Cross-Training

yogapup_bvcThis longtime horse trainer (including raising foals) and cat herder is now an accidental dog trainer, by grace of the gods and a puppy that materialized in the desert one blazingly hot summer afternoon. He arrived as if from nowhere, with no collar or tags, no training of any kind, nothing except a sincere love for people. (Other dogs, not so much. Not so much at all. Though he adores the resident retired showgirl. And the foster mom’s two big Shepherds.)

So now we are learning how to cope with a canine tabula rasa–having always managed to adopt adult and well-trained dogs. Ex-show and herding-trial dogs. And sometimes the horse skills cross over, and sometimes, apparently, they don’t.

I’m used to very intelligent, very self-willed horses, so a very smart dog didn’t faze me. At first. I had instructions from foster mom, advice from an extensive network of dog-training friends, and a Plan that included taking him out and about as often as possible. Which worked admirably until I found the big giant hole in his education: coping with other dogs when out and about.

Or rather, not coping. So I quickly, on the advice of the above-mentioned dog-training connections, signed him up for Manners 101.

He is not the star of the class. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, the one who has to come in early and stay late and have private tutoring. And he’s in the special-needs corner. With special help. Because when you appear out of thin desert air, sometimes a couple of modules and an app or two get left out of your programming.

He’s making good progress. He’ll make a good dog, and a good canine citizen (and maybe he’ll even get a few letters after his name, if we persevere). But it’s been an interesting process for me as well as for him.

Horse training and dog training have a lot in common. There are, very broadly speaking, two schools of thought: the force/dominance school and the partnership/shaping school. Dominance doesn’t necessarily mean whipping the crap out of the animal, it’s proceeding on the assumption that there are alphas and not-alphas, and the human has to be the alpha, and if the animal disagrees with that, the human takes whatever measures are necessary to assert dominance. It doesn’t have to be forceful, but it sets up levels of interaction that can lead to such statements as, “If the dog sits on your foot he’s dominating you,” or “If the horse refuses to go in the direction you ask him to go, he’s asserting dominance over you.” And then you correct the animal so he understands you are the alpha.

The other school comes at the process from a different direction–rather than hierarchy, it’s cooperation and partnership. Dog pulls on lead? Rather than pulling him back, call him or lure him and have him make the choice not to pull. (And if he sits on your foot, he’s saying you’re part of his pack.) Horse resists an aid? Check to determine whether he was ready for the request, and whether you asked in a way he understood. Then instead of correcting him, correct yourself. And in both cases, if the animal is strong or resistant, the dominance school might go with strong tools such as a prong collar or a shanked bit, but the partnership school goes with milder tools and educated handling. Persuasion rather than You Must Do This Now.

Dominance and alphas and all that used to be the in thing, and still are in many places (Cesar Milan, anyone?) Partnership training gives the animal more of a say in what’s going on, which can take more time and a fair bit more thought and practice. So of course I ended up in the latter type of class, because it’s all part of the grand universal plan to make me Do Things Right from the animals’ perspective.

And I’m good with that, but I’ve had a learning curve. I’m not entirely sure this has to do with the difference between a predator/pack animal and a prey animal/herd animal; I think mostly it’s tradition.

With horses, generally we’re discouraged from using a lot of food rewards (horse supposedly will get focused on them and/or bite), and we’re penalized in shows for use of voice. Though most of us at home are packing in the cookies and telling the horse all about it, and with my particular breed of horses, explaining things in so many words can be highly effective (and the sugar pocket is in the left tail of the Spanish Riding School rider’s coat, so we’re not alone in the food-reward camp).

Still. In a class, conditioning comes out, and with dogs, it’s voice and treats and more voice and more treats. And I’m having to adapt. (And he gets excited, and yes, he may get grabby. Ow.)

It’s a process. I find that when I let my horse-training brain come online, I’m less flummoxed by some of the things the dog gets up to. Because horses may not bark thunderously at strange horses, but they can get very big and excited and make a lot of noise of the scream-and-squeal variety. So that’s not so different. And getting their attention and keeping it, with application of treats, is one way to calm things down. As is gradual exposure, keeping things as quiet as possible but slowly adding distractions and strangers, and managing sessions so that the horse doesn’t go into overload.

Still. There are those little differences. I’m learning how to shape behavior in an animal with somewhat different instincts and priorities. And he’s busily shaping mine. Teaching me to speak a more sophisticated form of Dog, in hopes that I’ll eventually be as fluent in that as I am in Horse.

RoHeadShot7mo

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Cross-Training — 17 Comments

  1. Oh this is a wonderful blog! You’ve put into words exactly what I’ve been trying to share with my SO, because I am also working with my first puppy (first dog really since childhood), but the horse stuff sometimes translates over. Thank you for sharing!

  2. We are certain that Puppeh was dumped by some asshole. He appeared one afternoon on my road, where the wash crosses it. Lost and alone, horribly thirsty when picked up. He was incapable of going 100 yards without getting into cactus, so he did not run away from home.

    I live way out in the desert. It’s prime dumpage ground for animals. Trainer brought him to us, but we have no dog facilities and an elderly and ill cat who has never known dogs. So clearly, he was meant for Dancing Horse Farm. But I still cry down curses on people who abandon animals to die.

    • This is where the concept of a Final Judgment is so pleasant. I see the perpetrator approaching the throne of God, humbly confident. But look! Sitting at the Almighty’s right hand, is a dog — a familiar dog…

      • And those blue eyes burn right through that person. Literally.

        Yes.

        But he was supposed to be here, that’s clear, and there is no way I would ever have gone looking for a puppy (I never wanted a puppy), so I give them a tiny gram of forgiveness for that. Very tiny.

        • That will not save the perp, I trust. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” And such people do not confine themselves to one animal. I see many dogs sitting there beside the Heavenly Throne, and cats too, with just the tips of their tails twitching. The way they look at a mouse.

  3. He magically appeared
    from thin desert air
    already knowing
    the job he came to do

    He waited
    patient as Job
    knowing
    the Seneschal would arrive

    Perhaps he is expounding
    to all those other dogs
    to the humans who will listen

    stay with the magic
    stay with your magic
    we can do this
    we can do this

  4. I think you’re spot on that these theories can be applied to both
    horse and dog (given modification for the prey/predator factors). I’ve
    always been cookie-doling with the horse side of the spectrum and I’ve
    used a lot of doggy behavioral stuff (a la Karen Overall, Leslie
    McDevitt). One day, I’ll try the clicker…

    I do get a little squeamie when the schools of thought are defined as
    “dominance vs a kinder better way” because I think it’s more
    complicated than that, in a manner that even “broadly speaking”
    doesn’t quite cover.

    (For instance, Cesar is generally used as a poster child for dominance
    training in a way that excoriates him, but it’s just plain more
    complicated than that. He doesn’t train proactively so much as he
    reacts to situations. In the context of reacting to situations, he
    does some brilliant things. In the context of training, he often
    doesn’t. But I’ve also seen him reaching out to the behavioral world
    for tools to use with particular dogs, and in his books he uses human
    cognitive behavior modification to change things from the human side
    of the equation. So…yes, complicated.)

    I’ve always felt that the best method is to understand as many
    approaches to training as possible, so the tools are always at your
    fingertips to use with the right dog at the right moment. Decisions
    made about those tools depend on the dog’s temperament, level of
    current training, understanding of the training process, and breed
    (which heavily influences not only temperament, but how they perceive
    and respond to their world in a hard-wired fashion). And the tools
    being used when working behavior issues are profoundly different than
    those being used when training a new task, which are different from
    the byplay when refining/performing a known task. IMHO, many problems
    occur when trainers/owners don’t differentiate one from the other, and
    use task training to deal with behavior issues.

    Anyway, there’s a whole lot of ground between dominance-based
    training and positive training, and even within positive training, a
    range of “give the dog a chance to make a decision/then reward”
    vs “lure the dog into doing what you want.” And these, too, change
    depending on the dog in hand.

    I don’t think I’m saying anything different than what you said…just
    going into detail a bit, and feeling obliged to do so because I’ve
    seen too many conversations about training devolve into
    confrontation/black-and-white thinking. Not that this one seems to be
    going there!

    Fie on Puppy-dumping people! But now here he is–in the right place. Happy new dog!

    • There is also a school of training in horses that says ‘let the horse figure out what you want, then praise him’ (I don’t know whether this exists in dogs, too.) And I always imagine it as sitting in an airplane seat during takeoff, and the guy next to you taps you on the arm. And keeps tapping while you cycle through all behaviours you can imagine until found the thing he wanted. (Has he dropped something? Does he want me to close the blind? Am I sitting on his coat? Is my aircon blasting in his direction? Is he wanting to point out his house?) And you don’t even know whether you *can* find the right behaviour and make him stop.

      And then you find it. And ten minutes later, he taps you on the arm again…

      This is sold as a ‘gentle’ method of training. Somehow, I don’t get it.

  5. one time after i turned a trained foal i had raised from birth over to my cousin (it was a planned gift all the way) he called the next day to complain that the filly kept nipping at his butt.
    i laughed. he got testy about that until i explained “that’s where i keep my licorice.”

    my guys don’t depend on licorice to work with me, but they surely do love it when it comes. packs and herds share a lot. the way they survive is different only in the smallest ways. in either one it’s about co-operation, about being a part of something bigger, and certainly stronger and safer than being alone.

    when i’m training people (teaching somebody to ride is pretty much that) one of the very first things i tell them about horses is “two games you’ll never win with a horse. race. and tug o’ war. never play those.”

    your pup looks like a darling. i’ve always thought horses and dogs go well together. have fun and enjoy your new addition.