Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Muzzles (Learning by Trial and Error #2)

I try to learn from my mistakes, as I said in my recent post on crates. In that case things worked out pretty well without crates. When it comes to muzzles, the learning curve was a bit more dramatic.

When I first got greyhounds I had the same reaction to muzzles as most people seem to have, seeing them as an imposition, a last resort for very aggressive dogs. You know, for the Rottweiler down the street, not this lovely, elegant creature, the Greyhound. I know now, of course, what a stupid view that is, but I also realise, remembering my own stupidity, how difficult it is to make people understand how important muzzles are to greyhound socialization and care. Yet it is key. I hear stories at the adoption kennel of how many greys have been returned because of problems that could so easily be solved by a muzzle, such as chewing and nipping. People object that they don’t want to muzzle their dog because it is “cruel”, but what is more cruel: muzzling your dog or giving it up for adoption again?

I have made two muzzle mistakes. Really, only the second made me realize how wrong I had been going. My first greyhound Eddie is a bit of a bully. He is fairly dominant, but he also does not really know how to play with other dogs without nipping. What seems to start as a harmless game of chase, can, with submissive dogs, end up in an overt display of dominance where Eddie goes for the other dog’s neck. He is only marking, but with smaller dogs this isn’t a pleasant experience for the underdog, their owner, or me. Needless to say, he could easily hurt a smaller dog. In addition, if he goes for another dominant dog, he gets into a fight, of course, which on one occasion resulted in a wound that needed stitches.

Now, had I been a more experienced greyhound owner, I would have made sure Eddie kept wearing his muzzle in situations where this scenario could arise. Like many na├»ve greyhound “virgins” I kept his muzzle on him for a few days, as advised, but as he didn’t display any obvious signs of aggression, I left it off from then on. The vast majority of the time this was perfectly fine. Only sometimes, of course, it wasn’t. I pondered how I could best make Eddie understand that nipping little dogs was not a good thing to do. He didn’t do it on the leash, and when he did it in the dog park he was usually quite a distance away from me, so it was difficult to try to correct or distract him. Besides, I expect the behaviour, as so many others, held its own reward for him, reinforcing itself.

In the meantime, I got my second greyhound Cassie. Again, I only muzzled her for a brief period, and she has proven not to be a greyhound of the nipping kind. Eddie and Cassie seemed to get on fairly well. There was virtually no aggression between them, although Eddie did show signs of “jealousy”: reverting to puppyish behaviour, mouthing and jumping, to get more attention. Then, being keen on them becoming playmates I tried to introduce toys. This did end in fighting. Eddie was very possessive, even with new toys. So I took the toys away, and, again, there seemed to be no aggression between them.

Then, one evening I was in the dog park with the two, and another dog walked past the fence. Both Eddie and Cassie started barking, and as the other dog barked back, the tension soon escalated. Suddenly Eddie turned and went for Cassie. He was in a real state of aggressive excitement, and I guess as he couldn’t get at the dog outside he went for what to him still was not really a member of his pack, Cassie, who was also barking and growling. It was quite a bite and she had to have six staples. I put the incident down to over-excitement, and made a mental note to intervene before my dogs got to that state in a similar situation. Alas, I did not muzzle Eddie.

Some weeks later I started introducing toys again. Eddie isn’t really interested in toys at all, he was simply showing who was boss earlier on. Once he had accepted Cassie, and she had learned her place, showing deference to him, he didn't seem to have the need to show his ownership of the toys. Ed will on rare occasions play with toys, mainly stuffed ones, for a few minutes, but he soon tires. Cassie, on the other hand, turned out to have quite a thing for squeaky rubber toys. I started using the squeakies to train recall with Cassie as she was more motivated by them than food treats. She loves to zoom around with the toy in her mouth once she gets them. All was well for a while.

Then, on one walk, as Cassie was running around with her toy, Eddie started chasing her, and did his usual nipping routine. Now, if she’d been a thicker-skinned breed, nothing would have happened, but as greyhound skin is as it is, he managed to make a hole in her again. Another trip to the vet, another stitch. Finally, the penny dropped. I really needed to muzzle Eddie when he was loose and running around with other dogs, until he learned not to bite. To alleviate my own issues with muzzles I got some lightweight ones, and started carrying them around on walks. When I let Eddie off I would muzzle him.
Now, I still don’t want to muzzle my dogs if I don't have to, ideally. However, the muzzle in itself has acted as a training aid, allowing me to be able to tell Eddie off when he is misbehaving, without taking any risks. He has therefore toned down his bullying and nipping quite significantly. I have over time stopped using the muzzle on Eddie as much – I trust him with Cassie now. However, I usually carry muzzles with me, so if there are small dogs around I can be on the safe side.

With any future greyhounds I would certainly extend my use of the muzzle if they displayed any problem behaviour, especially when being integrated with other greys. Accidents will happen with greyhounds, as they have such fragile skin. However, because they do, it is wise, I now know, to keep the muzzle on just a little bit longer, and to use it as a tool in training your greys in the intricate ways of being a pet dog, both at home and in the dog park.


Sherry said...

This has been an interesting, informative read. When I see a dog in a muzzle, I'll just think, "Somebody's working on changing a bad habit. That's a good thing!"
Sherry, Alanis & Miro--signed on as a follower

E.A. said...

Thank you for the comment Sherry. Yes, hopefully muzzle = responsible / proactive owner, and not simply incorrigible dog!
See you at the Farm House blog, and here hopefully again. E.A.