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.

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Muzzle Smiles Challenge

In case you haven’t heard, it’s Muzzle Awareness Month at the Muzzle Up! Project. We’re starting things off on a celebratory note by asking for your participation in our first community challenge of the month.

We want you to send us a photo or video of your muzzled dog smiling. Why? Because dogs in muzzles are incredibly stigmatized. We face a serious lack of education and awareness about why dogs wear muzzles, why we don’t need to fear them, and why every owner should muzzle her dog.

So give us your best. Show us your muzzled dog playing a game. Show us your muzzled dog wagging his tail. Show us your muzzled dog eating cookies. Show us some muzzle smiles.

We’ll compile the entires and share them throughout the month. Submit by emailing us, posting to our Facebook page, or sharing on Twitter. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #muzzlesmiles.

And now, here’s some inspiration:

–  Maureen 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.

Why we muzzle

whywemuzzleThe other day, I was walking one of my private training clients, a female pit bull mix who also happens to wear a Baskerville muzzle. As we passed a group of people in the park, one commented, “That dog bites.” Ironic, as this dog has no bites on record.

The simple phrase gave me pause and reinforced the work that needs to be done to reduce muzzle stigma and increase awareness as to why dogs wear muzzles.

The dog in question wears a muzzle as prevention. Despite having no bite history, she is very fearful of strangers, new environments and certain dogs. She sometimes becomes over aroused when she plays with other dogs, snapping the air and pinning them to the ground. She was rescued as an adult, so it’s unknown whether a bite would leave no marks or would cause serious damage. Given this knowledge, the muzzle, along with training and management of her interactions with other people and dogs, keeps bite records and dangerous dog laws at bay and keeps her quality of life high.

Another dog I used to walk was obsessed with eating other dogs’ feces, so much so that he would make himself sick. The temptation to eat was so strong that “leave it” commands and recall practice were of little use. His quality of life suffered because he rarely went on off-leash walks in the park because of his endless need to seek out dog feces. With help from the owners, we trained him to wear a muzzle, which prevented feces consumption. Management in place, we were able to work on recall and “leave it,” and give him more off-leash privileges as a result.

In yet another scenario, one of my private training clients’ dogs wore a muzzle because of his struggles with impulse control. He put his mouth on limbs, clothing, the leash, you name it. We needed to stop the behavior to prevent the bad habits from continuing, so we trained him to wear a muzzle while we worked through the necessary training plans. Eventually, he got to the point where the muzzle became less necessary.

I’ve worked with dogs on muzzle training who do have bites on record, but it’s not the only reason. Even when a bite record is the cause for a muzzle, the case is eons more nuanced than simply “That’s a bad dog” or “That dog bites.”

The message in all of this: Dogs wear muzzles for a plethora of reasons. It’s important to educate the public on why dogs wear muzzles so that we reduce stigma and begin to view muzzles as a positive thing, not something to fear.

Tell us: Why do you muzzle?

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.

Adding fun to the muzzle equation

unnamedOften, we as trainers and dog owners introduce dogs to muzzles for serious situations. A dog is reactive on leash, fearful toward strangers, phobic of veterinary procedures, or is subject to breed-specific legislation. All of these situations are appropriate, if not encouraged, uses for muzzles. But none of these situations signals something so critical to muzzle training and a dog’s associations to muzzles: Fun.

The primary goal when muzzle training is to develop a dog’s positive conditioned emotional response (CER), which is the technical term for a dog’s association (positive or negative) to a stimulus. For example, a dog who is uncomfortable being handled by strangers may develop a negative CER to the veterinarian’s office. On the other hand, a dog who has been trained to love handling and has a history of receiving high-value rewards during vet visits may develop a positive CER.

The above image, created with help from Jean Donaldson and The Academy for Dog Trainers, illustrates the positive CER we build through a standard muzzle training plan. The presence of the muzzle, and the placement of the muzzle on the dog’s body, always results in a high-impact, high-value reward (in most scenarios, food). In the world of dog math equations, we’re teaching the dog: Muzzle = snacks.

While this initial training is critical to getting your dog comfortable wearing a muzzle, it’s important continue pairing the muzzle with fun, rewarding scenarios for your dog. Why? 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 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 Muzzle Up! Project is not only about muzzle education and safety, but also muzzle creativity. The following are a few ways to make muzzle training and wearing a joyful experience for you and your dog. Remember, these are a supplement to the standard muzzle training plan. (Enjoy these exercises once your dog has gone through the plan and has a strong positive CER to wearing the muzzle.) Get creative with your dog’s math; Muzzles = snacks, affection, meals, playtime, and anything else your dog finds rewarding!

– Muzzle Mealtime: Put the muzzle on your dog. Instead of a treat, feed her breakfast or dinner for a new, very high-value reward!

– Muzzle Tug: If your dog’s basket muzzle fits properly, your dog will still be able to play with certain bones and tug toys that can fit through the openings in the basket. If you own a dog who gets a thrill out of tug, occasionally play the game after putting on her muzzle.

– Muzzle Cuddles: It’s important for your dog to be able to settle while wearing a muzzle. Practice putting the muzzle on your dog, and sitting with her by her bed or, if she is allowed, on the sofa. Give her treats intermittently, as well as her favorite massages, for several minutes.

– Maureen 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.

Muzzle Art Monday – March 10, 2014

This week’s Muzzle Art Monday features penguins! Emma Hindson created this masterpiece for her dog, Zara, inspired by Muzzle Up’s art project last month. Looking good, Zara!

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Want to see your dog featured for a future Muzzle Art Monday? Email us at muzzleupproject@gmail.com, post a photo to our Facebook page, or tweet us using the hashtag #muzzleup.

– Maureen 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.

Muzzle Art Monday – January 27, 2014

Muzzle Up! supporter Heather sent us today’s Muzzle Art Monday photo featuring a very festive Lili and a snazzy muzzle with pink accents.

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Send your muzzle art to muzzleupproject@gmail.com. And remember: there’s no reason safety can’t be stylish!

– Maureen 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.

Explaining why your dog is wearing a muzzle

muzzle-cartoonsYou’re walking your dog and someone approaches. Maybe a neighbor, a coworker, or perhaps a complete stranger. And then comes the question you wish you didn’t have to constantly answer: “Why is your dog wearing a muzzle?” Sometimes, it’s asked out of pure interest. But most of the time, it’s tinged with many underlying fears and questions. Is that dog vicious? Will your dog attack me? Is your dog a bad dog? Many supporters of The Muzzle Up! Project face this question quite often, and they’ve come up with some great responses that erase stigma, ease anxiety and insert a little humor into living life with a muzzled up dog. Here are the brilliant ideas of our supporters. Enjoy!

  • I say, “My dog has an injury and sometimes also has issues with strangers approaching me, so I am being a responsible owner until we work through that.” Or something like that. – Christine
  • “She is scared of new folks.” And then I turn my attention to Diamond and ask her to do something to help her remain cognitive and build positive experiences with strangers around. And then I reward her cooperation. She has come a long way. More often than not, she now seems to have a more positive interest in strangers. – Angie
  • I have one who wears a muzzle as shes not keen on other dogs coming up to her and as she’s a big girl. I’m overly cautious. I also have a lead with “no dogs” printed on it and my boy wears a lead with ‘friendly’ on. Most people I see are nice but I’ve had a few comments. – Deanna
  • I have a greyhound and I muzzle her when we go to the groomers as they usually have little white fluffy lures in there. I explain I would rather be safe than sorry as she has been trained to chase.Then I say she is really a lamb. – Tracey
  • I once had someone ask me why my dog was wearing a hockey mask – made me cease and explain the situation, all whilst I had blood dribbling down my leg because I had just fallen over and was trying to sort a plaster. We must have looked a right pair! – Emma
  • I put my foster dog on my Facebook cover photo saying she is a DINOS Diva (Dog in need of space), just to change my own perception of using a muzzle and be comfortable being proactive by having her wear a muzzle when out. She looks kind of like a ‘super hero’ with her yellow jacket and her head gear. – Jo-Ann
  • She has a hard time trusting other people and other dogs, but she still deserves the same love and privileges as any other creature… I muzzle cuddles so that she and the other creatures around her can live a safe and normal life. – Кристина
  • Obviously, because he can’t wear two. – Luis
  • Mine used to wear one one when he was a pup “because he is a pig – and hovers up anything and everything and makes himself sick!” – Emma

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.

Training Troubleshooting Series, Part 3: Splittiness

Steve Holt Photography (steveholt.org)

Steve Holt Photography (steveholt.org)

Originally posted on Mutt About Town.

Over the past week, I have been working with a client on muzzle training her dog. In doing so, I am reminded of the importance of “splits” in dog training, and why sometimes following a training plan won’t automatically get you the results you want.

A typical muzzle training plan looks like this:

  1. Provide treats upon showing the dog the muzzle
  2. Click and treat whenever dog touches muzzle with nose
  3. Shape behavior by selecting longer nose bumps to mark and reward
  4. Click and treat when dog places muzzle in opening, luring if necessary
  5. Add duration for placing nose in muzzle opening
  6. Work on attaching straps
  7. Adjust straps so that the muzzle fits closer to the head
  8. Gradually tighten the fit of the muzzle

Essentially, we sequentially train the dog to like the muzzle, like placing her nose on the muzzle, like placing her nose in the muzzle, like keeping her nose in the muzzle, and not mind attaching or adjusting the straps.

When working with my client’s dog, we started out with the basic plan. She responded well with steps 1-4, but got stuck on step five, the duration. Despite being heavily rewarded for placing her nose in the muzzle, the minute the treats stopped, she moved her nose from the muzzle opening.

If we continued barreling through the plan without getting her comfortable with duration, any positive associations with the muzzle would have gradually eroded, and we would have hit an even bigger roadblock. Clearly, we needed to add something extra to the plan.

In dog training, this something extra is termed a “split.” As the name implies, a split is essentially a bridge between two steps, so that instead of requiring a dog to go from step one to step two, we give her a 1a (and perhaps a 1b and 1c) to make the jump less difficult. Remember learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels and needing an adult to stabilize and launch you so you didn’t immediately fall off? Eventually you were able to start the ride on two wheels on your own, but the stabilizing hand of an adult eased you into it, minimizing bruises and injuries. It’s the same concept in dog training. Read More