A common argument against the use of muzzles on dogs is that they significantly inhibit a dog’s ability for enrichment on walks, whether off- or on-leash. While it’s understandable why dog owners and professionals are concerned about this issue, training and creativity can ensure a safe, mentally and physically enriched dog.
The argument that we should allow dogs absolute freedom, despite a history of aggression toward humans or dogs, is misguided. It’s hard to deny its allure – who wants to say “no” to freedom – but it flies in the face of the safety of the general public and other dogs.
Our society is structured with safeguards that inhibit our freedom yet keep us safe from preventable harm: Seatbelts, bicycle helmets, speed limits, children’s car seats, and drunk driving laws, to name a few.
We work hard to keep our own species safe from harm. We owe it to our dogs to do the same for them.
If a dog has a known bite history, a known history of aggression toward people or other dogs, or a significantly high prey drive, that dog should be desensitized and conditioned to wear a muzzle outside. Sure, things might turn out just fine. But the future of a dog whose teeth sinks into another person or dog is not a good one: bite records and dangerous dog laws will significantly limit that dog’s freedom more than a muzzle. And potential for physical and psychological damage to the victim, whether human or canine, is significant.
Remember: Desensitization and counterconditioning help a dog to enjoy wearing a muzzle and realize that muzzles predict snacks, walks, and a myriad of other good things in life. With a properly fitting basket muzzle in place, that risk of damage, of litigation, and threat to public safety greatly diminishes.
So what, then, can owners do if their dogs love to play fetch or frisbee off leash? Are their dogs relegated to a life of boring walks with a muzzle? Absolutely not. The following are ways to increase your dog’s enrichment on walks (and are fun for muzzled and non-muzzled dogs alike).
Hand targeting/Target sticks: Targeting is an excellent game for building focus and burning off energy. The bonus: It’s do-able with a muzzle. Teach your dog to “touch” or target the end of a stick. Hold out your palm, or the stick, and when the dog touches the target with his nose, mark the behavior with a “yes!” and deliver a treat. Continue placing the target close to your dog until the behavior is fluent. Then start to make things more challenging. Place the target far enough away so your dog has to move to reach it. Place the target over an obstacle, such as a chair or block, so your dog has to step up to reach the target.
Once your dog is fluently and happily targeting, it’s time to take the behavior outside. Run in different directions, then stop and produce the target for your dog to touch. If your dog is agile, place the target in your air so your dog jumps to reach it. Target your dog over small obstacles in the park. Get creative.
Fetch: Yes, it can be possible for a dog to play fetch while wearing a muzzle, provided you have the proper equipment. Purchase a toy with a long, tapered end (examples here and here). You may have to experiment with various toys to find the best fit for your dog. Place some peanut butter on the end to help your dog learn how to pick it up through the holes in the basket muzzle (Baskerville muzzles are useful for this exercise, as the holes in the sides and front tend to be larger.) Once your dog has the hang of it, take the fetch game outside.
Nose work: Nose work, whether done in formal classes or informally at home, is a wonderful energy burner for dogs. For more information, visit K9 Nose Work.
Free shaping: Karen Pryor’s “101 Things to Do With a Box” can be fun for dogs regardless of whether they wear a muzzle.
Training games: Force-free training is fun, burns mental and physical energy, and can keep your dog focused on you during hikes outside. Ask for sits and downs, or tricks like “shake” and “spin,” intermittently throughout the walk. If you’re with a friend, take turns calling your dog away from each other and see who can get the fastest recall time. If your dog is familiar with “go find it” or “hide and seek,” play these games on the walk. The bottom line: Have fun asking for behaviors and rewarding your dog when he gets it right. For more training games, read this article I wrote for Mutt About Town.
Seeing a muzzled dog living life to the safest and fullest is a beautiful thing. Just ask Stella:
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC