While treating a dog I may sometimes need to use a muzzle, either for part of a treatment or the whole thing. While things like the Muzzle Up project have worked to remove some of the stigma around dog’s wearing muzzles, owners can be taken aback when I request that they muzzle their dog. They know their dog is friendly and can take it personally, as if I’ve suggested that their dog is aggressive or badly trained.
So why might I muzzle a dog?
Firstly I do it for mine, and your dogs, safety. I have either spotted something in your dogs body language that makes me think they might be a bite risk, or I know that I’m about to do something that may feel painful to your dog and I’m concerned about their reaction. If I’m nervous that a dog might bite, I will handle your dog differently, the dog will pick up on that and be less relaxed, and it may mean that I’m unable to carry out the treatment as effectively. And if I ignore a possible bite risk, I potentially affect my ability to work, and your dog is labelled as ‘aggressive’ unfairly.
Why might your friendly dog bite me?
Clinical canine massage is not pampering for your dog. Certain types of massage can be very relaxing and enjoyable, but there will be certain types of treatment I need to carry out that cause therapeutic discomfort - temporary pain in order to make your dog feel better in the long term. If you have never had a sports or deep tissue massage I’d encourage you to try it. At the time it can seriously hurt in places, but feels amazing afterwards.
Pain causes a reflex involuntary reaction. In humans that might be a scream or shout, a move away or a movement of the body part being worked on. If my hamstrings are tight I have been known to kick my leg without meaning to. Knowing this, I can warn the therapist in advance, they can then make sure they warn me when something uncomfortable is coming up so I’m not taken by surprise.
We can’t do that with dogs. Sadly I can’t sit and have a chat with your dog about what hurts, and therefore what they might feel when I work on that part. So your dog may be totally oblivious to what’s coming next, particularly during a first treatment.
Won’t the dog give warning signals before biting?
Not always, especially not in the case of sudden discomfort. The bite isn’t aggression, it’s a simple reflex reaction, much like a sudden vocalisation. The dog doesn’t know its coming so really can’t prewarn me. A dog that is feeling a lot of pain, or is uncomfortable with handling generally may well give calming signals (yawning, lip licking, scratching, moving away being common) or growl in places. In this case I can spend time getting the dog comfortable with handling and building their trust, and if needed come up with an action plan with the owner.
But a dog who has actually been relaxing for parts of the treatment, may get a sudden shock when I begin work in a very sore area. The sudden head swing, teeth on hand or even bite are just the dogs way of saying Ow! It doesn’t make them aggressive, it’s an involuntary reaction.
If I ask to muzzle your dog it is because I know there is an area causing extreme discomfort that I’m about to work on. Or it’s because your dog is giving subtle signals that they might be uncomfortable. If you really think muzzling your dog will cause distress please say, we can talk about alternatives. It may be that with confident handling from you that I can work safely, I may need to leave certain techniques for a later treatment to further relax the muscle and gain trust, or it may be that massage isn’t right for your dog at this time, but potentially will be at a later date if you can work on handling and on getting your dog comfortable with a muzzle.
I actually think every dog owner should spend time getting their dog comfortable with a muzzle as a precaution so that if a situation arises where they need to wear one (uncomfortable vet procedure for example) it will be natural for them and not cause further distress.
And if you still think that needing to muzzle a dog means they’re aggressive, let me tell you about my springer, Poppy. Poppy is one of the friendliest and happiest dogs I’ve ever met. I trust her in almost every situation as much as it’s sensible to trust any dog. And yet she is muzzled the whole time I massage her, and for part of her physio treatments. Poppy has some extremely uncomfortable orthopaedic conditions and finds massage painful. She feels much better afterwards so it’s necessary for her quality of life. But during treatment she will swing her head and put teeth on me as soon as she feels pain. A muzzle means that she can’t bite me so I can work quickly and confidently, and she therefore gets the treatment she needs to live happily and comfortably. Totally worth it as far as I’m concerned.