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Stress-Free Muzzle Training: A Step-by-Step Approach

Though many people are wary of muzzling a dog due to the stigma that it represents, dog muzzles can in fact be helpful in certain situations. Whilst it may seem simple enough to pop a muzzle on your dog and be done with it, you might be surprised if you try this without training them first!

Edited By: Anna Bain

Stress-Free Muzzle Training: A Step-by-Step Approach

As with anything new, building positive associations with your dog’s muzzle is crucial for their comfort and emotional wellbeing. Rushing into muzzling a dog will achieve the exact opposite, and potentially create negative associations for years to come.

Caroline Spencer, Canine Behaviourist (Dip.AdvCanBhv) at ProDog Raw, shares her expert advice on stress-free muzzle training for dogs. With decades of professional canine experience, she views dogs as lifelong learners and emphasises the teamwork aspect between humans and their dogs. Caroline understands the way dogs learn, and helps their humans to help them through the use of positive reinforcement training techniques.

If you’re considering muzzle training your dog, this article is for you. Caroline discusses the different types of dog muzzles, the appropriate reasons for muzzling your dog, and her step-by-step process for helping them to accept their muzzle happily.

Understanding muzzles

There are multiple types of dog muzzles, each with their own pros and cons. This can make purchasing one confusing, which is understandable! Which one you end up with is ultimately your choice, though the soft, basket-style variety are the ones I personally recommend.

These are sturdy yet lightweight and allow your dog to drink, accept treats, and pant with ease. They also cover the entirety of their snout, which prevents any chances of nipping. I recommend buying these in contrasting colours, as this allows passersby to notice your dog and allow them the space they need to feel comfortable.

Hard muzzles are known to cause irritation for dogs due to rubbing and chaffing, which creates negative associations with wearing them. Likewise, the soft, canvas muzzles are also less than ideal as they prevent dogs from eating, drinking, or panting and allow for potential nips as they don’t cover the entire snout.

Here are a few pros and cons to each type of dog muzzle to help you make your decision:

Basket muzzle (soft)

Pros:
Covers entire snout to prevent nipping
Allows for accepting treats, drinking, and panting
Sturdy yet lightweight to prevent irritation
More obvious to passersby who can then give your dog the space they need

Cons:
Appearance may be off-putting to some people

Basket muzzle (hard)

Pros:
Covers entire snout to prevent nipping
Allows for accepting treats, drinking, and panting
More obvious to passersby who can then give your dog the space they need

Cons:
Material may irritate or cause pain for dogs

Soft muzzle

Pros:
Easier storage (foldable)
Lighter than basket muzzle

Cons:
Prevents dogs from panting, drinking, and accepting treats
Leaves end of snout uncovered, increasing the risk of nipping
Not as sturdy as the basket variety

Getting started with muzzle training

First and foremost, please have patience when muzzle training your dog. This should be a gradual process in order to allow your dog to see the muzzle as a good thing; not something that causes them stress. Introduce the muzzle to your dog at their pace, and try not to worry about how long the process takes.

Depending on your individual dog, the time it takes to successfully muzzle train them will vary. However, making it a positive experience is well worth the wait, especially if you need to have your dog muzzled regularly [1].

Step-by-step guide for stress-free muzzle training

Step 1: Familiarisation

To begin with, introduce the muzzle to your dog in a relaxed way to help them become familiar with it. This should be a low-key, calm experience for them and for you, so subtle interactions work best. For example, keeping the muzzle somewhere in the home where it’s visible to your dog will allow them to become familiar with it; possibly even curious about it.

Rub your dog’s blanket on the muzzle to help it smell familiar and comforting. You can also use something of yours such as a t-shirt or jumper to transfer your own scent onto your dog’s muzzle. This makes it appear even more comforting and helps your dog to trust the muzzle’s scent. If your dog loves a game of fetch, use the muzzle as a retrieving item, or whatever you think will work best for them. Get creative!

Step 2: Building positive associations

Once you feel your dog is familiar enough with the muzzle, you can start inviting them to try it on. Again, this is a slow process, and your dog must be the one to make the choice. However, there are ways to entice them into investigating the muzzle to make the process a bit easier:

Spread almond butter or pate inside the muzzle at the nose end. Hold the muzzle up to your dog and allow them to lick the treat inside the muzzle. Remove the muzzle, praise, and give a different treat outside of the muzzle.

Repeat this process several times daily for under five minutes each session. As your dog becomes more comfortable with putting their nose in the muzzle, play around a bit with different positions, making a game of following the muzzle around. Each time, let your dog keep their nose in the muzzle a little longer than the last.

Step 3: Making the muzzle fun

After they’ve mastered step two you can dispense with the paste, moving to rewarding them with a treat whilst the muzzle is on. Making this a part of your daily play time will give your dog something to look forward to and allow them to see the muzzle as a positive experience.

For example, when you recall your dog, use the muzzle to reward them after they’ve put their nose in it and taken it out (similar to the “touch” game using the muzzle in place of human hands). Play time with you is their absolute favourite activity, so including the muzzle makes it seem that much more appealing.

 

Make muzzle training fun

Step 4: Introducing the strap

Go slowly with this step as well, so as not to make your dog feel trapped or stressed. Introduce the muzzle strap by putting it around their neck without clipping it at first; simply place it there and massage the area with your hands whilst you praise them calmly.

Get them used to the sound of the buckle snap casually when the muzzle is close to them, but not on them. Once they appear comfortable with each of these steps, you can then proceed to attaching the muzzle, at which point you will reward them when the muzzle is on instead of when it’s off.

Choosing a dog muzzle that allows easy access to treats (or even a squeeze tube of cheese if your dog’s digestion will tolerate it) lets you reward them whilst they wear the muzzle, which is one of the reasons I recommend the soft basket muzzle to my clients.

Step 5: Walking with your muzzled dog

Once your dog is comfortable with the muzzle clipped on, you can start loose lead walking with them wearing it. They may paw or scratch at it to begin with, but the less attention you give this the better. Instead, picking up your pace and incorporating more turns will bring their attention towards you instead of the muzzle. They’ll eventually relax and stop resisting after a while.

Gradually increase the time your dog wears their muzzle whilst doing different things, remembering to go at their pace as opposed to your expectations. Rushing causes anxiety, and it’s important that this be a positive experience for both of you. It might seem as if it’s taking forever at first, but your reward for all your patience will be a happily muzzled dog, which is much better than an anxious one!

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Overcoming challenges

Negative associations

If your dog has had a bad experience with muzzles in the past, it’s understandable that they won’t want to wear one. This is the reason for the gradual muzzle training process: to build positive associations and allow dogs to wear their muzzles happily.

For dogs that have negative associations with muzzles, slow the process way down to suit their comfort level. This will eventually allow them to see that muzzles aren’t so bad after all; it may just take longer than with other dogs.

Resistance to the muzzle

If dogs scratch or paw at their muzzles, you may be fast tracking the process and need to go back a step or two. Also, be mindful of keeping your dog’s attention towards you. Picking up the pace (such as a fast walk or run) and chopping and changing directions regularly will help to achieve this.

 

Also remember that your dog is not naughty, your dog is worried, frustrated or uncomfortable. This is a somewhat natural response, but can usually be avoided by progressing through the above steps. Continue building positive associations gradually, with short daily practices before progressing through the remaining steps again.

Muzzle discomfort

Hard muzzles are often irritating to dogs’ snouts as they rub and chaff against their sensitive skin. This can be avoided by purchasing a soft basket muzzle, or alleviated by adding snout padding to the harder variety.

Ensuring that the muzzle does not cause your dog pain or irritation is a crucial step in them accepting it, so it pays to go the extra mile for their comfort and wellbeing. Durable rubber or leather basket muzzles are kinder and more comfortable, which avoids unnecessary discomfort.

Muzzle training your dog

Seeking professional help

If you’ve gone through the above steps and are still having trouble getting your dog to accept their muzzle, it might be time to seek professional help. A certified canine behaviourist can assess what’s going wrong and advise you on ways to improve your dog’s muzzle training experience.

When to use a muzzle

Whilst dog muzzles can be helpful tools, they should ideally only be used in certain situations. Keeping your dog muzzled for hours each day or as a means of correcting an undesired behaviour is a surefire way to create a negative association, which is the opposite of helpful. Here are some appropriate times/situations for muzzling a dog:

When required by law

In the UK, certain breeds of dog are required to be muzzled by law when out in public [2]. This is known as breed-specific legislation, and while it isn’t fair in most cases, it is the law and must be adhered to for the protection of your dog.

This is a great example of why stress-free muzzle training is so important: dogs belonging to restricted breeds that happily wear their muzzles and present a calm, friendly demeanour help to dissipate the stigma of the blanket “dangerous dog” description.

When dogs have a bite history/present a bite risk

If your dog has a history of biting or you feel like they may escalate to biting in the future, muzzling them while in public or around others is a way to keep them and everyone safe. It’s also likely that dog owners who are taken to court will be ordered to muzzle their dog in public.

However, muzzling dogs for behavioural issues is not a long-term solution. A professional canine behaviourist can assist you with training and management techniques to help resolve the problem at its root. This may allow your dog to feel more comfortable and potentially reduce the need for a muzzle over time.

Grooming/vet visits

Many dogs become anxious when they visit the groomer or vet, which can sometimes result in biting [3]. Feeling confined or trapped in scary situations such as these can drive even the friendliest dogs to bite. This is a natural defensive behaviour when in pain or frightened, and doesn’t mean they are aggressive.

Muzzling your dog can make the situation safer for all involved, and when a dog has been trained to accept them using positive methods, it won’t further contribute to their anxiety.

Muzzle train your dog the stress-free way

Though often seen as punishment or only used for “bad” dogs, muzzles are actually quite the opposite. When used correctly, they’re a helpful tool for keeping everyone safe; including your dog.

Whether your dog has bitten in the past or you simply want to make muzzling them more comfortable, the steps in this guide will allow you both to enjoy the muzzle training experience.

Breed-specific legislation in the UK requires all restricted breeds to be muzzled when out in public. You’ll be doing them a service by training them to accept their muzzle as something positive, rather than a punishment that they can’t wait to get rid of!

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References

 

1. Arhant, C., Schmied-Wagner, C., Agner, U., Affenzeller, N. Feb 2021. Owner reports on the use of muzzles and their effects on dogs: an online survey. Journal of Veterinary Behavior;, 41:73-81. Doi.org: 10.1016/j.veb.2020.07.006

2. Gov.UK. Controlling Your Dog in Public. Accessed Nov 2023.

3. Doring, D., Roscher, A., Scheipl, F., Kuchenhoff, H., Erhard, M. Oct 2009. Fear-related behaviour of dogs in veterinary practice. The Veterinary Journal;, 182(1):38-43. Doi.org: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2008.05.006

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