January 13, 2016 by The Dog Rules
It was a beautiful sunny day when I arrived the local animal shelter to do my volunteer dog walking. I met up with another volunteer as I entered the shelter and we checked in with the kennel staffer to get the briefing on the dogs needing our attention. There were a lot of dogs needing a walk so we started with those who were most anxious.
A shelter is a stressful environment for even the most resilient of dogs. Think about living in an overcrowded rooming house where you can hear everything your neighbors are doing. Where you get all the smells and sounds, inviting, startling and obnoxious from their cooking and conversations. Your space is not really your space. You live with the constant awareness of what is happening in your neighbors’ lives -whether you want to know or not. And they know all your business too!
My last walk was with a sweet, 2 year old, mix breed named Gem. She is a little shy when she first meets you and she warms up quickly. She moves like a Boxer and has the cute pouty face of one too. She wants desperately to have someone love her. She watches people closely. Could you be The One? Will you notice me or will you dismiss me because I’m not a puppy and I am a ‘fraidy girl?
This wasn’t our first walk together. She recognized me with the excited “I really want to jump up on you but I won’t” wiggle bum greeting. After we’ve said our hellos and she was sitting, I togged her up in her harness and clipped on the leash. That’s the easy part. Her muzzle was in my pocket along with a baggie of super yummy treats.
Let’s take a little moment here to talk about that muzzle in my pocket with the treats:
The city where the shelter is located has a breed specific muzzle law. Perhaps I should say a type specific muzzle law since “pit bull” is a type and not a breed. Somewhere along the way someone in authority identified Gem as a “pit bull mix”. That means that, by law, she must be muzzled whenever she is out of her “home”; in this case the Shelter.
Gem has done nothing to harm another living soul. She hasn’t threatened anyone, their children or anyone’s dog/cat… If she were a human being in our court system, she would have the right of being considered innocent until proven guilty. The only thing of which Gem is guilty is being labelled a “pit bull type” because she has some physical features in common with the feared “breed”.
The times in our past when we have summarily passed judgement on others have been our darkest. Think of the internment camps, the residential schools, where people were condemned because of a label applied to them. Think about the Syrian refugees. Could there be some radicals among them? Should they all be automatically labelled as terrorists by reason of their place of origin? Some will dismiss this argument as too extreme because I am talking about dogs. IS it really too extreme? Where do you draw the line? If you condemn a “pit bull type” dog today, will you condemn a “syrian type” human tomorrow?
Back to the walk:
I take Gem to the yard where she can relieve herself (she’s been kennelled for several hours) and where we can spend a little quality time before we head out into the public area. I pull muzzle and treats from my pocket. Gem isn’t comfortable with the muzzle and doesn’t want to wear it. We spend a good 10 to 15 minutes making the muzzle into a happy game where I place a treat in the muzzle and Gem cautiously puts her nose in to get the treat. I don’t buckle the muzzle and Gem can back out of it anytime she chooses. As she gets more comfortable, I lightly loop the fastening strap over the back of her head. It falls quickly to the side when she withdraws her nose from the muzzle. When she is more relaxed about it I fasten the muzzle strap for a few moments and then release it. We continue this process until she is still more relaxed. Finally I fasten the muzzle and we head out on to the public street. I have more yummy treats handy to give her and she can eat them even wearing her muzzle.
We walk along a familiar path to me. I know where the roads are and the playing fields of the local sports complex. There are safe, distant, underpopulated places where I can remove the muzzle and give her a break from the training. Some people don’t understand that you cannot just put a different piece of harness, like a muzzle, on a dog and expect them to completely accept it and wear it without the opportunity to become accustomed to it.
Step aside again:
Think of wearing a new pair of shoes. Yes, you’ve worn shoes before. If you think about it, you’ve also worn brand new shoes for a whole lot longer than you ought to have. From a human perspective they were lovely new shoes that you wanted and now you are wearing them because you liked them so much. They are stiffer than your favorite old sneakers and after a few hours you realize you ought not have worn them for the whole day until you had gently broken them in (and your feet had become accustomed to them) and now you have blisters. Dogs have this experience with new harness/accessories. Breeders often tie a strip of cloth around a puppy’s neck as a precursor to a collar so that litter mates, in the process of playing, tug on the cloth to acclimate their litter mate to the general feeling of a collar on their necks. When the puppy is adopted, he/she is already accustomed to having something around their neck so the new owner can put a collar on them and they don’t panic and try to get it off.
As dog owners/guardians (I prefer guardian) we don’t give much thought to preparing our canine family members to wearing a muzzle because we aren’t planning to have a “bad dog” and our dear pet would NEVER bite. (BTW muzzle training is very worthwhile. More on that in another post.) The dog with which I am working has never before worn a muzzle. It is an unfamiliar, scary device. Given the opportunity, she will roll on the ground and frantically paw at her face to remove it.
Back to the walk:
We pass the city workers who recognize us (I’m a long-time volunteer wearing my clearly marked “Volunteer” t-shirt) and they’ve seen us before. They call out to us. I wave and Gem wags. We continue past “the place where the coyotes den” and the sports complex. Gem is now unhappy wearing the muzzle. It has been about 15 minutes and she wants it gone. She is trying to stop walking and wrestle it off her face with her front paws. If she succeeds it will be more difficult to get her to wear the muzzle in the future. I verbally encourage her and tell her, in a high-pitched “puppy” voice, what a good girl she is and keep her moving – quickly!
Five minutes later we are off the beaten track where there is greatly reduced possibility of meeting the public. I loosen the muzzle and fasten it so that she is “wearing” it around her neck like a collar. Please understand that I am not defying the law here. Gem is learning to wear a muzzle and it is emotionally uncomfortable for her. I want her to get to that place where wearing her muzzle is just a “thing we do”. I will not achieve that by forcing her beyond her comfort zone. I tell her again what a good dog she is. She wags and happily accepts praise and treats. We walk on.
This is where I now observe the normal behavior of a dog on a walk. Gem strolls along sniffing the grass, trees, branching trails and other items of interest to a dog. She spots a squirrel and wiggles with excitement. With the muzzle she is a robot dog. She doesn’t sniff – anything. She just walks along hoping for the moment when I am not really looking and she can escape the hated muzzle. Without the muzzle she is just another dog and she engages in normal dog behavior. We get passed by a cyclist. Gem is curious and non-threatening.
We begin our return route to the shelter. When we reach the area where public encounters are likely, I stop and put the muzzle back on Gem. She is clearly unhappy with it and she accepts that I want her to wear it. Such a good girl! I tell her so in my happy, sing-song, puppy voice.
We take the concrete path through the center of the sports complex. We’ve walked a long way and are both relaxed. Half way along the sidewalk we encounter a city worker in a blaze yellow vest and work boots clomping toward us. I smile at him and say “good morning”. He does the pregnant pause, he slows, his eyes grow wider and he nearly stops completely before moving at least a foot farther away from us. He’s so visibly unsettled by the appearance of a large muzzled dog that he doesn’t say a word. His lips move and no sound comes out. His fear is obvious.
It is in this moment that I realize I am walking Hannibal Lecter. (Or at least that is how the public generally perceives dogs wearing muzzles.) How was this man to know the dog is NOT Hannibal Lecter?
The fact that Gem was wearing a muzzle didn’t translate into a feeling of safety for this man. He was so disarmed that he didn’t even appear to notice that I had spoken to him.
Gem sensed his fear and it made her uncomfortable. She reacted to his fear by moving closer to me. His fear made her fearful as well. She didn’t trust what he might do. There’s that ‘fraidy girl again. How can I help her build confidence in approaching people when she is faced with this negative reaction?
My words don’t have the impact of the muzzle in this situation.
Is a breed/type specific muzzle law beneficial or harmful? What do you think?