Muzzle Q and A: Dr. Jeannine Berger, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, CAWA

Next up in our Muzzle Q and A series for Muzzle Awareness Month is Dr. Jeannine Berger. Dr. Berger first obtained her veterinary degree in 1991 in Zurich, Switzerland. She moved to Davis, California in 1998, where she completed her residency in veterinary behavior and attained board certification with the American College for Veterinary Behaviorists from UC Davis in 2007.

In 2014, she attained board certification from the American College of Animal Welfare. She has been with the SPCA as Director of Behavior Resources where she oversees all aspects of behavior within the Society since 2011. Her advanced training and certifications associated with Board Certified status ensure the highest level of expertise.

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

Muzzles are a safety tool for dogs that have displayed aggression. It keeps the dog from harming people, dogs or other animals. We as a community should make the effort to protect all animals and keep everyone safe.

Muzzles can also be life saving for a dog that eats rocks and other dangerous items on his walk. A muzzle can prevent a dog from ingesting toxic or otherwise dangerous items and help prevent painful conditions or even surgery.

What are the most common reasons you recommend a client muzzle train her dog? 

In my practice we do recommend a muzzle for almost all dogs that have been presented for aggression of any form or dogs with the diagnosis of pica (eating compulsively non food items).

Because any dog has the potential to bite if put in the wrong situations, it might be wise for any dog to learn to wear a basket muzzle comfortably. However, for my behavior patients it is especially important to be comfortable with a muzzle when we get to the stage in the treatment plan where we reintroduce the dog to what has caused the aggression in the past. At that stage the dogs should have learned to perform alternative behaviors, but it is crucial to set the dog up for success and keep everybody safe.

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

There are many situations that a muzzle can be helpful. I will give 2 scenarios:

The first is you bring your pet into the vet’s office for a nail trim (this is very common in vet hospitals), but your pet doesn’t like nail trims and tries to snap and bite at the staff to get them to stop the procedure.  Now the staff will reach for a muzzle to protect themselves from getting bitten. Unfortunately, since the dog hasn’t been muzzle trained, it gets even worse from here. Your dog might get even more upset and start to resist as they try to place the muzzle.  The next step that follows is that the veterinarian now decides in order to complete the nail trim your dog needs to be sedated, adding additional costs to your bill and adding additional trauma to the dog. In the perfect world you have prepared your dog for handling of the feet, and if you know your dog is fearful of a stranger handling his feet you have properly prepared your dog to wear a muzzle comfortably before you enter the hospital.

In the second scenario your perfectly calm and friendly dog severely injured his leg on a hike; he is obviously in severe pain. When you try to carry him to the car, he bites your hands and arms.  Granted, he doesn’t mean to hurt you, he tries to stop you from causing him even more pain.  Luckily you are prepared; you did bring your pet first aid kit with you AND you have a muzzle trained him, so you place the muzzle before you even attempt to tend to his bleeding injury, hence removing his ability to injure you and allowing you to better help him.

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

One misconception is that dogs with muzzles must be very dangerous and will attack people, when in fact just the opposite is true – many dog bites could be avoided if people would not reach for a fearful dog trying to “prove that they are good with dogs”. In today’s society we often protect people because they are not reading a dog’s body language clearly or don’t follow verbal instructions of the owner not to touch the dog.

We do recommend and instruct most of our clients to teach their dog to wear a muzzle in order to keep everybody safe and avoid unnecessary liability issues. A muzzle is a safety precaution just like us wearing a seat belt in the car – we hope we never have to rely on it preventing us from going through the window in a crash, but it’s there just in case.

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

I personally thank people for being proactive and responsible dog owners by recognizing that their pet might be distressed at the hospital setting.  Educate owners that a muzzle should not be the last resort but a tool that the dog is used to wearing in a variety of situations to avoid heavy restraint or sedation. We have started to reward owners that bring their dogs wearing safety gear, such as a muzzle or a headhalter, by giving them a free bag of treats. We like doing so in the waiting area in front of other clients as to get their attention. Muzzle companies like Baskerville are also trying to change the stigma by producing muzzles in brighter, friendlier colors.

What is your favorite brand and style of muzzle? 

We recommend any basket muzzle, and there are many on the market. The most important feature is that the muzzle fits comfortably on the dog’s face without rubbing or being too close to the eyes.  The muzzle should fully encircle the dog’s mouth, yet leave enough room for the dog to open his mouth to pant, take treats, and drink.

When should dog owners contact a veterinary behaviorist? 

There are a number of medical reasons why a dog changes his behavior pattern, making a full evaluation of the behavior problem – including a physical exam and bloodwork – necessary to rule out any medical reasons.  We also recommend a visit with a specialist if the behavior problem has been ongoing for an extended time, does not improve with training or is worsening over time. Any form of severe aggression or anxiety should be assessed and treated by veterinary behaviorist.  Although a good trainer can help you train your dog, veterinarians are the only professionals that can diagnose a behavior problem and decide if medications are needed to treat the condition.

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

The key is to make it a fun and positive experience.  Often we have to change our clients’ perception first. If we perceive the muzzle as punishment for the dog instead of just another safety tool (similar to the collar and leash) then the clients are less likely to put in the effort it takes to go gradually and pair the muzzle with a positive experience such as especially yummy treats. If we only use the muzzle when the dog is already in distress we will make any experience with the muzzle even more traumatic.

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

In most clinics an average appointment lasts 20 – 30 minutes. A lot might have to be accomplished during a visit, including taking a rectal temperature, looking closely into a dog’s ears and eyes and listening to the heart and lungs. On the other hand this is a very short time for a dog to adjust to a new environment and be simultaneously handled intensively by a stranger. If the dog is wearing a muzzle it allows the owner and the veterinarian to be more relaxed. The client can pay better attention to the veterinarian’s questions and provide a more precise history while being less worried about what their dog might or might not do.  Clients are often torn between paying attention to the veterinarian and paying attention to their dog.

A veterinarian’s stress level rises exponentially when he/she enters a room with a barking, lunging dog because we know a comprehensive physical exam can only be provided after a muzzle is placed. In most cases this can now only be accomplished with much struggle and risk to the person placing the muzzle. It might lead not only to an incomplete exam, but also the exam might last longer than the allotted time, in turn inconveniencing the next client and making it a bad experience for everybody involved.

Give us a catchy slogan to encourage dog owners to Muzzle Up!

Muzzles are like seat belts for dogs – a safety tool, there in case you need it.