There’s nothing like suggesting that their dog wear a muzzle to make a dog owner’s hackles go up. Anytime I feel the need to recommend it to one of my students for any reason, I prepare for the pushback, and gear up to dive into my “party hat speech,” which goes something like this…
The day I came to the opinion that every dog should learn to wear a muzzle during the good times when the thought that there might someday be the need for it seems ridiculous was the day my beloved Tatsuya, now a three and a half year old sweetheart of a dog, injured himself as a puppy.
Tatsu had been nothing but cuddly and loving to that date. He had never so much as raised his lip at me or any other being. But that evening, as performed his most impressive zoomies around our yard, he suddenly began to shriek like I’ve never heard any creature shriek before, and it wasn’t just a few shrieks, but a steady stream of blood curdling, heart piercing sounds that drew neighbors (thankfully) from their houses to our aid.
Every shred of dog-professional’s common sense fled my brain as the panicked mother hen impulse took over my body. I reached for the leg Tatsu was limping on, expecting to find a thorn or piece of glass in his paw. As the doctor from next door arrived on the scene, I noticed blood all over Tatsu’s cream and gold coat. “He’s impaled himself on something” I cried. Nope, the doctor pointed out, it was me who had been impaled. Tatsu seemed to have chewed on my hand as if trying to chew his way out of a bear trap, and I must have gone into shock.
That was just the beginning of our adventure. Somehow, we had to get this nearly sixty pound borzoi puppy up the terraced stairs of my yard and into my van to get him to a twenty-four hour emergency veterinary clinic.
Finally, my senses returned to me. With Tatsu still making those horrifying sounds he’s never made again, clearly in excruciating pain, I realized it was possible that he’d try to bite again when we moved him to the van. As my neighbors and friends sprang into action to cobble together a doggy stretcher, I used an ace bandage to create a makeshift muzzle for Tatsu—the one useful skill I had retained from a pet first aid workshop I once took.
It was at one of his many clinic visits around that time that a vet tech called his muzzle (which we put on him—just in case—every time we had to examine his injury or lift him) a “party hat.” What a change that phrase made to my thinking! Suddenly, the muzzle’s shameful connotation implying “biter” was lifted and I was able to see the muzzle as stigma-free management tool.
No new dog owner expects their dog to someday bite and no one can predict when an emergency will spring up, so I’ve come to see proactively teaching a dog to wear a muzzle as just one more step to take towards emergency preparedness. Getting them used to their “party hat” through fun, playful techniques helps them to see the muzzle as a predictor of something potentially good rather than something potentially scary so that the muzzle, itself, doesn’t cause additional stress to the dog in the event that it someday needs to be used.
We hope that our dog will never develop a medical condition or suffer an unfortunate experience that causes them to display seriously aggressive behavior. We hope that we’ll never need to use a muzzle as a management tool to prevent our dog from swallowing things that may need to be surgically removed, or biting another dog or person out of fear or when in extreme pain. However, if the need for a muzzle does someday arise, at least being muzzled will be less likely to frighten our dog any more than it already is at that moment.
To this day, our household still contains Tatsu’s blue “party hat” from when he was a frightened puppy recovering from a serious injury, although we haven’t needed to use it in years. In fact, since that awful night, Tatsu has never again tried to bite for any reason. Still, we keep it around, just in case.
Check back next week to learn a little about different types of muzzles and when (or when not to) use them; how to make a muzzle seem less scary looking to other humans (if desired) and how to teach your dog to feel comfortable wearing a muzzle. Your homework this week is just to keep an open mind to the idea of teaching your dog to wear a muzzle and begin getting yourself into the “party hat” spirit.