Muzzle Q & A: Dr. Meredith Stepita

The final installment of this month’s Muzzle Q & A series is Dr. Meredith Stepita. Dr. Stepita grew up in Maryland, but now calls Northern California home.

She received her DVM from the University of Tennessee in 2006. After completing an internship and working in general practice in Arizona she entered into the Clinical Veterinary Behavior Residency Program at the University of California-Davis, becoming a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist in 2011.

She spends most of her time in the San Francisco Bay Area helping pet owners improve their pet’s behavior problems, and finds working with dedicated pet owners to be highly rewarding. She is the owner of Veterinary Behavior Specialists.

Her research involves the frequency of parvovirus in puppies attending puppy socialization classes, finding that vaccinated puppies attending these classes were no more likely to be diagnosed with parvovirus than those not attending these classes.

She has authored book chapters on canine aggression, feline house soiling, feline anxiety, and mourning behavior in veterinary texts and is a local and national speaker. Her areas of interest include canine and feline anxiety and aggression, the human-animal bond, and animal welfare.

She shares her life with her husband Chris and their dogs (Chewy and Snoopy), cats (Maddie, Cali, and Tarzan), and the occasional foster dog.

Why are muzzles so important in the world of dog behavior?

The #1 reason is safety. When properly fit the dog should not be able to bite with a muzzle on. Another reason is to give the owner and others around the dog confidence that the dog cannot bite, which in turn makes everyone calmer. This is particularly helpful when working with an aggressive dog to change their emotional response to their triggers for aggression. If people are nervous, the dog will pick up on their anxiety and it will be difficult to teach the dog to be calm and happy.

What are some situations that dog owners may encounter, both in and outside the vet office, that make muzzle training so important?

Close proximity to people, other dogs, cats, birds (other prey) as well as handling and procedures, some of which can be uncomfortable, by unfamiliar and familiar people. If there is a possibility that an aggressive dog could escape from the handler during a walk a muzzle is recommended. Muzzles are also required regardless of temperament for dogs who accompany their owners on public transit in some cities.

Name the biggest “myths” and misconceptions out there when it comes to muzzles and muzzle training.

The biggest myth is that only “bad” dogs wear muzzles. This is not true. Aggression is a normal behavior; the way dogs communicate. Many aggressive dogs are actually very smart dogs- they have figured out that something scary is going to happen and communicate in the only way they know how. Since aggression is normal, we do not cure it. That would be like asking a person to never yell again. Therefore muzzles are necessary for safety reasons.

How can vets and vet behaviorists begin to erase the stigma associated with muzzles? 

Education of the general public and animal professionals as to why muzzles are important and to dispel myths.

What is your favorite style of muzzle?

Basket muzzles. These allow the dog to eat, drink from a deep bowl, pant, and vomit. If a dog is wearing a cloth muzzle and can perform these activities, he can also bite. Cloth muzzles are good for short procedures, such as giving a vaccine, but can be dangerous if not removed quickly.

When should owners not use a muzzle?

When the pet is alone as it could get caught on something, injuring or rarely killing the dog. Muzzles should also not be used to put a dog in a situation where they are uncomfortable and/or aggressive. A muzzle will not help to change the dog’s emotional response and fix behavior problems- a specific behavior modification plan is needed for that. Muzzles should be used for safety when working on the problem.

When should dog owners contact a veterinary behaviorist?

As soon as you notice your dog is having a problem. Rather than wait for the problem to create significant distress contact a veterinary behaviorist early so that we can begin the process of improving your relationship with your pet and your pet’s health. Generally the sooner we work on the problem the better the prognosis (ie chance your dog will improve).

In your opinion, what are the critical elements to a successful muzzle training program?

Go at the dog’s pace and use a favorite treat. Sticky treats such as peanut butter or easy cheese work well. Rather than forcing the muzzle on, allow the dog to put his nose in the muzzle for treats. This may take a little more time up front, but you will save time in the end and not end up with a dog that runs away from the muzzle.

How can muzzle training prevent stress during a veterinary/vet behaviorist consult? 

Applying a muzzle to an already stressed pet can create more stress. Some pets will even become aggressive to their owners if they try to place a muzzle in this situation. Doing some prep work and making the muzzle into a treat basket for the dog will make veterinary visits less stressful for dogs that are at risk of becoming aggressive during veterinary visits.