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dog muzzles and how to use one

The idea of putting a muzzle on your dog can be unsettling. Can he breathe, drink, or pant? How long can a dog wear a muzzle? Is it physically painful? Is it cruel? What are the situations where a muzzle might be useful, or maybe even necessary? What is the best type of muzzle to use? So many questions can arise around this emotionally-charged topic.

Dog muzzles may look controversial, but most canine experts agree that at one point or another there will probably be a situation when an owner needs to use a muzzle, for the safety of the dog, a person, or both. Therefore, even if you never have to rely on one, it’s a good idea to understand why, and when, you should use a muzzle. There are also different types of muzzles, and making sure it fits properly will ensure safety and effectiveness.

The first time you put a muzzle on your dog should not be the first time you need to put one on: Below we’ll also show you how to train and prepare your pal for wearing a muzzle.

When is it Appropriate to Use a Dog Muzzle?

  • Emergencies
    Such as an injured dog who may bite due to severe pain or fear.
  • There is a risk of biting due to a threatening situation
    If your dog is aggressive and has bitten another dog or a person in the past, this behavior must be addressed proactively with a behaviorist, veterinarian, and/or trainer. However, if there is a specific occasion when you’re worried in advance that your dog may bite because he feels threatened, the temporary use of a muzzle should be considered.
  • Grooming sessions
    When properly desensitized (hint: it starts in puppyhood), most dogs are accepting of grooming procedures. However, some just never seem to get used to it, so a muzzle may be a safe bet, especially when the dog is not familiar with the groomer.
  • When required due to breed specific legislation
    Unfortunately, some states or provinces have breed specific legislation (BSL), which requires certain so-called “dangerous breeds” to wear a muzzle when not on private property. Read about the AKC’s position on BSL and what we’re doing to offer alternatives.

What Should I Not Use a Muzzle For?

Do not use a dog muzzle for barking, chewing, or other ongoing behavioral problems. There are two important reasons for this:

  1. A muzzle is only meant to be used for short periods of time, not extended ones, since most inhibit drinking, eating, and panting.
  2. Since barking and chewing are, by their nature, ongoing issues, a muzzle is not a solution—it doesn’t replace consistent training and behavior modification. If your dog is barking excessively, there is a reason for it. Separation anxiety, boredom, sounding the alarm, territorial barking, attention seeking. Any one of these (or other) causes should be analyzed and addressed. Likewise, chewing can have numerous causes that will not go away on their own.

Also, never use a muzzle for punishment. It will not fix the underlying problem, but it will make your dog fearful and anxious when you try to muzzle him in a legitimate or emergency situation.

Types of Muzzles for Dogs

  • Basket muzzle
    This muzzle may look like the least humane choice, but the opposite is true. Depending on the exact style, it may allow the dog to drink and pant more than other options, which, for obvious reasons, is important. A wire basket muzzle is recommended for preventing bites, and for large dogs. A plastic basket muzzle is a better option for small dogs.
  • Soft muzzle
    Made from fabric, such as nylon or mesh, or leather, soft muzzles are actually less comfortable and potentially more dangerous than a basket muzzle. They can prevent your dog from panting, which is the only way he has of dispersing heat. Panting is the canine version of sweating.
  • Homemade muzzle
    This is recommended only when there is no other option available, such as an emergency, when a dog has been injured and there is a risk of him biting. A homemade muzzle should only be used temporarily. You can find instructions online for improvising a homemade dog muzzle with a roll of gauze, a piece of rope, or even a pair of pantyhose, but using materials such as these isn’t ideal. A leash can also be used as an emergency muzzle. (See video below.)
    To avoid having to resort to a homemade option, keep a muzzle in your canine first aid kit.

Training a Dog to Accept a Muzzle

If your dog’s first introduction to wearing a muzzle happens when he is hurt or terrified, it will be much more difficult. Luckily, a dog can be trained to accept a muzzle if he’s introduced to it under low-stress conditions, with a step-by-step process, and with appropriate rewards.

Beth Nash, AKC Gazette breed columnist for the Vizsla Club of America, has this to say about muzzles, and how she trained her first Vizsla, Bartok, to wear a muzzle:

It’s pretty amazing when you think about it: Our dogs generally accept all kinds of unpleasant things without biting us. They learn to tolerate (and sometimes even seem to enjoy) our doing very uncomfortable things to them like trimming toenails and cleaning ears. At the vet, they allow people to draw blood, insert thermometers, and give shots. They let strangers examine them. Dogs are capable of biting us and doing serious damage, but typically they choose not to do that. There are times, however, when even the sweetest dog would not be able to stop himself from biting. When any dog is very frightened or in serious pain, there is a real risk of a person getting bitten and the dog acquiring a “bite history.”

Bartok was terrified of the vet clinic due to a combination of unstable temperament and a series of unfortunate incidents. We needed to muzzle him for everyone’s safety. The clinic staff did their best to be gentle and patient, but Bart was seriously stressing out, and we needed to help him.

Over a period of several days, here’s what we did—using small, soft treats, and making sure he was comfortable with each step before going on to the next.

  1. Let him sniff the muzzle. Give a treat. Repeat a few times.
  2. Touch his nose with the muzzle. Treat. Repeat until he indicates that the muzzle looks interesting in a good way.
  3. Hold the muzzle with one hand and a treat with the other hand, so he needs to put his nose inside the muzzle to get the treat. Repeat until this step is no big deal.
  4. Gently slip the muzzle onto his nose and give him a treat. Remove the muzzle immediately. Repeat a few times.
  5. Put on the muzzle and fasten the buckle. Treat. Remove immediately. Repeat a few times.
  6. Put on the muzzle, fasten it, and count slowly to five. Treat. Remove the muzzle.
  7. Each time you put on the muzzle, gradually increase the time the muzzle is on. Hold his collar and give treats.

If we had introduced the muzzle before Bart associated it with scary things, we probably could have gone through these steps in less than a day—possibly a matter of minutes. We’ve done this with each successive dog, including rescue dogs we’ve fostered. If the dog isn’t interested in treats, you can substitute other rewards. I use verbal praise, but this is optional.

The late Dr. Sophia Yin’s website also has a terrific step-by-step guide for training your dog to wear a muzzle.

Measuring your dog for a muzzle

The right fit is key to using a muzzle correctly. Too loose and your dog will be able to remove it; too tight and it will inhibit his ability to breathe, pant, or drink and can cause painful chafing. It’s best to try on various sizes and get input from a knowledgeable sales associate. You should also take measurements, especially when ordering online.

No matter the reason for using a muzzle, or which type you select if you do, it’s crucial to recognize that muzzles are not a solution to behavioral issues. Dog experts agree that a dog muzzle cannot replace consistent, positive training.
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