Before deciding to train dogs and teach dog owners, I spent a dozen years training horses and coaching riders – as well as competing, and a bit of judging at equestrian competitions. Not being millionaires, my family gathered an interesting collection of horses and ponies and trained them ourselves. Our little evolving herd was the equivalent of dogs who had been given up to a shelter for being difficult, injured, older – or simply untrained. After training these horses, we travelled to different places throughout the province every weekend for 8 months out of every year, competing hunter-jumper (I mainly competed in stadium jumping) and were pretty fierce competitors! Our tenacity and patient training enabled us to successfully compete against people who imported top notch horses from Europe, with world-renowned coaches and trainers, and with the advantage of indoor arenas to practice in bad weather. You could compare it to rescuing a series of scruffy mutts from the shelter with a heap of bad habits and developing them into your team of dream dogs and taking them on tour.
The things I learned while training horses helps a lot with training dogs. Here are some of the similarities between training horses and dogs:
Pressure On – Pressure Off & Opposition Reflex
Both dogs and horses respond similarly to tension or pressure that is maintained. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re standing on the ground with a horse on a lead line (which is basically a big leash). If a horse is standing on your foot and you want to get it off, definitely don’t just push their shoulder and maintain the pressure. If you do that, the horse will lean in against the pressure, (pushing back toward you) which will only intensify the weight on your foot. The horse is resistant because of the WAY you are sharing pressure. The horse has no ill-will toward you, or any desire to hurt your foot. They respond instinctually to resist that kind of pushing – and the same goes for pulling. Resistance inevitably happens if you pull firmly and maintain pressure or tension on a lead line. The horse will lean back against the consistent tension, causing a tug of war that a human will lose. This kind of firm steady tension can cause a horse to truly flip out and even to fall over backward in a panicky attempt to get away from the sensation. Instead, the key is to push and release to get a horse off of your foot, or to pull and release (or a firm jerk and release, depending on the situation) rather than keep pulling steadily, to get a horse to follow along while walking on a lead line.
With a dog on a leash the same rules apply. It all boils down to the WAY you share pressure through the leash to communicate without causing the dog to instinctively resist, but instead to follow you. Pressure on – pressure off.
Here’s another example. To build the drive (controlled momentum) needed to leap fences you hold the reins with tension (basically it’s gently putting on the ‘brakes’) while simultaneously putting on the ‘gas’ with leg pressure and pushing in the saddle – then release this tension in a burst of energy to soar over a jump.
The average dog owner is doing the same thing – unwittingly – by maintaining leash tension with their dog in a state of high excitement and the result is that their dog is understandably amped up and chomping on the bit to GO! Meanwhile, dog owners generally want their dog to calm down and walk peacefully. Once the person understands about leash pressure and how to communicate through the leash with their dog, the entire conversation changes, resulting in a dog who is more relaxed and ready to follow.
Seeing INTENTIONS to change the course of events
Once you get to really understand horses, or dogs, you begin to know ahead of time what will likely happen in certain situations. When you know what to expect, you can plan ahead and look for cues (or ‘tells’, if you’re into poker) about what their intentions are ahead of time. The cues vary somewhat depending on the specific dog or horse you’re working with, but there are basic similarities. Getting a jump start to prevent unwanted behaviours or situations from ever occurring is super helpful in behaviour modification. This is how we begin to develop healthier habits, rather than continuously responding to a crisis after it’s already happened.
Here’s an example. A horse shifts it’s ears toward a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Since we know horses are prey animals and easily startled into flight by novel things – especially things that move in an unexpected way, we can prevent the horse from escalating from concerned interest into lunging away or panicking, by noticing the horse’s intention. The first sign may be their ears swivelling to the direction of the new sound. If we’re paying attention, we can give the horse firm guidance and direct their attention away from that distraction and back onto the job at hand. This prevention of escalation and firm support leads the horse to trust in the person’s guidance.
The same goes for dogs who are leash-reactive (over-reacting in fear/aggression to dogs, people, wildlife, or moving objects). The key is to catch the intention and de-escalate arousal (over excitement) at or before the first sign. Dogs similarly perk up their ears, causing their forehead to wrinkle in an expression of intense concentration or concern. If the dog has a habit of lunging or attacking, you certainly don’t want to wait until the dog’s body stiffens, or until it starts vocalizing or lashing out. If you miss the intention phase, then you’ve missed your opportunity to help the dog shift it’s state of mind. Once the dog is freaking out, they really can’t think straight in order to learn anything new, so it’s best to leave and be better prepared next time to help the dog to remain calm and make better choices about how to behave in that situation.
Time and patience
Say we have a 1000 pound horse who is frightened about getting into a horse trailer and it’s throwing a massive tantrum to avoid getting in. Just like in dog training, that’s not the best time to teach anyone anything. When an animal has already escalated into panic mode, it can be dangerous to push at such a time. First we take an animal in a calm state of mind and simply hang out around the new, potentially scary thing (the horse trailer) while doing absolutely nothing. Everyone is relaxed, there’s no rush – no pressure. We could then get begin to gradually get closer to look at and smell the trailer while associating it with something pleasant – like eating delicious food. This is systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning in action – which is a fancy way to say, getting used to something gradually (using baby steps) and making it feel less scary by associating it with something pleasant. The goal here is to face a fear and to realize that nothing bad happened – then repeatedly experience this success over and over. This is exactly how any animal (including humans) gets over any fear.
A lot of problem behaviours can be completely eliminated by simply being patient and showing an animal that their fears are unwarranted. Time and patience are priceless components of dog training and horse training. So then we progress to taking one step up the ramp – often this can be very scary for horses. Many horses take this first step, then quickly amp up into panicky thrashing or leaping sideways which can be extremely dangerous for the handler.
Following Through & Being Consistent
The fact of the matter, with dogs or horses, is that we can be super patient and kind while introducing a new concept, but there comes a point where we need to make something happen and it is critical that we follow through and not allow the dog or horse to resist and escape the situation. By allowing them to throw a fit to avoid getting into the trailer, for example, the horse would then get a rush of relief – which is a huge reward for doing something we don’t want.
It is crucial that we follow through with what we’ve asked the animal to do, and to make it as pleasant as possible, but also as firm as necessary to get the job done. Once the horse is successfully in the trailer we can reward with a carrot or apple and let them see that their fears were again unwarranted.
Over time, in many situations we build trust with the animal we’re working with which results in increased cooperation in new situations. As with any successful training we’d repeat this exercise many times until it’s completely easy and natural, but we need to be prepared to be extremely determined leaders in the “messy middle” when the animal is unsure and needs our guidance the most. This is where many horse and dog owners go wrong. They see that their pet is upset and unsure, and rather than standing firm and making absolutely sure that the action they’ve asked for is fulfilled, they give in and give up and the animal is rewarded for disobeying and loses trust in them as their leader. The animal also would learn that they can get out of cooperating by throwing a fit, making irrational and scary outbursts much more likely in the future even when the situation doesn’t call for it. Animals are very smart and make these associations quickly.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Silence is golden. While training, it is very helpful to keep quiet, except for saying command words. Noise increases stress, while silence relieves tension and improves focus.
Both dogs and horses are generally quiet creatures. Both species will vocalize on occasion, but usually they only do so when in distress, when over-excited, or to emphasize something they’ve already communicated non-verbally. Both dogs and horses use body language, gesture and motion to communicate clearly with each other – and with us – if we’re paying attention. They both also learn best while humans are being quiet. Avoid baby talk, asking questions, and constant yammering. For the most part, vocal chit-chat is distracting, over-exciting and confusing to them. It is also a main reason dogs develop ‘selective hearing’ or ignore what you say and ‘don’t listen’. Their hearing is very good. It’s just that humans tend to blather. (This is something I work on remembering daily – so if you can relate, you’re not alone!)
We found that adding gestural cues to our command words helps dogs clearly understand what we’re asking. As with human infants, dogs understand gestures (or specific sign language) much more quickly – before learning the meaning of verbal language. They clearly respond to tone of voice, but we generally want to avoid speaking too much, as it helps dogs and horses to keep calm when we’re quiet. Patience and calmness are our best friends when training.
Refusing to Budge
With both dogs and horses, if they make themselves dead weight and refuse to move on a lead, the answer is to turn them. Guide them in a completely different direction, rather than straight ahead the way they are facing. This shifts their weight and once that happens you can steer back to the direction you wanted to go. It works every time.
Strong Leadership is Required
Fear is not overcome by spoiling or nurturing. Coddling, cooing baby-talk and stroking a frightened dog or horse only rewards the fearful behaviour they are demonstrating. Petting a nervous, fearful animal tells them that there indeed must be something scary happening – and yes, good job – keep shaking, cowering, stressing or worrying. Instead they should be able to depend on us to be strong and control ourselves while showing them through leadership and example that whatever they’re worrying about is no big deal. The human’s job is to step up and become a source of confidence that can be trusted to take care of whatever comes their way, while expecting and demanding that their companion animal demonstrate their best behaviour too.
Dogs and horses can both clearly tell when an unsure person is ‘in charge’ (or not, but should be). Like kids with a substitute teacher, if they sense hesitation they’re much more likely to misbehave. Perhaps you’ve heard some of the classic stories from tourists visiting a pay-by-the-hour ranch to go on a trail ride. They’re all excited to ride a horse, but instead of following the herd along the trail, the horse repeatedly yanks the reins out of the rider’s hands in order to eat grass, or rubs the rider off on a handy fence or tree, or insists upon taking them back to the barn early (at a walk or a gallop!). Leadership & confidence are essential for horses and dogs to take you seriously & to perform or behave at their best.
Stopping Dangerous or Unacceptable Behaviour
With both dogs and horses it is necessary to use rare but firm punishment to correct blatant disobedience. Once the animal has been fairly taught and thoroughly understands but refuses to cooperate, there must be a meaningful consequence to convey that their choice is unacceptable, in order to change the unwanted behaviour. This is critical when the behaviour is dangerous to the animal, other animals, other people or the owner. The correction should be brief and intense, rather than gradual or continuous. It is much more effective to suddenly snap them out of it, rather than to nag, pester or underwhelm them. Since you don’t want to do a lot of corrections, make the punishment count the first time so you don’t need to do it twice.
I was recently reading some studies about punishment from teams of scientists who have been researching this topic for decades. One thing stuck out for me. They said that using gradually increasing low-level punishers is how to create a masochist. From the book “Behavior Analysis and Learning: Fourth Edition” by W. David Pierce, Carl D. Cheney (2008), referencing the work of Azrin, Holz, and Hake, “punishers that are introduced at a low intensity and gradually increased… is a formula for creating a masochist.” p. 125
Think about that! This is relevant to every dog owner, as most (including myself) naturally share the most gentle interactions possible and only increase intensity gradually as needed in the situation. An example is the ‘boiling frog’ analogy – that if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and gradually heat it up, the frog will continue to sit there until it boils and dies. However, if the frog was suddenly tossed into that boiling pot, it would leap right back out again and survive. That’s not a very nice story, but it does fit the idea. A sudden startling correction will stop your dog (or horse) from continuing to behave badly and endangering itself or you – whereas if you only share ‘soft’, gentle corrections that aren’t truly effective and gradually increase the intensity, you’re actually making your animal more insensitive and less likely to listen to you in the future. In effect, it’s teaching them to ignore you. Since we all want to do as little punishing as possible, when it’s necessary, make it sufficiently aversive that you won’t need to repeat yourself. An effective punisher is not emotional, it is done calmly, it does no damage to the animal and it immediately changes the behaviour – to stop them from repeating the mistake again.
Because we love our companion animals, we ideally would only share gentle, kind interactions with them, but in order to keep them and ourselves safe, it is necessary on rare occasions to make it clear that some behaviour is completely intolerable or dangerous and must be stopped immediately. (eg. possessiveness /resource guarding, leash reactivity, aggressive behaviour, etc.) This is not to advocate violence, abuse or injustice. It is to prevent injury, save lives and to prevent ongoing stress in dogs & frustration in owners that can lead to unfavourable, irrational or emotional over-reactions that can truly be dangerous, and cause mistrust, or resentment. When corrections are done rarely, unemotionally and safely, your relationship will not be damaged in any way. Instead you will create a stronger bond with an animal who respects what you say when a serious situation arises, who will trust you to handle the situation, with increased reliability and safety for both of you.
No doubt there are many more similarities between training dogs and training horses, but this article is plenty long so we’ll wrap it up here.
What I valued most about working with horses was the intuitive bond that was created between rider and horse. By spending a vast amount of quality time together, we could predict one another’s intentions and synchronize our movements like a flock of birds. That is harmony. That is a synthesis of energy. It’s a beautiful thing – like dancing.
The key to successful training is to spend quality time building a great relationship with your companion animal so that your experiences cease being a struggle and instead become an easy, harmonious synergy – where you completely understand, respect and trust one another.