Imagine a child who, every time she misbehaves, is subsequently punished by being placed in a car with the seatbelt buckled. Each time the seatbelt clicks shut, she is left in the car for a period of time without explanation. The only association she has with the car and the seatbelt is as a form of punishment, causing her to dislike it.
Now, imagine that same child has to go to the emergency room. The only means of transport is a car. Faced with the prospect of having to endure what has historically been a form of punishment for her – the seatbelt – she resists, taking up precious time that could be spent driving to the hospital.
This scenario may seem a bit outlandish, and it should. Using a standard safety measure as a form of punishment is ridiculous and cruel, not to mention counterproductive for any life-threatening situation. Unfortunately, when people use muzzles as a form of punishment or time out for dogs, they create a situation not unlike a child being punished with a seatbelt.
Many dogs become fearful if placed in a muzzle without proper desensitization and counterconditioning. They will fear the muzzle even more if it is used as a means to reduce undesirable behaviors (especially if the person presenting the muzzle has a stern tone of voice and agitated body language, two things that often accompany punishment). Now add continual repetitions of the muzzle being used as punishment, and the dog acquires an ever-growing history of negative associations with it.
Why is this such a problem? The fact is, at some point, most dogs will have to wear a muzzle. It’s often the first step when applying pet first aid. It’s also used as a safety measure at the veterinarian if a dog is in pain. Dogs may develop fears at any point in their lives, which could result the need for a muzzle while training is underway. Dogs may even need to wear muzzles for non-aggressive behaviors like eating feces. In any of these situations, it is critical that a dog be desensitized and trained to enjoy wearing a muzzle, especially in the case of an emergency when time is of the essence and mucking around isn’t an option.
Even in non-emergency situations, training a dog to like a muzzle once he has developed strong negative associations to it will take eons longer than performing a standard muzzle training plan from the beginning; fears are easy for dogs to develop and difficult to overcome.
For all of these reasons, refrain from using a muzzle as a way to reduce unwanted behaviors. Your dog’s life may depend on it someday.
-Maureen Backman, MS
Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco.