Treats and a training plan help dogs to wear a muzzle, study shows
Dogs should learn to wear a muzzle, but many people make mistakes and there’s a fit issue too, according to new research.
|A dog wears a muzzle at the vet. Photo: Lipik Stock Media/Shutterstock|
By Zazie Todd, PhD.
All dogs can need to wear a muzzle at some point in their life, especially at the vet where some procedures are not safe if the dog is not muzzled. Wearing a muzzle can be stressful for the dog if they are not trained for it. But how much training do people do, what is the fit like, and how is the dog’s behaviour affected?
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These questions are answered in some new research published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour. It's the first time scientists have looked at muzzle training and fit. The results show common errors in how people train their dog (or don’t), and in the fit of the muzzle.
Dr. Christine Arhant of the Institute of Animal Welfare Science, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and first author of the paper told me,
“There may be circumstances in which every dog may need a muzzle to assure safety for everyone involved (e.g., the dog is in pain after an accident and needs to be handled). As muzzling can add additional stress in such a situation, every dog should receive muzzle training from an early age on. This training should be based on positive reinforcement, the more delicious the treats the better! And owners should give their dogs enough time to really enjoy training and later on wearing a muzzle. I would schedule a minimum of 6 weeks with short daily training sessions. However, this will depend on individual characteristics/circumstances and might take more time. The dog should be allowed to set the pace.
Second, the muzzle needs to be fitted to every individual dog.”
The scientists showed people a set of drawings of a dog wearing a muzzle and asked them to indicate which one represented the fit of a muzzle on their dog. One drawing had the right amount of space after the end of the muzzle as well as lots of space below the muzzle for the dog to still be able to open their mouth to drink or to pant (needed to help them regulate their body temperature). But only around a fifth of people (21.4%) said they had this fit.
The most common error with fit was to not have enough space between the end of the nose and the muzzle (17.2%), followed by not enough space below the jaw for the dog to open their mouth (14.2%).
Unfortunately, many people either did not train their dog to wear a muzzle at all (9.3%) or tried to get the dog used to it (i.e. habituate) by putting it on for periods of less than one minute (6.7%) or several minutes at a time (5.4%). Some people used food to try to accomplish muzzle training in one day (15.3%) or several days (32.8%).
Only 25% of people were using tasty treats and taking several weeks to accomplish the training. This was, of course, the best approach: these dogs were less likely to bark, whine, or try to remove the muzzle with their paws than people who had simply used habituation. As well, dogs who had had this intense training were less likely to show active avoidance behaviours (including trying to remove the muzzle or rub it on things) than those whose owners had tried shorter training periods or habituation.
Not using food rewards and trying to go too fast are both common dog training mistakes that people make in relation to other situations, so it’s not surprising to see these mistakes here.
Almost a fifth of participants (19.6%) said the muzzle had a negative effect on their dog’s behaviour (for example, in interactions with other dogs, being insecure or less active) and 12.9% said there was a negative physical effect. This included pressure marks, broken fur, wounds, and hair loss. This was most common in dogs who wore the muzzle several times a day, of whom 31% had a negative physical effect.
Just over three-quarters of dogs (78.4%) had worn a muzzle at some point. Most people used a basket muzzle made out of biothane, metal, or leather. The scientists note that since such muzzles are quite expensive, it seems that issues to do with fit and training are due to lack of education, rather than not being able to afford an appropriate muzzle.
A small number of people (4.1%) had some kind of tube-type muzzle which does not allow the dog to open their mouth properly. This kind of muzzle is sometimes used in vet clinics for short procedures but is not suitable for use outside of that context.
The survey was in German and participants were mainly from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. While rules around muzzle wearing vary, in Vienna dogs in public must either wear a muzzle or be on a leash, and a muzzle is required on transit.
These results suggest that requiring dogs to wear a muzzle permanently would be bad for their welfare and might affect the dog’s social interactions. Not all dogs are suitable for dog parks, including puppies, some seniors, and fearful dogs, and some people do not feel comfortable taking their dog to dog parks even if the dog is fine there. These dogs would be most affected by any compulsory muzzle requirements.
However, all dogs should be trained to wear a muzzle so that they do not find it stressful if they ever need to wear one at the vet. Other uses for a muzzle are of course to prevent bites in other situations (for example if a dog has a bite history) and to prevent the dog from eating things found on the ground while on walks.
The results of this study show that many people are not getting the fit of the muzzle or the training right. In particular, people should be encouraged to follow a longer-term training plan that relies on positive reinforcement, with great treats as rewards for the dog.
You can read the paper in full at the link below. If you would like some tips on choosing and fitting a muzzle, the team have a leaflet that you can download here.
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Arhant, C., Schmied-Wagner, C., Aigner, U., & Affenzeller, N. (2021). Owner reports on the use of muzzles and their effects on dogs: an online survey. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 41, 73-81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2020.07.006
Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, a BC bestseller and winner of the Maxwell Medallion for best book (behaviour, health or general care) from the Dog Writers Association of America. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, and also writes a column for Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats.