There are a few phrases that will never come out of my mouth when I’m in public with my dogs. One of those phrases is “Oh it’s alright, my dogs are friendly.” Don’t get me wrong, we go to great lengths to socialize our dogs from a young age with both other animals and with humans. We take every opportunity to provide our young dogs with positive experiences when meeting cats, children, adult humans of every gender and body type imaginable, and especially other dogs. I’m quite confident in saying that I can predict how my dogs will react in almost any circumstance. Do you know what I can’t predict? How everything else will react.
When I’m out at a dog park, I know what my dogs will and will not find acceptable. I know what scares them and what will make them excited with interest. But when I see a 7 year old girl with her mother coming up the path towards us, I can’t be sure that this little girl will have the dog-sense to approach in a predictable way that makes my dogs eager to greet her or if she will bolt from her mother and run crazily toward my dogs, squealing with delight (which would almost certainly terrify them). So why would I invite potential calamity by announcing “My dogs are friendly” without knowing for certain what they will be forced to deal with in any given encounter? It just seems like a recipe for disaster.
Cautions and precautions
One of the best analogies I have ever heard about dogs compares them to 3 year old toddlers with kitchen knives taped to their hands. It’s just a simple biological fact that our dogs have a mouth full of sharp teeth that are capable of causing serious injury very quickly. Watching my dogs play with other dogs can be like watching a group of toddlers with kitchen knives playing together – everything is fine until something goes wrong and then it can get really bad, really fast.
There are lots of precautions we can take to prevent these unfortunate encounters from happening. The socialization exercises I mentioned above are an important part of that. But they aren’t a guarantee that my dog will not lose their cool in some extreme situation. Another precaution we take is to make sure that we introduce our dogs to canine playmates in carefully controlled introductions and play sessions. We may use leashes or long-lines until we are sure that the dogs are communicating with each other and that they are mutually respecting the boundary the other dog is setting. Careful monitoring and familiarization go a long way to helping us keep our dogs out of trouble.
Environment also plays a role. We are very careful where we allow our dogs off leash and where we allow them to play with other dogs. Knowing that some strange dog will not come charging into the play session eliminates one possible situation that could upset one or more of the dogs that are playing. We like to keep the environment fairly low stimulus – no loud, sudden or unexpected noises, plenty of visibility all around, and no trash or food scraps around for the dogs to fight over. For us, it’s all about making our dogs feel safe and minimizing the unexpected. It just lowers everyone’s stress level so that the fun doesn’t get interrupted.
About 7 years ago we made a decision in our house – every one of our dogs will be trained to happily wear a muzzle. It wasn’t a decision we took lightly and we thought about it for a long time. The biggest issue was getting over our own irrational stigma that muzzles are “cruel” or harmful to dogs. We took our time and finally chose a rubber, basket style muzzle made by a company called Baskerville. These muzzles are not painful or restrictive, provide for free movement and airways, and most importantly for us, the dog can eat and drink through the muzzle. What this muzzle does prevent is my dog getting his mouth around something to bite.
The process of conditioning my dogs to wear the muzzle is surprisingly simple. We begin by holding the muzzle close and presenting a food treat for our dog tolerating the muzzle close to their face. We continue moving muzzle closer and our dogs will usually voluntarily begin sniffing the muzzle. Big reward for that! Then it’s a simple matter of holding the muzzle over their face for a second or two and feeding a treat reward through the muzzle (it’s easy because the Baskerville provides plenty of space). Once our dogs are willingly putting their face into the muzzle when we show it to them, we can buckle it on for short periods. Once they tolerate wearing it, we make sure that every time we put the muzzle on them, we are either giving them lots of rewards, going for fun outings, or both! I truly think our dogs consider their muzzles to be more like a “party hat” than anything else! If you want to consider training your dog to wear a muzzle, a great resource is the Muzzle Up! Project. They provide lots of great resources for choosing, fitting, training and more.
Less stress, more fun
One of the interesting things we discovered in the midst of our muzzle training with our dogs is that we began to relax when we were out with our dogs. The terror I used to feel at the possibility of my dog encountering a squealing 6 year old was now only a mild concern. With the muzzle in place, I know that no serious harm will come to anyone – not the child, not to me, and thankfully not my dog. Injuring a child in a public place could end with my dog being euthanized. This doesn’t mean that I don’t take all of the precautions I mentioned above, it just means that it’s no longer a life or death proposition for my dog. We don’t always use a muzzle when going out but it can make things a lot easier to keep my cool and handle things if we’re going somewhere new or could run into challenging situations.
Less stress for me means less stress for my dog. Since I am less on edge and less alert when we are out walking, my dog is less likely to be emotionally upset by me. That gives me a great opportunity to do more training and have more fun. That lowered stress level makes my dog more receptive to any training we do and they will likely find the fun more rewarding. So, it’s a win-win for everyone.
It would be great if I could guarantee that my dog will never be in a situation where she feels she needs to bite. As long as we go out into the large world where we can’t know what is around the next corner, we need to be prepared. We’ve all been out walking with our dogs and that dog comes bounding over the rise with their owner right behind them yelling “He’s friendly! He’s friendly!” And I always hope that they are not exaggerating even a little tiny bit. But, for the sake of my dog, I don’t take chances. She wears a muzzle and I put myself between the strange dog and her in order to keep her safe just in case. Often I think it would a better world if that bounding dog were wearing a muzzle like my dog. It would sure lower my stress and make me more likely to try to introduce the dogs knowing that neither dog could get bitten.
There are lots of things I wish for my dogs. I wish the world would get over this notion that dogs need to be forced to tolerate whatever we throw at them. It’s not reasonable for my dog to sit calmly while a 4 year old screams and smacks her on the head. Some people get lucky and have dogs who are that tolerant. Others train using force methods that cause the dog to fear NOT tolerating the child because of the punishment that would come if they don’t. It would be much better for dogs if we humans just gave a little thought to our behaviour and how threatening it can seem when we approach dogs that do not know us.
I wish more people would ask permission before approaching my dog. At least give me a chance to tell you what they prefer, if they even prefer to interact with strangers at all. I wish that more dog owners would be more proactive in training their dogs and managing them safely when out in public. And perhaps most of all, I wish people would get over that terrible stigma about muzzles. It doesn’t mean my dog is vicious. It means that my dog and I can go places and do things that we wouldn’t consider without a muzzle. It’s a chance to train and practice that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Our muzzle is just a piece of safety equipment meant to keep both my dog and the public safe. I think it would be a safer world if more dogs would wear their “party hats” when they go out to play.
But, that’s just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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Photo credits –
Muzzle Up 1 – copyright Muzzle Up! Project
Muzzle Up 2 -copyright Upper Peninsula Animal Welfare Shelter Muzzle Up! Project
Muzzle Up 3 -copyright Muzzle Up! Project