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Magnificent Muzzles

15/06/2018 - Behaviour Matters

I sometimes wonder where dog trainers see their role in the world of dogs and I’m sure it varies greatly from trainer to trainer, but I would guess that most would consider part of their role as prevention.  

I certainly do and it’s a big priority for me. My puppy classes are very much structured around prevention and giving the puppy the best possible start in life that I can. This does not mean that I can guarantee that a puppy will not go on to have a problem later, but I can stack the deck in their favour and do all that I can to make sure they leave class better than when they came in. 

Now, when I write these articles, I like to share my experiences with my dogs as examples. I do this, as my dogs come with a full range of doggy behaviour and many of these behaviours, although very normal, are considered by many to be problems. 

In previous months I have written about one of my dogs who is very fearful and all the highs and lows attached to living with a very fearful dog. This month, I’m going to write about one of my other dogs. Now, this dog had a totally different start in life – I cared for him since he was a puppy and did my best to give him as good a start as I possibly could. He is very gregarious towards people and loves to have his back scratched but, like some dogs, he will have an occasional squabble with other dogs.

When he was a puppy, I pulled out all the stops with people and sought out as much dog-dog interaction as I could – I wanted him to have the best chance of liking people and all their weirdness and to acquire good bite inhibition. 

Bite inhibition in dogs is believed by many, to be learnt when dogs are young puppies, but like all things, genetics probably plays an important part too. Bite inhibition is the term used to describe what happens when a dog bites with an attenuated force. This can be seen when dogs argue with each other and after the altercation, there is often little or no injury to either dog. Dogs in a fight have ample opportunity to cause serious damage and in the majority of cases, choose not to. Dogs also use bite inhibition in play, where they chomp down on each other, but without injury. Now, being a Mastiff owner, I wanted to give my dog the best possible opportunity to develop this ability! 

However, with all this experience around people and lots of opportunity to learn how to control his mouth, an incident occurred that sealed if for me. I wanted him to wear a muzzle. I not only wanted him to wear it, but be comfortable wearing it too. I trained him to wear a muzzle and he wears it regularly when out in busy public places. Why do I do this, if I have a very social dog with good bite inhibition? The answer is, I do it for his safety, as one mistake could get him killed. 

Several years ago, a young child ran up to him at a dog show and pulled his ear while yelling “big dog”. Thankfully, he did not react, but imagine the scenario – a child running up to him at a show ground and poking him in the eye, he reacts, swings his head and catches the child in the face with his tooth, causing injury. Irrespective of the circumstances, it’s probably going to have an unhappy ending and I don’t want to lose my best furry friend because of something that could have been avoided. 

Interestingly though, as soon as he gets his muzzle on, people either avoid him or ask politely about him, to which I reply “he loves people”, which he does – he generally can’t wait to approach them and say “hello” and if they want to say hello back, I allow him to approach them, instead of them coming to him. If he does not want to go forward to greet, this tells me everything I need to know about how he is feeling at that moment about the  interaction.

Now, I’m very acceptant of my dogs using muzzles and positively encourage it when teaching classes. This though, is not the case when working with some clients and I will generally get a very different reaction, including resistance, when I suggest that part of the plan will involve the use of a muzzle. 

The clients who get it, are generally, in my experience, more motivated, as they probably have a dog who has already bitten and/or caused some injury or sufficiently worried them. Many more however, are very reluctant and worried about the stigma of having an aggressive dog with a muzzle. I have been given a variety of reasons why they should not use a muzzle from, “he can’t protect himself now”, to “he looks like Hannibal Lecter”! 

In the grand scheme of things, what would you prefer? To walk down the street in constant worry that things could go wrong at any moment or to be able to relax and enjoy the walk? In the cold light of day, a muzzle could be a life saver for your dog, prevent an unfortunate accident and keep you out of prison!

The first decision when using muzzles is which one to choose? If I am using a muzzle for longer term use, my personal preference is to use a basket style and I am a fan of these, as they allow the dog to pant more easily, drink and take food. I will use groomers style muzzles as the exception rather than the rule and this would be for more specific short duration use.

As a population though, we need to change this negative perception of muzzles and see them for the great safety tool they are. 

So, how can we start to change this? 

I have seen some great inventive work where muzzles have been decorated with colourful tape to make them look less intimidating – a bright pink muzzle is less intimidating than a black or wire muzzle. Wearing a muzzle for some dogs will open up freedoms that were previously denied to them and let’s face it, your vet will love you if your dog is comfortable wearing a muzzle.

If you teach classes, why not make muzzle training part of the class activities – you could play training games with the muzzle, a very simple game could be for the dog to voluntarily target the muzzle and place their nose into it. 

The possibilities of improving muzzle PR are vast and I urge you all to train your dogs to be happy and enjoy wearing a muzzle – you never know when you may need it and if a day comes that you do, you will be glad you put the work in now.

If you would like further advice on muzzle training, please contact a competent trainer to assist you.