Dogs need to wear muzzles for various reasons. Maybe they pick up food off the ground outside, maybe they don't like to be handled at the vet, maybe they can be aggressive towards people or other dogs in various situations, and sometimes owners just want to give their dog some extra space from others, and muzzles can help with that. Muzzles unfortunately have a negative stigma with a lot of people, but the truth is that they're important tools that can help keep your dog and everyone else safe.
This is the part where I remind you that if your dog is displaying worrisome behavior including aggression or fearfulness, I recommend that you seek the services of a professional behavior consultant, who will be able to support you through your dog's training which may include teaching them to wear a muzzle!
Now a muzzle is one of those tools that most dogs won't tolerate very well if you just put it on them. I'm going to outline one method that I use to desensitize a dog to wearing a muzzle, while building a strong positive response to the tool. We'll follow the journey of Uno, the Shiba Inu mix. All these videos are from my actual day training sessions with Uno and he's learning each step for the first time as you view it in the video. These are edited down from 5-6 minute videos in some cases, but generally I tried to show the beginning of each session so you can see how he responds to each increase in criteria. You'll notice a lot of repetition, and very small changes in criteria built on previous successes. Uno is using a Baskerville Ultra muzzle, which is my favorite for working with my clients. It's a basket muzzle, so he can open his mouth and breathe safely, and the spacing is such that I can feed him through the bars of the muzzle. You can find them on Amazon, and they have a sizing guideline. Jafco also makes a lovely muzzle, and you can get it with a treat hole. My favorite custom, light weight muzzles are made by Bumas.
The first step is to simply have your dog comfortable putting their nose in the muzzle, which I do by using it as a sort of bowl by cupping the bottom with my hand, while putting treats inside for Uno to eat. This is only if your dog doesn't have a previous negative experience with muzzles, or isn't inherently afraid of novel objects. If your dog is uncomfortable just seeing the muzzle at any distance, you need to do some foundation work before you can get to this part.
The next step, only once Uno is very comfortable with putting his nose in the muzzle, is to start feeding those treats from the outside of the muzzle. Different dogs will proceed at different speeds. Uno got this part pretty quickly, but if it takes your dog several sessions to move from the first step to the second step, that's OK! The most important component of this training is that we move at your dog's speed. If you push too quickly and make things more difficult than your dog is ready for, you run the risk of your dog making negative associations and taking your training back several steps while you work through your dog's concerns.
At this point I've switched to a squeeze bottle filled with a mixture of whipped cream cheese and liverwurst, as I find them easier to use in this context, but you can use regular treats in much the same way. I'm still focused on making the association for Uno that super yummy things come from the muzzle when his nose is inside it.
Now we're working towards tiny little pauses between treats while he's wearing the muzzle with him keeping his face in the muzzle during the pauses. This is the foundation for the rest of our muzzle work - slowly increasing the duration of those pauses. When he does pull his face out, the bottle goes away, but he's not forced to put his face back in. He does on his own (because he's had a long and strong reinforcement history of it at this point) and the treating continues. It's super important that your dog can always pull his face out at this point, and that there's no negative consequence for doing so.
Here you can see the pauses between the streams of food getting longer, and I also tossed him treats away to reset him so he can practice targeting the muzzle with his face, which starts the food stream again.
Now we start to put the strap over his ears, very loosely. You can also see that I'm feeding him with fewer pauses - when you make one component more difficult (adding the strap), it's important to make other components less difficult (how long he has to wait between treats).
Some more practice with just putting the strap on, this time with treats at the front of the muzzle instead of the bottle - it's a bit easier to handle this way!
Now that Uno's had some experience feeling the full weight of the muzzle on his face without support from me, we're working on increasing the pauses between treats again.
Uno has graduated to significantly longer pauses between treats, so we're going to try moving around with the muzzle on! This is a big step, and one at which many dogs will start to paw at the muzzle. It's important to take your time getting here and treat your dog frequently enough that they don't worry too much about the muzzle. If Uno were to start pawing at it, I would call him to get his attention and get him back on the bottle. If he had a hard time with that, I would take a step back and ask him to move around less, and increase how often I give him treats.
After Uno's comfortable moving around with the muzzle on, we progress to asking him to do other behaviors he already knows, in this case it's a hand target. I would not recommend trying to teach him something new at this point, stick with behavior your dog likes to do already.
Once Uno was comfortable moving around his apartment and doing various behaviors with his muzzle on, we were able to pretty seamlessly get him wearing it outside on his walks. In this video you can see him walking nicely with his mom, wearing his muzzle like a pro.
I work mostly with adolescent and adult dogs, most of whom are fearful and/or aggressive to some degree. A few times a year I get new puppy clients, and they're like a birthday surprise for me, and oh so refreshing! All my adult dog experience underlines the importance of early socialization, but also, where puppies come from.
Most of the dogs I work with come from either pet stores or are adopted from rescue groups or shelters. I often meet people who tell me they know they shouldn't have acquired their puppy the way they did, but they couldn't help it, and they want to do the best they can now that they're in love and a family. And I fully support that - once your puppy is home it's time to get to work! But if you haven't brought puppy home yet, let's make sure you get the best possible dog for your home and lifestyle.
First off, pet stores should be a blanket no way. I know why people get dogs from pet stores, oftentimes rescues turn you away for seemingly no reason, and breeders have long wait lists, so you go into a pet store "just to look" and that one really cute little fluffy thing just captures your heart. Maybe you go home and can't stop thinking about her, go back the next day, she's still there, and you just *have* to take her home. I hear that same story all the time. But remember that no responsible breeder you actually want to buy a puppy from will ship out their extremely young and sensitive puppies out at 8-10 weeks old for unknown pet store employees to sell to the general public. It just doesn't happen. These breeders are breeding for money - not the betterment of the breed. I don't care how many papers or photos the pet store employee shows you - your puppy is most likely from a puppy mill. These breeders are not breeding for temperament and solid health. They're mostly likely not running extensive health tests on both parents, trialing or working their dogs, or breeding only the best representations of their breed. I'm sure there are shades of terrible and some may be better than others, but it's not a gamble I would ever encourage. With all this said - I think it's also very important to remember that many wonderful dogs come out of pet stores. Many well loved family pets who live long, wonderful lives are purchased at pet stores. But many die young from health issues, suffer with chronic behavior and health issues. At the end of the day, let's stack the deck in your favor.
Rescues. That's the next best thing, right? Well, not always. There's an unfortunate side effect of the widespread "no kill" movement which is the warehousing of unadoptable and marginal dogs for years. Oftentimes in tiny crates and in deplorable conditions. Many rescues also ship in dogs from out of state (even out of country) with inadequate quarantine, health checks, or behavior evaluations. Most of the time when I meet an adult dog who is terrified of being outside and find out the dog was adopted, I ask if the dog was brought in from the South and the answer is almost always "yes". This is not an adopter problem. This is a rescuer problem. One of the problems with adopting puppies is similar to a problem of buying puppies from stores - you don't know what you're getting. There's always been the argument of nature vs nurture - genetics vs experience. The truth is both are extremely important. If your puppy was found on the side of the road in Texas, we have no information about your puppy's parents. Was mom a biter? Was dad a resource guarder? We don't know. Did your puppy's parents die young from a congenital disorder that your puppy has inherited? There have also been several studies done on the effects of in utero and early life stressors on future behavior. So if your pup's mom was hungry, stressed, fighting to survive while pregnant, that flooded your puppy with stress hormones while he was in the womb, and it's been shown can affect his baseline to make for a more reactive and sensitive adult. We just don't know a lot of the time. It's a similar unknown to buying a puppy from a store, only your money may be going to an organization doing some good, as opposed to no good, although several rescues have been buying dogs at auctions (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/investigations/dog-auction-rescue-groups-donations/?utm_term=.2a84d66c0dd2) which is a very troublesome trend.
So what does that leave us? Breeders? Yep, if you want a puppy and you want to stack the deck in your favor. Remember though, how much work puppies are (read: they're A LOT OF WORK). If you're sure that's what you want, find a breed you feel would work well for your home and lifestyle, meet a few dogs, and research breeders. Go in with the understanding that there may be a wait, sometimes for a year or more for rare breeds. But you can meet your puppy's parents and most times, close relatives. You can inquire about health histories of that line. You can learn about temperaments and how old dogs were when they passed. You can have well researched expectations. All with the understanding that things can still go haywire and your dog can still be the black sheep, but you have a much better chance of getting exactly what you want in a dog.
The more strict your criteria is, the more I would recommend adopting or buying an adult dog at least 18 months old. You'll have a better idea of the dog's physical characteristics and temperament. Around this age most dogs are hitting social maturity so you won't have as many behavioral surprises down the road. You can adopt dogs from a local shelter or rescue group, or even reach out to breeders and see if they have dogs they are retiring or no longer using for their breeding program. You can also hire a behavior professional like me to help find the perfect dog for you.
With all of that said - I think it's important to know that Prynne was purchased at a pet store by her first owners, and I adopted Eyre from a shelter who brought him in from Ohio. So everything should be taken with a grain of salt, as always. There's no right answer, but the more information you have, the more you know what you want, the more likely you will make the right decision for yourself and your family.
For a very long time Charlie's separation anxiety was under control. I jokingly referred to him as my "recovering SA dog" because I didn't think it ever really went away, similar to the way addiction is described. The pieces to the puzzle are always there, but we had over six years of recovery. Unfortunately, I was going to find out how right I really was.
Late last year Charlie started showing signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD). He would frequently seem disoriented, lost, he tripped often, and didn't seem like himself. It steadily got worse until early this year I decided I wanted to do something about it. My vet said we could try him on a drug called Selegeline which is being used in humans to combat dementia and early stage Parkinson's, as well as in dogs for CCD with great effects. The downside was that he would need to be weaned off Prozac and be "clean" for two weeks before he could start it. This would be the first time in over 6 years that he would be off anti-anxiety medication.
The initial stages of weaning went well, according to my vet's instruction, we halved his Prozac dosage for a week, then got him completely off for two weeks, and then started the Selegeline. We are currently just over one week into the Selegeline treatments. I am very happy to say that all CCD symptoms have cleared up. He's bright eyed, more active than I've seen him in years, constantly asking to play tug to a level I also haven't seen in quite a while, and full of life. But he's lost all semblance of impulse control, his counter surfing has escalated, and his separation anxiety has returned. It started with a day or two of coming home to barking, to now four days straight. He's also peed/marked in the house twice, which he hasn't done in over 6 years. He's constantly whining; has a hard time resting and relaxing. His dog reactivity has escalated and his normally low frustration threshold has plummeted even further.
More than anything, seeing him go through this, going through this with him, has shown to me how clearly his behavior "problems" are a medical issue. These are not behaviors he has control over. There's nothing to train. Let me repeat that: there's nothing to train. He's not doing anything wrong, I'm not doing anything wrong. He can't do anything any differently and I am doing all I can to make his life easier to handle. His brain is wired wrong and he needs medication to keep it working with a semblance of normalcy. I don't think I ever really understood the implications of this truth until now.
If you're struggling with your dog, I know it's difficult. I know how hard it can be. But never forget how incredibly tough it must be for them. My greatest regret is that I cannot make his brain normal. Watching him suffer through anxiety hurts so much. I took him off of Prozac because I wanted to help him, and it showed me how much help he really does need every single day.
Please don't leave medication for a last resort. Sometimes there's only so much that training and management can do. Sometimes they really need more help. And in those instances, prolonging the anxiety and discomfort does no one any good.
Now that I've been MIA for long enough for you to completely forget about this series, let's talk miscellany! Nothing like odds and ends to grab your attention and bring you back in. Everything in this post may have an effect on your dog's battle with separation anxiety, and you should try as many as possible.
It didn't help Charlie (actually made him more anxious), but these tight-fitting shirts have worked incredibly well for many dogs and I regularly recommend them for my clients (and even sell them in my store!). They work by applying constant, even pressure along the body of your dog which has a pretty amazing calming effect for most dogs (similar to a big bear hug for people). They're meant to be worn tight for the best effect, so if your dog, like Charlie, doesn't like wearing things, this may not work for you.
They work best in 20-30 minute increments with a break in between, but if your dog is very anxious and the shirt works well, you can keep the shirt on 24/7 if you need to.
Dog Appeasement Pheromone is a synthetic pheromone meant to replicate those excreted by mother dogs while nursing puppies to help calm dogs (there's even a version for cats too - it's called Feliway). They come in a plug-in version that you can attach to an outlet in your home, a spray that you can put on a bandana for walks outside or to spray a blanket or crate, and a collar that your dog can wear all the time. DAP doesn't usually have an easily visible immediate effect, but many people have shared that (in the case of using the plug-in) they notice their dogs becoming anxious and whining when the plug-in runs out, and relaxing after it is replenished. Most pet supply stores carry them.
There are so many herbal supplements, I can't even begin to list them all. Some work homeopathically, others utilize Traditional Chinese Medicine, and others are just herbs. A common herbal remedy is "Rescue Remedy" which is a combination of various flower essences. I've tried this with Charlie with no effect, but many have seen great results, so it's certainly worth a try.
There are other interesting herbal anti-anxiety supplements you can look into, including L-Theanine (active ingredient in green tea), and Melatonin. Be sure to research dosage, and drug interactions before giving these to your dog, and talk to your vet (or find a homeopathic/holistic vet near you) if you have any questions.
I cannot underline the importance of getting a full thyroid blood panel on your dog if she is anxious, fearful, or aggressive. Thyroid imbalance has many, many effects on the body, many of which are still not well understood. Dr. Dodds is the expert in the field, wrote an excellent book on the subject, and has a lab dedicated to running thyroid (and other) panels. Her lab was less expensive than my local vet's lab, so I highly, highly, highly (did I mention highly?) recommend going there first.
After finding out that Charlie was hypothyroid (low thyroid levels, and his were just barely low) and getting him on medication, he calmed down significantly, even though he'd been on anti-anxiety meds for over a year at that point. I've now been able to lower his Prozac dose quite a bit, thanks to the thyroid imbalance getting sorted out.
I realize this may seem like a no brainer for most - but it's worth mentioning. Charlie pre- and post- neuter were two different dogs - totally different dogs. I really can't emphasize this enough (doing a lot of that today - eh?), especially for males - if your dog is intact and displaying abnormal levels of anxiety and/or aggressive behavior, neutering has a good chance of minimizing those behaviors. And if your dog is displaying abnormal behavior, there's no reason to keep him intact (you don't want to pass those genetics down to any puppies).
The effect of spaying a female on her behavior is less understood than neutering on a male, so I will hesitate before recommending it only to alter behavior. That said, if she is displaying abnormal behavior, she should not be bred, and for that reason alone you should strongly consider spaying.
(Let me just take a moment and offer this PSA: there is a serious dog and cat overpopulation problem worldwide. So many pets have accidental [and poorly planned] litters, the offspring of which often end up at the shelter, and are then euthanized because there simply aren't enough homes for all the homeless dogs and cats. Yes, it is nice to have purebreds, but in my humble opinion, only responsible, well-educated, experienced, and knowledgeable breeders with the resources and know-how to breed for health and temperament in order to better the diversity, working ability, and strength of their breed, not to mention a PhD-level understanding of genetics, should have any access to intact dogs for breeding purposes. If you have an intact dog and are anything less than what I have described above, please either alter your dog, or be 100% certain that she or he will not have an accidental litter.)