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Cornell Richard P. Riney Canine Health Center

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Muzzle choices

When and how to use these safety tools

We all like to believe that our dogs are perfectly well-behaved and well-intentioned, but the reality is that dogs are still dogs, and things happen. While few dogs are truly aggressive, many will bite out of fear or excitement. Training your dog to accept a muzzle now can make a big difference during the times when a dog must do something that they do not want to tolerate. 

“Most of the time, we do not need to use muzzles,” says Dr. Leni Kaplan '91, senior lecturer of clinical sciences at Cornell's Small Animal Community Practice. “Our veterinary team strives to provide a safe, comfortable, low-stress environment for our patients, including providing positive reinforcement and employing low-stress restraint and handling techniques during veterinary visits. We use muzzles when necessary and without hesitation. Muzzles are not painful and do not inhibit dogs from breathing.”

When to use a muzzle

A muzzle can be used any time you are concerned about your dog trying to bite a person or animal. Some dogs get overstimulated when running and playing in a group of dogs and will try to grab. Other dogs charge people and dogs that walk past their house. Some get stressed in specific situations, like getting their nails trimmed. And any dog may bite out of pain in an emergency situation, such as during an event that causes physical injury.

Pay attention to your dog’s body language. “If a dog is giving us overt signs of fear and warning us that they will snap or bite, we will use a muzzle for the safety of the owners, staff and patients,” says Kaplan. “Any dog who has actually bitten in the past will also be muzzled as a precaution for everyone’s safety.”

Signs that your dog is uncomfortable and may escalate to biting include:

  • Tense posture
  • Whites of the eyes showing
  • Shrinking away
  • Hair raised on the neck and back
  • Hard stare
  • Growling
  • Lunging
  • Acting painful

You know your dog better than anyone else, so don’t hesitate to speak up if your dog is sending signals that they are really upset, or if they are in a situation where they have tried to bite before. But also don’t be offended if a veterinary practitioner or groomer asks to put a muzzle on your dog (even though you don’t think it is necessary). That person is trying to avoid a situation where your dog could get in trouble.

Kaplan has another situation in which muzzles prove useful. She says, “Some dogs who tend to eat inedible objects (rocks, peach pits, balls, etc.) and end up needing foreign body surgeries often wear basket muzzles for years whenever they are outside or on walks to prevent them from eating indiscriminately.”

Introducing the muzzle

Teach your dog to wear a muzzle now, even if they are the sweetest dog in the world. If they ever get hurt, your dog could bite out of pain. It is far less stressful for a dog to be muzzled if they have already been trained to wear one in a calm setting.

“The key to getting a dog to accept a muzzle is to get them acclimated slowly, in a stress-free environment, with positive reinforcement for wearing and tolerating the muzzle,” says Kaplan.

“Putting the muzzle on and taking it off immediately several times throughout the day for one week or so is a great way to start. Immediately after the muzzle is removed, give the pet a treat and praise. Over time, clip the muzzle in place and then immediately remove. Then, start to leave the muzzle on for up to three seconds and then remove it. And so on, until the muzzle is another accessory like a harness or coat.”

Purchase a muzzle now and then practice having the dog wear it at varying non-stressful times. This is an important step in making sure that your dog doesn’t associate it with only scary experiences.

Muzzle choice: Assess the situation

  • Basket muzzles: Best for extended use.
    • Provide the most protection.
    • Usually hard plastic or metal with leather or nylon straps. The hard material forms a cage or basket that fits around the dog’s snout, with the straps wrapping behind the dog’s head to hold it in place.
    • Dogs can pant normally in a basket muzzle, drink water, and eat treats. However, they cannot bite.
  • Soft or “sleeve” muzzles: Best for temporary use, such as nail trims.
    • They limit panting and drinking. Dogs may still nip.
    • Usually made of fabric, leather, or mesh. Fits snugly over the dog’s snout with straps to go around behind the head.
  • Gauze muzzles: Temporary, emergency restraint.
    • Made of any material that is handy, such as roll gauze, ribbon, or even a spare leash. Make a loop to go over the dog’s snout, cross the ends under the chin, and then wrap around the back of the head to tie and secure.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.