This 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.