Talking to dog owners about dog bites and the need to introduce a muzzle is hard; very hard.But it's a discussion I have several times a week. Most dog owners feel that their dog will never bite a human. The reality is, though, that any dog, every dog, is capable of biting.
A Personal LessonSeveral years ago my dogs and I went camping with a friend and her dogs. We were up in the mountains, about 6000 feet elevation, under the redwoods, and several hours from home. We had a great camping spot and dogs and humans both were having a great time. One day while hiking, Sisko, one of my Australian Shepherds, was running around in an area where the dogs could be off leash and at some point got a rear paw stuck between two rocks. He yelped but immediately pulled his paw free. He continued to run so I assumed all was well. However, shortly he began limping and then holding up his paw. My friend was closest to him so went to check on his paw and when she touched it he snapped at her. It was an air snap, he didn't touch her, but it was a clear warning that he was hurt and was willing to defend and protect that paw. I was able to use his leash to muzzle him so that we could check his paw. He had hurt himself, so we went back to our campsite to take care of him. It was a definite reaffirmation that even the best dogs, even well-trained dogs, can bite in certain situations.
Why Dogs Might BiteDogs will bite when they are hurt, as Sisko demonstrated, or when they are sick. Dogs can bite to protect what is theirs or when they feel they are threatened. Many dogs will bite when they are frightened or cornered with no means of escape. In fact, more dog bites are the result of fear than of aggression. There are many different scenarios where individual dogs may feel the need to bite and every dog and every scenario is unique. Bites can range from an air snap, such as the one Sisko used, to very serious bites that cause death. Dr. Ian Dunbar, the noted expert on dog behavior, created a scale to assess and classify dog bites. The scale runs from Level 1 where the dog may be showing aggressive behavior but without any contact to the skin to Level 6 where the dog has killed someone. In between are Levels 2, 3, 4, and 5, describing various degrees of damage caused by bites. Levels 1 and 2, which include no bites to teeth touching skin but with no punctures, are the most common. Dogs most often use these types of bites as a warning or in play that is too rough. A Level 6 bite is, of course, the most terrible and is followed by severe injury or even death.
The Importance of a MuzzleUsing a muzzle can prevent your dog from biting. Many dog trainers and veterinary technicians like to say that a muzzle keeps good dogs good. In other words, by using a muzzle in a situation where the dog might be worried, anxious, or fearful, situations where the dog might feel the need to bite, the muzzle prevents a bite from occurring. I teach my dog obedience training students that every dog should learn to wear a muzzle. If the dog is introduced to the muzzle before emotions run high due to illness, injury, or any other threatening situation, then the muzzle can be equated to fun, praise and petting, and a really good treat. In addition, the muzzle then won't be equated to something less fun, like a trip to the veterinary clinic or grooming salon.
Commercial MuzzlesThere are several different types of muzzles available commercially, from the inexpensive cloth muzzles often found at veterinary clinics to more elaborate, super strong metal basket muzzles used on guard, protection, and law enforcement dogs during training. For most pet dogs a simply plastic basket muzzle is more than adequate. In fact, I have one of these in my first aid kit at home and one in my car's first aid kit. At my dog training school, we have several in various sizes. These muzzles have a basket type mask that fits over the dog's muzzle and straps that go around the head to keep it in place. With these muzzles the dog can pant, drink, and take treats. To introduce your dog to a basket muzzle, pull the strap away from the basket and drops a couple of treats into the basket. Invite your dog to get the treats and as he does praise him, or if you're doing clicker training, use the clicker to mark the desired behavior. Gradually move from treats in the basket to being able to fasten the straps around his head.
An Emergency DIY MuzzleWhen Sisko hurt himself when we were camping, I didn't have the basket muzzle at hand. I had one back in my car but not with me as we were hiking. So I had to improvise with a leash. The technique of turning a leash into an emergency muzzle is not new, dog owners have been doing this for years, but it's important enough to continue to share. As with the basket muzzle, introduce your dog to this muzzling technique before there is an emergency. Note: Do not use this technique on dogs with extremely short muzzles such as pugs, bulldogs, shih tzus, and similar breeds. These dogs don't have enough muzzle to keep the leash in place. To start you will need a flexible soft leash (or a narrow scarf or a length of rolled gauze bandaging material). You will also need a handful of small, easily chewed dog treats. Make a loop with the leash by starting to make a knot in the leash but stop before actually forming a knot. The loop should be just a little larger than your dog's muzzle.
Create a loop in the middle of your leash, as if you're making a knot but without closing the knot.Hold the loop in front of your dog's face with one hand, then with your other hand, reach through the loop and let your dog smell the treat in your hand. Reward him using the training technique you're both comfortable with, verbal praise and/or clicker as well as the treat you are using as a lure. Then repeat this several times, each time encouraging the dog to come closer and closer to the loop. Finally, hold the treat on the other side of the loop so your dog has to reach through the loop for the treat.
Use a treat to lure your nose's nose first to the loop of the leash and eventually, using small training steps, through the loop of the leash.When your dog will comfortably reach through the loop for the treat, then have him do this and gradually close the loop over his muzzle. It should be snug but not tight. Hold it for a second, release the loop, and reward him. Gradually, over time, work up to keep it snug for ten to fifteen seconds.
Use a treat to lure your nose's nose first to the loop of the leash and eventually, using small training steps, through the loop of the leash.At this point, when the loop is on your dog's muzzle, then draw the loose ends of the leash down on each side of your dog's face, cross them under his head, and pull them to the back. (See the photos illustrating this.) You can use one hand to hold the ends of the leash behind your dog's head with one hand and give him treats with the other hand. Praise and reward him.
Bring the ends of the leash around your dog's muzzle and cross underneath and bring them behind his head.Depending on your dog you can teach this in one training session or break it into several training sessions. Then every once in a while refresh the training so your dog isn't startled by the leash muzzle should it be needed in an emergency.
Hold the ends of the leash behind your dog's head with one hand, or if both hands are needed to care for your dog, tie the leash securely behind his head.