Have you ever noticed how something can be so obvious that it also inadvertently becomes a blind spot?
I’d like to talk about muzzling dogs.
Yes, it’s an emotive issue. And one which often provokes strong views in people who care deeply about and advocate for our canine friends and colleagues. That piece of kit, designed to render the sharp parts ineffective, inhabits many a dog trainer’s toolkit, veterinary consulting room drawer and rescue centre store cupboard. It also stimulates many heated debates within the dog world. I’ll set my stall out on this from the off. In my work, I’m about keeping everyone safe – dogs, humans, other animate creatures – and painstakingly considering everyone’s needs in order to make that happen. I am not blanket-opposed to using muzzles but, like every good dog trainer, I have criteria. Moreover, like most positive dog trainers, I have also been conditioned to reframe muzzles as just another thing around which to install an incremental training plan. And I absolutely see it as my job to help any dog deemed a candidate for wearing one, to genuinely feel better about it. After all, conflating passivity with a positive emotional state is a rookie mistake that nobody in the business of reading dog emotions should be making twice. But I digress. The ethics of using muzzles in professionally designed behaviour modification programmes for dogs with dog-dog aggression or stranger danger issues, is actually not the focus of this blog.
Instead, I want to talk about the practice of routinely muzzling a whole breed of dog. More specifically, what brings us to a place where the muzzle is as normalised as, say, the collar and lead? I want to talk about the routine muzzling of greyhounds. Let’s get underneath that a bit more.
Greyhounds are a breed of dog from the Sighthound group; also occupied by breeds such as the Whippet, Saluki and Irish Wolfhound. The greyhound’s historical relationship with humans is long and tumultuous. Considered by many to be one of the most ancient breeds of dogs (although this broadly held truth has been contested by Anthropologist, Raymond Madden), the greyhound has transitioned from nobility to commodity in the public consciousness in a little under 100 years. This change has been a creeping one, and has resulted in the co-opting of a whole breed of dog into the human entertainment industry that is greyhound racing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the modern greyhound is a confused creature. Neither fully working animal nor family companion; these dogs exist in the hearts and minds of the public as odd kinds of dogs, often crudely categorised in the media as either ‘easy pets’ or ‘champion athletes’. Over the past 50 years, the animal welfare and protection movement has offered lifelines to thousands of former racing greyhounds, giving them a chance at life after racing in companion homes. Yet the archetypal image of the basket-muzzle-wearing-greyhound-about-town remains a largely accepted reality that we need to bring under scrutiny.
Producing dogs with the drive to race at speed around an oval track is a specialised game, and one that has necessitated a kind of biological fiddle with the greyhound’s software. Historically bred and revered for their speed and ability to course game independently, the modern racing greyhound’s predatory action sequence is cultivated and amplified through selective breeding and training. ‘Good dogs’ are measured according to their drive to chase a rotating flapping piece of cloth which they will never catch (although some racing trainers do allow their dogs the satisfaction of ‘finishing on the lure’… albeit through the muzzle).
Knowledge of the techniques used for training a racing greyhound to chase is an insider’s privilege, though recent undercover exposes have uncovered some pretty unsavoury practices for producing drive and frustration in greyhounds-in-training (See for example, Four Corners 2015 https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/making-a-killing/6127124 and RTE Investigates 2019
However, as they say, the proof is in the pudding. Those of us who spend time in the company of former racing greyhounds share an unspoken solidarity that emerges through strategising near-miss encounters with small dogs and fast-moving things on the horizon. Yet funnily enough, despite the popular idiom, it isn’t a dog-eat-dog world. Conspecific predation is not part of the (healthy) domestic dog’s ethogram.