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Veterinarian Technician July 2011 (Vol 32, No 7)

Inside Behavior: Thinking of Muzzles as “Treat Baskets” for Dogs—A Matter of Perception

by Colleen S. Koch, DVM, KPA-CTP

    Many dog owners think that muzzling a dog is cruel. Perhaps they think that a muzzle is a “scarlet letter” of shame for dogs. There seems to be a perception that if a dog must wear a muzzle, the owner and the dog must be terrible, and why would anyone have a dog like that?

    For several reasons, I disagree with the idea that muzzling a dog is terrible. Owners who muzzle their dogs are being responsible by trying to protect other people and animals. These owners understand that their dogs are capable of biting.

    Many dogs do not like anyone except family members. Unfortunately, too many people think that all dogs love them. These people approach dogs inappropriately, violating their “personal” space. If a dog reacts aggressively, it gets a bad rap.

    The purpose of this article is not to debate whether dogs that have displayed aggression should be kept. Rather, I advocate safety by promoting understanding and support of dog owners who are responsible enough to choose muzzling. I also want to inform owners that muzzling is a viable option and that their dogs are not aware of the social stigma associated with it. A dog might think that a muzzle is simply an opportunity for a treat.

    A dog’s reaction to muzzling depends on how the dog was introduced to it. Unfortunately, muzzles are often forced on dogs, which are expected to tolerate it. This can cause a dog to become increasingly resistant to muzzling.

    What if a dog learned that good things happen when wearing a muzzle? What if the dog learned that a muzzle means, “let’s play, go for a walk or car ride, or have a treat”? Helping a dog associate a muzzle with rewards can be easy when using the following training methods. I use two different methods with a few variations, depending on the dog’s problem.

    The “Treat Basket” Method

    If an owner is not at risk of being bitten, this method is very easy. It involves feeding the dog small amounts of kibble or canned food from the muzzle throughout the day. My video demonstrates this method, which works well with a basket muzzle.

    The time frame for each of the following steps depends on the dog and its history with muzzling. If the dog has a long history of being heavily restrained for muzzling and of resisting it, training will take longer. If the dog has no experience with muzzling and is motivated by food, my coworkers and I can generally train the dog to accept a muzzle within 20 minutes. Initially, the goal is to get the dog to eat highly desirable treats while wearing the muzzle. When the muzzle is removed, so are the treats. Ultimately, the dog decides how fast the training proceeds. The dog should not be stressed or upset by the following process.

    • Show the dog the muzzle, and then put a small amount of food in it.

    • When the dog finishes the food and pulls its nose out of the muzzle, add more food. Repeat this until the meal is finished.

    • When the dog reliably sticks its nose into the muzzle and looks forward to eating from it, start putting something gooey (e.g., peanut butter, Kong paste, flattened pill pockets) in the tip of the muzzle’s nose so that the dog will put its head all the way into the muzzle. This method works well with a nylon or basket muzzle. If a basket muzzle is not used, the technique can be modified by placing the muzzle inside a cup that is slightly larger than the muzzle. The treat has to be lickable if the muzzle fits tightly around the mouth.

    • To introduce the dog to the neck strap, repeat each of the following substeps until the dog is comfortable, and then proceed to the next step:

    —Raise the strap slightly

    —Lay the strap over the back of the neck

    Proceed slowly through these substeps and repeat them several times without fastening the strap. Some dogs may be fearful of a person’s hand as it passes over their head. Ensure that the dog is focused on the treats in the muzzle.

    • When the dog is comfortable, slip the strap through the buckle, but do not fasten it. Repeat this several times before fastening the strap.

    • Once the muzzle is on, feed treats (e.g., canned cheese, Kong paste, peanut butter, long treats) through the muzzle.

    • Continue to feed treats through the muzzle while unfastening it.

    • Stop feeding treats after the muzzle has been removed.

    • Work toward keeping the muzzle on for longer periods of time, increasing them by small increments. The length of time that the muzzle stays on is determined by the dog. Some dogs look forward to wearing the muzzle at this point, so keeping it on for an extended period of time is not a problem. Other dogs still need some positive reinforcement to reassure them that the muzzle is a good thing. At this point, the goal is to remove the muzzle before the dog tries to pull it off or becomes uncomfortable. Ideally, the dog will develop a positive association with the muzzle and want to keep wearing it.

    The Shaping Method

    If a dog is aggressive toward the owner or around food, the shaping method (also called clicker training) helps keep the owner safe. Shaping involves using a clicker and treats to progressively shape an animal’s behavior until a desired behavior is repeated on cue. It is important for the owner to be flexible if the dog takes a different approach or skips steps. The rate of reinforcementa should remain high to keep the dog interested. The basic steps for shaping follow.

    • Place the muzzle on the floor

    • Click and treat …

    …as soon as the dog looks at the muzzle.

    …when the dog first steps toward the muzzle.

    …every time the dog moves toward the muzzle.

    …if the dog touches the muzzle with its nose.

    …if the dog puts its nose farther into the muzzle.

    My video demonstrates this method. Some dogs may require more time at certain steps, and some dogs may skip steps. Either way, the dog learns that touching the muzzle is an opportunity for a reward.

    Once the dog reliably puts its nose in the muzzle, the next step is to fasten it, which can become dangerous for the owner. For this step, the dog is tethered or is placed behind a low gate or obstacle, over which the dog must reach with its head to stick its nose in the muzzle. Clicking is not necessary at this point because it can be cumbersome for most owners; however, I have used my foot to click. Using the clicker in the previous steps helps the dog make a positive association with the muzzle. This method mirrors the treat basket method.

    The Grate Crate Method

    If the owner is concerned about getting bitten while applying the muzzle, the following method can be used. This method reduces the owner’s risk of injury and is easier to implement than using a gate, obstacle, or tether. In addition, the crate door can be shut quickly if necessary.

    • Place the dog in a crate.

    • Create a grid barrier using PVC pipe, which can be purchased at home-improvement stores, many of which will cut the pipe to specific measurements on request. The grid must prevent the dog from escaping from the crate but allow the dog to put its head through the grid. This will hinder the dog’s ability to jump up or move its head to bite. This is demonstrated in my video.

    • Hold the muzzle over one of the gaps in the grid.

    • Click and give highly valued treats when the dog’s nose is in the muzzle.

    • Before placing and later fastening the strap over the dog’s head, wait for the dog to reliably put its nose all the way into the muzzle for treats.

    Patience and safety are paramount: nobody should get hurt. If the dog is getting upset or the owner is worried, the training session should stop.

    Training a Dog to Wear a Muzzle for Longer Periods of Time

    After the dog is comfortable with having the muzzle fastened, it is very important to teach the dog that wearing the muzzle is a good thing. To do this, click and give treats continuously while the muzzle is on and the dog is calm. Clicking and treat delivery should slowly be transitioned to intermittent as long as the dog is calm. This is critical to success. If the time between treats is increased too quickly, the dog may get frustrated. In my video, I click while the dog is still calm and gradually increase the time between clicks. I recommend “ping-ponging” the treat time. For example, treat at 3, 5, 4, 5, 3, and 6 seconds and remove the muzzle; then repeat.

    If the dog reacts (becomes anxious, paws at the muzzle, shows signs of discomfort) at 5 seconds, I ping-pong the treat time at less than 5 seconds for a while (e.g., treat at 1, 3, 2, 4, 3, 1, and 4 seconds and remove the muzzle). The muzzle is removed after the longest increment of time, after giving a treat. The goal is to reinforce that the muzzle is a predictor of rewards. If the dog reacts negatively to the muzzle, the time increments have been increased too quickly.


    When muzzle training, I generally do not speak because I do not want to distract or confuse the dog. Words are unnecessary if the muzzle becomes a sufficient visual cue for getting the dog to accept it. In addition, a muzzle is much easier to generalize as a cue compared with a word(s) spoken by different people.

    Muzzles can be perceived negatively or positively by owners or dogs. When watching my videos, note the dogs’ body language: the muzzle becomes a cue for rewards. With some time and patience, most dogs can be trained to have a positive perception of muzzles.

    aRate of reinforcementis the number of times an animal is reinforced (rewarded) for completing a desired behavior.  When the rate of reinforcement is 10 to 15 clicks/min, an animal will be motivated to continue “playing” the shaping “game.”

    Client Handout: Training Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle

    Click here for a PDF of this client handout.


    The author's credentials (KPA-CTP) stand for "Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner."

    NEXT: Tech Tips (July 2011)


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