I hear it every day in my practice. Dog owners are hesitant to train their dogs to wear basket muzzles. I get it. I really do. And in a perfect world, with perfect people and perfect dogs, we wouldn't even need to broach this topic. But alas, we do not live in a perfect world. So let’s talk about of the pros and cons of having our feisty Fidos wear basket muzzles.
People don't want other people to think they have a mean dog. People who have dogs who bite really wish others could see the wonderful side of their dogs that they get to see everyday. They want people to see the friendly, playful, cuddly side of their dogs and well, a muzzle isn't exactly a hallmark card sending those sentiments. People do not want others to see their dog in a muzzle and think that their dog is mean, dangerous, or untrained. The reality however, is that many dogs do not cope well being around strangers and are not going to show their “best” selves to them and trust me, no one is having fond thoughts about a lunging, barking, growling dog simply because they are not wearing a muzzle. No one thinks aggressive behavior is cute and endearing and will have warmer thoughts about your dog because the dog is not wearing a muzzle.
Another concern people have about their dog wearing a muzzle is that of it being cruel for the dog. Can it be cruel to have a dog wear a muzzle? Yes it can. It can be cruel if the wrong muzzle is used (it does not allow the dog to pant for example), it does not fit properly, the dog isn't acclimated to wearing the muzzle, or, in some cases, if only a muzzle is used without addressing the underlying issues that require its use in the first place. Muzzles do nothing to change or modify or treat the underlying behavior issue. They are simply a safety tool that prevents bites and, in many cases, facilitates a behavior modification program. Yep, you read that correctly. Muzzles can, in certain situations, actually help dogs to learn what we want them to learn. We will come back to this idea later.
When muzzles are fit properly, the dogs are acclimated to wearing one, and they allow the dog to pant easily, eat treats through them, and drink water through them, they are just another piece of equipment like a collar, harness, and leash. Oh..and most people that I see in my practice say their dog will never wear a muzzle because their dogs hate them. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is because they have not used the correct muzzle and/or have not acclimated the dog to wearing a muzzle correctly. Click here to see a clip of a dog wearing a muzzle after proper sizing and training.
Let’s get back to how a muzzle can actually help facilitate a behavior modification plan as opposed to simply just being a safety tool. Let’s think of those dogs who do “okay” until a person insists on approaching and interacting with your dog. Everyday, people with reactive, stressed, anxious dogs who ask people not to approach because their dog is shy, fearful, not friendly, etc…are told ”it’s okay, I’m a dog person. Dogs love me!” Then, when they get close, bam! A bite is attempted or occurs. Then, that oh so friendly “dog person,” likely having their pride hurt, is not so friendly anymore and at the end of the day, you, as the dog owner, are responsible for your dog biting someone, legally and ethically. I never really hear of people insisting on approaching a dog when a dog is wearing a muzzle. Let the muzzle speak for itself in terms of letting people know, your dog does not care to have close interactions with strangers. There is nothing wrong with that at all. Not all dogs are social beings who enjoy interacting with strangers and that is OK. This is a concept that dog owners of dogs who need muzzles should embrace! As a side note, muzzles can be such a great deterrent to people approaching dogs when we are trying to teach them to trust strangers, that I sometimes recommend it for dogs who are very fearful/shy without any aggressive tendencies if those clients live in a place where people are constantly trying to interact with their dog. It is your job as a dog guardian to keep your dog safe. Muzzles can help you with that, on several levels.
Let’s talk about the layers of safety that a muzzle can provide. The obvious is that the risk of a bite decreases significantly. With a decreased risk of biting, there is less risk of a lawsuit, less risk of losing your home owner’s insurance, and depending on the severity of bites or number of bites in your dog’s past, it can prevent a reportable incident that may result in you losing control over what happens to your dog. Also, you want to be a good citizen and make sure the people in public who are walking, jogging, cycling, etc., aren't bitten. People should be able to be in public without the risk of being bitten. Too many times in practice I have seen friends, family, and neighbors in feuds and lawsuits over bites that could have been prevented.
When you think of all the pros and cons of a properly fitted and sized muzzle and you still find it hard to get over any feeling of public shame, try to take the attitude that Suzy Arrington, CPDT-KA, offers: “Own it like you would if you were wearing a big hat!” In other words, wear it with confidence!
Next time you see someone walking a dog in a muzzle, offer them a smile. They are being responsible dog owners who are trying to help their dogs and keep everyone safe.
A great site that goes over valuable information about muzzles is www.muzzleupproject.com
Emily Levine DACVB
Animal Behavior Clinic of New Jersey