Can’t Touch This: Positive Pet Training Blog Hop

Sometimes, things don’t go the way you planned.

Nala has always loved a cuddle and a nose scritch…when they’re her idea.

Inspired by the Muzzle Awareness Week post at Two Blockheads, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about and show you this week: using non-muzzle, easily available household objects to begin this process of desensitizing and counter-conditioning your dog to wear a muzzle.

Why Would Nala Need To Do Muzzle Training? 

As Lauren of ZoePhee pointed out earlier this week, there are lots of great reasons to countercondition any dog to wearing a muzzle. Muzzles can help break dangerous habits in dogs with PICA, breaking the weird object eating cycle and keeping owners from having to subject their dogs to expensive, invasive obstruction removal surgeries. For reactive dogs who redirect onto their owners or to dogs being walked with them, muzzles are a crucial part of a DS/CC program to keep everyone safe. And any dog could bite if subjected to enough stress and pain. If the worst sort of emergency were to happen, I would want to be able to muzzle Nala for everyone’s safety without it adding to her trauma. I also know that many veterinarians have had lots of bad experiences with German Shepherds, and if we ever have to see a specialist, there’s a decent chance that they will be wary enough of her to request that she be muzzled.

Besides, with Nala, I thought that the training I wanted to do would help with a problem I’ve been stuck on for a long time. See, I would really like to be able to brush Nala’s teeth, since her life before rescue involved enough overcrating that she attempted to chew her way free and damaged the enamel on the backs of her canines.

The problem is that Nala tightens her mouth, turns her head, and grinds her teeth together whenever she thinks you might be examining her mouth. In fact, she doesn’t like her mouth, muzzle, or head to be held for an extended period of time in any way unless you’re giving her long nose and sweet little eyebrows a thorough scritching. As is the case with many dogs, her face seems to be very sensitive around her mouth and in front of her eyes.

Still, Nala has overcome a lot of her worries thanks to training that lets her decide that doing the scary thing is her own, brilliant, rewarding idea. She also seems to have some bad associations with hands reaching toward and grasping at her face, so I thought that it might be faster, easier, and less stressful to shape the behavior I want–sticking her face into something that covers it, putting mild pressure against her skin, and holding it there–with a series of objects before trying it with my hands.

Can’t Touch This: Troubleshooting Husbandry Training

As you’ll see in the video, it didn’t quite go how I planned.

During our first training session, I used a red silicone funnel and we worked on it for over two minutes. That’s way too long! By the end, I ask for two touches before giving Nala a treat–but she’s not really ready to do that, and she’s getting tired of playing this game. Worse, watching the video back, I’m probably confusing her with my timing. I frequently mark the behavior just a split second too late, as she pulls away from the cone, rather than as she moves in. That won’t help in the long run, and will ultimately confuse her when I start asking for duration.

Sure enough, the next time we worked on it, I picked a bad object–a paper cup that was too small. When I tried to switch to something big and plastic, that went badly, too. And when I took out the red funnel we had started with, Nala wouldn’t go near it. Yikes! That’s the opposite of what I wanted!

I just want to point out, here, that I’m really, really glad that we started this behavior with totally irrelevant objects that Nala could go her whole life without interacting with them again. What if I had associated all of this lumping, stress, and confusing criteria with a muzzle that I needed her to wear? Or with my own hands? Of course, if I needed Nala to love a piece of equipment first, I’d start with classical conditioning. Nevertheless, I’m glad not to suffer any setbacks with something I actually need to be able to use.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why great trainers like Hannah Branigan suggest initially teaching the retrieve with something like a wooden dowel if you want to do competitive obedience with your dog. If you’re a rank novice like me, you won’t ruin the behavior with the item you would need to use in the ring; you’ll still have a good chance of having a dog who sees the retrieve object and knows exactly what to do even if you bungle it a time or three.

So, I changed the plan.

First, I’ve changed the object–I’m using a coffee filter, first as a simple nose target, then with a hole cut in the middle to stick her nose in (and be fed through). Hopefully, its softness and flexibility will make it less offensive and alarming than the silicone funnel and paper or plastic cups.

I’m also changing the food. I usually use kibble for shaping games, but now that I know that Nala hates this too much for straight shaping, I’ll be bringing out the big guns–smoked chicken and cheddar cheese–for this exercise going forward. We’re keeping sessions short, short, short–between 10 and 20 treats per session–and playing a couple of times a day.

Finally, I’m going to work hard on my timing. Instead of demanding duration or two bops before clicking, I’m going to make sure that I click or “yip” as Nala approaches the object instead of when I think she will hit it. Since I’m usually late, this strategy might help me actually mark the behavior on time!

Here’s the video, warts and all:

We’ll report back on our progress in a month or so. I hope to be able to show you Nala happily shoving her face into all manner of objects! I’ll be especially thrilled if I can show you her teeth with her cheerful cooperation.

This is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop!

960bc-8160283This post is part of the Positive Pet Training Blog Hop, hosted by Cascadian Nomads,Tenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. This month’s theme is training for safety/emergencies for National Pet First Aid Awareness Month. The hop happens on the first Monday of every month, and is open for a full week – please join us in spreading the word about the rewards of positive training!

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2 thoughts on “Can’t Touch This: Positive Pet Training Blog Hop

  1. Aw, I love this so much — thank you! It’s very reassuring to see real imperfect training and I’ll look forward to seeing Nala’s progress as you guys go forward. 🙂

    I’ve been thinking (thanks to the blog hop!) about muzzle training my guy. It was a huge help with my old dog in the last year of his life (he was always super stressy at the vet and had some cognitive dysfunction towards thale end). I was telling myself I’d get muzzles to start with one the shock of new-dog expenses wears off, but maybe we’ll start with random stuff around the house as you show here!


    1. As always, happy to help! I’m so glad that showing our foibles is helpful and encouraging for others, rather than just a little bit embarrassing for me. 😀 And thank you for the great point about end of life care–definitely a time when you might be glad that your old dog can wear a muzzle happily, since he might be in a lot of chronic pain.

      I definitely feel you on the financial ouch of having a new dog! Other items you might have around would be the giant buckets that yogurt comes in, any kind of string that you can make into a loop, plastic cones (available at places like Academy in the soccer section), or party hats (hey, I don’t know your life! Maybe you have those lying around!). Anything, really!


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