We muzzle because we care.
Today we are going to be talking about Muzzles, and why I’m dropping the term “party hat” from my vocabulary. “Party Hat” is a phrase often used in veterinary medicine to describe the muzzle. It is intended to give a cutsie term to what is, really, a useful piece of protective equipment. Instead, skirting around the use of the correct name makes it seem like we are embarrassed and afraid to talk about it. Let’s break the silence! Today I’m talking about muzzles.
Why do we use muzzles? We use muzzles to prevent dogs from biting. We use muzzles to keep people safe. All dogs will bite. Hear me. All dogs will bite. The biting threshold is different from dog to dog. For example: I am not an angry person, and I’ve never punched a person. If someone comes up on the street and tries to kidnap my kids, goodness knows I’m going to throw some punches. This is how biting works. The most friendly dog is capable of biting, and will bite if they are fearful or painful enough. For some dogs this threshold is low, for some it is much higher, but the threshold does exist for all dogs.
So why Muzzle? Muzzles are an appropriate form of protection for people and for other dogs in the following cases:
Fear – fear drives almost all aggression. Most dogs are not overtly aggressive. However, as I mentioned in my example above, if someone comes after my kids, my fear and defensive nature will allow me to be outrightly aggressive. Our dogs don’t understand that the terrifying person with the needles means them no harm. They only see an impending threat to their safety and to the safety of the people they love.
- Aggression – again, most aggression is driven by fear, but some dogs simply are trying to run the show. Even if they know their place in their own homes, they are attempting to establish their place in a new environment.
- Dog Aggression – This is a pretty common response. Again, dogs are trying to establish their place and assert their dominance. Sometimes aggression directed at another dog is misplaced onto the nearest moving thing, even if it’s the person they love! There are a lot of dogs in veterinary clinics, so dog aggressive dogs are bound to be on edge.
- Pain – pain causes even the nicest dog to want to bite. Imagine breaking your leg, and the doctor comes along and touches it. Necessary, but painful. I’d bite too.
- Distraction- sometimes wearing a muzzle is just enough distraction to get a wiggly puppy to be still, or a needle sensitive dog to forget about the needle.
I hear you saying “fear is the primary reason to muzzle a dog? Doesn’t this make the fear worse?” I’m so glad you asked. This is where training comes in! A dog who has never worn a muzzle will be fearful of being asked to wear a muzzle. A dog who has had good, positive experiences with wearing a muzzle will be able to be muzzled comfortably by their owner without adding to the fear. My goal is always to prevent escalating the fear and escalating the behavior. If we can proceed with calm confidence, we avoid causing undue stress.
Here’s my challenge. Let’s try to get to a place where all of our dogs are comfortable with wearing a muzzle! Make the muzzle a fun part of routine training. Praise and reward dogs while they wear a muzzle. Practice putting it on and taking it off. Practice leaving it on for a few minutes without getting upset. Just like all training exercises, you will have to work up to it. For some dogs, it might start with getting treats while the muzzle sits on the floor next to them. Work up to eating treats off of the muzzle, then eating squeeze cheese around the edges of the muzzle while wearing it. Praising and rewarding all the time.
Let’s break the stigma together. Muzzles aren’t a punishment, and wearing a muzzle isn’t embarrassing! The important takeaway: Dogs that are used to wearing muzzles experience less fear when the occasion requires a muzzle than dogs who have not been trained for a muzzle. Preparation leads to success.