Muzzles are a tool, not a green light to ignore criteria

I’m currently on a flight to Albany, NY to give another Muzzle Up! seminar and, given the fact it’s a long flight, I thought I’d tackle one question I’m often asked: Will a muzzle will improve a dog’s reactivity or aggression?

While The Muzzle Up! Project promotes muzzles as an excellent tool to keep dogs and humans safe in a variety of situations, it’s important to remember that a muzzle isn’t a green light to lead a dog into a situation that will cause him to react. Even though he may not be able to put teeth on skin, it’s still dangerous and will only serve to strengthen a dog’s reactivity.

The muzzle itself will not fix a dog’s reactivity or dog-dog aggression. Incorporating the muzzle into a force-free training plan to help keep you and your dog safe will get you closer to your behavior change goals.  Think of the muzzle as a tool, and training as the gateway, to behavior change, allowing you to work safely on desensitization, counterconditioning, and coping skills.

When working with reactivity and aggression, it’s important to avoid adding further stress to a dog’s environment. In other words, if you’re introducing the muzzle as a tool in your training program, don’t contribute to the chaos by introducing it before your dog is ready to wear it within the required training parameters. Stress increases reactivity. Desensitization and counterconditioning your dog to a muzzle using a gradual training plan will prevent adding stress during training and ensure your dog is comfortable at each step of the process. Don’t take the muzzle into the training session until your dog has a strong positive association to wearing it, and can comfortably wear it throughout all the parameters of a training session (duration of session, on leash, walking, etc).

It’s important to continue pairing the muzzle with fun, rewarding scenarios for your dog, because dogs are masters of association.  I once encountered a client who had muzzle trained her fearful and leash-reactive dog to perfection. Yet, the dog was still visibly less comfortable with the muzzle on. After some brainstorming, the client told me the dog only wore her muzzle when in the presence of strangers or on leash walks among other dogs. Even though the client always paired the muzzle with a massively rewarding treat, the dog had made the connection that the muzzle also equaled the transition to a more stressful environment: on leash, among other dogs.

We tackled this problem by going back to the original goal: building a strong, positive conditioned emotional response (+CER). The client started putting the muzzle on her dog for short periods during low-stress, enjoyable scenarios: cuddling on the sofa, mealtime, playtime with her children. This extra training not only built a stronger +CER, but also ensured the muzzle was no longer a surefire tip-off to stressful scenarios.

The message in all of this: Muzzles are a tool, not a gateway to ignore criteria and proper training protocols.