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My neighbor’s dog has Prader-Willy syndrome. And muzzles aren’t always a bad thing.

December 2, 2010

A dog that bore a striking resemblance to childhood film icon Benji–in appearance, though not necessarily in temperament–sparked an interesting class discussion today. (For purposes of privacy, I will call this dog Andy.) Though Andy behaved well in the bathtub, by the time Beth put him on her table, he was clearly distressed. His body language demonstrated classic signs of a dog who is likely to bite–tense body, dilated pupils, bulging eyes–so before he could become further agitated (and potentially dangerous), Beth gently slipped a muzzle onto him.

(As you may recall from an earlier post, the instructors at MACC refer to muzzles as “facial attire,” reasoning that the word “muzzle” carries negative energy that could be involuntarily transferred to the dogs. So, for the sake of consistency, I will heretofore only use the phrase “facial attire” when referring to muzzles.)

The transformation was immediately visible. Andy’s body relaxed, his eyes drooped. He was a different dog, and Beth was able to finish grooming him without further incident. Later that day, Susan gathered Kim, Claudia, and me and asked for our opinions regarding facial attire. Kim pointed out that Andy calmed considerably when Beth put it on him, and Susan explained that facial attire often has that effect. “Dogs bite mainly out of fear,” she said. “They don’t want to bite. Many times, the agitation we observe is the dog’s internal conflict. He’s afraid, and his instinct is to bite, but he knows biting is bad. Facial attire eliminates the temptation to bite. When the dog knows he can’t bite, he calms down.”

Problem with facial attire arise because, all too often, groomers use it as a punishment or last resort, Susan continued. “They wait until the dog is snapping and snarling–or has already bitten them–to put it on,” she said. “But by that time, it’s too late because the dog is already out of control.”

We have to close off the kitchen area with baby gates whenever Sasha visits.

I’ve never had reason to use facial attire on my own dogs, but my upstairs neighbors have it for their 12-year-old rottweiler, Sasha. And it isn’t because Sasha is aggressive. On the contrary, she’s one of the laziest, most laid back dogs I’ve ever met–except when it comes to food.

Now, I realize that most dogs are motivated by food, but Sasha takes this concept to an entirely new dimension. She cannot stop eating. Karin and Kathy realized they were in trouble when, shortly after they adopted her, she ripped into a brand new, 25-pound bag of dog food and devoured every single kibble.

Food is not safe around Sasha. If you leave a sandwich unattended on the dining room table, you can be sure it will be gone in the 15 seconds it takes to pour a glass of milk. One year she climbed up on the counter and ate Karin’s entire birthday dinner, including the cake. She nearly died the time she consumed a bag of unsweetened cocoa–along with a bag of curry powder. Most recently, she broke into the pantry and ate a bag of sugar and several raw potatoes. She even took a bite out of one of our pumpkins at Halloween.

The closest I can come to describing Sasha’s behvior is by comparing it to Prader-Willi syndrome, which is a rare genetic disorder among humans that leads to a chronic feeling of hunger. Scientists have determined that people who have Prader-Willi syndrome have a flaw in the hypothalamus part of their brain, which normally registers feelings of hunger and satiety. While the problem is not yet fully understood, it is apparent that people with this flaw never feel full; they have a continuous urge to eat that they cannot learn to control. This obsession can lead to excessive eating and life-threatening obesity.

Karin and Kathy get around this problem by “Sasha-proofing” the house. In other words, food is locked up unless they’re unloading groceries, cooking, or sitting down to a meal, during which time Sasha wears her facial attire. Although they initially worried that Sasha’s facial attire would further stimulate her, they quickly realized it had the opposite effect. Instead of endlessly circling the kitchen on a quest to steal food, Sasha would lay down or go into another room because she knew that snatching food–which she also knew was “bad” and would result in lots of yelling–was no longer an option. By removing the temptation to eat, Karin and Kathy also quelled Sasha’s inner turmoil, just as Beth quelled Andy’s.

Before today, I hadn’t given much thought to facial attire. I’m glad that Sasha and Andy opened my eyes. Dogs can be amazing teachers when we actually take the time and effort to listen to them.

Update: Sasha crossed over to Rainbow Bridge on January 24, 2011, after a nearly year-long battle with stomach cancer. We will fondly remember her playful love of swimming and squeaky toys, as well as her bizarre obsession with food. Sasha is survived by her mothers Karin and Kathy, her sisters Leah and Shanti, Nemo the shih tzu, and Daisy the guinea pig.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    March 7, 2011 3:56 am

    Isn’t there a rainbow bridge at one of the campgrounds in Mohican? I’m just sayin’.

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