OK, let me tell you a story of two dogs, Aster and Barley, who started my group class. Both are high-energy adult dogs who had gone to doggy daycares (different ones) and loved it. They both have parents who love them, but both are very excitable — to the point of overstimulation and reactivity around strange dogs.
As life would have it (remember that “life” is a four-letter word), these two female dogs started my class the same week. We found out very quickly that they were each other’s kryptonite! If both were in class, they acted like they wanted to, well, let’s say, “do damage to each other.”
Problems Caused By Miscommunication Between Species
From the beginning I really thought that it was overstimulation that led to the reactivity, and it was made worse by the owners’ reactions to the commotion. Dogs tend to misinterpret an owner’s fear and frustration of what the dogs might do as the owner being fearful of the new dog or person coming closer. In fact, I think many dogs believe they must go into protection mode and guard their owner when, actually, the owners are nervous or embarrassed by the actions of their dog. It’s another example of miscommunication between species.
I really felt that if there were no leashes and the owners were out of the picture, the dogs would actually end up being friends, but it is not exactly an ethical practice to just throw caution to the wind and hope for the best when dogs meet. Not to mention it is not conducive to a group class or fair to the other clients in the class.
Attempting To Solve Dog-To-Dog Barking And Lunging
The first thing we tried was cause-and-effect training. This meant that when a dog misbehaved, she had to leave the class and could not return until she was back under control. While the dogs did calm down in the other room, the minute they came back to the group they would go back to barking, and if either dog stared (which in “dog speak” can be either a challenge or an invitation to play), that resulted, again, in overstimulation and more lunging and barking.
After a couple of weeks of leaving the room each time they lost control (we hoped that losing access to the class would induce them to calm down), we decided to start meeting privately with the dogs. It was the only fair thing to do. The classes were being disrupted, and I am not a trainer who will give up on a dog. Instead we started meeting in an outdoor area where we could add more space between these adult dogs to see if the additional space helped. We found out quickly that it did little, if any, good.
My thinking was that if we could add enough space, we could work from there and move closer in small increments. Unfortunately, this did not work. They still became overstimulated and barked and lunged.
That was when I emailed the owners and asked about the possibility of getting muzzles for the girls, conditioning them for a week or two, then bringing them back together for a little bit more training.
Muzzle Training Dogs The Right Way
Now the idea of muzzle training conjures up all sorts of negative connotations. But not for me. If done correctly, with lots of treats, fun and no aversive training techniques, I find that muzzles not only calm the dogs but also the owners. This leads to a spiraling of good behavior because everyone is in a more relaxed condition.
First off, let’s tackle the negative connotations. Muzzles are NOT shock collars, choke chains or prong collars. Muzzles ARE a way of making sure that an adult dog, or any dog, cannot practice the bad behavior of biting. I only use foam basket muzzles because they are soft and cannot be used as a weapon like a metal basket muzzle. They also allow the dog to pant, drink and take treats, unlike the mesh muzzles. I spend as much time as necessary conditioning the dog to be excited about wearing the muzzle. I will not begin the training until the dog is comfortable.
The Karen Pryor website has a great article about how to condition dogs to a muzzle, a process that typically takes 10 to 14 days.
A muzzle is just a tool to use and, if associated positively, the sign of a responsible owner wanting to help their dog — nothing else. If you are freaked out or uncomfortable with a dog owner using a muzzle in public, then consider whether it is you who has the issue. Without the muzzle, the adult dog might actually cause harm to another dog. People who use them correctly should be applauded, not shunned or ostracized.
Why Dog Muzzles Work
Why do I think that muzzles work in some cases? It’s because they take away a destructive, self-defense mechanism from the dog and allow the dog to try other, more rewardable behaviors, instead. Note that muzzles do not work in every case — and that is the main reason why you want and need the assistance of a professional dog trainer if you are considering using a muzzle.
Dogs don’t speak English and we don’t speak Dog, so my reasons for why muzzles work are just a theory. Keep reading, though, and I hope my reasons make as much sense to you as they do to me.
In the case of overstimulation and redirection aggression (an adult dog going over threshold and lunging and/or barking at another dog he wants to get to or whatever is closest to him), the dog makes a bad decision and practices it over and over until it becomes a learned behavior. Remember, one of the biggest things that made me believe that this was not a true aggression case was the fact that both adult dogs went to and loved doggy daycare. There was just something between them that went from 0 to 150 miles per hour when they got together.
Simply wearing the muzzles made them consider different options. I think both dogs knew that by wearing the muzzles, they could not react to each other as they normally had, which in turn made them more apt to rely on their owner versus the overreaction.
As they paid more attention to the owners, the owners paid more attention to the dogs, and thus to rewarding this new behavior with treats. That led to the owners calming down, which led to the dogs calming down. In essence we reversed the overstimulation spiral to a situation that had dogs paying attention to owners versus the other dogs.
Using Muzzles To Train Dogs
In the video I made, you’ll notice that I have my nonreactive dog there to allow some interaction, but keep distance with Aster and Barley. The results are nothing short of amazing. Keep in mind that this is just a short video and not every dog reacts this way. I would never recommend trying this at home without the help of a professional trainer who has experience with situations like this.
I hope the video helps remove some of the stigma of dogs wearing muzzles and really shows them for what they are — tools being used by responsible owners who are willing to help their dogs. Nothing more, nothing less.
I did not and will not allow Aster or Barley to greet each other for quite a while when working. Instead I use my Big Girl Leo. She is notoriously nonreactive and loves her place in this training, as long as the treats keep coming! Leo acts as a bridge for the other two, allowing them to be in the presence of another dog and each other while gaining confidence in working around another dog.
The Place Of Muzzles In Dog Training
Muzzles are nothing more than a training tool that hopefully will be weaned away over time. In the case of Aster and Bailey, they were used on dogs who were overreactive and not aggressive: These dogs had histories of enjoying doggy daycare with other dogs, but for some reason could not handle saying hello to each other. Although in the video you can see that they are tolerating the sight of each other (something they could not do prior to using muzzles), we will go very slowly in moving forward. This type of training is slow and must be built on successes, while equal focus must be on not allowing mistakes because the people are trying to move forward too fast.
Don’t think of a muzzle as an easy fix or a magic pill for your adult dog, but do think to discuss with a professional trainer about whether a muzzle might help your dog. And maybe change your stereotype of a dog you might encounter in the future wearing a muzzle — or the owner of that dog.
Muzzles Are For Adult Dogs
While I have used muzzles with adult and senior dogs in the past for very specific and limited reasons, I believe their use by dog owners requires assistance and training from a professional trainer and/or a veterinarian. For puppies, I honestly see no real reason to use a muzzle, due to the fact that puppies are in the middle of their socialization periods (3 weeks to approximately 25 weeks). This is a period where being muzzled might very well create fear/anxiety associations for the pup and do more harm than good.
I hope that no one would just go to a store and buy a muzzle to use on their adult dog without training or information. All you have to do is ask for help. Plenty of folks are out there and willing to help you, educate you and assist you with the issues you might be having.
Again, remember my motto for dog training: Keep It Simple Stupid — and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help.