IMG_2613Does your dog dart from the room when you pick up her muzzle? Does she paw at her muzzle and attempt to remove it when you put it on? Chances are, your dog needs a muzzle training refresher.  While most dogs habituate to collars and harnesses without training (meaning you can put one on your dog and go), muzzles can be aversive and anxiety-provoking if they’re placed on the dog without a proper introduction. The good news is, through training, muzzles can be safe and humane, and dogs can learn to associate them with good things like walks, playtime, and off-leash hikes.

A bit of animal learning theory

The two training techniques used in muzzle training are desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization is when a dog is introduced to a fear-evoking stimulus at a level that does not produce any fear. The level of stimulus is increased as long as the dog continues to be absolutely fine, showing no signs of fear. So, as an example, a person afraid of heights may reduce his fear by going to the first floor of a high-rise building, then the second, gradually working up to higher distances provided he is not feeling afraid.

Counterconditioning is when a dog encounters a fear-evoking stimulus followed by something intrinsically good and rewarding. The pairing builds a Pavlovian response over time, so that the dog learns to associate the stimulus with good things instead of fear-evoking things.

Used together, desensitization and counterconditioning will help your dog feel comfortable with wearing a muzzle.

Putting it into practice: Take a look at this standard muzzle training plan and refer to it while reading the rest of this post.

Pace yourself:

The most important concept to remember when muzzle training your dog is to go slow. Desensitization and counterconditioning work, but cannot be rushed. Resist the urge to proceed to the next step in the training plan before your dog is ready, as this will slow the process down. Returning to the example of a person with a fear of heights: If he suddenly jumped from the second floor to the 10th floor, he’s likely going to trigger or exacerbate his fear.

You will know your dog is ready to advance in the plan because he will show a positive conditioned emotional response (a +CER for short). Your dog has many CERs already installed – some positive, some negative. The excited barks, expectant look, and wagging tail your dog displays when you put your shoes on and pick up his leash is a +CER because he knows shoes + leash = walk time. The tucked tail, averted gaze and hunched body when sitting in the vet’s waiting room is a -CER, because he knows that the waiting room = shots and uncomfortable procedures.

Common signs that your dog has developed a +CER include:

– Salivation (if you are using food in training)
– Tail wag
– Expectant look (as if your dog is saying “where’s my treat/reward?”)
– Orientation toward you for a reward
– A “yippee!!” response

When your dog shows these signs, then and only then should you proceed to the next step. 

The Golden Ratio:

Once you have a +CER, keep it strong by preserving the 1:1 ratio between the muzzle and the reward. Your dog will form the strongest emotional response to the muzzle if it always predicts a reward (whether that be a treat, a walk, or playtime with a favorite toy). Dogs form such strong responses toward their owners picking up a leash, because, in most households, picking up a leash always leads to a walk. The same goes for crinkling treat bags and picking up the food bowl. So remember: If you pick up the muzzle, make sure your dog receives something terrific. Not just OK or somewhat fun, but absolutely, mind-bogglingly terrific.

Order Matters

Dogs are masters when it comes to flowcharts. They learn which behaviors lead to which consequences, and which events lead to other events. They also live in the moment; they care about the consequences that happen immediately after the behavior and the events that immediately follow other events. Owners need to keep this in mind when muzzle training. The muzzle must always precede the reward. This also includes anything that serves as a tip-off that the reward is coming. Consider all the actions involved in giving your dog a treat: bag crinkling, wearing a bait bag or having treats in your pocket, reaching in your pocket, the smell of the treats. These are all tip-offs and can easily muddy the waters during muzzle training if you’re not careful.

The easiest way to get around this problem is to do the following:

– Present the muzzle before doing anything else. Reach for the treat, crinkle the bag, etc. after the muzzle appears. The muzzle always comes first.

– Wear a bait bag around the house when you’re not training to reduce its salience.

– Prepare treats ahead of time.

And, as always, contact a positive-reinforcement trainer if you run into any difficulties or are concerned about your dog’s behavior. Stay tuned to The Muzzle Up! Project, as we will continue providing more content and videos on muzzle training.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, CA. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.

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