Originally posted October 2010
I have always had dogs, and I have always trained them, even when I was a young child. I remember building jumps in my back yard over thirty years ago, and teaching our dog to go over them. My initial motivation to train the family dog was informed by my desire to own a horse and ride it, and given the unlikelihood of that event, I taught my dog to do many “horsey” things. I taught her to stand in cross ties between two trees while I groomed her, I made her a halter (long before the advent of the halti and the gentle leader and all of the successive off spring of that nature), and I taught her to jump over hurdles. No tricks for me! Just practical horsemanship for my dog. Along the way, this patient mixed breed dog, Thurber, accompanied me through childhood and adolescence, spending hours walking the local woods with me, and generally teaching me what it means to be a friend.
Skip forward to my current present and you will see me sharing a lot of what Thurber taught me with my students at Dogs in the Park. In between, I did spend a lot of time working with horses in my teens and twenties. Some of what I taught Thurber was right on the money, and some of it was a little far out there. When I amalgamate what I learned in the barns with what I know about dogs, I see more and more clearly that we are losing touch with some important lessons from the horse world that would make living with our dogs much easier and more straightforward.
I well remember as a teen learning to ride that safety came above everything else in a barn. Barns are places with large animals, equipment and tools that can all hurt you. Safety is the first item on the list when working around horses, and honestly, this should be the first thing on the list when handling dogs.
Consider for a moment how we handle horses. If you are taking a horse out of a stall, you stand by the door and wait for the horse to attend to you. Stepping into a horse’s stall and surprising him is a recipe for getting kicked or run over. How many of us walk up to our dogs’ crates and just open the door? If we did this with horses, we would have a loose horse, who might run you over, kick someone or get out on the road. We insist on horses standing nicely to be groomed, allowing us to handle all parts of their bodies and following nicely on a halter. So let’s make rule number one in the Horsemanship for Dog Owners:
- Insist on good manners at all times.
With perseverance, this will prevent a lot more dogs from jumping out of cars, bolting out of the front door, or lunging out of the crate, jumping on people and pulling them down the road. Establish the rules and then follow them always, and make sure that you insist on good manners.
One of the first things I was taught about handling horses was to make them aware of where I was at all times, because if they are startled they might bolt, kick or strike you. Knowing where I am relative to the horse and where the horse is relative to me can prevent a lot of accidents. I often see people handling their dogs without any concern for where the dog is or what he is doing and that can lead to a lot of big problems. When you don’t know what your dog is facing and he doesn’t know where you are looking, you are open to a lot of opportunity for your dog to get into trouble. The second rule I am going to propose for Horsemanship for dogs is:
- Be aware of where your dog is and make him aware of where you are at all times.
Face it, you and your dog are a team, and when you are not aware of where you are relative to one another at all times, your dog can get into trouble and you won’t even know it. When you are aware of where your dog is, and what he is looking at, you can catch a lot of the oopsies that happen when a dog is at loose ends. The dog whose person doesn’t know what he is doing or where he is, is the same dog who is getting into the trash, lunging at the other dog at the dog show and eating the kid’s ice cream cone as they wander by.
When I was learning to ride, we were taught to be aware of our horse’s fears, abilities and training. There was an old mare that every kid rode for a while at the first barn I rode at. She was reliable, confident and knew all the work that the kids needed to learn. She was never going to go beyond the on farm schooling shows, but she was responsible for teaching a whole lot of children to love horses and riding. How often do we see dog handlers doing this? In my classes, I have seen timid dogs forced to face their fears, and under prepared dogs asked to do tasks they haven’t been trained to do. As an instructor, I am always on the lookout for opportunities to help people to understand what their dogs are ready and able to do. My third rule for Horsemanship for Dog Owners is:
- Prepare for everything you want your dog to do before you ask him to do it!
This should clean up a whole lot of stress and agony for everyone who works a dog, and also for those of you who keep dogs as pets. If you haven’t taught your dog to do something and if you haven’t prepared him, and if he is afraid…don’t ask him to do it!
Another thing that is very important in a barn is to keep track of which horse is where. There are combinations that just don’t work in a barn and if you put the wrong horses out together, you can end up with a pack of trouble. Some horses can go out with any other horse, but others can only go out with those particular individuals that he or she knows well. This can extend even to which horses should be stabled next to one another. Why is it that we think that every dog is going to like to be turned loose with every other dog? My fourth rule for Horsemanship for Dog Owners is:
- Choose your dog’s friends carefully.
Young puppies will benefit from this and so will the wallflowers, the shy dogs, the bullies and the people who are attached to these individuals. If you are conscientious about choosing who interacts with your dog, both human and canine, you will have a lot more success with his social interactions, and he will be a lot less likely to get himself into difficulty.
Most of what I learned as “horsemanship” can be summed up as common sense. Sadly, common sense does not seem to be that common when we are talking about how we handle our dogs. Too often the problems we have with dogs can be simplified down to poor manners, inattention, unpreparedness and choosing the wrong friends. If we can overcome these simple issues, life with dogs is going to be much easier for everyone.