When good muzzle training goes bad, part 2

In part one of this series, I talked about the importance of keeping Pavlov front and center when muzzle training. This week, I’m going to delve a little deeper into another common training mistake that can cause hiccups in the muzzle training process: Order of events.

Think of Pavlov, or classical conditioning, as a way for dogs to predict what’s going to happen in their environment. Dogs use this type of learning to gain tip-offs to whether something good (or bad) is going to happen. These tip-offs can be noises, environment changes, the appearance or disappearance of stimuli, or behavior cues. It’s the reason your dog starts salivating and trotting toward you when you crinkle a sandwich bag or reach into your treat pouch; crinkling bags predict cookies. It’s the reason your dog jumps and barks in excitement when you reach for the leash; leashes predict walks and playtime. It’s also the reason dogs will display signs of fear and discomfort in certain situations. If dogs have a bad experience at the veterinarian, they may show fear at the sight of the vet office’s waiting room (or even the parking lot). If their only experience with nail trims ended in pain and styptic powder, they will likely show discomfort the next time the nail clippers appear.


Pavlov is important. But it’s equally important to ensure you’re implementing Pavlov the correct way. After all, it determines whether your dog forms a positive or negative association with a muzzle, and determines the strength of that association.

Let’s delve a little deeper. The first goal in any muzzle training plan is to ensure the dog has a “yipee!” response when the muzzle appears. In order for this to happen, the dog has to learn that the muzzle is a reliable predictor of good stuff. Every dog has a varying definition of what constitutes the “good stuff” in life, but for most dogs, food is at the top of the list. The higher value the food (think: tripe, chicken, cheese, steak), the better. To be a reliable predictor in training, a muzzle has to precede the good stuff every single time.

Muzzle –> Good stuff. 

Sounds simple enough, right? It’s actually easy to get wrong. First, let’s talk about what a good muzzle training procedure looks like. The trainer gets the muzzle from its resting place and presents it to the dog. Then, the trainer walks to get the food and dispenses it to the dog. Once the food is gone, the trainer puts the muzzle away. This constitutes one conditioning trial.

Now let’s look at a few ways this seemingly simple procedure can go wrong, and why it’s important to avoid these scenarios.

  • Muzzle + Good stuff: Muzzle and Good stuff arrive at the same time. If you’ve ever reached for food while at the same time grabbing the muzzle, or put peanut butter or cream cheese on the muzzle and presented it to your dog, you’ve gotten your order of events wrong. In these scenarios, the muzzle isn’t predicting anything. It’s simply arriving at the same time as the good stuff. While not the end of the world, this is an inefficient way to train. To avoid this pitfall, make your training set-up as clean as possible. Present the muzzle, then place the peanut butter on the muzzle for your dog. Dispense food after the muzzle appears. Make sure the muzzle always predicts, not conflates.
  • Good stuff –> Muzzle. Good stuff predicts Muzzle. If you’ve ever put on your treat pouch before getting the muzzle, grabbed food from the fridge before presenting the muzzle, or even done food prep immediately before muzzle training, you’ve gotten your order of events wrong. These are examples backwards conditioning, in which the dog learns that the good stuff means the muzzle appears. Not only is this bad training, it could potentially poison your training set-up. To avoid this pitfall, do food prep well ahead of your muzzle training session. Get the muzzle out before reaching for food containers or bait bags. You can also do “extinction” trials, where you reach for your treat pouch and nothing happens. Make sure the muzzle always predicts.

The presence and strength of the “yippee!” response is the single most important factor in muzzle training. If your dog goes “uh oh,” “ho hum,” or “I’m not sure about this” when he sees the muzzle, it doesn’t matter how great the rest of your training plan is; the dog hasn’t made a strong, accurate association between the muzzle and the good stuff and without that association, your training will hit roadblocks. So keep your training set-up clean and work methodically. Put Pavlov front and center and get your order of events straight, and your training be more efficient and humane.