Muzzle Up! Online: More than just muzzles

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In the months since the launch of Muzzle Up! Online, I’ve noted a theme among all my clients: The program’s benefits extend far beyond the primary goal of muzzle training.

While not surprising, seeing this theme in action is rewarding and inspiring. The following are some snapshots to inspire you, or someone you know, to participate in Muzzle Up! Online.

More Trust

As dog owners, want our dogs to trust us. We want our dogs to feel comfortable in our presence. We don’t want our dogs to be scared of us. When done the proper way, muzzle training can increase the trust in you and your dog’s relationship, because in every dog’s training plan, trust is not only the foundation, it’s the terminal behavior.

Muzzle Up! Online teaches clients to watch their dogs’ body language carefully. If the dog shows any signs of discomfort, I help the client take a step back in the training plan. At each step of the way, the dog has the right to say “I’m not comfortable with this, please stop.” By moving at the dog’s pace and paying attention to body language, clients build, and in some cases establish, a foundation of trust. And when dogs and owners establish trust, the dog becomes comfortable not just wearing a muzzle, but engaging in other play and exploratory behavior.

“Ellie was just playing with me (eeee, this still is new and heartwarming!) so I got out her muzzle – and her reaction was the same as for dinner time! She shoved her nose in it and I did it up while she wiggled her tail, and then she got some hard treats that she had to chew a bit. No problem! She was wiggly and happy. She then chased me around the house and out into the backyard (wearing the muzzle!) and got some more hard treats, and was super bouncey – almost zoomie!” – Cara and her shy dog, Ellie

Better Body Handling 

Many Muzzle Up! Online clients have dogs who are also sensitive to handling. Common examples include fear of: Hands reaching over and touching a dog’s head, various grooming implements touching the body, gentle restraint for veterinary and grooming procedures, and harnesses/head halters being placed on the body. Even though the online program focuses on muzzle training, many clients have reported an improvement in their dogs’ handling sensitivities.

Why? For starters, the program trains the owners to become highly skilled at implementing classical conditioning procedures, meaning their training for other types of procedures is more efficient. Secondly, clients’ dogs learn that various handling procedures involved in the muzzle training program lead to safe, fun activities. To effectively muzzle train dogs, I teach clients to incorporate various body handling activities in the initial preparation stages so that later on, the necessary fiddling with buckling the muzzle and hands moving around the dogs’ head doesn’t cause the dog stress. These exercises are helpful not just for muzzle training, but a myriad of other body handling sensitivities.

“I am so grateful I found Muzzle Up! Online. I could not find anyone who really did this type of training. Mostly they would just send me a PDF or link to sites for examples. Thank you.” – Yvette E.

Enrichment and Play

Believe it or not, muzzles are a gateway to a variety of enrichment games, which clients and I incorporate into the online sessions. Games and the element of play are important for any dog, but especially so for fearful dogs. Due to the reasons why dogs need to be muzzled, many Muzzle Up! Online clients have dogs with fear and anxiety. Since I believe dogs should actually enjoy wearing the muzzle, not simply tolerate it, clients and I create muzzle games based on their dogs’ individual play styles. The results are heartwarming and result in increased confidence and exploratory behavior, not to mention a tired and happy dog!

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“Maureen, look what we did to MooMoo. She is going to nap the day away. Happy puppy, happy mom. Thank you for the wonderful session ❤.” – Joanna and her fearful dog, MooMoo

This year will be an exciting one for The Muzzle Up! Project. In September, I will be leading a seminar in conjunction with Helping Idaho Dogs, Inc. and Tawzer Dog addressing muzzle education, advocacy and training. In November, I will be presenting on The Muzzle Up! Project at the Pet Professional Guild’s inaugural Force-Free Summit, with the goal of encouraging force-free trainers across the world to elevate muzzle training to a higher standard.

Continue watching this space for more updates throughout summer and autumn.

Thank you to all supporters of The Muzzle Up! Project. Together, we can elevate muzzle training to a higher standard and change the lives of dogs for the better.

– 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 muttabouttownsf@gmail.com. She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.

Muzzle Q & A: Dr. E’Lise Christensen Bell, DVM DACVB

__1330294011Last year, we launched a Q and A series with veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists as part of Muzzle Awareness month. Due to its popularity, we are continuing the series, this time with Dr. E’Lise Christensen Bell, DVM, DACVB.

Dr. Christensen is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and an international lecturer and author.  As the only board-certified veterinary behaviorist in Colorado, she sees patients with a huge variety of serious behavioral issues. She has contributed to articles in Dog Watch, Cat Watch, Cat Fancy, Dog Training Solutions, Real Simple, Newsday, and various other print media.  She has been a contributor and guest on Foxnews.com’s “Pet Health” and “Studio B with Shepard Smith”, ABC News’ “Nightline,” and many other radio programs, television programs, and newscasts.  She enjoys lecturing internationally on an array of behavior topics including, but not limited to, small animal behavior, public health and animal sheltering topics.

Dr. C is board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.  She is a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Speaker’s Bureau, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and The Association For Force-Free Pet Industry Professionals.

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

SAFETY!!!  If a dog can happily wear a muzzle, you can implement appropriate behavior modification with less risk.  In addition, an appropriately fitted and trained muzzle can keep our friends by our sides (within reason, of course) rather than isolated.

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

Really, every dog should be muzzle trained, even if you don’t think he/she will never need one.  In emergency situations, a muzzle may be used whether you think your dog needs one or not.  We have to make sure medical professionals can do their jobs quickly and without fear of a bite when time is of the essence.  If a dog is already comfortable with one, it will be one less stressor for him/her during a scary time.

Also, the last thing you want to do is have a bite AND THEN, because of the urgency of the situation, put a muzzle on a dog without appropriate training.  It can be done, but it’s not dog-friendly and it can shoot you in the foot for future work.

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

Low stress handling and restraint methods, while wonderful, are still relatively new in veterinary medicine.  You may not know when someone is going to muzzle your dog in the hospital.  Untrained staff may be more nervous and rough with a dog who isn’t wearing a muzzle due to fear of a bite.

A muzzle can also keep other people and their on-leash dogs away.  I LOVE that aspect of a muzzle and sometimes recommend them for dogs without any aggressive behavior for that very reason.  Not everyone understands the Yellow Dog Project’s work and we all know “No Petting” gear doesn’t always work either.  Muzzle’s aren’t 100% successful, but they can be helpful.  And don’t we all need whatever help we can get managing these kids?!

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

My dog will be more aggressive while wearing a muzzle.  

My dog will be more fearful while wearing a muzzle.

-Both of the above COULD be true depending on each dog’s learning history.  That’s why you train comfort with a muzzle regardless of whether you need one.

-I have yet to see a dog trained to wear a basket muzzle be more aggressive while wearing one.

People will think my dog is “mean.”

– OK.  This one may be true, but people are crazy.  Do we want to change our behaviors to accommodate other people’s crazy ideas?  Do they know what’s right for your dog more than you?  NOPE.

Other dogs will pick on my dog because they “know” he/she is more vulnerable.

– That may happen depending on the dog group, but probably it’s more about the novelty of the muzzle than some perceived weakness on the part of the muzzle-wearing dog.

A muzzle is punishing for my dog.

-True only if you use it that way and your dog isn’t trained to like a muzzle

My dog can’t play while wearing a muzzle.

-False!  Your site shows some great options for object play and fetch that can work while wearing a muzzle.

If my dog is wearing a muzzle, I can put him/her in whatever situation I want and it will be OK.

-NOPE!  Come on!  DON’T DO THIS. Once I worked with a family whose dog had bitten multiple times.  They also had a toddler.  After much convincing they finally taught the dog to wear a muzzle.  At our next recheck, they reported allowing the toddler to handle the dog roughly (she was a toddler after all, that was normal behavior). Now *shocker* the dog was getting even more agitated.  Well, it’s not rocket science!  A muzzle is a safety tool, not a free pass to put your dog in a situation it can’t handle or enjoy, unless you absolutely have no other option (like emergency medical care).

My dog is “fine” in a muzzle so I shouldn’t have to train him/her to like it.

-Train your dog to like the tools you need.  It’s more fun for everyone and doesn’t increase the risk of fear and agitation.

Muzzles make dogs feel uncomfortable or sad.

-Dog’s believe what you tell them about muzzles for the most part.  Some are harder sells than others, don’t get me wrong.  But if you have a predictably pleasant interaction pattern with your dog, you have a really good chance at getting him/her to love a wearing a muzzle.

Muzzles are ugly.

– TRUE!  Most muzzles are ugly.  Why is that!?  Bling it out.  Stickers, non-toxic paints on the outside, tiny ribbons, whatever you like, plug ’em right on the outside.  Don’t let your dog eat that stuff though!

And let’s all just keep lobbying for some great company to step up here…Baskerville?  Are you hearing me?  We want colored basket muzzles ASAP!

A muzzle will make my dog look like Hannibal Lecter.

-Nuh uh!  Dogs are way, way to cute to look like sociopathic cannibals, no matter how many times they have bitten or threatened to bite.  In fact, that’s a problem for them.  If dogs were uglier, people would leave them alone and that would suit most of these dogs just fine, thank you!

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

I think we just have to keep fighting the good fight with education for the public, trainers, other veterinarians.

What is your favorite brand and style of muzzle?

Like so much in behavior-land, that depends.  Type of dog, why I’m recommending it, length of time I want it on, previous learning history with muzzles, etc.

Generally though, I like the Baskerville’s although I wish they came in better colors AND with a fast clip instead of the belt buckle collar.  A girl can dream, right?

When should dog owners contact a veterinary behaviorist?

ACK!  I hope no one every needs me.  Sadly not the case…

– If your dog is a danger to him/herself or others

– If there are medical problems complicating the dog’s behavior

– If the dog is experiencing significant panic (like separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobic dogs)

– If appropriate training programs have failed

– A training plateau has been reached

– If the patient isn’t improving as much as he/she should in a reasonable amount of time

– If the patient is generalizing to more and more triggers, etc, etc.

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

SLOW DOWN and use some awesome food OR play if that’s what your dog loves the best

Be wary of incompletely “proofing” your dog to a muzzle and then only doing nasty things when it’s on.  For instance, doing a couple sessions of muzzle work and then only using the muzzle when you try to put in ear meds.  Let’s just say that increases the fail rate.  In fact, sometimes it’s an epic fail.

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

Well, now we all know the chance of a bite is much lower.  YAY!!!!  🙂

People (even veterinary behaviorists) think better when they aren’t worrying about getting bitten.  And clients can learn better, too, when they don’t have to be quite so on edge.

With a muzzle on board, even if our work accidentally triggers that patient, he/she isn’t getting another bite on the record.  And we can see the next case instead of being the next patient in a crowded human ER.

Many thanks to Dr. C for contributing to our Q & A series! If you are a veterinarian or vet behaviorist and would like to participate, please email us at muzzleupproject@gmail.com

– Mauren Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, CA. Get in touch at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com and muzzleupproject@gmail.com.

Why using muzzles as punishment is dangerous

Photo by Animal Kingdom Hostpial/Flickr Creative Commons License

Photo by Animal Kingdom Hostpial/Flickr Creative Commons License

Imagine a child who, every time she misbehaves, is subsequently punished by being placed in a car with the seatbelt buckled. Each time the seatbelt clicks shut, she is left in the car for a period of time without explanation. The only association she has with the car and the seatbelt is as a form of punishment, causing her to dislike it.

Now, imagine that same child has to go to the emergency room. The only means of transport is a car. Faced with the prospect of having to endure what has historically been a form of punishment for her – the seatbelt – she resists, taking up precious time that could be spent driving to the hospital.

This scenario may seem a bit outlandish, and it should. Using a standard safety measure as a form of punishment is ridiculous and cruel, not to mention counterproductive for any life-threatening situation. Unfortunately, when people use muzzles as a form of punishment or time out for dogs, they create a situation not unlike a child being punished with a seatbelt.

Many dogs become fearful if placed in a muzzle without proper desensitization and counterconditioning. They will fear the muzzle even more if it is used as a means to reduce undesirable behaviors (especially if the person presenting the muzzle has a stern tone of voice and agitated body language, two things that often accompany punishment). Now add continual repetitions of the muzzle being used as punishment, and the dog acquires an ever-growing history of negative associations with it.

Why is this such a problem? The fact is, at some point, most dogs will have to wear a muzzle. It’s often the first step when applying pet first aid. It’s also used as a safety measure at the veterinarian if a dog is in pain. Dogs may develop fears at any point in their lives, which could result the need for a muzzle while training is underway. Dogs may even need to wear muzzles for non-aggressive behaviors like eating feces. In any of these situations, it is critical that a dog be desensitized and trained to enjoy wearing a muzzle, especially in the case of an emergency when time is of the essence and mucking around isn’t an option.

Even in non-emergency situations, training a dog to like a muzzle once he has developed strong negative associations to it will take eons longer than performing a standard muzzle training plan from the beginning; fears are easy for dogs to develop and difficult to overcome.

For all of these reasons, refrain from using a muzzle as a way to reduce unwanted behaviors. Your dog’s life may depend on it someday.

-Maureen Backman, MS
Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco.