Overcoming the stigma against muzzles

Muzzle on a dog

Some of us go through life with canine companions that are calm, cool and collected —about anything that comes their way in life. Others of us might end up in a different situation.

One or more of our canine buddies might deal with some sort of fearful, anxious behavior over the various things they encounter in life. It might be other dogs, human strangers, small children, thunder, loud noises, territory, rollerblades — the list could go on and on.

When fearful anxiety results in aggressive signs such as growling, raised hackles, nipping or biting, it is important to discuss your concerns with a veterinarian. They will help you decide what plan of action is best to try keep pets and people safe.

At Westgate Pet Clinic we often will refer clients with concerns over anxiety that results in fearful aggression to a veterinary behaviorist. Because it can take a long time to get in for a behavioral referral, one of the most important things we can recommend to our clients with concerns that their pet may potentially bite is a basket muzzle.

There are many situations in which a basket muzzle might be useful. One is the classic family conundrum: crawling baby or toddler presents threat to family canine companion.

Unfortunately, I was in this situation myself the moment my firstborn began crawling. For years before I realized that a plastic basket muzzle would do the trick, my family played the game of children in separate room from anxious dog, dog behind baby gate or dog in kennel. It was a stressful game to play, and we weren’t always the best at it.

We never had any serious incidents, but we had some close encounters. Even with humane positive reinforcement methods of desensitization and counter-conditioning, even with anti-anxiety medication for our family dog, we still found that our older elementary school children, and now their friends that were running in and out of the house to play, represented a source of anxiety that prompted aggression from our dog.

He was an older middle-aged dog at this point. We were his third adoptive family, and we loved and wanted to keep him.

With the birth of our third child, I finally made the trip to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center’s behavior clinic to purchase a plastic basket muzzle. It was the best purchase we ever made for my border collie-springer spaniel mix.

He no longer had to deal with separation from the rest of the family when we could not ensure the situation was safe for our kids or kids coming and going through our house. Our kids and kids that came to the house were safe. Our dog even seemed more relaxed, maybe because he sensed we were finally relaxed. It was a win-win for all of us. I wish I had invested in his basket muzzle a long time before I did, but better late than never.

Another situation in which a basket muzzle can be very useful is walking a leashed pet that acts fear aggressive toward other dogs or people. Dogs that are fearful of other unfamiliar dogs or human strangers and act aggressively on leash sometimes miss out on normal, routine walks and exercise because of the stress that ensues for both owner and pet. The growling, raised hackles, lunging and potential for a bite to another dog or person — or to the owner (displaced aggression) — may discourage an owner from ever walking their pet.

This type of behavior issue can certainly benefit from a gentle leader head collar or no-pull harness as well desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques (another article for the future). A basket muzzle alone won’t help change the situation entirely, but a basket muzzle can ensure that other pets and people are safe while you and your pet are working on behavioral modification techniques with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.

I personally have seen the basket muzzle work great for fear aggression that is displaced onto an owner. When I first met my neighbor, she never took her dog on walks because every time he saw another dog he would get very worked up and would lunge, bark and pull her, often turning away from the fearful situation to bite her in the leg.

We worked with a gentle leader head collar to eliminate the pulling, but what was required to allow her to safely walk him as he learned to be calmer was the basket muzzle. With the use of the gentle leader head collar and basket muzzle, he could safely go on walks and enjoy the exercise and mental stimulation he needed.

He never learned to completely relax around other dogs, but the drama lessened, and he even learned to walk happily and calmly side-by-side with my own dog. With the use of the basket muzzle, his world expanded and he even had a dog friend for the first time in many years!

Basket muzzles also may have a place in a household where owners are working with an aggressive situation between dogs in the household. Your veterinarian and a veterinary behaviorist can suggest methods to try work through this type of issue, but a basket muzzle could potentially be a life-saving accessory.

Finally, basket muzzles are sometimes necessary for repeat offenders of foreign body obstructions (dog eats sock time after time, rock time after time, etc.). In a busy household where every potentially dangerous item can’t be picked up all the time, it might be a good option for those dogs that have required surgery after surgery for their indiscriminate eating of things that don’t digest well.

Basket muzzles are very humane. They are made of a grid pattern that allows a pet to be able to breathe normally and drink from a water bowl as usual, and many have a grid of such a size that even kibble or small treats can be fed through the basket muzzle. The overall shape of a basket muzzle allows a pet to chew food and swallow like normal.

Basket muzzles are not recommended for continuous use. They should be removed to allow a pet to eat, play with toys and chew appropriate items.

Basket muzzles are made of many different materials, but I prefer the plastic type that is softer and more flexible. I think they are more comfortable for the pet and the person.

Introducing a basket muzzle to a pet can actually be a game. You really want them to have a positive association with the basket muzzle so that it is both easy to put on and well accepted by your pet.

Using treats or a meal is the first step, ideally timed on an empty stomach for better learning sessions. At first, one might simply have the basket muzzle where the pet can see it while the pet is fed treats or kibble. Next, one can hold the basket muzzle in one hand and offer the treats or kibble to the pet with the other hand.

If the pet shows no fear of the muzzle, advance to putting some of the treats or kibble into the basket muzzle. The pet then can reach in freely to get the treats or kibble.

Once comfortable with reaching in to get food, the owner can practice attaching the strap, first just practicing the action of bringing the straps around the back of the neck (without actually buckling it) and eventually buckling the strap so that the muzzle is fully attached. (I like the basket muzzles best with a little plastic buckle versus a traditional belt-like buckle, which can take longer to put on.)

The rate at which you do these steps depends on how your dog reacts to the process. Some dogs easily get used to a basket muzzle within minutes, while others need hours or days before they are comfortable.

The idea is never to rush it. Always go back to the previous step if they show any signs of anxiety or worry with a new step in the process.

If your dog is not especially food motivated, you might be able to do the above steps using a small toy. At all times, act positive about the process. If there is drama about the muzzle once it is on, try to distract your pet with treats or kibble, a walk or run around the block, a car ride (if they enjoy those) or any activity that they like that can be done with the muzzle on.

Basket muzzles have a negative stigma in many peoples’ eyes. Some may worry that their pet looks funny or intimidating. A client may worry that it makes their pet look more aggressive or dangerous.

Let’s fight that stigma and start creating a positive association with basket muzzles. To me, when I see a dog with a basket muzzle on, I appreciate that the owner is keeping other pets, other people or themselves safe.

Working on a behavioral issue that involves aggression is never easy. Let a basket muzzle take away some of the stress.