It is often misunderstood that using a muzzle or muzzle training a dog implies an aggressive dog or an owner who can’t control their dog. Muzzles were once considered a regular training tool, but unfortunately, they have acquired a negative reputation.
Our goal is to emphasize the importance of muzzle training for your dog (even if they aren’t aggressive) and provide you with a straightforward and anxiety-free guide to help with muzzle training. We firmly believe that all dogs should be capable of tolerating a muzzle for brief durations without any issues, even if you rarely or never use one.
Benefits of muzzle training
Before we get started into how to how to train muzzle train your pup, we think it’s important to touch on some of the benefit of muzzle training your dog, even if they aren’t reactive or aggressive.
Dealing with emergencies
Likely the most obvious for muzzle training your dog, the ability to use a muzzle if your dog is injured is a critical skill. No matter how friendly your dog is, any dog can get defensive if something major happens (and most do). For example, if your dog is playing around and breaks their leg, there is a very real possibility that they will bite those trying to help. Think of how scared you would be if you broke your leg and then remember that your pup doesn’t have any idea of what happened to them beside their present situation.
If you work on muzzle training, this will give you added comfort during this traumatic event. Emergency vet services may require wearing muzzles in this scenario due to the unpredictability of how a dog will react when injured.
Helps prevent dogs from eating unwanted items
If you’ve ever been frustrated with your dog eating things in your yard or on walks, muzzle training your pup can help some with that, as well.
Prim is our resident vacuum cleaner. She’s eaten (or tried to eat) pretty much everything that’s on the ground at one point, even rocks that she thought may possibly be kibble. One spot we frequent has more trash on the ground than we’d like, but is a great spot for our pups to sniff and explore.
While muzzles won’t completely prevent them from eating something if you’re not paying attention, it will help slow your pup down a little and give you enough time to correct the behavior.
Peace of mind for safe introductions
Muzzle training can also help during introductions between a pup and skittish humans or dogs. As an example, if you have a friend or child who has had a bad experience with a dog before, you can use the muzzle as a tool to help the person be more comfortable around dogs initially. Similarly, if you aren’t confident enough with a new doggy introduction with your pup, you can use muzzles to provide an extra level of comfort, as well.
For all of these situations, your dog has to be comfortable enough with a muzzle to display normal behavior. If your dog is more anxious than normal or shuts down, that means your dog isn’t comfortable enough with a muzzle.
Remember, you dog is relying on you to advocate for them and it’s your responsibility to keep them out of bad situations, especially when they have a muzzle on.
Helps keep people away from reactive dogs while training
If you want to use the currently misplaced stigma of muzzles being for bad dogs to your advantage, you can steer straight into people’s reactions. For example, one of our dogs, Goomba, is reactive toward unknown dogs. If we know it’s going to be crowded where we are going to train, we’ll occasionally use a muzzle to help keep other people away from us and give Goomba some additional personal space so we can control the environment a bit better.
The trick is to make sure you aren’t turning this into a negative experience. Your dog has to be comfortable in a muzzle for this to work well and you need to have a good idea of how your pup will behave.
When shouldn’t I use a muzzle?
First off, more than muzzle training is needed to solve behavior problems. It’s meant to be an additional protection barrier for your dog if you are uncertain about a situation, not as a way to prevent undesirable behavior. It will not prevent barking, chewing, or similar anxiety-based behaviors for your pup. The way to address these reliably is through training.
Muzzles should not be used when your dog is unsupervised. Tossing a muzzle on your dog and going to work is dangerous and irresponsible. Muzzles, even basket-style muzzles, restrict your dog’s ability to pant, eat, and drink. Restricting panting is of particular concern as it is your dog’s primary way to cool off. Even if your dog is in a cool area, panting can occur due to anxiety.
If you are seeking a way to handle your dog’s anxiety-based behavior problems, please look at the benefits of crate training. Until you can address the root cause of the anxiety, this will be the safest and most effective option for your dog.
Desensitizing your dog to a muzzle
Types of muzzles
There are two main styles of muzzles that we consider to be the most effective: soft muzzles and basket muzzles. Each type offers different advantages depending on the intended use or the size and shape of your dog’s snout. If you require assistance in selecting a suitable muzzle for your dog or if you have any specific questions regarding muzzle training, we strongly recommend consulting a qualified professional trainer or your veterinarian.
Our personal favorite is the Baskerville Ultra muzzle (Chewy). Despite looking excessive, it allows for the most normal behavior from your dog. It’s like your dog has a soft, relatively open barrier around their entire snout. Regular eating, drinking, and panting can occur with only a minor amount of difficulty. The primary downside is that the sizing has to be good as it’s not able to be adjusted as much as some other muzzles. Here’s a link to the same Baskerville muzzle on Amazon if you prefer shopping there. We’d recommend checking both before buying as occasionally one is cheaper than the other.
We tend to see the most success with these on dogs like our Goomba, who has a relatively long snout. The Baskerville muzzle still works with Prim, but it isn’t quite as secure as it is on Goomba. With smaller snout dogs, the muzzle is easier for them to remove & it tends to be closer to their eyes. We find that basket muzzle training due is much easier initially due to the muzzle being less restrictive for your dog. Goomba definitely prefers this style when he has a muzzle on.
Sizing a Baskerville muzzle can be a little trickier, too. We measured multiple times, but still whiffed on our first purchase for Prim. We got Goomba’s right the first time. Your mileage may vary, but Company of Animals (the manufacturer of baskerville muzzles) has a great sizing guide in their image gallery.
If you can’t find a Baskerville muzzle that fits well, soft muzzles (Chewy) are our second recommendation. Prim uses one of these for a few different reasons. First, we don’t use the muzzle with Prim very often. Second, we haven’t had a ton of success with keeping the muzzle on her very well, which is common with flater-faced dogs. Since the fabric doesn’t touch her eyes, she leaves a soft muzzle (Amazon) alone and generally doesn’t mind having it on.
If you just want to get started with muzzle training, but can’t find the muzzle you want, yet, you can use a soft one and switch to a Baskerville later, or the other way around. It doesn’t really matter for training purposes, as the behavior will be similar for your pup. There’s also some individual preference from your dog, too, so don’t be surprised if your dog prefers one over the other.
We have no experience with them, but there are specialty muzzle designs for specific breeds that have abnormal shaped snouts. For example, flat faced pups, like pugs, are very challenging to use a traditional muzzle on due to the small snout length. We wanted to mention them so that you do know that they exist, even if we can’t offer any experience with them.
Taking treats when the muzzle is nearby
Note: If your dog isn’t particularly fearful or hasn’t had a negative experience with a muzzle, you can probably skip this step. If you’re having issues with your dog wearing a harness, check out our article on harness training your dog! The process is very similar for both a muzzle and a harness.
For our first step of muzzle training, we will have your pup be functional near a muzzle. This step is particularly helpful if your dog is fearful of new things or has had negative experiences with a muzzle before.
All you need to do is have your dog perform normal behaviors near the muzzle! For example, sit the muzzle near him when he’s eating his dog food or have it close by during obedience training. Initially, you can start with as much distance between your pup and the muzzle as you need and decrease it as your pup gets more comfortable.
If your dog is willing to play, that’s another great option. It doesn’t really matter what you decide to do, as long as it’s a positive experience. The main goal of this step is to change the association of the muzzle from one of fear or apprehension to neutral or ideally, positive.
Taking treats from the unattached muzzle
The next step for muzzle training your dog (or first if you don’t need to do the initial step) is to get your dog to take treats from the muzzle without it being on their snout.
The goal here is to stick your fingers as far through the muzzle as you can and let your dog initiate the movement to take the treat. Don’t shove the muzzle on their face. If they are reluctant to grab the treat from the muzzle, increase the value of the treat until they are willing. You’ll want to take this step slowly, as well. Repeat several times (over separate training sessions or days) until your dog is comfortable getting the reward. If you or your dog are getting frustrated, stop training and try again later or the next day.
The key here is you want your dog to initiate the movement toward the treat and grab the treat from inside the muzzle. This step was extremely successful with Prim because she thinks a muzzle is a vending machine for peanut butter or chicken chunks. She actually gets excited when the muzzle comes out due to how food motivated she is.
Taking treats from the held-in-place muzzle
The next step of muzzle training is to transition to your dog reaching all of the way in the muzzle. The change for this step is instead of sticking your fingers all the way through the muzzle, you’ll have the treat just outside of it so your dog needs to reach in the muzzle.
This will help guide your dog to put their face all the way in the muzzle and get comfortable with the restriction around their snout. As your dog gets more comfortable, hold the treat for a few seconds while they have the muzzle around their snout prior to rewarding your dog.
We recommend waiting until your dog is comfortable with their face in the muzzle for a few seconds prior to trying to pair this behavior with a cue, such as “muzzle”.
Taking treats with the muzzle on
Great job so far! The next step is to get the muzzle on your pup.
We’ll start by using the same process as the previous step. The difference is after your dog puts their nose in the muzzle, hold the straps behind their head (don’t tie or buckle, yet) for a few seconds. Reward if they do well with the muzzle on and then remove the muzzle. If your pup isn’t comfortable with this or tries to remove the muzzle, go back to the last step and work on increasing the duration before rewarding your pup.
Once your dog is comfortable, transition to securing the muzzle. The goal of this step is to work up to securing the muzzle on your pup, asking your dog for a command, and then removing the muzzle.
Reinforcing the positive association
At this point, you’ve helped your dog have a positive (or at least neutral) association with the muzzle. Now, we’ll be trying to get relatively normal behavior from your pup while they have the muzzle on.
Some of our recommendations for activities to do with the muzzle are doing training sessions, walks in exciting places, or meeting exciting people. Any positive experiences you can get with the muzzle on will help your dog reinforce their positive association with the muzzle training.
Remember to start with short durations before trying anything intense. We started with simply doing a few basic commands in a row and working up to full training sessions. We do not recommend just leaving your dog with the muzzle on for extended periods. It is unsafe and irresponsible to leave a muzzle on your dog while they are left unsupervised.
If you periodically do a fun activity using the muzzle, your dog will be excited about muzzle training and remember the positive association we have worked to create.
If you’re having some difficulty coming up with activities you can do with a muzzle on, check out our list of fun games for your dog inside or indoor exercise for dogs. Most activities can be combined with muzzle training, especially if you use a baskerville style muzzle (Chewy).
Muzzle training your dog doesn’t have to be a hard or traumatic experience! Remember to take it slow and practice periodically and your dog will think it’s a treat vending machine, like Prim!
We’d love to hear about your successes with muzzle training! Share your photos of your dog with us on Instagram by tagging @therulybully.