On the long list of things that I have discovered since becoming a dog owner, perhaps the one which irritates me the most is that people will actually actively cross the street to avoid a muzzled dog. I know that because I have watched people do it. Every single time I see it happen, I want to scream.
For the first few months I had him, my dog wore a muzzle when out on walks. He still wears a muzzle in certain circumstances; for example, where he is off-lead anywhere there may be a chance of an unexpected encounter with a small furry creature and when I take him to the vets. He's not good in confined spaces with other dogs.
Here's what muzzles aren't: the sign of an aggressive or vicious dog.
For example, I passed a couple walking their Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the park one day. I absolutely adore Staffies, and if they weren't so high energy I would have had one myself. I had my dog — Snipe, a lurcher -— with me. At that point, he was still always muzzled. As I approached this couple, I brought my dog back to heel and shortened his lead. I know he can get a little exuberant when he meets other dogs, even when he's muzzled.
The male partner of this couple stooped down and picked up their dog, a pretty little black and white female, and held her under his arm. The bitch tensed almost immediately, and started staring at my dog. As they walked past me, they said something along the lines of, "Oh, she's aggressive with other dogs."
Oh right. OK. So, here's me with my happy, sociable lurcher who has never aggressed towards, never mind bitten, anyone in his entire life muzzled, and you're walking a dog that you know to be reactive, and who presumably has bitten or at the very least gone to bite, with no muzzle on her. Apparently, picking her up and carrying her past other dogs was the responsible solution. Not a £5 muzzle and the investment in some training time to overcome her issues. However, I am not responsible for the behaviour of other dogs and their owners. I am only responsible for my own dog and his behaviour. I simply tell that story because it illustrates that "muzzle" does not equal "aggression."
A muzzle protects a reactive dog from harming someone, or someone else's pet, if they are pushed beyond their threshold. More often than not, reactive dogs are pushed beyond their threshold by other people, or other dogs, inconsiderate behaviour and not through any fault of their own. People are surprisingly bad at reading dog's behavioural cues, and often force themselves on dogs who are clearly giving the signal to "back off." People often approach a dog in a fashion which makes them appear to be a threat. Some dogs are chilled out enough that this brash rudeness doesn't phase them. Some dogs are not. They may have had a negative experience with people in the past, but not every reactive dog has necessarily been abused. Equally, they may just have had their signals ignored one too many times and they escalate to make themselves more clearly heard. A muzzle is not a sign not to approach a dog — it is simply a warning sign to think before you do approach, and to ask permission from the owner. It should also act as a warning to other dog owners that they shouldn't let their off-leash dog bound up to a muzzled dog. And, quite simply, if you don't have the control to call your dog back from approaching a muzzled, leashed dog then your dog shouldn't be off leash at all.
Equally, muzzles can be worn by non-reactive dogs for a number of reasons. A muzzle may be worn by a non-reactive dog with a high prey drive to prevent them from harming prey animals that they might chase. In some dogs cases, including my lurcher, this includes cats. If he were ever to get away from me, or his selective deafness got the better of him, I know that he couldn't harm any creature he caught.
Muzzles are often worn by sighthounds when they're running, particularly when they're running together, as the combination of high speed, sharp teeth, and thin skin can result in quite graphic and fairly severe injuries. It doesn't stop them playing with each other normally and is often just a precaution. No one wants their dog to suffer pain, and normally, the vets bills are worth avoiding, too. Greyhounds are often used to muzzles, as they wear them during their racing careers, and there is nothing at all cruel or unusual about asking them to wear one.
Muzzles can also be used on particularly or unusually greedy dogs, the type who eat everything they find in the street, whether it's going to be good for them or not. Teaching a reliable "leave" does not always make the treat you're holding more tempting than the day old, half eaten Gregs pasty they've just found in a bag in the gutter, trust me. Until urban dwellers learn to use bins reliably, some people will have to use muzzles to stop their dogs scavenging.
A muzzle does not mean that the dog bites or indeed that they have ever bitten. A muzzle does not mean that the dog is going to lunge and bare its teeth to everyone it walks past. A muzzle is not a sign to avoid a dog at all costs, even crossing the street to avoid them.
It is the sign of a responsible owner. I internally cheer and applaud those owners I see with muzzles on their dogs. I know that in some cases they are probably having hard battles of their own with behavioural issues, but they're also being brave enough to confront those issues in public. We are our dogs advocate in the wider world. We must always protect them. In my mind, if that means my dog has to wear a muzzle sometimes then I'm OK with that.
It's time other people were as well.