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 we do not live in a perfect world, so let’s talk about 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 the 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 fonder thoughts about a lunging, barking, growling dog simply because they are not wearing a muzzle. No one thinks aggressive behavior is cute and endearing.
Another concern people have about their dog wearing a muzzle is that it seems cruel. Can it be cruel to have a dog wear a muzzle? Yes, it can be cruel if the wrong muzzle is used—if it does not allow the dog to pant, for example. It can be cruel if it does not fit properly, if the dog isn't acclimated to wearing it, or if a muzzle is used without addressing the underlying issues that require its use. Muzzles do nothing to change, 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. Yes, muzzles can, in certain situations, actually help dogs learn what we want them to learn. (We will come back to this idea.)
When muzzles are fit properly, dogs are acclimated to wearing one, and it allows the dog to pant easily, and eat and drink, they are just another piece of equipment like a collar, harness, or leash. Most people I see in my practice say their dog will "never" wear a muzzle because their dogs hate them. But 99 percent of the time, it is because they have not used the correct muzzle and/or have not acclimated the dog to wearing it 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 help facilitate a behavior modification plan: Think of those dogs who do “okay” until a person insists on approaching and interacting with them. Every day, 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 friendly “dog person,” likely having their pride hurt, is not so friendly anymore—and you, as the dog's owner, are responsible, legally and ethically, for a bite or attack.
But I never really hear of people insisting on approaching a dog when a dog is wearing a muzzle. So let the muzzle speak for itself in terms of letting people know that your dog does not care to have close interactions with strangers. There is nothing wrong with that. Not all dogs are social beings who enjoy interacting with strangers—and that's OK. This is a concept that owners of dogs who need muzzles should embrace.
Muzzles can also be a great deterrent to people approaching dogs when we are trying to teach them to trust strangers. Sometimes I recommend one for dogs who are very fearful/shy, even without any aggressive tendencies, if those clients live in a place where people constantly try to interact with their dog. It is your job as a guardian to keep your dog safe, and muzzles can help you with that, on several levels.
Let’s talk about the layers of safety a muzzle can provide. The obvious one 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 number or severity 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 that people 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 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 still find it hard to get over any feeling of public shame, 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. And, next time you see someone walking a dog in a muzzle, offer them a smile. They are being responsible owners trying to help their dogs and keep everyone safe.
A site with valuable information about muzzles is muzzleupproject.com
by Emily Levine DACVB, Animal Behavior Clinic of AERA, Fairfield, NJ