Following the government's announcement that XL bully breeds are to be banned by the end of the year, there has been a lot of talk amongst bull breed owners regarding how to prepare their dogs for the restrictions that will be placed on them. This includes the requirement that they be muzzled at all times when in a public space, and a lot of owners are very responsibly preparing by conditioning their dogs to wearing a muzzle. However, being able to muzzle your dog shouldn't be something reserved for those required to do so by law, nor should it be considered a last resort. Some common uses for a muzzle are described below.
This is probably the most well-known reason for wearing a muzzle. If your dog is reactive to either dogs or people, then a muzzle is an extremely valuable tool to keep others safe. For example, whilst in the ideal world people will not approach your dog without permission, we all know that this does happen on occasion and if your dog is nervous of people and will bite out of fear if someone sticks a hand in their face, a muzzle could be the thing that saves you from both criminal and civil liability. Muzzles tend to have a negative connotation because people believe that if your dog is wearing a muzzle they MUST be aggressive. However, muzzling your dog is the most responsible thing you could possibly do in this situation. Equally, people often feel sorry for dogs wearing muzzles or think that it prevents them from doing what dogs would normally do, but it is important to remember that a properly fitting muzzle will allow a dog to pant, drink and take treats and they can have just a fulfilling walk in a muzzle as they can without.
Even where your dog is not an immediate bike risk, it can take the stress out of socialising your dog with other dogs because it reduces the risk of other dogs getting injured if your dog makes a mistake. This is especially useful in close contact situations, where your dog is getting used to meeting other dogs but where they might not always make the best decisions and you want to eliminate the risk of anyone getting hurt.
Using a muzzle in these situations, even where your dog doesn't necessarily need one, can give owners the added confidence they need to take the next step in their dog's training. It can often be the case that our fears and worries are the limiting factor in allowing our dogs to grow in confidence around other dogs, and if using a muzzle is a way to make you feel better, then why not!
If you have a dog that has issues with scavenging for food or other items while outside, a muzzle can be a life-saving tool and save you a lot of stress and money with associated vet trips. That is not to say that this behaviour cannot be resolved through training, but it is a fantastic way of making sure that your dog is safe in the process.
One of the most common reasons why we use muzzles with clients dogs is where the dog has behavioural issues surrounding being groomed or handled. Some dogs learn that if they bite or snap then the thing that they find stressful (brushing, cleaning eyes/ears etc) will stop. A dog that cannot be touched will soon become a welfare case for example if their hair is matted or their nails are too long and so it is very important that we are able to tackle these issues. A muzzle is an excellent tool for being able to safely handle a dog, and to teach them to be comfortable with being handled.
Some dogs might never need a muzzle for any of the above reasons, but they may act out of character and get snappy if they have injured themselves or are in a lot of pain. In these cases a muzzle is so helpful to keep everyone, and vets in particular, safe, and to ensure that your dog can receive prompt and effective treatment for their injuries.
In an emergency situation the last thing we want to do is stress our dog out more by having to plonk a muzzle on them for the first time. Equally, if the first time you try to muzzle your dog is in an extremely stressful situation they are likely to develop a negative association, which isn't going to help them feel comfortable wearing one. It is therefore important in all of the above listed situations to
a) choose a properly fitting muzzle
b) properly condition your dog to their muzzle
Choosing your muzzle
There are two main considerations when choosing your muzzle; the first is safety. If you are using a muzzle because your dog is a bite risk this is the most important consideration of all - your muzzle must fit securely so that there is no risk of it coming off and they must not be able to bite through the muzzle. The second consideration is comfort, which includes having sufficient pant room, and this is something to consider if your dog will be wearing their muzzle for long periods, for intense exercise or in warm weather.
Another, less important consideration is the material that your muzzle is made from. Muzzles are typically made from either plastic, biothane, wire or coated wire and less commonly, leather. We do not recommend mesh muzzles, which are designed to keep your dog's mouth completely shut. However, if it is necessary to use one of these muzzles then they should only be used for short periods.
A lot of the more common muzzle brands such as the Baskerville and Baskerville Ultra do not account for sufficient pant room, but they are cheaper, more readily available in local pet shops and do the job for most dogs if wearing for short periods. Nova is wearing a Baskerville muzzle in the above photo, and whilst it fits well in most aspects there would not be sufficient pant room if wearing the muzzle in warm weather or for long periods. Below are some examples of muzzle brands which offer more pant room when sized correctly. These brands are more expensive but they are well worth the investment if you plan on using your muzzle regularly.
Jafco Muzzle Movement Leerburg
There are so many different shapes and sizes of muzzle nowadays and so it is possible to find a muzzle to fit any dog, even brachycephalic breeds such as Frenchies and other bull breeds. It is important to remember that each brand will have a different size guide, and finding the right size can sometimes be trial and error. Most muzzles can also be modified through heating and bending to create a better fit, for example to widen the cheeks. There are also companies out there which create bespoke muzzles for your dog's exact measurements, but unsurprisingly they cost a lot more than standard sized muzzles.
There are some great resources out there to help you size your muzzle properly. My absolute favourite resource is www.muzzletrainingandtips.au which started out as a Facebook group created by a regular dog owner, offering free sizing recommendations for owners who provided their dog's measurements. They now charge $2UAD for this service to keep their website up and running, but their website contains so much free information on the different muzzle brands, measuring your dog, modifying your muzzle and more that it is well worth the money!
Conditioning the muzzle
In some cases where a dog is at immediate risk of hurting someone we do not always have the luxury of taking it slow and conditioning the dog to the muzzle beforehand. However, even in these situations, it is important to condition your dog to the muzzle alongside this, so that they learn to be comfortable wearing it in future.
The aim is to create a positive association with the muzzle so that your dog is happy to wear it, and this involves lots of positive reinforcement.
Start by popping some treats or peanut butter inside the muzzle so that your dog has to put their nose right into it to retrieve the reward. It is important that the reward (the treat) comes when your dog's head is in the muzzle, as opposed to when they remove it.
Start to increase the duration that they hold their head in the muzzle by delaying the reward slightly.
The next step is to clip the muzzle up for a moment and then unclipping it again.
Start to increase the duration that you clip the muzzle up for.
Once your dog is happy to wear the muzzle you can start to ask them to walk with it on. A lot of dogs find this the hardest bit, so use a lead so that you can help them out.
Take a look at our video on muzzle conditioning below to see these steps in action!
So, muzzle up!
If the bully ban does anything positive, we hope that it will show the wider public that just because a dog is wearing a muzzle, it does not mean that they are aggressive. More and more companies are designing muzzles that look nice as well as fulfilling their function, which again we hope will break the perception that dogs look scary in muzzles. In particular, we love www.themuzzlemovement.com, a UK-based company which makes muzzles in loads of really nice colours.
Muzzles can be an extremely helpful tool regardless of whether your dog is an immediate bite risk or not and we believe that all dogs should be comfortable wearing one. They should not be something reserved for "bad dogs," nor should they been seen as something that reduces a dog's quality of life, because in reality they allow for the exact opposite!