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August 27, 2012 at 5:11 PM

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Trainer Q&A: Should your dog wear a muzzle?

grisha-with-peanut.jpgGrisha Stewart, owner and trainer at Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, answers this week's questions.

Question: Under what circumstances should a dog wear a muzzle?

Answer: Seattle's dog-bite law is very strict. If a dog bites or menaces more than one person, bites one person in a way that the person needs stitches, or bites more than one dog, that dog is deemed 'dangerous' and must be put to sleep or leave the Seattle.

If your dog is at a risk for biting a dog or person, like a veterinarian, then it is important to do two things to prevent bites:

Train your dog to be more comfortable with whatever situation is causing him or her to snap or bite.

In the meantime, prevent bites by having your dog wear a muzzle in situations that are too stressful, such as urgent vet care.

Muzzles have a bad rap because they look a bit like Hannibal Lecter's mask, but they are great for safety.

I recommend using muzzles in situations where you can't avoid doing something that might trigger a bite, say the dog has broken a nail and removing it is the only way to avoid more pain.

I also use muzzles as a safety during close-up greetings with dogs or people.

In particular, I would use it when you are at the final stages of introducing a dog to a person or another dog: You think it will go well, but if you have misjudged things, the dog may bite or get into a fight.

Never use a muzzle for something like putting two dogs together and 'letting them work it out' or for taking a dog that gets into fights to the dog park.

If you believe there will be a fight, do not put the dog in that situation!

The muzzle is only a just-in-case tool to prevent damage when you can't avoid bringing the dog close enough to bite.

Question: What kind of muzzle should I use?

Answer: Italian basket muzzles and the Baskerville Ultra flexible basket muzzles are my favorites, because they allow your dog to breathe freely and even drink water.

It's also easier to get treats into basket muzzles, and your dog's whiskers can move.

Plastic is better than metal for basket muzzles, because it is a softer material, which is important if the dog were to attempt a bite or rub up against you to try to get the muzzle off, or if the dogs were to get into a fight.

The black mesh muzzle that has just one big hole in the front is not the best sort of muzzle, because it restricts your dog's ability to breathe, drink and move his or her whiskers.

To work properly, the mesh muzzle has to be pretty tight around the mouth, versus the basket muzzles, which allow the mouth to open so that the dog can pant. Mesh muzzles also have been known to fail or come off during a dogfight.

There is a special type of basket muzzle for brachycephalic breeds like boxers and bulldogs.

Question: How do I use a muzzle?

Answer: For your dog's overall health and happiness, it's a good idea to spend some time getting him or her used to wearing a muzzle, rather than just putting it on the dog when it's needed.

See the video of a dog getting used to a muzzle below. Your dog may take more time at each step than the dog shown in the video. When you get your muzzle, expect to spend a few weeks getting your dog used to it before she wears it.

Grisha Stewart

Grisha Stewart, MA, CPDT-KA is an author, dog trainer and seminar presenter who specializes in dog reactivity. She owns Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle and has published four DVDs on dog reactivity and a book, "Behavior Adjustment Training: BAT for Aggression, Frustration, and Fear in Dogs."

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Do you have a question about pet behavior? Ask now! We'll pose some of your questions to a local trainer in an upcoming post.

Read earlier Q&A columns here.

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