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I have been having some problems with dog-to-dog aggression with my two-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, and I have decided to introduce a muzzle for use when outside.

I have a basket-style muzzle, but he fights hard to get it off once I put it on him. He continuously scrapes his paws at it if I leave it on for too long. Can you help?

Nick Jones advises…

It would be advisable to seek the help of an experienced behaviour specialist to guide you and your dog on the subject of aggression. In the meantime, a muzzle is (as you have rightly decided) a sensible approach to protect other dogs and people you may encounter should he decide to show any aggression.

First, ensure the muzzle fits well and is not too short in the nose. I favour the newer Baskerville Ultra muzzle, as it’s made of a softer material and allows good ventilation and ability to feed through the front.

It is vital that your dog perceives the muzzle as a positive, nonpressurised experience. Quite often, the dog’s first encounter with a muzzle is in a stressful and fearful situation, such as at the vet’s, where the dog may become aggressive or difficult to handle because of fear, panic, pain or injury. It is therefore prudent to gradually introduce a muzzle to a dog over a period of time – in your dog’s case, about two weeks or longer.

Start by placing a lead on your dog, and either sit on the handle or drop it over a secure point to enable hands-free control. I greatly favour dogs working for their daily food allowance when looking to overcome such important areas of training, and you could consider this by breaking the total amount into two, three or four smaller portions to be used during each training session as you introduce the muzzle.

Otherwise, drop a piece of food (meat or sausage is ideal) into the muzzle and bring it up to the dog’s nose. The dog will smell the food and press forward to get at the titbit, pushing his face into the muzzle as he does so. Carefully slide the muzzle a little way over the nose so he can get the treat, then immediately remove it, praising and feeding at the same time. Do this a number of times, never attaching the muzzle or forcing the issue – you can use a word like “Good”,
or even “Muzzle on” as you slide it over the nose. Continue these exercises over a number of days in different places in the house and garden, all the while progressing only at a speed your dog can cope with. You can view a short video of me introducing a muzzle to a keen Labrador here at https://goo.gl/zz6eJo

After three or four days of the above, clip on the muzzle for a few seconds, and then take it off immediately, rewarding as you go. Gradually increase the time the muzzle is left on from seconds to minutes, then longer, keeping a note of your progress each day. Once you are this far along, the rest should be relatively easy for you and the dog.

Take short walks from the house and back home again, remaining calm in the process. These walks can gradually become longer, and then you can try the same in places where other dogs are likely to be seen. Interrupt any brief scratches at the muzzle with a clear “Leave it” command and then walk on. Stop frequently to begin with, and reward calm walking with physical praise and a food reward.

I do not recommend muzzles for anxiety-related problems, such as separation anxiety when the dog is destructive, or for barking or howling problems; there are safer and more appropriate techniques to help deal with these types of behaviour. Never leave the muzzle on for long periods and always supervise the dog when he is wearing one.

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