Wednesday, April 1, 2015

thoughts on horse training

Why do things work so well some times and so poorly other times?  The same exercise with the same equipment can have very different outcomes.  I have been thinking about this since I read an article here from the Horse Collaborative blog.  It is called "Dressage and Natural Horsemanship: What's the Difference"  and well worth reading. I love and hate both of these methods in equal measure. Why do they work? And why are the exact same methods in the wrong hands so destructive?

Dressage works.  It is the foundation for all horse disciplines from jumping to western pleasure simply because it is the name given to proven traditional methods.  Dressage is what happened when the most effective traditions were formalized for consistent teaching and judging.  At its best Dressage is a harmonious blending of two beings into one, dynamic and joyous.  But there are also times when dressage is horrifying as you see reins pulled in tight, trainers yelling, young riders verbally abused, or the eyes of a horse rolling as he seeks a moment of release. Higher levels of the sport are too often about pushing the horses and riders to unhealthy extremes rather than developing them to their highest potential.

Natural Horsemanship is much more recent, a product of modern society's desire to become more humane combined with technology for distance learning.  It was developed by several brilliant trainers, men wanted to counteract cruel methods by teaching people better ways. The second and third generation of Natural Horsemanship trainers are successfully using video to reach people all over the world.

Natural Horsemanship is as much about allowing everyone access to the best ideas in training as it is about the training itself, and this is a beautiful and worthy idea. It can accomplish incredible things. But the simple equipment can be used in harsh and painful ways.  Subtle differences in use can make the same methods coercive, teaching learned helplessness rather than engaging the mind of the horse. The most common problem is followers of this method that lack understanding. People learning to train their own horse without a mentor often train spoiled horses, creating dangerous habits that are nearly impossible to break.

Each method is proven, each teaches proven ways of reaching a horse's mind and body, and each can be used in an abusive manner while still conforming to the rules set out in the teaching. I have learned an incredible amount from both Dressage and Natural Horsemanship. No matter what method is used to work with a horse one thing makes the difference between success and failure. Training must be a two way conversation. The horse must know that you are hearing and responding to them, not just making demands. This does not mean you are letting the horse run over you.  It means that when a horse tries to run over you, you are responding, then listening for what he tells you in return. work with a horse must have the goal of two way communication no matter what training method you are using. Develop mutual understanding. Look at the training methods as tools, not goals.  "Dressage" or "Natural Horsemanship" is not the end result. The end result is a horse that is willing to be your partner.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

dog training: Can't Catch ME!

Catch me if you can!  Your dog is zooming around out of control while you helplessly call his name.  He comes right up to you, but seems to duck away right at the last moment.  It takes you 15 minutes to actually catch him, and the whole time people are watching. If you have ever been in this embarrassing scenario you are not alone.  It happens to a lot of dogs, even some that are considered very well trained!

This is the most common problem with our dogs in training this month.  It can be funny, but there are times where running wildly can put the dog in danger.  Not only this, but not being caught will often develop into larger behavior issues like aggression toward strangers and even family members.  You want to fix this immediately!

How can you solve this problem? 
Very simple: we will set it up so he enjoys being caught. When your dog comes to you and lets you hold their collar good things will happen. Here is how we will start:

The first step in teaching your dog to enjoy being caught is to each him to enjoy hearing his name.  As with all training, you want to start in a quiet, comfortable area. for best results, do this at home during a time of day when you and your dog are both relaxed. Say his name, and when he looks at you give him a tasty treat. (we will have a post on what makes a good treat or reward soon, so stay tuned!) Practice this step at least 12 times each day until your dog is very good at looking for his treat when he hears his name.  You are teaching him that his name means good things are on the way so he should always be listening for it.

While you are teaching the dog to respond positively whenever you say his name, you should also be listening to yourself. How do you feel when you say his name?  Do you ever say his name when you are upset with your dog? Because all mammals are hardwired to match the emotional state of those around them have brain cells dedicated to recognizing and copying the emotions of those around them, your dog will often match the way you feel. Humans actually have brain cells that detect emotions and copy them.  So does your dog. This means that for him to feel good when you say his name,  you need to feel good when you say it. If you are upset with your dog use words like "Hey" or "Stop That" to get his attention and then give him something else to do.  And don't worry, if you are just having a bad day your dog will understand.

When your dog is very good at the first step, it is time to move on to the second step. Now when you say your dogs name, ask him to come a few steps toward you to get the treat  Start simply, with just enough distance that he has to move his feet. When he is good at this, add a few more steps, then a few more.  Congratulations, your dog now knows how to come when he is called!  In dog sports this is called a "recall" and it is a very important skill.

Now that you have this basic recall, you can start the third step. Call your dog's name, have him walk to you, then gently take his collar in your hand.  While you are holding his collar, give him his treat, immediately let go of the collar, and tell him he did good.  If he chooses to stay close to you after you let him go, pet him or give him a belly rub as an additional reward.  Now your dog knows how to be caught.  You still have work to do.  You will gradually add more distractions and more distance, but your basic exercise looks like this:

Here is what it looks like: