It’s a frequent occurrence among clients and colleagues when it comes to muzzle training. It usually comes near the end of the plan when the dog is comfortably wearing the muzzle with secured straps for short periods of time (seconds, maybe a few minutes). Anything longer and the dog will start pawing at the muzzle. The thought that you will have to work on duration second by second until you can take your dog for an hour-long walk on muzzle is a daunting one. Luckily, provided you have gone through the training plan accurately and have laid a solid foundation of positive associations with the muzzle, you can “unstick” yourself with relative ease. The keys are habituation and continued counterconditioning.
By definition, habituation, occurs when an animal learns to ignore a particular stimulus in the environment. Dogs habituate to stimuli that are frequent and annoying, but not necessarily frightening or startling. Think: ringing phones, the television, wearing a collar or a harness. Most dogs grow accustomed to these stimuli. They habituate, just as humans habituate to bike helmets, wool sweaters and the rumble of traffic.
It’s important to note that not every dog can habituate to low-grade stimuli. Equally important is reading a dog’s body language to detect any signs of fear or stress to prevent sensitization. Some dogs react to the sound of a doorbell or have an aversion to wearing a harness. Many dogs find the experience of wearing a muzzle annoying and frightening without being properly introduced with a gradual training plan. Instead of habituating, they sensitize: Their fearful reaction intensifies with repeated exposure to the stimulus. Hence the need for a thorough muzzle training plan that builds positive associations to the presence of the muzzle, wearing the muzzle, and having the muzzle secured to their head.
Provided your dog has a strong conditioned positive emotional response to wearing the muzzle for brief periods of time, you can use the process of habituation, as well as some further counterconditioning, to help you build duration.
What your dog needs at this point is fun: He needs to have experience playing, walking, and receiving attention from you, all while wearing the muzzle. Think about the activities your dog enjoys most. Fetch, nose targeting, scent work, soccer, and chase games are all possibilities. Use these activities to your advantage during the final stages of muzzle training by making them contingent upon your dog wearing a muzzle.
For example, say your dog wears his muzzle but paws every so often. He’s not afraid of the muzzle, but is still getting used to wearing it. Let’s also say that your dog loves target work and fetch. You could put his muzzle and take him outside for brief (five-minute) muzzle fetch and targeting sessions. He’s having fun, so you’re getting some nice counterconditioning, and will likely be so involved in the game that he won’t have time to paw at his muzzle. You can gradually increase duration of your play sessions, progressing to a ten-minute muzzle fetch session, or setting up a nose work obstacle course in your backyard.
If you notice a few pawing behaviors, don’t panic. Assess your dog’s body language. Is he still taking treats? Is he still engaging in the activity? If so, stick to your current activity, slightly reducing the duration the next time you practice. You’ve got all your muzzle training history behind you, so work hard to maintain that solid “yippee!” response whenever the muzzle appears. The bottom line: Make it fun, and keep your dog’s brain occupied on an enjoyable enrichment activity.
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC