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Muzzle for rewards

Safety for our staff during exams is extremely important.  Unfortunately some of our dog patients enter the clinic in an  aggressive state, and we need to have a way of handling the patient without getting bitten.  Muzzles are important to use, but many dogs have learned that a muzzle means more force and scary handling.  You get the muzzle out, and struggle and it all goes downhill from there.  That dog continues to learn that the veterinary office is a scary place with people to fight againgst.

These same dogs can be counter conditioned to the exam by using rewards through the muzzle. By putting treats and other yummy foods in the muzzle from the start, this dog will learn that the muzzle means good things.   Now the muzzle is a feed bag rather than just a restraint device .  Many dogs have been rehabbed from lunging, snarling devil dogs to tolerant friendly dogs that co operate for exams by using the muzzle in this way.  

Here is how to use the muzzle for rewards:

  1. Have peanut butter, liver sausage, or liver paste on a tongue depressor or loaded in a syringe and smear this on the inside of the muzzle.   Load up the lower portion heavily.
  2. Have the dog lick and smell the muzzle before attempting to put on the dog.  The dog needs to see and experience the reward with the muzzle to understand that this is the delivery agent for goodies.
  3. Be sure there is plenty of rewards loaded in the muzzle as it is placed on the head, so the dog is focused on the rewards.  This will minimize the avoidance of the muzzle and have lots of rewards going as the muzzle is placed on the head. Avoid forcing it on, take a little time to allow the dog to lick at the reward as you put it on the head and fasten it.
  4. Have someone feeding the rewards - peanut butter for example - right at the opening of the muzzle constantly as the exam progresses.  You want lots and lots of good things flowing the whole time this muzzle is on!
  5. When you have finished allow the dog to lick the muzzle clean, again associated something positive with the sight of the muzzle.
  6. Be sure to note in the medical record the use of the muzzle and the highest ranking reward for this dog so all the staff uses this technique. Consistency is what will teach this dog that the muzzle means rewards. 

The muzzles I have found to be most useful are the vinyl basket type by Jorgensen labs, or the nylon open ended ones by 4 flags over Aspen.  The basket muzzle is very helpful if you do not have extra help and allows a dog to breathe easily.  The nylon muzzle is less likely to slip off and holds the sticky pasty rewards best.  You can see a video demonstrating how to use a muzzle for rewards at or on my you tube channel under drsallyjfoote.  Owners can also use these techniques with muzzles at home for treatment that may be difficult.

Other techniques to use with these aggressive dogs is to try examinations off the table.  Perhaps the floor, or for small dogs held in the staff person's arms. 

The best way to reduce aggression in the office is for all the staff to be consistent with handling techniques and what reward is the most desired.   Consider using the Bella Behavior Label System (pat pend) to record the rewards.  This system will ensure that all of your staff is handling this patient the same way that reduces the aggression, and thereby increase the rate of learning to be less aggressive.

Sally J Foote, DVM  CFBC-IAABC
Okaw Veterinary Clinic Tuscola IL

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