By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
Muzzles are an invaluable resource for comfort and safety, not just for humans or animals that could be on the receiving end of a dog's teeth, but also for the animal wearing the muzzle too.
Many pet parents are reluctant to muzzle condition their dogs for fear others will assume that their dog is aggressive or that people will think poorly of them for being unable to control their pup. This is an unfair and unfortunate stereotype. As pet parents, we want to do what is best for our furry friends. We must advocate training methods that can significantly benefit our dogs and sometimes save their lives. Positive muzzle conditioning is one such training method.
Why Should You Muzzle Train Your Pup?
Training your dog to wear a muzzle can be valuable for situations such as safe vet visits, trips to the groomer, introducing strange dogs, keeping harmful objects out of your dog's mouth, or in emergencies where you may need to protect your pup.
The most important thing is to implement the muzzle so that your dog will not only feel comfortable wearing it but may also experience the benefit of feeling calmer with it on, based on how you've conditioned them. The process can take days, weeks, or even months, depending on your individual pup and whether they have previous experience with a muzzle.
Prep Work: Selecting the Best Muzzle for Your Dog
It can be confusing to sort through the various sizes and shapes of muzzles available. Leather, nylon, cage or basket-style muzzles, mesh dog muzzles - the list goes on. Here's how to choose the best option.
First, narrow your choices to muzzle styles that provide a comfortable fit. Generally, that can be accomplished by picking a standard basket muzzle that will allow for panting, accepting treats, the ability to drink water, and as much freedom to exhibit normal behaviors as possible for positive conditioning.
Next, choose a material based on your pup's level of bite inhibition. Basket muzzles come in biothane, metal, rubber, silicone, and plastic; they offer the most freedom for dogs while providing protection. If your dog has a strong bite, a more durable material such as metal is advised. However, for most dogs, rubber or hard plastic will suffice.
Once you've chosen your style and material, you can select a muzzle with the right size for your pup. Measuring the length and width of your dog's muzzle (the one on their face) is the best way to compare sizes and determine the proper fit. Facial anatomy can drastically differ from one dog to the next. You'll want an adjustable dog muzzle to accommodate your dog's unique facial structure. No matter the length or width of the snout, your dog's nose should not be touching the front of the muzzle; rather, their nose should be just behind the cage where they can still accept treats. If you're unsure, buy a couple of different sizes to find the perfect fit and return the options that aren't quite right.
Some muzzles are adjustable, which is handy for brachycephalic dogs or pups with wider jawlines, such as pit bull-type dogs or American Bulldogs. Reshaping a muzzle may be necessary if any pressure points are pressing into your dog's snout. The muzzle should rest on the face but not apply any pressure to the skin.
Most muzzles come with adjustable straps to comfortably secure them. Some even have a point of optional attachment between the chin and neck for loosely affixing the muzzle to a dog collar.
What to Avoid When Beginning Your Muzzle Training Journey
Do not choose a nylon or cloth muzzle that completely closes your dog's mouth. These are typically used only in emergency medical situations. They may appear softer than other options, but these muzzles prevent your pup from being able to breathe through their mouth or communicate - factors that do not contribute to positive conditioning.
If your pup has used a muzzle at the vet hospital or groomer's, avoid using the same one for muzzle training. Your dog may have stressful or negative associations with the object. For the best chance of success in training, you'll want to start fresh with a new muzzle to build comfort and confidence.
If your dog frequently lunges toward animals or people, do not use a head collar or head halter to walk your dog with their muzzle. Head halters and Gentle Leaders are great options for reducing lunging, but you should focus on one tool at a time when training your dog with new equipment.
Avoid using drugs that will affect your dog's memory during muzzle training. If your pup is on a psychopharmaceutical that keeps stressful memories at bay, talk to your vet about the best option for anxiety-free training sessions. Additionally, a calming supplement may help take the edge off during training and prepare your dog for learning more challenging skills.
Muzzle Training: A Step-by-Step Guide
Before You Begin
Before you begin training sessions, your pup must become familiar with their muzzle. Avoid forcing them to wear the muzzle immediately before a training session. Instead, try having your dog put their face in the muzzle on their own. This will prevent fear and suspicion about the muzzle and make future training efforts go much more smoothly.
Establishing a Training Schedule
I recommend the following schedule for muzzle training your pup.
- Days 1-5: three sessions per day
- Days 6-9: two sessions per day
- Days 10+ one session per week
Session #1: Introducing the Muzzle
This first session is all about getting your pup used to this new fun thing. Let it be about an introduction to the muzzle and being excited about it to begin forming a positive emotional association with the object. Let your dog be a part of the unboxing process and speak in high happy tones.
Toss some yummy treats around the box and the muzzle once you unbox it to encourage your dog to explore the new mystery object. This association method is the same that you will use throughout the following steps to train your dog to wear a muzzle.
Session #2: Becoming Familiar with The Muzzle
In the second session, you will move the straps out of the way by wrapping them behind the muzzle and holding them in the same hand you hold the muzzle. When your dog comes to sniff and explore, offer a treat. Repeat.
Sessions #3 and #4: Trying the Muzzle On
In this session, hold a treat from the outside of the muzzle into the muzzle so your dog has to go into the muzzle to get the reward. You can use a long sausage treat like salmon sausage sticks if your dog has a longer nose (meaning more of their face will be in the muzzle) to get used to it without having to go all the way in just yet.
In session four, rub xylitol-free organic peanut butter (or freeze salmon baby food on the inside of the muzzle if they don't enjoy peanut butter) on the inside of the muzzle and hold it for your dog to enjoy as you would an interactive enrichment toy.
Sessions #5-7: Learning to Like the Muzzle
This time, start by holding a treat through the muzzle again; as soon as your dog has a hold of the snack, praise them and immediately pull the muzzle away to start your game of "keep away." Repeat this process and then add movement. For example, when your dog has the treat, offer praise, pull the muzzle away, and take a few steps away from your pup. This encourages your dog to follow you and builds confidence in putting the muzzle on.
In session six, while you are backing away, present the muzzle and as your dog goes towards it, praise them and insert the treat into the muzzle for them to retrieve. Repeat several times.
In session seven, present the muzzle in an excited fashion. When your dog approaches it, praise them, and insert the treat into the muzzle again for them to retrieve. Continue your keep-away game by hiding it behind your back and repeating your presentation of the muzzle. Repeat several times.
Session #8: Making it a Long-Term Relationship
During this training session, use a longer-lasting treat to encourage your pup to stay in the muzzle. Present the muzzle and when your dog orients towards it, insert the long-lasting snack and begin moving backward as your dog enjoys the treat while moving with you. When they have nearly finished the treat, pull the muzzle away from the dog and repeat.
Sessions #9-11: Buckle Up
In session nine, buckle the muzzle straps at the loosest setting and hold a treat on the other side of the loop you just made so your dog will put their head through to retrieve the snack on the other side of the loop. When they get the treat, offer praise and play keep away again, practicing this several times.
On the last time, pull away, let go of the muzzle strap when your dog's head is through, and immediately offer another treat. This will help your dog get used to feeling the weight of the muzzle. Then pull the muzzle off your dog's neck and repeat several times.
In session ten, return to presenting the muzzle, your dog placing their face in the muzzle, and you offering a reward before pulling the muzzle away behind your back again. Do this several times to get them going in the game. Once their face is in the muzzle, slide your hands to the straps and pretend to close the buckle; then pull your hands down the same way you slid them up and pull the muzzle off. Repeat several times.
Next, clip the strap/buckle, immediately unclip it, offer a reward while the muzzle is still on, and remove the muzzle. Gradually increase the time with the muzzle clipped together loosely and only reward the dog while the muzzle is on.
In session eleven, start the keep away game for 30 seconds, practice clipping and unclipping while rewarding when clipped for 60 seconds, then leave the muzzle on your dog and start moving so that they follow you and get their paws moving. Offer verbal praise and intermittent reward (treats) through the muzzle while you are moving, and they are following you.
Session #12: Word Association
In this session, start associating the word "muzzle" or "party hat" each time your dog puts their nose into the muzzle. Offer rewards during that action with the word or phrase. Keep your dog muzzled and moving initially for short periods (5-10 minutes), reward while the muzzle is on, remove it to break for 30-60 seconds of play, then repeat. Offer play bows or a quick game of chase while the muzzle is on.
Session #13: Happy Muzzling
Start by repeating what you did for Session #12, but finish by sitting with your dog and offering affection as they like to receive it (belly rubs, ear rubs, butt scratches, etc.).
Now that you've onboarded muzzle conditioning, you can increase the time your dog wears it during normal activities to keep them comfortable. Take them for walks in their muzzle, Netflix and chill in their muzzle, and do normal things with your pup, so the muzzle is normal too.
Once you've made it here, this is the perfect time to enlist the help of a knowledgeable dog trainer or behavior professional skilled in cooperative care to advance your training to help your pup feel at ease with medical or grooming handling while being muzzled.
Can Muzzles Teach Dogs Not to Be Aggressive?
While a muzzle can provide a safety barrier, the equipment does not help curb aggressive behavior or train the dog in any way - nor does any equipment, for that matter. A behavior professional may implement muzzle conditioning for safety and to decrease stress in your dog; however, the real work is done through behavior modification.
Aggressive dogs express themselves in response to a threat or conflict in the best way they feel they can convey that message. Getting to the root cause and helping your pup feel less threatened or conflicted is the key to curbing aggressive behavior.
Are There Any Cute Muzzle Options?
Your dog is beautiful no matter what they wear; however, many dog owners like to get creative when purchasing a less intimidating-looking muzzle or even decorating their own! While a black leather basket muzzle can blend nicely on a dark Rottweiler face to be less noticeable, purchasing a pink muzzle and decorating it with faux gems for a white dog can make the muzzle stand out in a purposeful and fun way.
Be sure to review customer ratings; though a muzzle may look pretty, you also want to focus on practical and comfortable dog muzzles to select from.
How Often Should My Dog Wear the Muzzle?
Once your dog is muzzle trained, avoid having them only wear the muzzle during stressful situations. This could undo all your hard work and create a negative association with the muzzle. Instead, in addition to those potentially stressful situations, practice muzzling your dog once a week during a fun activity such as going on a walk or during a movie while they doze off to you rubbing their ears. Keep it positive so that when they are faced with potential stress, they are likely to be calmer simply by association with the muzzle.
Making the Most of the Muzzle
Choosing the proper muzzle for your one-of-a-kind pup is only the first step in the muzzle conditioning process. Once you've facilitated a positive introduction to your dog's new "party hat," you'll want to follow a structured training regimen that not only familiarizes them with the new equipment but creates a positive association with the object. Having your pup wear their muzzle when doing fun, non-stressful activities is the key to keeping them happy when those anxiety-inducing situations can arise.
Lastly, remember that muzzle conditioning is not a cure for dog aggression but rather a treatment for one way your pup might communicate his stress. Always be mindful of your dog's body language and be prepared to help them cope with new and scary situations.