If you’ve recently read Why You Should Have A Muzzle For Your Dog, and are wondering how to go about introducing one properly, keep reading. Below we’ll go into the finer details of muzzle training, such as how to condition your dog to love their new muzzle, and why it’s so important to take the time to properly introduce one before you slap one on. If you haven’t yet come across the reasoning for having a muzzle and would like to learn more, definitely check out our previous muzzle post.
Why should you bother muzzle training?
It’s a bad idea to allow your dog to feel stressed
For most dogs, having something that covers their sensitive snouts and hinders their ability to eat, drink, chew, play and cool down can be incredibly stressful. Inherently, they will not enjoy having a muzzle on their face, and you want to mitigate the stress this causes as much as possible. Why? Because much like in humans, stress in dogs can be terribly physically damaging over time. Increased blood pressure, deterioration of arteries, fatty deposits in blood vessels and exacerbated allergies are but a few examples. Short term, allowing your dog to be stressed means that they are mentally ‘checked out’ and less capable of learning what you’d like to teach them.
A good analogy is to imagine that you’re standing on top of a tall building, leaning over the edge and looking down. In this state, someone is trying to teach you calculus in a language that you don’t even speak! Not afraid of heights? Imagine yourself surrounded by spiders instead (or whatever it is that unnerves you). How much do you think you’ll be able to take in?
If you are trying to rehabilitate a fearful or aggressive dog, allowing them to be stressed out at any point can severely hinder, and even reverse, your progress. Stress is one of the major contributors to ‘over threshold’ behaviours like freak-outs, bites, barking, thrashing and growling. By muzzle training your dog first, you teach them to feel happy and relaxed in their muzzle. As a result, you will find it far easier to desensitise them to their triggers.
As you can imagine, stress and its effects on dogs is a huge topic. If you would like to learn more we recommend reading Stress In Dogs to better understand how important stress mitigation is.
You can’t escape classical conditioning
As with all things behaviour related, classical conditioning is always at play. This means that your dog is constantly making associations between one thing and another – objects, events, experiences, their environment. Positive and negative. To put it simply, if you make all early experiences with the muzzle as happy as possible, they learn to be happy when it’s on. For example, if your dog loves going on walks, and you muzzle her right before you head out the door, she soon learns that the muzzle = fun outdoor time, new smells and yummy treats. The appearance of the muzzle will start to predict good things. In essence, this is what muzzle training is all about. In addition, in a relaxed, positive state of mind, she is less likely to behave poorly.
The same can happen in reverse, however. If your dog only ever gets muzzled when she goes to the vet (a negative experience), she will very quickly associate the muzzle with vet visits. The muzzle starts to predict a bad upcoming situation – going to the vet – and she becomes stressed before you even leave the house.
Safety from injury
Some dogs can become remarkably headstrong when they want to achieve something. Ask anyone who’s had a dog escape from its crate! It is possible for a dog to figure out how to remove their muzzle, which can lead to disastrous outcomes if it happens in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they enjoy wearing the muzzle, they won’t see any need to remove it. Furthermore, they won’t hurt themselves in the process (as is often the case when a dog get’s a bee in its bonnet).
Your relationship is worth it
They say in order to be a good dog trainer you must be fair and predictable. This means be consistent with everything you do. Every time you reward or punish your dog, they need to understand what they did to deserve it. This allows them to trust you, and look up to you as a true leader because they can rely on your consistency (not in the ‘dominant’ sense, but as someone they can happily respect and listen to). If you occasionally force your dog to wear a muzzle that she hasn’t yet been conditioned to like, from her eyes you are randomly punishing her for something she doesn’t understand. Your behaviour becomes unpredictable and you harm your relationship. Watch anyone that performs competitively with their dogs and notice how unquestionably in-sync they are despite being different species, with vastly different ways of communicating. The secret is consistency.
Muzzle training – how to teach your dog to love their muzzle
As we hinted at earlier, muzzle training will employ the use of classical conditioning. Ideally, your dog will never have seen a muzzle before so that she has no current negative feelings about wearing one. If she has worn one before, and immediately runs away when you bring it out, that’s okay too. The same process still applies, however, you probably just have to take slightly longer at each step to ensure that she’s happy. It may be worth considering getting a muzzle that’s different to the one she’s used before so that you can start with a clean slate.
What you need:
The muzzle you intend on using and small treats (squeeze cheese, peanut butter and other smooth foods will also be helpful at later stages)
Optional – you can bring your clicker if you have one, otherwise just settle on a marker word that you consistently use to tell your dog that they’ve done a good job (like “yes!”)
Step 1: Aim = Appearance of the muzzle predict treats
Start with the muzzle behind your back, and present it to your dog. The moment the dog looks at the muzzle click/mark and give them a treat. It is important that you show the muzzle first, then treat i.e. the appearance of the muzzle should predict the food. Repeat this step until your dog has figured out the connection between the muzzle and the reward. For example, if you show her the muzzle and her tail starts wagging, or she looks at you expectantly, she’s probably figured out this stage of the game.
Step 2: Aim = Dog touches the muzzle entrance with her nose
In this step you want your dog to start experimenting with the muzzle. Click/mark any attempt to interact with it such as taking a step closer, sniffing it, licking it and ultimately touching it with her nose. You can shape this behaviour if you enjoy shaping.
Alternatively, you can pop a treat at the entrance of the muzzle. This will prompt her to sniff and touch their nose to the muzzle entrance pretty quickly. Put it behind your back and show her the muzzle again. She should reach out to sniff and touch the muzzle as soon as your present it. Praise and repeat until your dog is consistently touching her nose to the muzzle entrance whenever you show it to her.
Step 3: Aim = Dog touches the inside of the muzzle with her nose
Throw a treat into the nose-end of the muzzle, or hold the muzzle in a cupped hand with a treat on the inside of the muzzle (your hand is stopping the treat from just falling out through the holes). If she seems reluctant to stick her nose in, gradually work towards reaching the end by placing the treat further and further inward from a point that she is still comfortable taking it from. Put the muzzle behind your back, and offer it to her again with the treat inside. You want your dog to volunteer sticking her snout all the way to the end of the muzzle. Click/mark and immediately reward her every time she does this. If she offers this behaviour 8+ times out of 10 repetitions, move on the next step.
Step 4: Aim = Dog consistently and happily places her nose inside the muzzle
This time, we stop putting the treat in the nose end and offer the muzzle to her without the food lure. We can ease up on the expectations in this step because we’ve changed the game slightly and are taking a bit of a leap. In the past, she would stick her head in knowing that there’s a treat inside. This time we offer her the muzzle sans treat and reward her after she sticks her nose in. This is where a clicker or marker word can really help speed up learning. Mark the exact moment that your dog places her snout in the muzzle and reward her.
At this stage, it’s a great idea to actually reward your dog through the muzzle holes while their nose is still inside if you can. This way you’re building up duration without your dog even realising it. Hide the muzzle and present it again, she should offer her snout faster and further into the muzzle each time as she figures out the new game. Repeat this stage until she consistently sticks her nose right into the muzzle as soon as you show it to her. Make it fun by moving backwards while the muzzle entrance faces your dog, prompting her to chase you in order to get her nose inside.
Step 5: Aim = Build duration
With your dog happily offering her snout to be muzzled, gradually build the duration that the muzzle in on. Start short and build up – two seconds, then four, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty-five, sixty, ninety and so on. Be sure to increase the duration in a somewhat random manner so that she doesn’t learn that every time the muzzle goes on, it will be longer than the last. For example you could go in the following order (the numbers are in seconds): 1, 2, 3, 1, 3, 5, 2, 7, 4, 10, 3, 1, 15, 4, 10, 20, 7 etc. Try to spend five minutes or less per session so that she doesn’t become bored or fatigued. Keep things interesting, and exciting – remember that this is always meant to be a positive experience, so play around with what works for your dog.
Domesticated Manners has produced an excellent video on the process, showing each step with a dog who has never been muzzle-trained before.
Remember to let the muzzle predict good things. Put it on before activities that your dog loves, such as car rides or dinner time. This way, when you have to use the muzzle for things that your dog doesn’t enjoy, such as having her nails clipped or visiting the vet, she won’t think that the muzzle has anything to do with these unpleasant experiences.
Show her that wearing the muzzle is no big deal. Play with her, practice obedience, rub her belly and feed her (if your muzzle allows) while she has her muzzle on to normalise the sensation.
If she tries to get it off, do not remove the muzzle. Distract her by engaging in play or giving a friendly command, and then remove it once she’s obeyed and has stopped pawing at it. You want her to learn that the muzzle comes off when she’s relaxed and neutral, not when she’s fussing or whining.
Do not leave the muzzle on for terribly long periods of time. Your dog should still be given ample opportunity to be a normal dog. Furthermore, sores and blisters can develop, which can be painful for the dog and worsen her association with the muzzle.
References and recommended reading:
Scholz, M., von Reinhardt, C. (2006). Stress in Dogs. Wenatchee, Washington: Dogwise.