By: Dr. Megan Maxwell, Phd
I often work with dogs who have a history of aggression toward other dogs or people in the form of barking, growling, lunging, snapping, or biting. In some cases, the aggression is quite serious. I have worked with dogs, for example, who have killed other animals, including cats and other dogs, and have hospitalized people with their bites. I have worked with families who are afraid of their pets because they know that another bite could be just around the corner, or families who have to rehome or euthanize a pet because the animal cannot live safely in their home environment. These cases are, of course, highly stressful and often very challenging to address, and families find themselves torn because these same animals that sometimes bite are also sometimes still affectionate, playful, and loving as well.
One piece of equipment that can be especially helpful to animal behaviorists working with families whose dogs exhibit ongoing, unpredictable, or reliable aggression is the basket muzzle. Any muzzle is designed to prevent a dog bite, but the basket muzzle has the added advantage that the dog can open her mouth and pant while wearing it, which is essential if she is to wear the muzzle for more than a few minutes, so that she can safely regulate her body temperature. In many circumstances of serious aggression that cannot be resolved by eliminating the aggressive potential, a muzzle becomes the primary tool for preventing aggression, keeping people and dogs safe, and in some cases, the only way the dog can remain in her home.
Certain brands of muzzle also allow for treats to be given through the front of the muzzle, and this also is very important when working with a muzzle in a behavior modification plan, because we need to be able to provide positive reinforcement for calm and tolerant behavior, and praise and petting can be low on the scale of motivators when a dog is facing a situation that he is interpreting as aversive, threatening, or challenging. Using a more potent reinforcer, such as food, in these situations can often make the difference between success and failure in a behavior plan. Finally, the basket style muzzle allows a dog to drink water while wearing the muzzle, also important if the muzzle is to be used as a management tool for longer periods of time.
Many dogs are uncomfortable when a muzzle is first put on, especially if they have any experience of a muzzle simply being strapped on during a stressful time in their past or if they are already sensitive to equipment being put on. Luckily, like any other piece of training equipment such as a collar, body harness, or head harness, dogs can learn to tolerate muzzles very well with some positive reinforcement and patience in the initial introductions.
Once the muzzle arrives, owners should start by placing it open in their palm with some treats at the nose end of the muzzle. Most dogs will voluntarily place their nose into the muzzle to eat the treat. This should be repeated until the dog sees the muzzle in the owner’s palm and comes happily over to find the treat inside it. From there, owners’ strategies differ depending on whether their dog has a history of aggression over body touch issues with them or not. For example, is the dog likely to snap, bite, or growl when approached over the head or around the back? If so, some special systematic desensitization steps will need to be added in collaboration with a board-certified animal behaviorist before next stages can be safely accomplished. If the dog is not touch sensitive with her owners, the next steps involve adjusting the fit of the muzzle while feeding treats through the basket at the front of the muzzle, praising and massaging her while she is wearing the muzzle for short periods of just a minute or two at first, and keeping her fully distracted from the muzzle instead. Gradually, the time spent wearing the muzzle can be extended and when consistently associated with other positive and relaxing stimuli, the dog can become as comfortable wearing a muzzle as she would wearing her collar around the house or in public situations.
The importance of reaching this stage successfully lies in the fact that, for many dogs, that muzzle becomes their required safety equipment in some situations for the rest of their lives. For the most intractable or challenging cases of aggression, a muzzle can quite literally make the difference between life and death for the dog. If a dog can be reliably, easily, and happily muzzled during situations where biting might otherwise occur, and we can ensure that the dog is happy and enriched otherwise, we have found one potential path for keeping an animal with her family while keeping those around the animal safe.