We have been spending a lot of time talking to people recently about a fear-free experience in the vet office. How many of our pets are nervous, trembling, or flat out terrified when they come to the vet? That is a terrible existence and we really want to turn that fear around and make the vet experience a positive one. We recommend scheduling an appointment with our resident trainer – Marilisa from Doggywood to work on a long term solution to decreasing fear in these situations. One important aspect of fear-free training is Muzzle training. If your pet is properly muzzle trained, the muzzle can provide a safe environment for you, your pet, and our staff to provide the medical care they need.
Part 1. Why wear a muzzle?
Short answer is to prevent the dog from biting anyone. But that alone doesn’t explain the full benefit. Dogs who bite at the vet clinic are generally doing so because they are afraid, they think somebody is going to harm them. They don’t want anyone near them when they feel vulnerable. Even worse, when they’re already scared, trying to put a strange thing on their face can kick up their fear to the extreme. It doesn’t matter to them that the muzzle and a physical exam are harmless. Once they consider them threats, it’s very hard for these pets to relax.
The whole goal of muzzle training is to let your dog know that the muzzle is not a threat. If you are successful in muzzle training your nervous dog, it will:
- Allow us to perform a thorough physical exam and provide medical care safely.
- Decrease the stress to them because the muzzle will become familiar and associated with something positive (treats) and not just a part of a stressful vet visit.
- Decrease your stress because you won’t be so worried about bringing your pet to the vet.
Part 2. Principles of training
We want you to be successful when training your dog to accept the muzzle, so here’s a breakdown of how to approach this.
- Give something good when the dog does something you want. You are using a reward (i.e. the treat) to encourage a behavior (i.e. at first this will just be seeing the muzzle, but eventually we’ll make it actually wearing the muzzle). The dog HAS to realize that it only gets the reward when it does the behavior. SO, as soon as the dog does the right behavior, you need to immediately give the dog the reward.
- Be consistent! If you do it differently every time, or delay the reward, or have distractions going on, your dog is going to be confused and you’ll be taking steps backwards. So every time you do training, do it the same way.
- Don’t force it! Remember, we are training your dog to voluntarily accept wearing a muzzle. If you put them in an uncomfortable situation by forcing their face into it too fast, it’s going to become a threat. Recognize signs of fear such as flattening the ears, crouching, trembling, or trying to get away and hide. Nobody learns well when they’re scared and sometimes baby steps get you to where you need to go.
Part 3. How to muzzle train
The type of muzzle is also important. For training purposes, we recommend a basket muzzle so that your pup can eat treats while wearing the muzzle.
A couple of brand names that we recommend are Jafco and Baskerville muzzles that will provide a comfortable fit and have the durability to last. After the basket muzzle has been successfully associated with something positive and familiar, it may even provide some sense of comfort during a stressful situation.
So how do I get my dog to like wearing a muzzle?
The secret is patience! Your pet will dictate how quickly you can progress through the steps and they will give you body language that it is time to move to the next step of training. Short, frequent sessions about 5 – 10 minutes each will give you an idea of what their emotional state is during that step of training.
A positive emotional response is one of a happy playful tail wag, drooling in anticipation for his/her treat, loose relaxed body, and some dogs will even smile at you. These are all signs that your pet is comfortable with that step in training and you are ready to move on.
A negative emotional response is one of hiding, avoiding eye contact, trembling, tucking its tail, or just running away. If any negative body language is perceived, you need to back up to the previous steps and go slower.
Here are the steps:
Step 1 – Muzzle predicts fun/treats
The goal of this step is to associate something positive, like treats, with the muzzle. You can do this by just showing your pet the muzzle and giving treats and happy talk and then quickly remove the muzzle from view and stop giving treats. Repeat this activity several times during the training session and then take a break. If your pet still looks nervous, keep working on it and keep giving those treats and praise. You may try backing away from your pet or even placing the muzzle on the ground for him/her to inspect. If your pet starts drooling and smiling when you pull out the muzzle, you have successfully conditioned a positive response and you are ready to move on to step 2.
Step 2 – Muzzle around neck only
The goal of this step is to get your pet used to the straps associated with the muzzle. Some straps may have a snapping mechanism that makes a noise that could be scary and some have a buckle that is just cumbersome and requires that they hold still while you reach over them. With either type, your pet should be drooling at the sight of the muzzle so now were are getting him/her comfortable with the straps and wearing the muzzle.
Strap the muzzle loosely around their neck while giving treats and talking in your “good dog” voice and then remove the straps and stop giving treats and praise. Repeat this activity several times during the training sessions until your pet is comfortable wearing the muzzle loosely hung from his/her neck by the straps. If there is still apprehension with the straps and hanging the muzzle around the neck, relax, take a step back, and then approach it again more slowly. If he/she is still relaxed and happy and has positive body language while wearing the muzzle around the neck, you are ready to start putting the muzzle on the snout and move to step 3.
Step 3 – Feeding from muzzle
Once your pet is starting to not worry about the muzzle being a threat and is mainly interested in the treats, you can start to try feeding him/her through the muzzle. Do not strap the muzzle around their neck. Simply hold the muzzle in one hand, using your other hand place a treat at the end of the muzzle, then allow your pet to place their nose into the muzzle to eat the treat. Then let them remove their nose, take a break, and repeat the process again.
Step 4 – Clipping in
Ok, at this point your pet should be pretty comfortable with the muzzle. Once you feel like they don’t react to their nose being in the muzzle, you can graduate to leaving the muzzle on. You should consistently be rewarding them while they wear the muzzle by feeding them treats, and only try a couple minutes per session to start.
This process will work for the vast majority of dogs and will allow us to examine your pet safely. There are some potential pitfalls however, such as going too fast, getting frustrated, and not recognizing signs of fear/stress in your pet. If you need help training your pet, please contact Marilisa at Doggywood to assist in training techniques and to provide additional recommendations for your unique situation. Regardless, if you are patient, consistent, and committed, your dog will benefit, you will benefit, and it will allow us to perform a better exam and provide them the medical care they need.