If a dog is trained to wear a muzzle, he should be able to wear any type of muzzle with ease. Right?
Some dogs are great generalizers. They easily apply their training to different contexts and environments. Dogs who sit on cue at home, at the park and at the veterinary office have successfully generalized this behavior. No matter the scenario, they know what to do when presented with the cue, “sit.” Dogs who recognize that seeing other dogs leads to good things, whether on- or off-leash, indoors or outdoors, sidewalk or park, have successfully generalized that other dogs predict good stuff. No matter the scenario, they know when they see another dog, good things will happen.
Generalization is an important life skill for dogs, but it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s a skill that comes a lot easier to humans. Dogs who haven’t had a lot of practice in the process of generalization and dogs who have underlying fears and anxieties may find the business of generalization difficult. This is important to remember in all aspects of training, including muzzle training.
Think about what a dog initially learns during the muzzle training process. When a human presents a specific muzzle in a specific context, good things happen. As the dog progresses, he learns that placing his snout in that same specific muzzle within the same specific training context, good things happen. As the human and dog work through the training plan, they may address duration, where the dog wears the muzzle, and what activities the dog performs while wearing the muzzle, often using the same style of muzzle, if not the very same specific muzzle, during each training session.
If that same dog is suddenly presented with a different style of muzzle and is expected to perform to the same standard, that dog at best could be a bit confused. At worst, that dog could be quite scared. And fear is not something we as humans want to take lightly.
We often lump muzzles into one category – “muzzles.” Sometimes, we’ll differentiate between basket muzzles and grooming muzzles (the mesh muzzles that are only safe for use for brief periods of time). (Note that The Muzzle Up! Project does not recommend using mesh muzzles for any training purpose, but more on that in another blog post!) Remember, humans are great generalizers, so these broad categories tend to work for us. But for dogs, the experience of wearing a muzzle differs greatly not only by type, but by brand. Baskerville basket muzzles are made of a thicker, heavier plastic. The basket has larger holes, making treat dispensing relatively easy, and the basket generally fits a bit looser around the snout. The traditional “Italian style” basket muzzles are made of a lighter plastic, have smaller holes for treat delivery, and the basket tends to cover a larger surface area of a dog’s snout. BUMAS muzzles aren’t made of plastic at all, and in lieu of a buckle, can have a snap enclosure (this snap! sound can be startling to dogs if they haven’t been desensitized to it previously). Mesh muzzles (again, not recommended by The Muzzle Up! Project, even for short durations) have an entirely different fit than a basket muzzle (the dog’s mouth is completely closed).
Some dogs may be able to switch from muzzle to muzzle with relative ease, needing only a few warm-up sessions to get those generalizations going. Other dogs may need more time. This is especially important to remember if you plan on muzzling your dog at the vet or the groomer. If your dog has been trained on a Baskerville muzzle, and the veterinarian uses an “Italian style” or mesh muzzle, it could be quite a scary experience for your dog to suddenly have to wear a new style. The muzzles the veterinarian provides may smell different (and may smell like other dogs), creating yet another new factor that may increase anxiety.
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to prevent generalization mishaps. Here are some pointers The Muzzle Up! Project recommends:
- Always bring your dog’s muzzle to your appointments and ask to use that specific muzzle during any vet or grooming procedures.
- If you know your dog will have to stay for an operation, or simply as a preventive, train your dog to wear different styles of basket muzzles. This way, if the veterinarian insists on using a specific muzzle, if you accidentally forget to bring your dog’s muzzle with you, or if a tech has to muzzle your dog when you’re not present, you’ve provided your dog with some padding so he still feels safe.
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.