Last year, we launched a Q and A series with veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists as part of Muzzle Awareness month. Due to its popularity, we are continuing the series, this time with Dr. E’Lise Christensen Bell, DVM, DACVB.
Dr. Christensen is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and an international lecturer and author. As the only board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Colorado, she sees patients with a huge variety of serious behavioral issues. She has contributed to articles in Dog Watch, Cat Watch, Cat Fancy, Dog Training Solutions, Real Simple, Newsday, and various other print media. She has been a contributor and guest on Foxnews.com’s “Pet Health” and “Studio B with Shepard Smith”, ABC News’ “Nightline,” and many other radio programs, television programs, and newscasts. She enjoys lecturing internationally on an array of behavior topics including, but not limited to, small animal behavior, public health and animal sheltering topics.
Dr. C is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. She is a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Speaker’s Bureau, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and The Association For Force-Free Pet Industry Professionals.
Why are muzzles so important in the world of dog behavior?
SAFETY!!! If a dog can happily wear a muzzle, you can implement appropriate behavior modification with less risk. In addition, an appropriately fitted and trained muzzle can keep our friends by our sides (within reason, of course) rather than isolated.
What are the most common reasons you recommend a client muzzle train her dog?
Really, every dog should be muzzle trained, even if you don’t think he/she will never need one. In emergency situations, a muzzle may be used whether you think your dog needs one or not. We have to make sure medical professionals can do their jobs quickly and without fear of a bite when time is of the essence. If a dog is already comfortable with one, it will be one less stressor for him/her during a scary time.
Also, the last thing you want to do is have a bite AND THEN, because of the urgency of the situation, put a muzzle on a dog without appropriate training. It can be done, but it’s not dog-friendly and it can shoot you in the foot for future work.
What are some situations that dog owners may encounter, both in and outside the vet office, that make muzzle training so important?
Low stress handling and restraint methods, while wonderful, are still relatively new in veterinary medicine. You may not know when someone is going to muzzle your dog in the hospital. Untrained staff may be more nervous and rough with a dog who isn’t wearing a muzzle due to fear of a bite.
A muzzle can also keep other people and their on-leash dogs away. I LOVE that aspect of a muzzle and sometimes recommend them for dogs without any aggressive behavior for that very reason. Not everyone understands the Yellow Dog Project’s work and we all know “No Petting” gear doesn’t always work either. Muzzle’s aren’t 100% successful, but they can be helpful. And don’t we all need whatever help we can get managing these kids?!
Name the biggest “myths” and misconceptions out there when it comes to muzzles and muzzle training.
My dog will be more aggressive while wearing a muzzle.
My dog will be more fearful while wearing a muzzle.
-Both of the above COULD be true depending on each dog’s learning history. That’s why you train comfort with a muzzle regardless of whether you need one.
-I have yet to see a dog trained to wear a basket muzzle be more aggressive while wearing one.
People will think my dog is “mean.”
– OK. This one may be true, but people are crazy. Do we want to change our behaviors to accommodate other people’s crazy ideas? Do they know what’s right for your dog more than you? NOPE.
Other dogs will pick on my dog because they “know” he/she is more vulnerable.
– That may happen depending on the dog group, but probably it’s more about the novelty of the muzzle than some perceived weakness on the part of the muzzle-wearing dog.
A muzzle is punishing for my dog.
-True only if you use it that way and your dog isn’t trained to like a muzzle
My dog can’t play while wearing a muzzle.
-False! Your site shows some great options for object play and fetch that can work while wearing a muzzle.
If my dog is wearing a muzzle, I can put him/her in whatever situation I want and it will be OK.
-NOPE! Come on! DON’T DO THIS. Once I worked with a family whose dog had bitten multiple times. They also had a toddler. After much convincing they finally taught the dog to wear a muzzle. At our next recheck, they reported allowing the toddler to handle the dog roughly (she was a toddler after all, that was normal behavior). Now *shocker* the dog was getting even more agitated. Well, it’s not rocket science! A muzzle is a safety tool, not a free pass to put your dog in a situation it can’t handle or enjoy, unless you absolutely have no other option (like emergency medical care).
My dog is “fine” in a muzzle so I shouldn’t have to train him/her to like it.
-Train your dog to like the tools you need. It’s more fun for everyone and doesn’t increase the risk of fear and agitation.
Muzzles make dogs feel uncomfortable or sad.
-Dog’s believe what you tell them about muzzles for the most part. Some are harder sells than others, don’t get me wrong. But if you have a predictably pleasant interaction pattern with your dog, you have a really good chance at getting him/her to love a wearing a muzzle.
Muzzles are ugly.
– TRUE! Most muzzles are ugly. Why is that!? Bling it out. Stickers, non-toxic paints on the outside, tiny ribbons, whatever you like, plug ’em right on the outside. Don’t let your dog eat that stuff though!
And let’s all just keep lobbying for some great company to step up here…Baskerville? Are you hearing me? We want colored basket muzzles ASAP!
A muzzle will make my dog look like Hannibal Lecter.
-Nuh uh! Dogs are way, way to cute to look like sociopathic cannibals, no matter how many times they have bitten or threatened to bite. In fact, that’s a problem for them. If dogs were uglier, people would leave them alone and that would suit most of these dogs just fine, thank you!
How can vets and vet behaviorists begin to erase the stigma associated with muzzles?
I think we just have to keep fighting the good fight with education for the public, trainers, other veterinarians.
What is your favorite brand and style of muzzle?
Like so much in behavior-land, that depends. Type of dog, why I’m recommending it, length of time I want it on, previous learning history with muzzles, etc.
Generally though, I like the Baskerville’s although I wish they came in better colors AND with a fast clip instead of the belt buckle collar. A girl can dream, right?
When should dog owners contact a veterinary behaviorist?
ACK! I hope no one every needs me. Sadly not the case…
– If your dog is a danger to him/herself or others
– If there are medical problems complicating the dog’s behavior
– If the dog is experiencing significant panic (like separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobic dogs)
– If appropriate training programs have failed
– A training plateau has been reached
– If the patient isn’t improving as much as he/she should in a reasonable amount of time
– If the patient is generalizing to more and more triggers, etc, etc.
In your opinion, what are the critical elements to a successful muzzle training program?
SLOW DOWN and use some awesome food OR play if that’s what your dog loves the best
Be wary of incompletely “proofing” your dog to a muzzle and then only doing nasty things when it’s on. For instance, doing a couple sessions of muzzle work and then only using the muzzle when you try to put in ear meds. Let’s just say that increases the fail rate. In fact, sometimes it’s an epic fail.
How can muzzle training prevent stress during a veterinary/vet behaviorist consult?
Well, now we all know the chance of a bite is much lower. YAY!!!!
People (even veterinary behaviorists) think better when they aren’t worrying about getting bitten. And clients can learn better, too, when they don’t have to be quite so on edge.
With a muzzle on board, even if our work accidentally triggers that patient, he/she isn’t getting another bite on the record. And we can see the next case instead of being the next patient in a crowded human ER.
Many thanks to Dr. C for contributing to our Q & A series! If you are a veterinarian or vet behaviorist and would like to participate, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
– Mauren Backman, MS, CTC