Should I Muzzle My Dog?

Muzzles are tricky- they’re hard to convince owners to use sometimes due to the social stigma that seems to be attached to a muzzled dog. When you have to walk a dog with a muzzle it can make you either feel exceedingly self-conscious because people seem to stare at and judge your (oftentimes very nice!) dog.  I have also found, however, that when I muzzle my own dog it takes huge weight of worry off of my shoulders about whether or not she’ll snap at the vet or whether we’ll run into a dog in the woods that doesn’t respect our space and return to their owner.  She hasn’t ever bitten a dog in a situation like that, but I absolutely worry about it- and with the muzzle on, that worry disappears and we can enjoy our time together.  I have also heard this same relief reflected in client stories.

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There are lots of times that muzzling a dog can be the best idea and it may have nothing to do with them being “dangerous”. Many dogs that I recommend muzzle training for haven’t bitten anybody.  Why a muzzle? Muzzles are phenomenal tools that slot right into that “prevention” part of a training plan that makes everything easier.  A muzzled dog cannot bite, cannot pick up trash and eat it, and cannot create a situation where an owner may have to make terrible decisions about their dog’s future.  Currently, I am working with several dogs on wearing a muzzle.  Here are the different situations:

 

Dog 1 doesn’t like people coming into his house and gets loud and looks aggressive.  He has bitten a couple of visitors without causing damage, but the owners are very concerned that he might.
Why did I recommend a muzzle? Well, the primary reason is obvious is this case- we don’t want him to bite again. The secondary reason, however, is less obvious.  How nervous do you think his owners are every time they even consider having a guest over? What does their heart rate go up to when they hear a knock on the door? How do they feel when they consider that a guest in their house might walk away with an injury?  In this case, think of the magical peace that a muzzle can immediately bestow on the owners! Even if the muzzle were unnecessary, being able to train through that amount of stress and communicate clearly with your dog is nearly impossible.  With the muzzle on, the opportunity for training is created. 

 

Dog 2 snaps at people that get too close, but requires physical therapy for a back leg injury.  She has not bitten a person.

Why did I recommend a muzzle? In this case, it’s entirely possible that the bite to the physical therapist would never land: that the dog is more threat than follow-through.  When doing physical therapy, however, the owner needs to be relaxed, the dog needs to be relaxed, and the physical therapist needs to be able to concentrate on the task at hand- not focus on the dog’s very subtle cues that she is about to bite her.

By training this dog to wear a muzzle, we allowed her to be touched without risk to the therapist, and we also allowed her to work with a trainer, some of the owner’s friends, and other dog professionals until she could set herself up for the PT and engage in the process without worrying about the person behind her.  Without the muzzle, this wouldn’t have been possible.

 

Dog 3 has bitten once and has aggressed at people very infrequently for getting too close to a valued resource (food bowl, rawhide, etc.). He’s nervous around children, but generally just avoids them.

Why did I recommend the muzzle? The owner has nieces and nephews who are small children that she would really like to have over to visit! Anytime there is a potential risk to a child, it is much easier to muzzle train in advance than apologize after.  With training this dog may come to accept these children in his home, but when the day comes to actually “test” that training, I would feel very uncomfortable with having the kids in the house and no muzzle on the dog. How about you?

In each of these situations a muzzle may not have been necessary if they had a different living situation or the owners had different goals.  If dog 1 lived with people that rarely had guests, it wouldn’t be an issue.  If dog 2 hadn’t needed physical therapy, it wouldn’t have been an issue. If dog 3 lived with someone with no children in their life, it wouldn’t have been an issue. The decision to teach a dog to wear a muzzle is not cut and dry, it depends on the dog, the severity behavior issue, and also the owner’s goals.

Muzzles are not indicators that a dog is dangerous.  When you see a dog in a muzzle, all you actually know is that you are dealing with a responsible owner.