Provided that you introduce the muzzle in the way that I describe above, the short answer is no, not at all. I have seen dogs wear muzzles that have not been introduced to them correctly and they can go to extreme efforts to get them off, causing a great deal of anxiety for the dog and owner in the process. This does not need to be the case and so if this is you and your dog, go right back to the start and take extra time progressing at a speed to suit your dog. Remember, the muzzle is used primarily as a safety device and it is designed to stop your dog from inflicting damage to other dogs and people. It is a device that helps address your responsibility to others by keeping them safe (dogs, people other animals). Using a muzzle is a responsible measure that protects your liability in public spaces. I always say to people that unless it is a legal and permanent measure, we hope to look at a time down the line when the muzzle can be removed, so there is no need to see it a permanent measure.
How long can a dog wear a muzzle?
Placing a muzzle on your dog should only be done when you are directly present and able to supervise your dog's actions. You will need to be realistic in terms of how long your dog is able to wear a muzzle and keeping one on a dog all day long is not a reasonable expectation in my view. If for example, you were undertaking behaviour modification in a public space, you might expect your dog to wear a muzzle for an hour at a time. Use of the muzzle in the home could be for similar periods, for example as people enter the home. Use of the muzzle in the garden could be for short periods such as 10 minutes at a time until you have completed a programme to resolve the issue such as eating its own poo (Coprophagia) or other inappropriate items (stones, you name it!). In some extreme cases where I've had the dog's trying to fight in the home, the muzzle use might amount to a few hours each day initially, until they can be trusted and that we use the muzzle on one dog only, then not at all and just dragging leads as the situation improves.
Help! I can't get the muzzle on my dog!
You may well find yourself in this position if you are trying to place the muzzle on your dog without making adequate efforts to introduce it carefully over a period of time. Return to a very basic introductory approach, so that you ensure your dog sees it as a positive experience. Food motivated dogs could work for their meals so that it all goes through the muzzle as they place their heads inside the muzzle and eat out of your hand for example, as you follow the steps above. Set your expectations along the lines of a 2-4 week training period so that it is on your dog and that he can tolerate it. Carrying out various games and activities once it is on may also help. Placing the muzzle on and then off again throughout an exercise period may help your dog see it as a more positive experience. As already mentioned above, most dogs are quite okay with wearing a muzzle that has been correctly introduced and many will become excited when it comes out prior to the walk, just as they might already with the dog lead and the association your dog has to that.
Can I muzzle my dog for barking?
Whilst the use of a muzzle might suppress your dog's barking, this is not an appropriate method or device to use and is not an ethical way to use a muzzle. Barking has many causes and we should address a dog that barks at its root cause, seeking a long term way to reduce that stress and to return to a more relaxed behaviour as a result. Simply suppressing a behaviour is rarely the best way forward and can be a stressful experience for the dog, plus it suggests that the dog is left muzzled and unsupervised, which is to be strongly discouraged. I have written at length on how to address barking issues in your dog and you might like to read this article here for help and advice on this issue.
Safety points for muzzle use:
I do not recommend muzzles for anxiety-related problems such as separation anxiety, whereby the dog is destructive, or for barking or howling problems; there are much safer and more appropriate techniques for these types of behaviour. Never leave the muzzle on for long periods and always supervise the dog when he is wearing one.