Guest Post: Take the Two Week Muzzle Challenge

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Many thanks to Katie Grillaert, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CBATI, of Fetch Dog Training and Behavior for this guest blog post. Grillaert, who specializes in training fearful and aggressive dogs, also started a community initiative called Fetch-for-Fosters, dedicated to educating people about the importance of training and to providing low-cost training services to rescue dogs. 

Dog-industry professionals are working hard to change the public perception for muzzles. Trainers are teaching how to teach your dog to love the muzzle through a simple “treat basket” exercise. Behavior consultants are emphasizing how muzzles can improve the quality of life for dogs that are fearful, aggressive, or have pica. And veterinarians appreciate the added safety of a muzzle-trained dog during medical emergencies. But owners are often hesitant to use a muzzle on a regular basis. From personal experience, I can vouch that they’re missing out on the benefits of a great tool!

As a certified behavior consultant, I work with a lot of fearful and aggressive dogs – dogs that have a bite history, and dogs that are a bite risk. I teach all of my students how to muzzle train their dog and I provide strict recommendations regarding when a muzzle should be used. And I tend to be on the conservative side of things – I’d much rather go slow, wear the muzzle a little more often and a little longer than necessary – than to put the dog’s life in jeopardy due to a bite incident.

I’ve fitted muzzles to many dogs, and I’ve trained my own dogs to wear muzzles. But I hadn’t personally needed to use a muzzle in public with my dogs until I moved to a major metropolitan city. Before the move, I planned my behavior modification plan carefully, and decided that my fearful/aggressive Border collie mix, Oliver, would wear a muzzle at all times in public while we were transitioning to a new environment. I didn’t know how many off-leash dogs to expect, I didn’t know how many children or bicycles would come bearing down upon us without warning. I didn’t know if lots of people would try to pet him and how he would react to people stepping out of buildings onto the sidewalk right in front of him. And I knew that despite my best intentions, I wouldn’t be able to look around every single corner to check for a dog coming straight in our direction.

I knew Oliver would undoubtedly be experiencing higher levels of stress for the several weeks (or months!) due to the great environmental change, and I didn’t want anything to go wrong. It’s worth noting that others in this situation may choose to consult with a veterinary behaviorist as well, to discuss if a medication would be helpful during this transition. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue this with my dog right away, although it always remained an option should he have difficulties.

So, we set out on muzzling for our daily tasks – every elevator ride, potty break, and walk down the street. And while some people opined that wearing the muzzle must be so difficult for Oliver, he paid it little mind. The biggest difference the muzzle made? It was in me, which came as quite a surprise!

I regularly help people develop personal techniques to be calm while handling their reactive dogs, and I coach leash handling and body posture that further contribute to calm communication. I would often initially have better results with reactive dogs than their owners did, simply because I was more relaxed than the owner. I wasn’t too worried about my skills handling my own dog. But now, as my own “coach,” I discovered a huge improvement thanks to a mental exercise that I didn’t know I was missing! Since I didn’t worry about my muzzled dog injuring anyone, my brain allowed small muscles in my body to relax – muscles I hadn’t even been aware were tense. Maybe I even reduced my own production of cortisol, a primary hormone produced in response to stress.

How did I notice this? Well, my dog told me. Dogs are incredible observers of human body language, and Oliver could detect a difference. If I was a bit stressed, it probably caused him to think that there might be something worth being a bit stressed about. By regularly wearing a muzzle, going outside became less stressful for both of us, and we enjoyed our time together more. Of course, I still prioritized proactively responding to our environment, but my subconscious (or conscious!) worry was greatly reduced.

Now, this isn’t exactly new. Most trainers will tell you that owners are always more emotional when handling their own dogs. Often, owners can swap dogs in a reactive dog class, and the dogs all seem to behave better! Maybe you feel like you personally aren’t emotional – but you have a mental preparation to use a leash pull to keep your dog away from trouble. The simple act of planning this strategy in the secondary motor cortex likely causes a skeletal-muscular preparation and – you got it – an increase in tension in your body.

So, I challenge you to “hack” your brain and take my Two Week Muzzle Challenge. Even if you think you’re not the type of person who needs it – you’re cool as a cucumber. Even if you think your dog doesn’t really need to wear one.

First, spend the time to properly desensitize and train your dog to wearing the muzzle. Then, use it every time you go out in public, for two weeks in a row. Consider keeping a short journal of your dog’s behavior and your emotions. Give this a try for two weeks and you might be pleasantly surprised with the results. Even armed with my professional skills, I think that this simple mental trick helped me to guide Oliver and improved his progress. And now, I am so thankful to share many experiences with him – taking the train, relaxing at the park, having dessert at the coffee shop – stress free for both of us.

– The Muzzle Up! Project promotes safety and education on muzzles and dog behavior and aims to reduce the stigma associated with dogs who have to wear them.