This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles. I love muzzles. Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us. In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised. Do my dogs NEED the muzzles? To be completely honest, I don’t know. I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way! My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.
A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once. When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him. We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart. The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily. After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep. If only I could hear his heart, I could help him. I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped. He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that. Just the opposite. I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on. He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with. His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease. With treatment, he lived another 18 months.
The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite. Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple. My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick. My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.
I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression. I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog. More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?” The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog. I am good, but I am not magic!
When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel. When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase. More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for. In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult. I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know. A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.
So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles? I start early for sure! When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space. Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom. When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth. I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head. The elastic should be fairly loose to start with. And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle. Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun. If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days.
Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle. My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco (https://www.jafcomuzzles.com/ ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have. I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front. I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure. From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened. In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle.
Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent. You have to practice regularly. In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays. Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.
Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies. Babies don’t like wearing shoes. They don’t enjoy having their feet confined. Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either! If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so. Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter. That is a topic for a whole other blog though!