Teaching Your Dog to Wear a Muzzle or Head Collar

Sometimes there are situations where dogs may need to wear a muzzle.  They are a useful accessory available for all dogs that may need to wear one for many different reasons, not just aggression. Fear, anxiety, frustration, and over-excitement can elicit biting where a muzzle can be useful for training. Many dogs end up wearing a muzzle for nail clipping because of the fear associated with it. So set aside any assumption that a dog wearing a muzzle is a bad or aggressive dog. Even the sweetest dog can bite when injured or scared. So, in general, it is a good idea to teach your dog how to wear a muzzle and be comfortable, just in case the situation arises.

Head collars are a tool that can be helpful with dogs that pull on leash or have trouble disengaging from environmental distractions. They provide a no-pain option for owners that are having difficulties controlling and guiding their dog through training. The process to desensitize your dog to a head collar is the same as with a muzzle. 

Head collars are not equal. You want to make sure you purchase one that has an adjustable barrel clip under the chin, straps on the sides to keep the halter centered on the nose and out of the eye, a safety clasp just in case the head collar slips off, and a padded nose strap is an added bonus. The ones I have used with my dogs are the HOLT Head Collar and the Walk N’ Train Head Collar.

Initial Preparations

1. Buy the right sized muzzle. You may have to take them out of the packaging and try them on your dog. If you are buying a muzzle on line, take the measurements of the diameter of your dog’s muzzle and length. Many websites have a diagram to help you.

2. If the muzzle is going to be left on for any length of time, consider a basket muzzle. They allow room for panting and dogs can still drink and take treats. Make sure the muzzle has plenty of ventilation - we are going for safety, not style.

3. Nylon and mesh muzzles are easy to store (no dog first aid kit should be without one) and should fit snug, but not too tight, over your dog’s muzzle. This type of muzzle is for short periods of time or emergency situations. If you are going to use one for other reasons, consider purchasing one size larger to allow your dog some room to pant slightly, drink, and take treats. This type of muzzle is easier to give treats because the end of your dog’s mouth is exposed, but also be forewarned that the dog can still nip with the front teeth. Another option is a basket muzzle shown in the picture to the left.

Practice First

It is important to get your dog comfortable with putting his nose into things first before you start working with an actual muzzle. That way, if something goes wrong, you have not ruined the association with the muzzle, just some other random object. Use a small cone, funnel, plastic cup, etc. and train your dog to be comfortable with putting his nose in those objects. Then, once that is achieved, move on to working with the actual muzzle.

It is going to take some time to get your dog used to wearing the muzzle. Each stage is about a week’s work of practice everyday. You do not want to rush the process, and some dogs may take longer, some may not. It is important to watch your dog and go at a pace that keeps him comfortable.

The First Stage - Allow time for your dog to get used to the sight of the muzzle. Let him stiff it. Place treats in the muzzle and allow your dog to eat the treats from the muzzle and praise him. Keep a happy and cheerful voice through the exercise. Then quietly put the muzzle away and walk away. The fun is over now. Do this several times a day (for about a week) until you see your dog happy when you bring the muzzle out. Do not strap the muzzle on yet!

The Second Stage - Place treats in the muzzle and allow you dog to put his nose into it by himself. The dog brings his nose to the muzzle and puts his nose into it, not you! Your hand stays steady and still. When your dog is eating the treats, allow the muzzle to rest on his nose. Keep your dog working, walking and continuously give treats for a number of seconds, then slide it off and stop giving food. When your dog easily allows the muzzle to be on his nose for several minutes, you can then start fastening the strap.

The Third Stage - Use VERY HIGH VALUE treats for this step. Place a couple of treats in the muzzle and allow your dog to put his nose in the muzzle himself. Feed him a few more treats, and while he is eating, fasten the strap. Now continuously feed more yummy treats one immediately after the other for several seconds and praise him lavishly. Then stop and take the muzzle off. Wait a little while and then repeat. If your dog paws at the muzzle, redirect his attention on to you, give him treats at a faster rate, and keep him busy to take his mind off of the muzzle. If he can’t take his focus off the muzzle, go back to the second stage of desensitization for a little while longer and proceed more slowly. When practice is finished, take it off  (do not praise your dog at this time) and walk away from your dog, ignoring him for a few minutes.

Repeat this level of training over several days. You should see your dog wiggle and enjoy seeing the muzzle because it means good things. Then you know he has the right idea. Build up the length of time the muzzle is on your dog over the next couple weeks so he can wear it comfortably for several minutes. 

Free Shaping

Another method of training is called free shaping, where you mark and reward the dog for little tiny steps towards your end goal. Through the progression of steps, your dog is allowed choice and able to go at their own comfort level. This is a total pressure-free way of training a dog to wear a muzzle or head collar. It can take time, but this would be a preferred method for some dogs.

Additional Games for free shaping that would help you to do this with a muzzle are the Cone Game and Harness Shaping Game. These are available in the Puppy Pawsibilities and Level 1 remote training courses.

Rules for Muzzling:

1. Always have your dog under supervision when he is muzzled. Keep him safe and comfortable.

2. The greatest risk for muzzled dogs is over-heating (due to the inability to pant). Watch your dog closely.

3. Keep it positive and praise your dog so the muzzle is associated with good things.

Every dog should be able to wear a muzzle and be comfortable.  Even the nicest, sweetest dogs can bite when injured or traumatized, so it is a good idea to be prepared (and have your dog prepared) for an emergency situation. Muzzling to prevent biting, allows emergency crews and helpers get your dog to the care they need much faster, and save your dog’s life. Accidents happen, but being prepared can help immensely.