Muzzles: Why There Shouldn’t Be a Stigma Around Dogs Wearing Them

I owned and ran a specialist dog shop in Edinburgh in Scotland for ten years and muzzles were frequently discussed but often in embarrassed, secretive tones or, if a dog was wearing a muzzle, other dog owners would dramatically retreat out of the shop in a hurried fashion.

There are a lot of unfair myths and stigmas attached to dogs wearing muzzles but actually usually when they are being used it is the sign of a responsible dog owner and sometimes it is not actually being used because the dog is aggressive or reactive anyway.

Using a muzzle can make sure the dog does not miss out on the exercise and stimulation they need whilst providing an owner peace of mind whilst working on training when this is required.

The more that people use a muzzle when it is required and talk to other dog owners and the general public about why it is being used, the more quickly it will become widely accepted and people will have a less dramatic reaction towards them.

Dog’s in muzzles get an unfair rap.  Owners using a well fitting muzzle are actually generally extremely responsible. Credit: FreeImages Antixstar

When Is Using a Muzzle Appropriate?

1. To Minimise the Risk of Biting or Nipping Through Excitement or Arousal

The most common reason a muzzle is used is as a preventative measure if your dog has a history of nipping or biting.  Some dogs will nip, not because they are frightened or grumpy, but because they are over-stimulated and it is an outlet for that arousal.  This is something that should be worked on with positive training techniques but, whilst it is being addressed, a muzzle can help prevent any nasty nips to humans or other dogs.

It is not a recommended way of dealing with puppy nipping as it will not teach them not to do it.  We have some great training tips for helping to manage this problem.

2. If Your Dog Has a High Prey Drive

Some dogs will have a very high prey drive, hunting breeds like sighthounds or certain spaniels, and if you have them off lead in an area where there are likely to be small furries this can help to prevent them from causing an injury or even a fatality  Ideally, you do not want to allow your dog to give chase, not only can it stress or harm the other animal but your dog may get lost or injured whilst in this heightened state of arousal.

Ideally, you should work on your dogs recall and use a long line whilst training to set yourself and your dog up for success.

Some dogs with a high prey drive will also run after cats or smaller dogs and, even when on a lead, this can pose a risk so a muzzle can give you peace of mind.

3. If Your Dog Is Reactive Towards Other Dogs

If your dog is fearful or grumpy towards other dogs, using a muzzle can be useful in preventing any incidents if they are approached by other off-leash dogs that the owner does not have a reliable recall for.  Just because they have a muzzle on though does not mean that this is a license to force them into interacting with lots of other dogs. Not only can this make their reactivity worse, but it also is not fair on them or the other dogs and injuries can still happen even with a muzzle on.

4. If Your Dog Has Reactivity Towards People

If your dog is nervous of strangers then a muzzle can be useful for preventing any incidents with people approaching uninvited.  Ideally, if you know your dog is fearful, you want to reduce this nervousness with counter conditioning and desensitisation training and you should try not to put them in situations where they are forced to interact with lots of strangers whilst you are working on this.

If your dog is nervous of strangers, whilst you are working on a training programme a muzzle can be a useful tool to use as a precaution 

5. Whilst Visiting the Vet or Groomer

If you have a dog that is very nervous at the vet or groomer, whilst you want to work on reducing their fearfulness through reward-based training and desensitisation, using a muzzle can be useful to prevent any unwanted nips or bites in the meantime.

You also want to find a vet or groomer that is supportive of you working on lessening your dog’s anxiety whilst visiting them.  They should be willing to be patient, work with your dog’s needs and have a gentle, positive approach.

6. To Help Prevent Scavenging

Surprisingly, many dogs wear a muzzle not because of their risk of biting but because they like to eat disgusting things whilst out on their walk.  They may find the smelliest dog poo or some discarded french fries or a dead pigeon and think this is a feast These dogs often end up with frequent tummy upsets and their recall can become very unreliable.  Whilst it is a good idea to work on a rock solid recall and a reliable leave it command, a muzzle can be a good management tool. Be aware that though that determined dogs can still manage to hoover things up through a muzzle and it also means that you can have some disgusting remnants left attached to the muzzle after their feast!

If you have a dog that is constantly getting a sore tummy from eating unwanted items on a dog walk a muzzle can be a good tool to use whilst you work on a reliable recall and leave it command 

7. As an Alternative to a Cone

If your dog is already used to wearing a muzzle and is comfortable in it then it can sometimes be a useful tool for using to deter your dog from worrying at a surgical wound or injury in place of a cone which some dogs find distressing.

If they are not used to wearing it then it is not a recommended solution as it will likely stress them out even more than a cone and be aware that some dogs can manage to worry at the wound even with the muzzle on.

If a dog is already used to a muzzle it can be a kinder way of preventing your dog from worrying  a wound than a cone 

8. To Give Your Nervous Dog a Better Chance of Getting the Space They Need

If you have a dog that is nervous around other dogs or people, it can be incredibly frustrating when you are working on training and other off-leash dogs come up uninvited, even if you tell the owner your dog needs space.  Often well-meaning people will come up and pat your dog without an invitation too. Whilst it is important that whilst you are working on lessening their reactivity, you do not force them into busy situations, even when you are working in quiet areas you can’t avoid contact with others all the time.  If a dog is used to wearing a muzzle, even if they are not likely to bite, then some owners choose to put them in one when out as it is can often deter people from approaching uninvited and they may quickly pop their dog on a leash. It doesn’t work all the time but it can be a handy deterrent!

When Is Using a Muzzle NOT Appropriate

There are often times that a muzzle is used on a dog when actually it is not appropriate.  It can make a situation worse, it can create alternative problem behaviours or it can just serve to cause distress and discomfort.  Here are some examples of times when an alternative solution should be sought instead.

1. It Should Not Be Used as a Way of Punishing Your Dog

If a dog is not used to wearing a muzzle it can often be a distressing, uncomfortable experience for them.  Whilst some dogs will fight hard to get the muzzle off, sometimes even injuring themselves in the process, others will just completely shut down because they are afraid.  Sometimes people cotton on to the fact that putting the muzzle on may stop the dog from doing certain behaviours and they then start using it as a punishment tool, something to stop the dog from doing the behaviour or even just wave it in the dogs face as a ‘threat’.  This is not a recommended approach. Not only could the dog eventually lash out after being continually threatened with the muzzle or having it shoved on their face when they are not comfortable but you are not actually teaching your dog what you want them to do.

We always recommend teaching an alternative behaviour and using force free training techniques with lots of yummy treats, praise and play when your dog is doing something you don’t want them to do.  

A muzzle is not a punishment tool.  So, if your puppy steals your slipper or sock,provide it with lots of stimulating toys it can play with, remove items you don’t want damaged and supervise and manage 

2. It Is Not a Solution to Stop Your Dog from Barking

This was one of the most common ones I used to hear in the shop.  People think that a muzzle will stop the dog from barking. It can only do this if it is so tight that it is restricting their mouth movements considerably.  If it is doing this then it means it is not the right size and your dog risks not being able to pant freely which can cause them to overheat much more easily.

A correctly fitting muzzle will mean that a dog can still bark.  If they do stop barking when it goes on it is only because they are seriously uncomfortable wearing it so they will likely fight to get it off and hide whenever the muzzle comes out in the future.

It is much better to work on teaching your dog not to bark, work on rewarding quiet behaviour and manage their environment in the meantime.

A muzzle is not a solution for problem barking, better management and training alternatives is the way to go 

3. To Allow You to Leave a Reactive Dog Unsupervised with Children, Small Furries or Other Dogs

I believe this is one of the most worrying possible uses of a muzzle.  If your dog is uncomfortable around children, other small furries or even other dogs in your household or somewhere that you are visiting, thinking that it is fine to just pop the muzzle on your dog and then leave them to all get on with it is an absolute recipe for disaster.

Not only could the dog still cause fear or injury even with the muzzle on if they do decide to react, but it is also extremely unfair to put your dog in this position and it will certainly not make them any less fearful or reactive.  In fact, it is likely to actually heighten any issues they have as it may mean the children feel that, because the dog has a muzzle on, they can bother it even more. Also, the muzzle is not foolproof either and it can come off.

It is much better to set up a programme of training to help your dog be more comfortable around the children or other dogs and use much more careful management in the meantime where you restrict unsupervised access, use baby gates and avoid putting your dog in an uncomfortable situation.

This also applies if you are out with a group of dogs.  If your dog is nervous around other off-leash dogs, it is not appropriate to just stick a muzzle on them and think that this will make everything okay.  

If your dog is not comfortable around children, leaving them unsupervised with the dog wearing a muzzle is not a solution.  Management is key, education of your children and a programme of training to help your dog feel more relaxed. 

4. To let your dog with a high prey drive off-leash in an area that you know they will give chase

Whilst a muzzle can be useful as a precaution for a dog with a high prey drive, if you are walking in an area where you know there is lots of wildlife and your dog is more than likely going to give chase then it is better to just keep them on lead.  It is not good for your dog to be in such a heightened state of arousal, they could get injured easily and it is unfair on the animal they are chasing too. This is especially important with livestock. Not only can sheep that are pregnant lose their lambs as a result of the stress of the chase, but a farmer in the UK has a right to shoot a dog that is worrying their livestock.

Your dog should be on-leash whenever you are around livestock.  Popping a muzzle on them and then letting them give chase is an absolute No No.

What Types of Muzzles Are There?

There is a wide variety of different kinds of muzzles, some are shaped more appropriately for different breed types and it can be important to get the right style.  Generally, we always recommend the most common style of muzzle, the Basket Muzzle. Most of the rest are either not as effective or may cause possible risk of overheating or being seriously uncomfortable.

1. The Basket Muzzle

This is the most appropriate muzzle in most cases but it is often the one that people baulk at the most as it can look the most obtrusive of them all.  If you can get over the aesthetics though remember that a well-fitting basket muzzle is the most comfortable, allows your dog to pant freely, to drink and also to take treats (this is so important when working on training).

The Baskerville Ultra brand also has additional attachments that hold it in place over the skull and under the jaw at the collar to help it stay on more securely too.

The Baskerville Ultra Muzzle has extra straps to hold it more securely in place, has a nice wide generous fit which makes it easier to pant and it works well for being able to feed treats through too.

2. Greyhound/Sighthound Muzzles

Sighthounds like greyhounds and whippets tend to have very long, thin snouts and this means that a standard muzzle will not give a good fit and it is better to opt for this breed specific style.   There are also lurcher muzzles which are slightly wider than a greyhound one but still designed for a long snout. These often have to be purchased from specialist suppliers or from Sighthound charities.

Sighthounds like this Saluki often need a breed specific muzzle to fit their long, thin snouts.

3. Mesh/Fabric Muzzle

These are often the most commonly requested type of muzzle.  They have traditionally been used in vets and groomers and because they are less bulky than a basket muzzle people think they may be more comfortable for their dog and that they look less ‘scary’ in them.  We do not recommend this style of muzzle, especially if your dog is exercising in it.

To be effective these muzzles have to be tight around the muzzle to stop them from falling off and to stop a dog being able to open their mouth wide enough to nip or bite. As a result, it means that the dog is not able to easily drink or take treats, and even more importantly, they can’t pant properly so there is a real risk of them overheating.  Often when a dog is wearing a muzzle they are stressed so they pant more than normal and this makes it an even more risky proposition. If they are just slipped on for a minute in the vet then this is different but for a long grooming session, training session, general dog walk or prolonged use in the home they are just not recommended.

Any muzzle that restricts your dog’s ability to pant freely should be avoided.  There are even muzzles that are in the shape of a duck beak. Whilst I understand the idea is to dispel the ‘scary’ look of a normal muzzle these ones also work like a standard mesh muzzle and, to be effective, they stop the dog from opening their mouth fully and so they are not a good option either.

Bling Your Dog’s Muzzle up

Often muzzles are only available in brown or black.  Some owners decorate their dog’s muzzles in fun patterned tape to make them look less scary.  Providing it is a non-toxic tape option and it is not going to compromise your dog’s ability to breathe, take treats or drink we think this is a great idea.  It can often be a good conversation starter with other people around muzzles too, helping to dispel the myths.

Make Sure That You Have the Right Fit

No muzzle is full proof and even with the right fit, a dog can still sometimes manage to escape them.  The key things when fitting a muzzle is to ensure it is not rubbing up against the end of their snout, that it is wide enough to avoid rubbing at the sides of their jowls and snout and that they can open their mouth wide enough to be able to comfortably pant and take treats.  

We always recommend heading to a well stocked and reputable pet store to try on muzzles if you can as it will help you secure the best fit.  Make sure the store carries a wide range of basket muzzle sizes. The Baskerville Ultra we mentioned is a more roomy fit than a standard basket muzzle so it can be good for breeds with wider skulls like the bully breeds.

This muzzle looks a bit tatty but at least, crucially there is plenty space under the jaw for them to open their mouth to pant freely 

How to Do I Get My Dog Used to Wearing a Muzzle

It is always a good idea to build up to having your dog wear a muzzle gradually.  If you rush it and they are frightened or uncomfortable you are almost always then going to have a battle on your hands going forward and it will be harder to get them to wear the muzzle without them struggling to get it off.  You want your dog to see the muzzle as something they love.

It is important not to jump to sticking the muzzle on your dog’s face straight away.  Break it down into short five-minute training sessions over a period of a few days. If you can, try to plan for training time before you have to start using it properly.

Start with letting your dog see the muzzle.  Every time they look at it they get a treat. Then pop it on the floor and every time your dog approaches it give them a treat.  Work up to having them place their snout in it by putting a super scrummy treat through the front, you could even smother some peanut butter or other doggy appropriate spread on the front, this will encourage them to put their nose in for longer whilst they work on getting the goodies out.  You want to gradually increase the amount of time they have their snout in the muzzle comfortably before you then move on to having it fastened for short periods. If at any point your dog shows signs of being uncomfortable, move back a step, up the treat administration and take things bit slower.

It can be really good to work on muzzle training with a new dog regardless of whether you plan to use one or not.  Not only is it really handy if they are used to it if an emergency arises, muzzles need to be used in certain countries and certain modes of transport or maybe your vet wants to use on, but also it is a good training exercise to build the bond of trust between you.

Super tasty treats are really important when introducing muzzle training.  Dry biscuits like these are just not going to cut it. It also has to be something that is easy to squeeze through the holes in the muzzle too.

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