Why To Muzzle-Train the Gentlest Dog

I wrote this post in June 2020, before Zani was diagnosed with cancer and passed away three months later. I’m leaving it in the present tense.

Zani, a brown and black beagle mix, gazes with her chin on the table
Zani at the time of her eye and nose problems. Thank goodness for the lucky camera angle.

It’s odd, the things that finally make you break down and cry when your dog is sick or injured. This is the story of one of those times, and how I came to see the need to muzzle-train sweet, affiliative little Zani, who is approximately the least likely dog on earth to bite someone.

Zani has more than her fair share of health problems. She is sound phobic (handled well with meds). She will never quite recover from the effects of her spinal cord concussion; her gait and balance are slightly affected. And she has a dry eye that is unresponsive to the standard medications. She still has to take the drops, but they have not opened up her tear ducts on the affected eye. The ophthalmologist says they help her cornea stay as healthy as possible.

One night in 2019, just before going to bed, I noticed that the juncture between her nose and the rest of her snout was raw and bloody. I recalled she had been scratching her face a lot and that the night before I had found “mystery blood” on my hand. I bet most dog owners know of “mystery blood” and the sinking feeling it gives you. I hadn’t been able to track down the source at the time. Now I’d found it.

As it happened, Zani already had an appointment with her ophthalmologist scheduled the next day. And the ophthalmologist is at the same practice as the emergency vet. So I took Zani for a two-for-one appointment.

I went to bed that night nauseated and wanting to cry because of the weird thing that was wrong with her nose. This was not just a cut or scratch. Besides being bloody on the outside, her muzzle was swollen and the “wrong color” inside the nostril. I’m sparing you a photo but it looked awful.

I decided to withhold water and food in case they would need to anesthetize her.

My mental balance deserts me when I must wait for medical care for a suffering animal, and I particularly hate withholding water. They don’t understand. I fought back almost-panic. But we made it through the night. The morning went well. I called the emergency/specialty practice first thing, and they said the ER could coordinate with the eye doctor to get both things done earlier than her original appointment.

So in we went. I had treats in a pouch but left them in the car so I wouldn’t give her one without thinking until we knew whether she would be sedated.

Eyedrop Husbandry

To explain what happened when she saw the eye doctor, I have to go back in time. I first started giving Zani eye drops in November of 2018 under the direction of her primary vet. From day one, I made them a fabulous experience. She got half of a thin slice of “Black Forest Ham” lunch meat after each drop. She would come and get happily into position for every session, every day. I was applying drops up to seven times per day, some of them painful, but most neutral or even soothing. That all went well until we cut out some of the nice drops, which left a higher percentage of painful ones.

The high-concentration tacrolimus drops obviously stung. Her happy cooperation with the eye drops routine decreased, and she developed some evasive maneuvers. But, being Zani, they were more like “please don’t” than “no way are you going to put that in my eye again.” When I would gently hold her head, she would whip her head to the left, then to the right. I allowed this without restraint. After that, she would settle down and hold still, and I could apply the drops and give her the great treat. This became our new routine. I dreaded giving her the eyedrops. She cooperated so nicely under the circumstances, after her token resistance. It almost made it worse. She was such a good sport. I felt awful about doing something several times a day that hurt her.

I am embarrassed to report my failure to prevent the worsening of the experience for her. I messed up. In retrospect, I should have kept applying some painless, benign drops like artificial tears, some pretend drops with the cap on the bottle, and some head handling involving no eye stuff at all. All of it well reinforced. But I didn’t think to do it, so Pavlov got me. So did the Matching Law, as we started building up an unpleasant history with more hurty eyedrops. The physical sensation of getting an eyedrop went from painful perhaps 25% of the time to 50% of the time. That change was all it took. Even though the eyedrop still predicted her favorite treat, the event was no longer a happy one.

This is a typical problem in real life with pets. You sometimes have to jump into some handling or husbandry without working on it first. But next time I won’t take it for granted that the experience will continue to be a good one for my animal as dosages and meds are adjusted. When the numbers changed, I should have compensated.

I included all that background to explain why, by the time Zani finally started going to the specialist, she had the evasive head whiparound behavior perfected. It seemed like she had to get it out of her system before the drop. Whip, whip, lightning-fast, and then she would still herself and wait quietly for the eyedrop.

But that was with me. When she whipped her head around at her first specialist appointments, the ophthalmologist thought she intended to bite him. (He moved back faster than I’ve ever seen a human move away from a dog. He also had a very practiced behavior! I don’t blame him.) A few years back, I would have told him, “She won’t bite you!” But I’ve learned that you can’t say that about any dog. Any dog can bite, even gentle Zani. (I seriously doubted she would, though.) And even though I advocate for my dogs at the vet, I opted not to speak up about this. I know vets frequently hear clients protest that their dogs don’t bite—immediately before they do. I figured I couldn’t change his mind. These visits were very fast, and I could usually give her treats instantly afterward. And Zani has some experience with reinforced restraint.

The doctor’s prudence extended to having the tech hold Zani’s mouth closed while he tested her eyes for moisture. But Zani is very resilient about anything involving people, and a minute later she wagged her tail and tried to get the same tech to mess with her.

The Ophthalmologist Visit

But the day of the nose emergency was worse. We had seen the ER tech first to give an initial history of the nose problem. The tech was great and fell hard for Zani. She got a good look at Zani’s nose and asked good questions. Then the eye people came to get Zani. I went along. The tech put her on the table, took Zani’s chin in her hands, and Zani performed the evasive head whiparound. The ophthalmologist said, “Get a muzzle.”

I haven’t muzzle-trained Zani. She is a low, low bite risk and she doesn’t have pica. And she generally hates garments and gear tight on her body.

They got out one of the little nylon mesh muzzles (not the basket type). Then I did speak up, pointing out Zani’s sore nose. But they went ahead, indeed carefully, and muzzled Zani for 30–40 seconds while they did the eye tests. She was whimpering by the end of it. And I couldn’t give her any damn treats afterward because ER hadn’t decided what to do about her nose yet.

Black nylon mesh dog muzzle
A nylon mesh muzzle, only to be worn for short periods in special circumstances

The news about her eye wasn’t good, and neither was my emotional state. The eye doctor talked about the option of eye surgery where they replace the tear duct. I couldn’t take it in and said I’d have to think about it. And her nose was still undiagnosed.

As he was leaving, I heard the ophthalmologist tell his staff to note the necessity of a muzzle in Zani’s record for future visits.

I struggled to hold myself together as the eye tech and I went back to the other exam room. I chose my words carefully, and told her Zani was likely the lowest bite risk she would see all day, that she whipped her head around as a practiced evasive maneuver. The tech was polite but said Zani might bite because of her sore nose. This is true. Again, I’m not going to be the person to say my dog (even Zani) won’t bite. I sat and tried not to cry while waiting for the ER tech.

Back to the ER

Zani, a black and brown beagle terrier mix, standing in a vet's office with her head ocked
Zani at the specialty clinic, having bounced back fast

Zani had already bounced back when the ER tech returned, even though I hadn’t. I told the tech about Zani’s practiced head movement. She listened and was receptive.

Zani went and saw the ER doctor without me and the tech brought her back. She had done fine and they didn’t have to muzzle her. The results from the nose exam were decent, too. They gave me some possible diagnoses that I won’t go into here[1]The final diagnosis, which was made by Zani’s dermatologist, was something called parasympathetic nose, where the ducts in a nostril stop working. The condition is probably related to the dry … Continue reading. She went on antibiotics and would see her dermatologist later.

I paid the bill. I took Zani to the car, put her in her crate, and gave her a handful of nice treats to munch on.

Then I went home and cried. Zani had an eye that was unresponsive to meds and the doctor was recommending scary surgery. She had an awful-looking, still-mysterious sore nose. But I was crying because she had to wear a muzzle for 30 seconds and the eye doctor misunderstood her. He thought sweet Zani was aggressive. That’s what took me down.

Muzzle-Training Plans

I reviewed the possibilities for Zani’s diagnosis and learned that when dogs need topical treatments for nose conditions they generally have to wear one of those nylon mesh muzzles anyway. It’s to prevent them from licking their noses for a few minutes while the medicine works.

The handwriting was on the wall. I bought a couple of the nylon muzzles.

I’ve also started doing a lot more head handling and non-painful eye stuff to get the ratio of pleasant face-handling experiences higher. I’ll face the matching law head-on and see if I can decrease the evasive head jerk. I also need to practice manual muzzle restraint. And I need to condition her to a nylon muzzle. (All while still giving eight medicinal eye drops per day, four of which are painful.)

I’ll try, but I may not be able to talk the eye doctor out of a muzzle in the future. I’m a realist. So I’m going to teach Zani that nylon muzzles predict great things. Even if I talk this vet out of it, maybe someday she really will need a muzzle. I may not always be with her. And through this experience, I learned another reason why even the most unlikely dog may need to be comfortable with a “closed-mouth” muzzle: topical nose meds. They could appear at any time in Zani’s future.

We can’t predict these things. All we can do is try to prepare our dogs for the eventualities to minimize the possible trauma attendant to husbandry and medical procedures. My friend Blanche Axton who takes in foster dogs muzzle-trains every dog who enters her home. More and more trainers I talk to express the same sentiment. I appreciate the growing number of husbandry resources available now. They can help us think ahead and be proactive with our training. Check out the great resources, both free and paid, on the Muzzle Up site.

Emotions

As I said, the muzzle was a strange breaking point. Zani’s sweet nature and unique combination of resilience and emotional tippiness are factors. I am accustomed to protecting her from all sorts of odd things. She endures so many things that bother or hurt her and keeps a sunny disposition. Cricket earned a note in her chart early on in her vet visits: “Biter!” She never bit anyone or came close. She air-snapped at a tech once, and they thought she “tried to bite and missed.” I didn’t think her behavior merited the notation, but it didn’t hurt my feelings. Even though she was threatening rather than “missing,” who knows when she might have decided to get serious about biting? That was Cricket. But it’s not Zani.

I think a lot of my emotions around the muzzle incident were displaced from Zani’s medical situation. The eye problem was and continues to be upsetting. The nose thing was terrible.

I’m better now, but at the time this happened I was very stressed. And my feelings were desperately hurt because a vet put a muzzle on my gentle dog.

But there’s one thing I can fix. It took me almost a year, but I’m finally starting the muzzle training.

Epilogue: Looking Back from 2021

Life intervened again. I never got to the muzzle training because Zani was diagnosed with cancer just days after I started preparing this post and she passed away in a few months. But there are so many good reasons to muzzle-train your dog, and not only for a basket muzzle. I’m putting “train for wearing a nylon muzzle for a short period” on my permanent husbandry list. Thanks again to Zani, who taught me so much.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

Notes

1 The final diagnosis, which was made by Zani’s dermatologist, was something called parasympathetic nose, where the ducts in a nostril stop working. The condition is probably related to the dry eye.