Mutt Muffs: from classical conditioning to first test with trigger

For the past week, I’ve been conditioning Lyra to wearing Mutt Muffs. It was easier than I expected. (In general, she “comes round” more quickly to things than she used to.)

Initially, I pulled the muffs out from behind my back, and gave her a lick of peanut butter. Repeat many times. Then I held them close to her head (a tricky place for her), and let her lick peanut butter. Then I held them against her head. Ditto. I held the strap in place. Ditto. Then secured it and let her lick peanut butter constantly while the Muffs were on. We practised on/off quite a bit, as she finds the approach of any object towards her face (except a ball) difficult.

Finally, I took her outside to play ball while wearing the muffs; then out in front for a short walk on leash. At times, she held her head oddly — perhaps to keep them from sliding (the one technical flaw!) — but for the most part she seems comfortable wearing them, and more so each day.

Today, we undertook the first trial with garbage trucks. It was not a clean experiment: I chose not to use a recording (her reaction to the recording still perplexes me); instead, I took her outside when a truck was audibly nearby. In other words, I could not regulate the volume, or repeat the experiment.

However, I was lucky in that I got two sessions where the trucks were on the same part of the street and at a similar volume. In Trial 1, she wore the Mutt Muffs. In Trial 2, she didn’t. The trials happened within the same hour, so there is not much difference (none that I perceived) in wind level or Lyra’s mood — though I realize that the 2nd trial may well be affected by trigger stacking from the first.

I looked for three things: 1) ability to respond to a cue; 2) willingness to eat cheese; 3) ability to play. In former times, she would shut down and do none of these things. I also paid attention to her recovery speed, after moments of higher volume.

I’m bearing in mind the effect of “caretaker placebo” as explained by Linda P. Case in The Science Dog. I’ve put money and effort into making this work, and I badly want it to work, so I’m biased toward seeing progress.

Conclusion: I do not think the Mutt Muffs made a significant difference in Lyra’s response to the garbage trucks. Without the Muffs, she was able to respond to a cue, eat cheese, and play. This does not mean that they are useless, of course. It may be that they do not cut out a particular frequency that troubles her. Or they do not cut enough volume. For this particular trigger, however, they seem unhelpful.

It was worth a try, though, and I’m pleased to see the progress she’s made in the past year (sans Mutt Muffs) which comes through in the video.

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