Dog muzzles: when do they work?

July 18, 2023 - 8 min read
light pink colored dog muzzle on a tan background

When you notice a muzzle on a dog, do you tend to think “there goes a bad dog”?

You wouldn’t be alone.

But the truth is, the stigma surrounding muzzles is rooted in a whole lot of misinformation. The unfortunate result is that many parents don’t use muzzles when they should.

Muzzles don’t need to be painful or restrictive, and they’re certainly not an indictment of your pup’s good character. Some dogs simply have a tendency to nip, whether that’s because they’re rescue animals with a rough background or because they’re young and feisty. Other dogs may need muzzles to keep them from eating off the ground. And yet others may just need to be kept in check during high-stress moments, like vet visits or emergencies.

In any event, there are plenty of scenarios where helping your dog into a muzzle can help them safely socialize and function in the world. It doesn’t make them a bad dog. It just makes you a good dog parent.

Are muzzles only for aggressive dogs?

Many people may associate a dog muzzle with aggression. But “aggression” is often an oversimplification or even the wrong word altogether. Muzzles can be useful tools in a variety of situations, and using one doesn’t necessarily mean your dog is dangerous. A muzzle is just one of many tools to manage and guide your dog’s behaviors in a safe and responsible way.

Just like humans, dogs possess a wide range of personalities and behaviors, and the causes of those behaviors can vary. For instance, your dog might be anxious outside, around strangers, or around other dogs. Or they might have an insatiable urge to eat harmful substances off the ground. Knowing when and how to use a muzzle is all about recognizing your dog’s needs.

How to train your dog to wear a muzzle

Before you can regularly use a muzzle, you’ll need to train your dog to be okay with wearing one. A good way to start is by creating a positive association with the muzzle. Use treats and praise to make the experience positive for your pup. When you’re putting a muzzle on a dog, you’ll definitely want that dog to see the muzzle as a good thing, not something to be feared. 

You can start by just showing your dog the muzzle and giving them a treat. Eventually, you can progress to putting the muzzle on your dog for short periods of time, always pairing it with treats and praise. Be sure to introduce the muzzle gradually, adjusting the fit over time to ensure your dog’s comfort. And monitor your dog while they're wearing the muzzle to make sure they're comfortable and safe.

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The purpose of a dog muzzle

It’s true that muzzles for dogs can help prevent aggressive pups from biting, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Preventing biting or aggressive behavior

Yes, muzzles can help prevent your dog from biting, especially in situations where they feel scared or threatened. While not all dogs bite, it's important to remember that biting is a natural behavior for many dogs—a natural result of their instinct to protect themselves—and not something that makes them “bad.” A muzzle is one way to help manage this behavior in a safe and humane way.

Preventing dogs from eating harmful substances

Some pups have the unfortunate habit of doing their best vacuum cleaner impression when they’re out on the town. But eating bones and other unsafe items off the street during walks can make your dog extremely ill. Suffice to say, muzzles can be very helpful for dogs who have a tendency to scavenge. Indeed, muzzles will often flat-out solve this problem in a safe and effective way.

Training and behavior modification, but never punishment

Muzzles aren’t always needed in perpetuity. They can be an extremely helpful tool for training and behavior modification, providing a safety net during training sessions and allowing you and your dog to focus on learning. A muzzle can be especially helpful if your dog is learning to interact with other dogs or people.

But just to be crystal clear about this: A muzzle should never be used as a punishment or to force a dog to comply with an instruction. There’s no faster way to make a dog aggressive—or to reinforce a dog’s existing aggression—than to get punitive during training. Using a muzzle as punishment can create fear and anxiety, which can actually lead to more behavioral problems in the future. 

Training should be all about positive reinforcement, whether you’re personally training your dog or relying on a professional trainer. If you use a muzzle humanely, perhaps you won’t need that muzzle forever. More often than not, the goal of using a muzzle is to get to a point where you no longer need to. But if you use a muzzle for punishment, there’s a good chance your dog will need that muzzle for the rest of their life.

During accidents, illnesses, and emergencies 

Even the gentlest of pooches can start biting when they’re injured, acutely ill, or frantic due to a nerve-wracking emergency (like, say, a fire evacuation). In moments like these, a muzzle is an unmatched tool for preventing fear from translating into bites.

So even if your pup has never needed a muzzle before, it can’t hurt to keep one on hand. And if you want to be especially prepared, you might try familiarizing your dog with a muzzle now; that way, they’ll be less likely to fight you if you try to apply a muzzle during a high-stress situation.

Vet visits

Vet visits can be stressful for some dogs, especially those who tend to get riled up around unfamiliar humans or animals. And again, even the friendliest of dogs can bite when they’re scared or stressed due to sickness or injury. A muzzle can help ensure the safety of every pet and person at the practice, both in the waiting room and during the exam.

Grooming sessions

Some dogs find grooming uncomfortable, and a muzzle can prevent any nipping or biting during the process. In these cases, it’s important to find a groomer who’s experienced in working with dogs who wear muzzles and who uses positive reinforcement techniques to make the grooming experience as gentle and supportive as possible.

When NOT to use a muzzle

You certainly shouldn’t use muzzles all the time or in every situation. So when should you avoid them?

For long periods of time (to stop barking or chewing)

A muzzled dog is not a silenced dog. They can still bark! So if your dog is barking too much, you’ll need to figure out what’s causing their stress—and perhaps even turn to a professional trainer—to help them overcome their high-volume habit through positive reinforcement training methods. 

And you should never use a muzzle to stop your furry friend from gnawing on objects, even if your shoes and furniture have been doubling as chew toys. Muzzles are only meant to be worn for short periods of time, like during a walk or a trip to the vet. Muzzling your dog all the time, which is what you’d need to do to stop them from chewing, would only lead to  discomfort and worsen the stress that’s causing their chewing in the first place.

Barking and chewing probably aren’t signs that your dog needs a muzzle; they likely mean that your dog has an underlying problem, like boredom, anxiety, or a lack of exercise. If you solve those root problems through training and lifestyle changes, you’re highly likely to change those troublesome behaviors.

As an alternative to avoiding stressful situations

If your dog finds a particular situation stressful, a muzzle won’t improve their emotional state. A pup who can’t visit the dog park without displaying fear-based aggression shouldn’t return to the park until those anxieties and aggressive behaviors have been addressed through training.

Sure, muzzling a fearful dog might stop them from biting, but it won’t prevent a stressful situation from sending them into a frenzy. In fact, it won’t even stop them from attempting to bite, and keep in mind that a muzzled dog can still lunge and pounce. 

If your dog ultimately can’t learn how to handle certain stressful situations or environments, you’ll just have to keep them away, or at least choose your moments wisely—for instance, by visiting an empty dog park early in the morning. 

How to choose the right muzzle for your dog

A good muzzle for dogs should be comfortable and well-fitting. It definitely shouldn’t be too tight or cause any discomfort. And aside from preventing biting, it shouldn’t stop them from using their mouths in the ways that nature intended.

Muzzles should allow panting, drinking, and eating

Some pet parents might not realize that modern muzzles are designed to let their furry friends pant, drink, and take treats with the muzzle on. All of this is vital for their comfort and wellbeing; panting is your pup’s way of cooling down, and nothing good comes from hunger, dehydration, or an inability to eat treats during training.

Use the right muzzle in the right situation

Different situations might call for different types of muzzles. For example, a soft fabric muzzle might be suitable for a quick vet visit, while a sturdy basket muzzle might be better for a longer training session.

The final scoop on muzzles

Here’s the bottom line: A muzzle isn’t a sign of a bad or dangerous dog. It doesn’t even necessarily indicate that a dog has bitten anyone in the past. A muzzle is just one of many tools in your pet parenting toolkit, a simple device that can help you ensure everyone’s wellbeing (especially your dog’s!) in certain situations.

And if you train your pup well—with lots of treats and positive reinforcement and with zero yelling or punishment—there’s an excellent chance they won’t need the muzzle forever.  

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David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.