“Indeed, time is a sacred gift, and each day is a little life.”
– Sir John Lubbock
Duke CGC TT, March 2002 – September 27th, 2015
Every trainer has a story about their crossover dog. Duke was mine.
Duke was adopted by my parents when he was 9 months old. He had been found as a stray and was never claimed by his original owners. We started training classes within a couple weeks of bringing him home, and my life changed forever.
Duke introduced me to clicker training. He loved going to classes, and tried so hard to be a good boy. Learning wasn’t easy for Duke, as he had the canine equivalent of some sort of learning disability. He learned well in the moment, but struggled to retain new information from day to day. In spite of this, he enjoyed a steady stream of obedience and agility classes. The more treats, the better! He learned tricks and eventually even earned his CGC certificate (on our seventh try).
Duke was my first instructor in reactivity and anxiety. To say that Duke lacked social skills with other dogs was an understatement. Other dogs made Duke anxious, and he would charge at unfamiliar dogs on walks. When he met a new dog, Duke would hump whichever end he encountered first, the commissure of his lips pulled back anxiously, ears back and eyes wide. If corrected by the other dog, he would fight back noisily but without doing damage.
Slow introductions proved that Duke could do quite well with doggy friends, and the controlled environment of class worked well for him. He did well with a string of foster puppies and became good friends with Layla, Dobby, and Trout as I added new dogs to my canine family. At home with my parents, he enjoyed being the “only dog” most of the time, and viewed their cat Trouble with the mingled apprehension and respect that only curmudgeonly old cats can provoke.
Duke’s chief joy in life after food was to be with his people. A true velcro dog, Duke was deeply unhappy when left home alone and loved nothing better than to spend time with those he loved. Anxiety medication and stuffed Kongs helped to manage Duke’s separation anxiety throughout his life, and he eventually came to view his crate (complete with orthopedic dog bed and an ever-present stuffed Kong) as a comforting place. He would even sleep in his crate when his hips were bothering him.
As Duke aged, he settled into a comfortable and happy routine with my parents of evening walks with my mom and sharing popcorn with my dad. He loved getting his butt scratched, even if it sometimes hurt his sore hips. He played with his quacking duck toy, shaking it angrily whenever anyone would leave the house. He barked – oh how he barked! at noises and sometimes at nothing at all. He would get stuck barking, standing in the living room and unable to see out the front window to know what he was barking at, but still fulfilling his self-appointed sentry duties nonetheless.
Duke’s love of food drove him to steal and eat a veritable feast of food and food-like objects in his youth, and despite some close calls (activated charcoal when he ate the bottle of ibuprofen, treatment for pancreatitis when he got into the entire pan of apple crisp, diligent monitoring until he passed the chunks of ceramic spoon-rest), food was ultimately not his downfall. He became all-too-familiar with hydrogen peroxide and would run when he saw the brown bottle come out. Stories of Duke’s dietary indiscretions became the stuff of legends. “Remember that time he ate ten pounds of kibble at once? He looked like he was pregnant!” “Or that time he ate an entire bag of Hershey’s kisses, wrappers and all, and his poop was festive for days…”
Duke was not an easy dog. He was anxious and reactive and naughty. Duke was the best dog. He was the sweetest, and so kind with children. He was a loyal and faithful family companion who loved nothing more than to be with his people, in the center of a crowd. He didn’t demand attention. He just wanted to be included. He loved to sit on laps, all 70 pounds of him. He loved to lick faces. He loved to show off his tricks for treats – sit, down, settle (tail too!), balance up, and shake. He was not an easy dog, but he was a good, good dog. He was our good dog.
We miss him like hell.
Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.
“Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough.”
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.”
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.
Dog’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.
“You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.”
– Mae West