[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Matt

Photo by Matt

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.

-Maya Angelou

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Paul Gillin (flickr)

Photo by Paul Gillin (flickr)

“Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough.”

-T.S. Eliot

Good Dogs Wear Muzzles Too

We were walking our dogs outside a rally obedience trial several years ago when my friend froze. “Watch out!” she said sharply, “There’s a muzzled dog across the parking lot!” I looked, and sure enough someone was walking their dog in a comfortably fitted basket muzzle. The dog was on a loose leash with soft, relaxed body language, intent on his owner. I chuckled and went back to watching my own dog. “I don’t know why you’re worried,” I said, “That’s the one dog at this show that I’m the least concerned about.”

Layla wears her basket muzzle if she's going to be off leash around unfamiliar dogs.

Layla wears her basket muzzle if she’s going to be off leash around unfamiliar dogs.

Our societal perception of muzzles is shifting, but the prejudice is still present in many communities. The thought is that only “bad” dogs wear muzzles, and if a dog is wearing a muzzle he or she must be a mean animal with horrible owners.

I’m here to tell you that this perception is antiquated and untrue. Great dogs wear muzzles all the time, and there are many wonderful reasons for teaching your dog to be happy and comfortable in a basket muzzle. The Greyhound community has had this right for years and years, and I can only hope that the rest of us will catch up soon.

Conditioning your dog to wear a muzzle is a fairly straightforward process, and is something that I recommend all dog owners put the time into. The chances are good that your dog will need to wear a muzzle at some point in his life, and having him react happily to the appearance of the muzzle is a great way to ensure that you’re not adding stress to what may already be a difficult time in the case of an accident or injury that requires painful veterinary treatment.


So, why might your dog wear a muzzle?

Safety of your dog: some dogs engage in behaviors such as pica (eating inedible items, such as gravel or sticks) or coprophagia (eating feces) which could be dangerous to their health. While a muzzle may not entirely stop your dog from engaging in these behaviors, it can definitely slow him down and allow you the necessary time to intervene. Muzzles can also be helpful for scroungy dogs on special diets.

Safety of others: if your dog has a history of snapping or biting at people or other dogs, the muzzle can serve as a part of a comprehensive management plan to improve community safety. Even if your dog doesn’t have this history, if the stakes are high (for example, introducing two dogs of very different sizes or introducing a newly adopted dog with an unknown history to children for the first time), a muzzle should be considered.

A visual “keep back” signal: along those same lines, a muzzle can also deter unwanted interaction. Layla walked in a comfortable basket muzzle for a couple years, not because I felt that she was likely to bite someone, but rather because the appearance of the muzzle served to keep unfamiliar people from approaching to pet her, which made her uncomfortable. It also served as a great visual signal for people walking their dogs that Layla may not appreciate being rushed by their “friendly” but unmannered pet. She loved the space her muzzle created for her!

Owner comfort level: muzzles can also help the opposite end of the leash. If you tend to get tense or worried in social situations with your dog, muzzling your pet may help you relax. Remember that dogs are highly empathetic, and tense owners are one of the best ways to create tense dogs. This can become a horrible spiral – the owner tenses up when their dog approaches someone, the dog becomes stressed due to the owner’s behavior, the dog snarks, and the owner’s worst fears are confirmed, setting them up to become even more stressed during the next interaction. While a muzzle should never be used as an excuse to put a dog in a situation you know the dog can’t handle, knowing that your dog can’t cause damage may help you to remain calm in situations that your dog would otherwise rock.

Legal requirements: if you travel with your dog, there may be locations that require the use of a muzzle if your dog is to be permitted in public areas or on public transportation. A dog who is comfortable in his muzzle may find doors opening up for him!

Dog sports: some sports require muzzles, and in other sports muzzles may be an option. Layla, for example, wears her basket muzzle when she lure courses. While she has always coursed alone rather than in a group, she has a history of grabbing the lure at the end of the course and snapping the line. This is frustrating and time consuming for those hosting the event to remedy, so Layla now wears her basket muzzle to course so that we have a brief window of time to catch her at the finish line before she can grab the lure and snap the line with a terrier head shake.

layla_muzzleDog’s comfort level: because muzzle conditioning is done using reward-based methods, dogs come to love their muzzles. This can have a wonderful “bleed-over” effect, where the dog feels happier and safer wearing his muzzle because it’s always been associated with good things. The power of this emotional response can be incredible when introducing dogs into potentially stressful situations. Simply placing your dog’s muzzle on before a new situation may help to color that entire situation as safe and positive.

Whatever your reasons for muzzle training your dog, I encourage you to consider this useful tool as part of your dog’s comprehensive care plan. As for the dog at the rally trial? He continued to be happy and relaxed all day, and I complimented his owner on her dog’s lovely demeanor. Good dogs wear muzzles too.

Pickles’ Story

Pickles was found as a stray. His owner never claimed him.

He came to live with us, and we loved him so much. He was such a good little dog. Socially motivated and eager to connect, he gave hugs and adored snuggling. He was great with other dogs and gentle with children. He ran happily next to my bike and was always up for an adventure.


The first time we left Pickles alone for a short time, we came home to a scene that hit me in the guts like a punch out of nowhere. Pickles had panicked at being left, shredding the thick plastic pan of his crate and injuring himself in the process. The carpet was soaked with his blood, and his paws and mouth were sore. He crawled out of his crate, eyes wide and tail tucked to his belly button, and froze in fear. For nearly ten minutes, little Pickles was practically catatonic, unable to walk and unresponsive to touch or verbal reassurance.

Some level of isolation distress is not uncommon in dogs who have just come from the pound, but this was extreme. Pickles was immediately started on the best behavioral modification plan and pharmaceutical help we could give him.

1533789_10155920544715001_6928477487998629509_nMore demons appeared, however. As I went to leash him the next day, my hand moving quickly towards him caused him to flinch and hit the ground in terror, screaming, then lunge upwards and bite my arms before running into his crate to hide. The word “no” made him likewise hit the ground, eyes wide and face tight, then hackle up and bark furiously. Our roommate’s raised voice (in excitement, not anger) or direct eye contact provoked similar defensive barking, and when my fiancé picked up a stick-like toy to engage Pickles in play, the little dog ran away and hid behind my legs.

Pickles was in a safe environment and he was loved. He also posed a significant safety risk: to himself, to his adopters, and to the community. In a committed home with good management and training, dogs with similar issues to Pickles may be kept successfully. But Pickles wasn’t in a long-term situation. He was in rescue.

11406867_10155908555200001_8288304583931748049_nI’ve written about it before, but putting a face to the dilemma is so much harder. Rehabilitating Pickles would be a long-term project. During the time that it would take to help him, twenty other needy dogs in our community could be saved. Just because those dogs weren’t in front of me, just because they didn’t have eyes I could look into and soft, warm fur under my hands, did that make them any less deserving than Pickles? Furthermore, even with the very best training, Pickles had shown that he was willing to use his teeth when frightened, and therefore presented a very real liability to place.

10426261_10155935367615001_6559377376748309072_nAnd what about Pickles himself? His separation issues had nothing to do with the crate – he was perfectly comfortable in it when someone was nearby, but freaked out when left gated in the kitchen with food toys (which went untouched) or loose with another dog for company. The fact that he panicked so badly as to injure himself was heartbreaking. I couldn’t imagine the sheer level of terror I would have to feel to rip off fingernails or claw at something until my fingers bled. How much trauma would I have to endure before a simple word or action caused me to reflexively respond with violence and fright?


Waiting for a bacon cheeseburger outside Five Guys Burgers & Fries.

Pickles had the best time we could give him. He played with dogs at the park and rolled in mud puddles like a little piggy, making sure to flop side-to-side to coat himself evenly with sticky slime. He ran and ran. He jumped baby gates and went over and under our backyard fence, wiggling with pride at his vertical accomplishments as I laughed and thanked the stars for leashes. He ate all the best things – bacon cheeseburgers, ice cream, roast beef, cream cheese, pepperoni. He discovered the joys of squeaky toys and raw meat in Kongs and real bones from the butcher and sleeping in bed (under the covers, of course). He was told that he was a good, good boy, the best, and that he was loved and safe.

And then the vet came, and Pickles left the world safe and loved, in arms that held him close, with a voice whispering all the kind things he needed to know. And it sucked, and I cried for days.

During Pickles’ time with us, I’ve been honest about him on Facebook and with my students, both the good and the bad. I’ve shared how he snarled over bully sticks and how he was respectful of kitties. I’ve shared how, while he didn’t even know the word “sit,” he definitely knew about the joys of car rides.


Ice cream!

And I get that this topic is awful. It is. It’s horrible, and it hurts so badly that a bright, funny, sensitive little dog had to die. It hurts that people have sent me messages telling me how very wrong this decision was, and how love alone could have saved Pickles if I’d only cared enough (or worse yet, how I should send him to Cesar Milan). It hurts to know that whomever had Pickles may at this very minute have a new puppy, one who doesn’t bite them when they say “no” or destroy their house when they leave him… yet.

The truth is that this is the reality of our world right now. There are not enough resources available to save every dog, and it’s not in every dog’s best interest to be kept alive. Sometimes letting go is the kindest thing.

But it’s fixable, readers, and that’s why I’ve been honest about Pickles’ story even though the hate mail tears me up a little more each time and the days with him shredded my emotions. The answer is education. It’s catching Pickles’ family when he was still a baby, and teaching them about separation training and socialization and the dangers of physical punishment. Did you know that my blog posts about socialization, puppy care, and management only reach about 1/10 of the people (if that) that the blog posts about aggression reach? Puppy stuff may not be as sexy as discussions about biting dogs, but if we could get the word out about the former the latter would become much less necessary. It really is that simple, and that difficult.

1521329_10155928194045001_1043679662547956399_nPickles isn’t my first compassion hold, and I suspect he won’t be my last (although I hope otherwise). In fostering over one hundred dogs, this is the third time a dog has come into my life and my heart with hopes of a bright future, only to show me that they can’t be safe or happy. (Many others have come into my home during their last days, as creaky old fifteen-year-old dogs who need a soft place to lay their heads for a few days or weeks or months, but we all know that it’s not the same to euthanize an old, sick dog as it is to say goodbye to a young dog like Pickles.)

Please know that Pickles’ story happens, more often than you may think. And please, help me to prevent it from happening to other dogs.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Scott Beckner

Photo by Scott Beckner

“You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.”

– Mae West

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Four: Training

Last week I discussed the management techniques I used to keep Trout and Layla safe and separate after their recent fight and resulting injuries. I cannot emphasize how very important management was in our success – without it, I doubt we would have ever been able to get the two girls back together. That said, there was still some work to be done. Today, I’ll cover the training and behavior modification exercises that we employed to reintroduce the two dogs to one another.


Starting right away, we began to do short sessions with the dogs on opposite sides of their gates or ex-pens. We would take the blankets off the gates so that the dogs could see one another, walk them within sight of each other, then feed them lots of treats. After 10-20 seconds of treating, we would walk one of the dogs out of sight and immediately quit feeding both dogs. The premise was simple – good stuff only happened when the other dog was present.

When we first started these exercises, the dogs were noticeably worried. Trout frequently stared at Layla and sometimes growled, her posture stiff and upright. Layla avoided confrontations, looking away and licking her lips, clearly frightened. This behavior on Layla’s part was quite surprising to me. In the past, she’s always been eager to engage if another dog started something, but I suspect that with her increasing age (she’s nine years old) and injured leg she just wasn’t feeling up to another confrontation. When Trout growled or postured, her handler instantly stopped treating or paying attention to her and walked her away, while Layla’s handler praised and treated her for avoiding conflict while also moving her further away. We never allowed growling or posturing to continue for more than a second before intervening. Remember, practice makes perfect – and we certainly didn’t want Trout to get better at these behaviors!

Within a couple days, these positive conditioning sessions began to show real results. Trout’s posturing became less intense and Layla’s appeasement signals likewise lessened. Both dogs began to visibly brighten when they spied their housemate on the other side of the gate or ex-pen, looking for their treats. They also began to signal in friendly ways towards one another, sniffing from a distance and returning calming signals. We praised them enthusiastically for any pro-social behaviors, and Trout especially seemed to really need this extra reassurance that she was doing well.

As she became less insecure around Layla, Trout’s posturing and growling melted away. This is an important point. Frequently, owners think that their dogs are growling because they’re pushy, mean, or status-seeking. However, much like Trout, these behaviors are often an indicator of a problem with insecurity. Imagine, then, the damage that can be done by punishing a dog for growling or otherwise displaying their discomfort. Not only would punishment have potentially suppressed growling and other very useful indicators of Trout’s comfort level, but it also would have completely reinforced her belief that she was correct to worry when Layla was around. By pairing Layla’s presence with good things (treats! praise! neck rubs!) and viewing any growling as information that the dogs were too close, we were able to quickly change Trout’s reaction to Layla for the better.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and other signs of tension. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and close her mouth – both major warning signs. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

At this point, we began taking short walks multiple times a day – just halfway to the corner at first, then all the way to the corner. We started by walking the dogs across the street from one another, moving them in the same direction but allowing for plenty of parallel distance between them. Both dogs were given treats for looking at the other dog in a soft manner, as well as receiving frequent rewards for walking nicely. If either dog began to look tense or nervous, we immediately veered further away from one another, giving them even greater distance. When they were both soft and relaxed, we moved slightly closer, lessening the distance between the two.

Within a week, the two dogs were able to walk side-by-side in a relaxed manner. They began sniffing each other as they walked, and following one another to especially enticing smells. They started to urine mark over special smells together. While they were still kept completely separate inside, their outdoor walks allowed them to start interacting as a team once again.

Inside, we continued to experience problems with guarding. Both dogs guard resources (food, toys, special resting places), so we had to be very aware of potential triggers. If either dog growled or stared at the other, the offender was immediately but calmly escorted to a crate or room for some alone time, while the dog who had been growled at was rewarded liberally with treats and praise for not responding. In just a few days, Layla began to run to the treat cupboard and wait for a reward during the rare moments when Trout happened to growl, and both dogs began to posture and threaten the other less frequently.

To begin working on reintegrating the dogs indoors, I returned to one of my favorite tools for behavior modification – the Protocol for Relaxation. This step-by-step protocol teaches dogs to relax while stuff happens around them, and both Layla and Trout were already quite familiar with it. I started running through the protocol once or twice a day, at first with the dogs lying on mats on opposite sides of a baby gate, and later with them side-by-side but with Trout tethered. After a week of successful protocol repetitions, when both dogs were looking soft and relaxed on their mats, I untethered Trout. Outside of training sessions the dogs continued to be kept separate, but while we were actively working on the protocol they were able to be loose together, relaxed on their individual mats.

These three main exercises – positive associations on opposite sides of the gate, parallel walks, and the Protocol for Relaxation – set the stage for a successful reintroduction. Within a week, we began allowing the dogs to pass by one another off-leash without interacting when switching them into different areas of the house, and later began to allow short (2-5 minute) periods of time when they were loose together but heavily supervised. We continued to keep them apart for the majority of the time, but built up the amount of time they could be around one another gradually.

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together!

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together and all healed up!

Reintroduction after a serious fight is a slow process, but it was worthwhile in the end. After a month of gradual reintroductions, we were able to take the ex-pens and baby gates down completely. The dogs continue to be separated if left unsupervised (something we’d done prior to this incident as a matter of course), but are otherwise peacefully coexisting once again. Three weeks into this process, the two began playing together once again, at first with frequent breaks and exaggerated body language, and then with more relaxed signals as they once again became comfortable with one another. Today their interactions have returned to the pre-fight levels of peace and playfulness.

While I’ve coached many, many clients on reintroductions such as this, I’ve never before experienced inter-dog issues with my own pets at such a serious level. I can empathize with the stress and anxiety of dealing with dogs who don’t get along. My mantra for clients in similar situations has always been that “slow is fast,” and Layla and Trout were proof that this is indeed the case. Anytime we tried to rush through exercises or pushed the dogs, things fell apart. Allowing both girls time to heal, physically and emotionally, and setting them up for success with one another, gave them the tools to progress at their own paces and eventually to rebuild their relationship. We’ll continue to be vigilant in avoiding situations that could trigger a repeat of their fight, however I feel confident in saying that the dogs are better equipped to avoid conflict in the future due to the hard work we put into helping them succeed during this time.

If you’ve ever experienced inter-dog aggression in your own household, I hope your experiences at reintroduction were every bit as successful as ours. Remember, slow is fast, and it’s important to work at your dogs’ own paces. Feel free to share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments section below.


[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

“What the average person considers a ‘good dog’ is really just a furry rug.”

– Lisa Mullinax