Preparing with Pets: Muzzle Training for Emergencies

In my mind, basic obedience training is absolutely vital for dog owners.  Sit, down, stay, and the like are often taught to pets – but what about muzzle training?  Not many people train their dog to willingly accept wearing a muzzle.  That can mean that the first time an animal has to be muzzled for safety reasons, they panic.  Can you blame them?  I would certainly panic if someone wrapped something around my mouth and nose, holding my mouth closed and even slightly limiting my breathing!

Knowing this, and also knowing that muzzling an injured dog is vital for the protection of those humans transporting and/or providing emergency treatment, we made the decision to begin muzzle training Violet.  Now, to be VERY clear, Violet is not forced into the muzzle.  She is also not left muzzled for any longer than her desensitizing training takes place.  She is muzzled for training only, praised and handled calmly the entire time, and rewarded immediately after removal of the muzzle.  She is clearly uncomfortable with the muzzle on, but is willing to wear it for longer and longer (measured in seconds) each session.

I discussed my planned method of training with our veterinarian, who approved wholeheartedly and appreciated the effort.  If you consider muzzle training, please take the time to discuss it with your vet so they can make you aware of any concerns for your pet(s) based off of breed, such as length of snout and nose v. breathing concerns.  Lastly, NEVER leave your dog muzzled at length in hot weather.  Panting is their natural method of cooling themselves and you risk creating dangerous overheating if leaving them muzzled inappropriately.

That said, here’s how I began muzzle training our dog:

  1. Select the appropriate size and shape of muzzle for your pet – I chose the “Best Fit Mesh Muzzle” from Coastal Pet Products, Inc. because it is breathable and has a quick-release buckle.  (Size is based off of the circumference of your dog’s nose – our Lab/hound mix wears a size 5.) Ask your vet for the best brands/style for your pet if s/he is a breed that commonly has breathing concerns.
  2. I allowed the dog to completely examine the muzzle without wearing it.  As a hound, her nose is her greatest asset and being familiar with a scent is always helpful.  The muzzle was then stored with her treat bin.
  3. Next exposure was simply a fitting.  I had Violet sit and stay, measured the adjustable strap as much as I could without her wearing the muzzle, then slipped the muzzle on her face to make a quick final adjustment.  As soon as possible, I removed the muzzle and immediately rewarded her with profuse praise and a dog treat.  (Our dog is strongly motivated by pack approval and food, so using both of these is BIG in new situations. In many situations, a single word or look from the “alphas” – my husband and myself – is enough to encourage or discourage her behavior.)
  4. I began daily muzzle wearing, for seconds at a time, rewarded with verbal and food praise.  I crouched near her, kept one hand on the back of her head and had the other hand ready to gently prevent her from pawing/clawing at the muzzle.  If she tried to paw it away, I calmly but firmly told her no, gently blocked her paw, and waited just a second before using the quick-release buckle to release the muzzle.  Immediate praise and treat followed.
  5. After a week she no longer tried to paw at the muzzle.  At that point, I began leaving it on for a few seconds longer each session; after a certain point, the dog immediately sat upon seeing the muzzle, knowing that it would be slipped on, we’d wait, and she’d get a treat when it was removed.  When we got up to ten seconds with the muzzle on, I introduced the next training – a physical examination.
  6. To train Violet for a physical exam as would occur in an emergency, I started each training as usual.  She heard the treat bin open and ran to see what’s going on, then sat.  I showed her the muzzle and she allowed it to be placed on her (she now even lifts her chin for me to slip the muzzle on – your mileage may vary there).  While I was crouched near her, keeping one hand somewhere on her body to maintain calm and control, I used the other hand to lift her ears and looked into them.  As time has gone on, I extended this to firmly running my hand down her legs, sides, spine, and even palpating her abdomen – all things one might need to do during an emergency exam.  We are now at the point where I can easily switch hands, run my hands all over her body, and make gentle eye contact to check her eyes as well. She now wears the muzzle for a minimum of 30 seconds while I do an exam.

By no means do I feel that this training will completely eliminate a risk of panic if Violet is injured.  However, muzzling is something that may become necessary if she were to be badly hurt, in order to keep the scene safe for myself, my husband, or a veterinarian and their staff.  I hope that the complete test of muzzling her when she’s injured never happens; I do acknowledge that only that will show how complete success of such training.  The only way we could have offered this any better is to have had her from puppyhood and to have begun it then as a day-to-day training.  That was not an option for our “pound hound”; instead we spent the first several years with trust building and basic obedience training as we integrated her into our family/pack.

If you have ANY concerns about your own safety with your dog muzzled, please make sure they are well trained in other areas first.  This training we are doing with Violet is all about making her feel safe and teaching her that I can be trusted completely if she is muzzled.  It also means that I am “in her face”, literally, and placing myself at a disadvantage as much as I am placing her in one. If I were not calm and firm, or my dog were known for acting aggressively in a confined space or with me in her closest personal space, I would not have begun this training with her yet. In this situation you are taking away a dog’s main method of defense; they need to know 110% that you will not harm them and that this is not a punishment!  As a very cuddly dog, Violet is encouraged and calmed by my touch as much as by my words; if your dog does not respond as well to touch, this will probably take longer in your family as you’ll be teaching them to accept touch for emergency treatment as well as the muzzle itself.

Once the dog has been well-trained to accept the muzzle from one family member, you may wish to have another family member or trusted friend step in and work with them.  In our situation, I am the one who initiated the training and does it all for now – at times I call my husband in and he observes so that 1) he sees how well she has progressed and 2) he can learn my method of muzzling her so it is familiar if he has to do it.  At a later date, we will switch and he will muzzle her – first with me right with her, then with me nearby, and lastly with me out of the area.  Since I am the adult normally home with the children and the dog, they all tend to look to me first for most things.  In an emergency I might not be around or I might be incapacitated – it’s very important to me that Violet understands, like the children do, that the basic concept is still the same as what they’ve already learned from Mom.