Tough Love – No Thanks
Training Manners the Force-Free Way
Lisa Kerley BSc, KPA-CTP
Dog Days Daycare
How often have people told you to “show your dog who’s boss”? I get that a lot too. As a professional dog trainer, people come to me for help and advice with their dogs every day. Away my facility however, many people don’t know what I do for a living and are more than eager to give me ‘some tips’ with MY big guy. I’m told I should use a chain to assert myself and to maintain control. I need to correct mistakes and ‘get after him’ if he steps out of line. Not only am I warned that he will take over, but that he will actually become dangerous if I don’t do these things.
Over the last two decades I’ve worked with literally thousands of dogs of every size and description, from a 1lb Chihuahua pup to a pair of Presa Canarios weighing in at 165lb each. All have had their own unique personalities and every imaginable behavior or training issue. From dogs that would readily use teeth to defend anything they prized, to those that would pin strangers against walls and hold them there until rescued by the parents. Not once have I felt that resorting to harsher equipment or tougher methods was necessary or would help.
So every time I hear “those kind methods are fine for the soft ones, but they don’t work with bigger / stronger / tougher dogs”, I smile. Really? Because my guy, a stallion, weighs in at over 1100lbs.
Horses endure force and punishment in the name of training and in their day-to-day handling, even more than many dogs do. They have chains on their faces and metal in their mouths. Their heads are tied down and their mouths strapped shut. They are poked in the ribs with metal spikes and hit with sticks. This is partly because of their size, as this somehow makes a smack or kick sting less; partly because they ‘do worse to each other’, so they can certainly handle anything we might dole out; and partly because that’s the way it’s always been done, perhaps the most upsetting reason of all.
And stallions typically get more than their fair share of this. They have a reputation for being intense and dangerous. Their behaviour is strongly influenced by hormones and they often respond to things in the environment much more intensely than is typical with a gelding or mare. “You can’t treat him like a regular horse”, I’ve been told again and again.
Now, I’ve seen how labels can land people in a lot of trouble with their dogs. They set up an attitude for confrontation and challenge, even before getting started. Just like the dogs I work with, with my horse I’ve focused on building a strong relationship, one where I have developed trust by being reasonable and fair in my expectations and remaining consistent in those expectations. Short-term goals never override maintaining or strengthening our relationship.
I set my horse up for success by teaching him the skills he needs to share his life with me safely and comfortably. They are the foundation of our work together. I make these lessons clear and reasonable and don’t rely on equipment to get results. Initial work is presented simply, breaking the behavior or skill down into small pieces. This allows my student to grasp the lessons more easily and reduces frustration, both important for success. Most of the lessons are started at liberty, whether they ultimately will be used for day-to-day life or for riding. And because I have taken the time necessary to teach preliminary skills, there’s no need to rely on equipment like bits or crops, to get things done.
I know that if I have over-faced him and he loses his focus, or doesn’t respond to a request or acts inappropriately, it’s because I haven’t trained him adequately for that situation. I do not react to undesired behaviours by getting upset or using punishment. Instead I get him through the situation with as little drama as possible, making extra room for him if that will help, or giving him something to do that he’s good at that will get him focused and build a pleasant association. What I take away from the experience is not that my horse has been ‘bad’. Instead I recognize that something is missing in his training. Whether that’s something I can work on in the moment or something I need to set up in a later session, reactions or stronger equipment won’t be part of the solution.
And just like us, horses can have bad days, and may not always be at their best. I’m not going to allow an off day to damage our relationship, or be an excuse to get tough with him, either.
So what special lessons and skills are required for a stallion? Stallions tend to use their mouths A LOT and many bite. They can be pushy about space and difficult to control, especially when they get aroused. They often lose their focus because of distractions in the environment.
My first concern was for safety. I didn’t want Bandolero to get hurt because his emotions got the best of him, just as much as I didn’t want to get run over or injured.
He also needed to be able to cope calmly with his daily life at the barn, including having mares moved around him and being groomed nearby – both big demands for a stallion! When we are together, whether that is riding, walking together or around other horses, I need him to pay attention and follow my direction when asked.
So with a plan in mind and a clicker in hand, I taught him to:
- take treats nicely
- be calm and polite around food and at feeding times
- stay out of my space unless invited in
- get out of my space calmly and quickly
- be around distractions while remaining calm
- walk together quietly, matching my pace and following my direction, while maintaining a loose line
Guess what? These are all skills that any horse would benefit from knowing! The only difference was that we had to spend extra time and care on developing his attention and focus in the face of distractions. Extra care and time that I was more than willing to spend to ensure he would be safe and have exceptional ground manners. And taking this time has allowed these skills to be developed without intimidation, force or equipment.
I like to think my stallion is an ambassador for positive, force-free training. He’s proof that tougher methods or harsher equipment are not required because the animal is bigger or stronger. Every day both of us enjoy the benefits of using brainpower instead of manpower. And it sure feels good when people tell me what a polite, well-behaved guy he is, either!