DEAR DIDI: My husband and I are in disagreement about using muzzles on dogs. Our dog does not like having one put on at the vet’s office and he puts up quite a commotion. Are muzzles cruel or really necessary? -Worried Mom
DEAR WORRIED MOM: It is never pleasant to see our four-legged kids upset or in distress. I can understand your concern and it is definitely warranted to a certain degree. If your dog sees his visits to the doctor’s office as traumatizing and horribly upsetting you are less likely to take him for healthy check-ups. Then ALL of his visits to the doctor reinforce his original opinion about the ordeal. The poor thing may feel he is under attack. Veterinary offices have smells that trigger fear in dogs because other dogs have been scared and perhaps released their anal glands. They may have been in pain and the smell of those hormones linger. Other smells of blood, urine, feces, sanitary chemicals, and hundreds of other dogs waft about.
The fact remains that your dog needs to be seen by his veterinarian and be treated or vaccinated. If your dog threatens to bite or acts scared enough to make the staff believe he could lash out, they are going to temporarily muzzle him for their protection AND his. It becomes a necessary evil. If your dog actually bites someone his psychological health could be damaged in ways that are sometimes irreversible. Once an animal has resorted to aggression it is especially likely to repeat if the dog feels he gained something from the act. Veterinary muzzles are nylon with a breathing hole at the end of it. They are not meant to be left on for very long and, in fact, there is a legal time limit for wearing one. A dog’s only methods of sweating are by panting and, to a much lesser degree, through the pads of their paws. Veterinary muzzles don’t allow dogs to pant and they can still nip with their front teeth in some cases. If your dog is already upset by his visit to the office and then gets a muzzle slapped on, I am sure he is doubly upset since his only means of self-defense was just taken from him.
There are instances where muzzles are necessary during sports, training or behavior modification protocols. We use what is known as a basket muzzle in these moments. A basket muzzle can be made of plastic, leather or wire and allows the dog to pant, drink water and accept treats. When fit properly the dog cannot possibly inflict any bite damage. Like any tool, muzzles must be used correctly. The temperament of the dog, skill of the handler, and situation must be evaluated. Basket muzzles should never be put on the dog without desensitizing them to it first, unless it is an emergency situation. If a dog is never asked to wear a properly fitting collar and you suddenly strap one on, more than likely, you will get protests ranging from whining, spinning, pawing, rolling around on the ground to flat out freezing and refusing to move at all.
Training ahead of time so that a muzzle is no big deal and the dog is accustomed to wearing it, could help dramatically with vet visits. Taking your dog to the vet often just to get a treat and then leave can also help adjust his opinion of the location. If you are experiencing other scenarios that have you considering a muzzle, please consult a qualified behaviorist first. Sometimes muzzles will prevent an issue, but not alter the dog’s state of mind, which means, he will wear a muzzle for the rest of his life in those situations. Proper behavior modification training should accompany the tool.
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. To ask your dog behavior question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.