How long does muzzle training take? Wrong question.

I’ve encountered many clients whose dogs have such a negative association with a muzzle that they either leave the room when they see it, or are too afraid to approach it for food. This happens if dogs have been forced to wear a muzzle, or only wear muzzles during unpleasant activities like the veterinarian. It also happens when a dog has severe fear or anxiety. While going slow is important to ensure any dog is completely comfortable with the muzzle training process, it’s imperative for dogs who have existing negative associations to focus solely on changing those emotions before moving forward in the training plan.

The first step in the muzzle training plan is desensitization and counterconditioning: The muzzle appears, the trainer drops food, and once the dog eats the food, the muzzle disappears. After repetitions at random intervals, the dog will learn that the muzzle predicts food, a signal that it’s time to move to the next step in the training plan.

If you are struggling getting past this initial step, don’t panic. Your dog simply needs more time to realize that the appearance of the muzzle will not be a tip-off to something scary. Dogs remember scary events, and remember them well, so it takes time to erode those negative associations. Along with patience, here are some tips to help your dog overcome fear of the muzzle:

  • If your dog is suspicious of being forced to wear the muzzle when it appears, place the muzzle on the ground, drop food, and then leave the room. Wait for your dog to explore the muzzle and eat the food on his own time, instead of pressuring him to explore before he’s ready.
  • If your dog is hesitant to approach the muzzle, place the food three to five feet away from the muzzle, gradually placing the food closer as your dog becomes more comfortable.
  • Make sure your dog has plenty of space to gain distance from the muzzle. Drop it a good distance away from his safe space (his crate, bed, etc), so that he can retreat if he needs. Remember, the goal isn’t pressuring your dog to be OK with the muzzle; it’s creating an environment where your dog feels safe enough to explore and eat food around the muzzle.
  • If your dog chooses not to approach the muzzle, it’s OK. Let your dog set the pace of training. If he isn’t approaching for food, he isn’t comfortable. Adjust the environment and training set up with the tips above so that he feels safe.
  • Give your dog a fresh start, and avoid using the muzzle for scary experiences until he is ready. Otherwise you will erode your hard work overriding the negative associations and implementing positive ones.

Don’t worry if your dog’s muzzle training is progressing slower than you think is normal. Train the dog in front of you, and be kind to yourself. Your dog will let you know when he’s comfortable and ready to move forward, and by using the above tips, you’ll be engaging in clearer conversation with him.