WHEN NOT TO SOCIALIZE!

Originally posted May of 2013

I own horses.  I also own an electric fence.  The idea is that the horses won’t leave and people and animals won’t come in and harass them.  Sounds like a good idea in theory, but it doesn’t always work out.  People come to the fence to “visit” the horses.  And sometimes, they bring their dogs.  Recently I lamented this fact on my Facebook page and a long discussion ensued.  One of the posters talked about how she would use animals behind fences to socialize her puppy when she had the opportunity.  Well meaning, this person just didn’t understand the whole issue.

When you have a puppy, you can say with fair certainty that he is going to be unpredictable.  He is going to do things you wish he would not.  He barks at the most inopportune moments.  He pulls on his leash and sometimes he dashes forward only to backpedal vigorously.  In short, the reaction a puppy gives is not always going to be constant or predictable.  Ideally, you would set up multiple socialization opportunities for your dog to learn about the world around him in a safe way.  And that is where my electric fence comes in.

Horses and other livestock are very different from dogs.  First off, they are herd animals.  They don’t like to be separated from their herd members.  We have three horses so I will use them as examples.  We use a highly visible, white rope that contains stainless steel wires to conduct electrical current to keep them in our pasture.  We don’t have a lot of pasture so at this time of year, we rig up temporary paddocks around the house.  The house is about 20 metres from the road and across the road is a hill.  At the top of the hill is a public park.  There is a tree line between us and the park and over the years we have had occasional visitors from the park to our property.  Most folks recognize that this is private property and don’t come into our farm, but once in a while, we see people coming over to our land.

We had one very aggressive dog off leash on our land and his person said to us that they were taking as much care as they could because they were walking their dog where they didn’t expect to meet other dogs.  I pointed out that I live here with a large van that says that I am a dog trainer and that meant that there would likely be dogs here.  It is endlessly frustrating to have other people’s dogs on your property and worse still when owners feel entitled to run their dogs at large on your property.

Now that we have the fences up and the horses are out, it seems like we have created a magnet for every person who passes by to come up to our fence.  People have been approaching my fence all week to look at the horses, and by and large the people who approach the horses know little or nothing about the horses or what they are doing.  I feel a little bit like I have become a public museum for the travelling public; come, see the horses behind the fence.  Put your arms through the electric fence ropes and touch them.

I have very friendly horses.  They are very tolerant of poor handling, mistakes by people and my dogs.  The thing is, they are still horses.  They are still herd animals.  And they don’t like strange dogs.  When you are socializing your puppy, and you see horses behind a fence, do not use them as an opportunity to socialize your dog to horses.  First and foremost, you don’t know my horses.  You don’t know if my horses are friendly.  And if you don’t know horses you don’t have the skills to recognize when they are nervous or stressed.

As herd animals, groups of horses behave in ways that may appear friendly to the uninitiated.  In the case of my three mares, if there is a stranger at the fence, two of them will graze and one of them will approach the fence and stand there with her head up.  Many people interpret this as friendly behaviour.  It is not!  It is the horse guarding the herd.  If the stranger becomes dangerous, the guarding mare will bolt and the other horses will cease grazing and follow her lead.  Often the guarding horse will go right up to the fence and she may even extend her nose to sniff the people.  She is attempting to find out if she knows you; horses have a terrific sense of smell and often they will identify people by smell if they are not sure.

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This is Kayak guarding the herd.  Ten minutes before I took this picture, I watched as the whole herd spooked when a truck rumbled by.  They came back and Kayak stood guard between the source of danger and the other horses.  Without the information that I just gave you, she might appear to be a friendly horse, standing close to the fence.

If you bring a puppy to my fence and my mare approaches your pup and sniffs him, and if he does something unpleasant to her, there is a pretty good chance that she will behave defensively; it looks like a good greeting, but there are some big problems.  The first is that the horses are unknown to the dog handler.  This means that the dog’s handler has no idea if the horses are friendly or not, or if they have had exposure to dogs or not, or if they are dangerous or not.  The second is that there is no one handling the horse.  This means that you are depending on an animal you don’t know to be friendly.  And then there is the whole issue of the electric fence between you and the horse.  You are hoping your puppy will learn to tolerate horses.  If he ducks his head under the fence, and then raises it, he is going to get hit by that fence, and that fence really, really hurts.  He will scream and bolt and your effort at teaching him about horses will result in a dog who is afraid not comfortable around horses.

Furthermore, if you spook the horses you contribute to the horses being more difficult to handle.  Let’s just suppose for a moment that the horse you are attempting to meet is a spooky timid horse.  She looks friendly, but she is in fact guarding the herd.  Your dog gets hit by the fence and squeals and bolts.  Twenty minutes later, the rider, unsuspecting that the horse had a bad experience comes out to the field to catch her horse.  The horse is difficult to handle and the rider is thrown.  Cause and effect can be a tricky thing.  You would likely never choose to cause a horse to throw its rider, but if you spook a horse then that is the effect you may have put into play, and it is an effect that really is not fair to the horse or rider.

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This is exactly the sort of interaction that can go badly wrong for the horse, and sometimes for the dog too.  This dog is not relaxed about the horse and if he suddenly lunges (notice the prong collar?  This tells me that the handler knows that something might go wrong!) the horse might spook or he could even strike or bite the dog.  Image credit: kyolshin / 123RF Stock Photo

Too often I hear people talking about farms and farming and farm animals in a way that is very different from the reality I experience.  Just last week a client of mine asked me if I thought there might be a farmer who would take her very reactive, aggressive, under socialized dog who grew up in the city.  I wonder what she thinks farmers DO all day.  Let me clue you in.  A farm is a business.  Its business is to grow crops and animals for the use of people.  I have yet to hear anyone hope that some machine shop owner would be willing to take their problem dog, but there is a perception that a farmer will.  As a farmer, I don’t have time to rehab your dog.  I am not here to provide your dog with socialization opportunities.  I have two horses of my own and a horse who lives here and contributes to some of the costs of maintaining the farm.  If that third horse is spooked by your puppy and gets hurt bolting away, then I will have to take time out of my busy day to nurse that horse back to health.  That will mean less time for me to ride my own horse and less time to do chores around my farm.  My farm, small as it is, is a business and I don’t have time to add fixing the problems that the public creates and still make a viable living off it.

If you really want to socialize your dog to the sight of horses I have no problem with you standing at a significant distance and classically conditioning your dog to my horses.  That is fine.  But don’t approach the fence.  If it is really important to you that your dog meets a horse, you need to arrange that with a horse owner who can control the horse so that you and your puppy are safe and that the horse is safe too.  The same goes for other livestock.  By all means teach your dog to not bark at horses, sheep, cattle and goats from a distance, but don’t enter a herd or a flock that is not yours. When you do this, you interfere with those animals’ ability to graze peacefully and safely, and you interfere with the farmer’s ability to make a living.

Socialization of puppies is crucial for their success.  We know that if a puppy hasn’t seen something by the time it is 20 weeks old, there is a risk that they won’t tolerate that something terribly well as an adult.  What isn’t fair is socializing them to animals or children that are unattended and who don’t have a guardian to ensure their safety during the activity.  Doing this is unfair to the animal you are trying to socialize but also the target of your socialization, and that defeats the purpose.

WHEN NOT TO SOCIALIZE!

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