Changing the Stigma of Muzzles
Why dogs wear them and what owners want you to understand.
As a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, I regularly work with clients whose dogs have acted aggressively towards, or severely bit, a person or another animal. Some of the animals have even died as a result of their injuries. While it is at first hard for the client to hear, one of the safety recommendations that I make as part of the behavior change program is teaching the dog to wear a muzzle. Their look of surprise and dismay is quickly changed to relief when I not only explain to them that properly trained a dog will love to wear his muzzle and happily put his nose into it himself, but also show them a video of my dog demonstrating just that. You read that correctly, not only is one of my dogs trained to wear a muzzle, but two are.
I was recently thrown off by a facebook comment from a person unknown to me. It was in response to the picture that you now see on this post: of myself wearing a “Muzzle Up! Project” shirt and Jeter wearing his Bumas muzzle. She said, “Why do you bother have animals when you put traps on their face?” Let me begin by telling you a bit about Jeter.
I adopted Jeter when he was approximately 9-years-old. Extremely fearful, he growled at my husband the first time they met, and it takes structured training sessions when meeting a new person for the first few times. After that, he loves them. A month after his adoption, Jeter began vomiting uncontrollably. I rushed him to my vet, and as soon as the vet walked into the room, Jeter growled and re-treated under the chair. He was afraid, in pain, and I did not blame him. Not only did I welcome the growl as was Jeter communicating with us, but I immediately told the vet that I would like him muzzled. This was to protect both the vet and Jeter.
After that, I purchased a muzzle. I made sure to properly fit the muzzle so that Jeter was able to pant, eat, and drink while wearing it. Just as importantly, I trained Jeter to love it. After a few short sessions, Jeter was happily trotting over when he saw his muzzle appear and had no qualms about putting his nose into it. Soon he was walking around and performing various tasks. Steps to teach this will be in another blog, but I will tell you one very important point now: I NEVER brought the muzzle towards Jeter in attempts to put it on his face. Jeter always brought his nose to the muzzle. More about that in the next post.
I am a big advocate for cooperative care when it comes to animals. This includes nail trims, veterinary procedures, and so on. However, there will be times when one of my dogs will have to undergo a procedure that he has not been fully prepared for, such as pre and post-op eye examinations (it is pretty scary when a stranger is holding your head still, while another shines a light into your eyes, with their face only a few inches from yours and your infected, bulging eye), as well as ultrasounds and x-rays. I know that when I am in pain I am grumpy and short-tempered. I do not blame my dog for feeling the same. Instead of making the situation more difficult by forcing a muzzle onto his face, Jeter can not only help to put it on but relax while it stays on. He doesn’t even attempt to take it off. While he has never bitten nor even air snapped, the muzzle is there as a precaution, and in doing so, I am protecting the vet, vet techs, and Jeter, all at the same time.
There are many reasons why a dog might wear a muzzle, and it does not mean that he is a bad dog. Here are just a few more:
- Pica: where a dog seeks out and ingests uneditable items. This can lead to emergency surgeries.
- Self Injurious Behaviors (SIB): where anxiety along with other factors causes a dog to bite and injure himself. Have you ever seen the video of a dog that will attack his own leg or tail for getting too close to his food bowl? While many share these stories on facebook and laugh, the dog is under extreme distress. A muzzle may be necessary to prevent further incidents. This is in addition to a well-structured and carefully implemented behavior training and management plan.
- Fear of off-leash animals: In a county of leash laws, you might be surprised how often off-leash dogs run-up to my own dogs as well as clients whose dogs are on leash. The dog may be wearing a muzzle to protect the uncontrolled dog due to fear, whose sudden presence causes a reactive outburst from the on-leash dog. Believe it or not, this is also to protect the dog that is wearing the muzzle. If he has a reaction and bites, it is probable that he will be bitten back.
- Fear of strangers: The second dog that I have who is trained to wear a muzzle, is Cooper. Due to a horrible experience at a prime imprinting stage of his life, he became fear reactive towards strangers. Even though we will go for a walk in the country with a vest that says “Do Not Approach,” some people get tunnel vision when they see a dog. Not only am I protecting the person ignoring the vest and my verbal instructions to stay away as they speak over me to say “It’s okay, dogs love me,” Cooper wears the muzzle to protect himself because he will be the one blamed if a bite occurs.
While the muzzle is there as a safety tool, please understand that it is not to be used in the place of a behavior modification plan. This is where a certified professional will assist with changing your dog’s emotions about a person (trigger) from a negative one to a positive one.
If you get one take away from reading this, I hope it’s that a dog’s quality of life does not have to be diminished because he is wearing a muzzle. Please be respectful of the owners and their dogs who have taken the time to dedicate to muzzle training and maybe keep an open mind when you see a dog wearing one. It doesn’t mean that he is a bad dog. Owners of muzzled dogs often desperately want you to understand this. I know that I do.