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THE MUZZLE PUZZLE

"Me, use a muzzle?" Horrified at the thought, Jesse's owner looks down at the golden retriever. "Why would I ever need to use a muzzle? Muzzles are for attack dogs. My Jesse's a lover." She knows her dog. After all, she's had her since she was a puppy. Toddlers are safe with her and the cat takes her nap curled up next to her back. Like most retrievers, Jesse is a mellow, friendly dog who's never met a person she didn't like.

In fact, Jesse may never need a muzzle. But believe it or not, there are situations when a muzzle is the best tool to keep your dog and the people and animals around her safe. A visit to the veterinarian or an unfamiliar location can make any dog nervous and prone to nip. A newly adopted dog may be aggressive toward smaller dogs or decide the resident cat would make a delicious meal. Done properly, muzzling a dog is neither cruel nor inhumane. If the muzzle fits comfortably and the dog is properly introduced to wearing it, he will not object to wearing a muzzle any more than wearing a collar or walking on a leash. On the other hand, a muzzle is never a substitute for training.

Muzzling the Average Dog

Muzzles aren't just for wild-eyed, snarling attack dogs. Dogs who normally are well behaved misbehave under certain circumstances. They may growl and snap when they visit the vet for their annual shots or if they find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. In this case, making sure the dog does not feel threatened will help alleviate his nervousness the next time.

Unfortunately, there are occasions when no amount of planning can prevent a nervous snap. Any dog may lash out and snap if he is in pain or shock.

Muzzling the Aggressive Dog

A muzzle can save an aggressive dog's life. Some jurisdictions require dogs that have been declared "vicious" to be euthanized. Heidi, a 2 year-old German shepherd who has just been adopted from a city animal shelter, always wears a muzzle when she goes for walks with her new owner. Heidi's previous owner had turned her in to the shelter because he couldn't control her. She lunged and snapped at bicyclists, chased the neighbor's cat and occasionally killed squirrels in the backyard.

Heidi's new owner is taking her to a special obedience class for aggressive dogs and Heidi probably won't have to wear a muzzle forever. Some dogs are very aggressive or have a strong predatory drive that can be controlled only with a high level of obedience training. If you feel ordinary obedience training is not working for your dog, seek help from a professional trainer, preferably one who offers special group lessons for aggressive dogs.

Putting the Muzzle On

Before you attempt to put a muzzle on a dog, fasten the strap loosely so it will slide over the dog's head but won't fall to the ground if you drop it. Kneel beside your dog and with one hand, grasp him under the chin to hold his head steady. With the other hand, slide the muzzle on. Adjust the strap, checking to make sure it does not pinch his skin or inhibit his breathing.

Learning to Wear a Muzzle

Initially, your dog may be frightened by the muzzle and try to paw it off. Most dogs will adjust to it without too much resistance if you introduce it when they are about to do something fun, such as take a walk. Make sure the muzzle is securely in place every time you put it on him. If your dog is able to get it off once, he will be encouraged to try to get it off again. Never scold a dog for pawing at his muzzle. Instead, ignore his attempts to remove it and distract him with something interesting.

To Muzzle or Not to Muzzle

Often, the most difficult part of using a muzzle is getting over your own reluctance. Think of it as just another tool to ensure your dog's safety and continued good health. As with any tool, a muzzle can be used correctly or it can be abused. Taking a proactive approach to safety is never a poor choice as long as you make every effort to ensure your dog is comfortable and content.