RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
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The Meaning of Muzzles
Imagine you are treading water. Think of how the water feels underneath you, as you move it around to keep your head above the line.
If this scenario is me, with a high buoyancy body and a background in competitive swimming, I am comfortable for a seemingly endless time. Even now, years later with a physical disability, the water is the place I am most capable. My asthma chills out, my muscles ache less, my joints are less rusty, and I can hold entire conversations upright while treading. I don’t say this to brag, but as a reminder that this is not a talent that comes pre-installed on all people, never mind all swimmers.
My wife is an athlete, like, a real one. The wild kind of athlete that you have to hold back because she will literally throw her body into any activity and master it with little care for her own safety. But you add water, and she sinks like a rock. Truly. We have long joked that my literal only athletic advantage is in water. She can not float on her back, and treading water is a very temporary state.
Now, imagine you are treading water and the waves are rolling into you, slowly slapping against your body. Then the waves get higher, hitting your face. You kick harder, trying to keep your head above the waves. It’s suddenly windy, and you are having trouble keeping your eyes open. You push your legs even harder, trying to reach the shore, and are fighting with every ounce as you hit the beach. You catch your breath, lucky to have made it. Your heart is pounding, and you are exhausted. Gasping, frightened, and safe, you try to catch your breath as adrenaline rushes through every fiber of your being.
What does this have to do with dogs? Everything, if you are talking about muzzles. All of us, dogs included, have a limited available capacity for socialization. In this case, we are comparing social capacity and emotional regulation with swimming, specifically treading water. Swimming is a learned skill, and everyone has a slightly different tolerance for how long they can keep afloat that includes skill-based AND environmental factors. Your muzzle is the life vest you put on your toddler, the one you wear in the deep ocean, the one that any number of folks use to keep afloat.
A muzzle, when trained correctly, keeps a dog both under control, and provides a sense of security for the dog and handler. When you train fully with a muzzle, you can physically see the relief it offers a dog in a higher stress state. Positive association with the muzzle is key in this process -- turning wearing a muzzle into a fun game, rather than a punishment or end of participation. At Ruff Translating, we slowly re-socialize dogs who have reactivity, aggression, or profound anxiety. We regularly use muzzles to indicate to a dog that there are clear boundaries of engagement that, along with spatial work (teaching place, durations, etc.), sets the tone that the only expectation we have of our dogs in small working groups is that they remain neutral. Removing the pressure of engagement helps many dogs, but it is not enough to give “life vest relief” for many dog personality types. As we slowly build up a dog’s tolerance through desensitization and counter conditioning, the muzzle keeps our dogs afloat, ensuring that they don’t make a mistake we can’t correct while they are learning under an elevated but appropriate stress level. Our dogs trust us more in exercise because those dogs that are giving mixed signals about their participation are in the muzzle, which dogs can fathom reduces the ability to bite. We can’t underestimate the perception of the “stable” dogs when working in a group of the dogs who are exhibiting some level of stressed behavior. Muzzle training is an exercise of self control, just as much as it is a safety device. Learning that using one’s teeth/mouth is a generally inappropriate response takes time, and prevention is an important part of making sure dog behavior doesn’t escalate. If you are curious about the number of dog bites in our country, there is a solid amount of data available to sort through.
Muzzles aren’t just a life-saving and injury-prevention measure for dogs in any kind of behavioral development program, though. They are also imperative for emergencies.
Emergencies are the storm in which most dogs cannot swim. The water is too high, too choppy, and often they are suffering some kind of pain at the same time. Even the strongest swimmers will regress to their most reptilian brain: fight, flight or freeze in a state of trauma. We cannot predict how people are going to respond to trauma, and we have no business assuming we can predict it for dogs. If the only reason that you practice with a muzzle is in case you need it for veterinary care, then, great! You have packed the life vest for the waters ahead. I have had to muzzle enough dogs suddenly, without conditioning, because it is an emergency situation. Those situations have been wide and varied, from porcupine quills to car accidents to dog fights. I would absolutely not recommend having to muzzle an in-distress dog without proper training for anyone, let alone non-trainers.
Valuing muzzle training also shows that you are respectful of those who work in animal care. The relief that paints our vet’s face when we show up with muzzle trained dogs is palpable. Regardless of how seasoned you are in dog work, there is always a chance of injury. I have occasionally been bit through muzzles, and muzzles have saved me from injury multiple times. Yes, you can get bit through a muzzle, as your fingers are small enough to fit through nose holes, and dogs can be exceptionally strong. As a lifelong dog professional, when someone is so aversive to muzzle training, it sometimes can make me feel nervous. Not necessarily because I am nervous to work with their dog, but because muzzles don’t automatically mean aversive, and it shows they are not automatically thinking about the care workers exposed to their animal. I say animal intentionally here, because as advanced as the communication is between us and dogs, it is still interspecies and, therefore, fallible. All dogs will bite in the right circumstances. Yes, all of them. Even mine, even yours, and especially if they are remarkably frightened. Using a muzzle shows that you respect both the opinions, and the safety of your service providers, from walkers to trainers to veterinary professionals.
Many folks adopt pups that have trouble learning impulse control, specifically around eating or mouthing. This is a pretty universal experience if you own multiple dogs over your lifetime, and a major health hazard in many cases. Dogs may steal inanimate objects or toys and eat pieces of it, resulting in emergency veterinary care. Oftentimes this is just a developmental period for a young dog or can be resolved to a degree where constant supervision is not necessary. During those training periods, though, a muzzle can be irreplaceable and the absolute best safety device available.
We work as professionals with our clients to teach safe play in muzzles for those dogs who are looking for play social engagement as part of their enrichment. This is not a skill that we take lightly, and is something we would never recommend without trainer assistance. But it is certainly possible, and in so many ways beneficial to dogs learning appropriate social boundaries. It is also a great example of how, when you teach a dog that their muzzle is a positive tool, they are able to fully relax, and even engage in physical play while wearing it. The benefit of this is that it prevents some aspects of escalation, while also helping handlers remain confident and in control.
So why the hesitation? Americans have been conditioned to fear the muzzle, that it indicates “bad” dogs. But all of that is completely cultural and not based in fact. Many European countries actually enforce muzzles on dogs in public transportation and other public spaces. Of course, a muzzle could be used abusively, but so can a leash, food, or any of the other tools we use to train our dogs. A muzzle does not have meaning, to us or to our dogs, until we create an association.
We can decide that we don’t believe the Ameri-centric, hyperbolic, breed-phobic, anthropomorphizing myth of muzzle training. In our shop, we already do. We see our dogs thrive with this support, and watch their confidence improve within groups. The dogs we train at Ruff Translating wag when they see their muzzle because it means fun training games, adventures, and not just hard stuff like veterinary trips. Our staff are more confident working on upper level exercises with dogs who need extra support without having as much risk to themselves or to the other dogs in our care. A calm handler is a better handler, truly. And ultimately, we owe it to each other to muzzle train our dogs. Owning a dog is a responsibility just as much as it is a joy, and we are absolutely the last line of defense for the safety of others (human and animal) and our dogs. Muzzle train, and if you need help, we have an affordable course on our website that gives you everything you need to do it easily at home.
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