Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Training the barn dog: Achieving harmony between horse and canine.

Heaven: Blue skies, a willing horse and a good dog.
There are few things I enjoy more than hitting the trails with Maizy and my horse Lilly; the smell of the forest, the jingle of Maizy's collar, the motion of the horse and the warm sun is just about as close to perfect as it gets. Most horsepeople love dogs as well, but many horsepeople do not love dogs at the barn. Why? Quite simply, it can be extremely dangerous for dogs, horses and humans alike. Not to mention having somebody's 100 pound beast try and give you a kiss while you're holding the horse for the vet is just down right annoying.

I am very lucky to board my horses at a barn that allows me to bring Maizy. She has been around horses since she was about 10 weeks old, but only recently did she graduate to being off-leash the majority of the time at the barn. Many people subscribe to the "let dog loose and it will figure it out" train of thought, but this often leads to doggy getting kicked a few times before it figures out how to act around horses. This is NOT something I advise. So without further ado, here are my tips for training a barn dog.

A good dog outside of the barn is a good dog at the farm

Not surprisingly, obedience training is paramount to having a good experience. If your dog doesn't listen to your commands reliably away from the barn, there is no way you will be able to control your dog at the barn. A horse farm is doggy heaven - there's poop to eat, fields to play in, animals to herd and so many delicious smells. However, as I noted earlier the farm can also be very dangerous for dogs - large animal medications are in abundance, horses have hard hooves and sharp teeth, and there is no shortage of vehicles coming and going, among other dangers. Here are the must have commands for the barn dog:
  • Come and stay. These two are pretty self explanatory. The ability to control your dog's coming and going is critical to their safety.
  • Leave it. Another very useful "trick". Remember those medications I mentioned? They often get dumped into feed buckets and that feed often ends up on the ground where a curious dog could easily get into it. Not to mention Maizy loves to eat horse poop!
  • Sit and Down. These two staples of dog knowledge are another must have for keeping you dog out of trouble. Once, before Maizy was allowed to be loose around the horses, she escaped and of course ran over to me. I was mounted on a horse and I could see that Maizy was trying to figure out how she could climb that creature and get to me. Thankfully, with a simple "Maizy, down!" the crisis was averted, allowing me to dismount and collect her.
  • Heel. Very useful for when you're leading horses but don't want dogs running every which way.
Practice these commands at home and in other environments before bringing your dog to the barn. A solid obedience foundation makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Maizy and the resident barn dogs enjoy playtime in the snow.

Resident Farm Animals Come First

While the barn is a wonderful place for dogs, it is not a doggy day care. The animals that live on site, be they the resident barn dog, the horses, barn cats or other animals are not to be bothered. Remembering this rule will keep you in the good books with the farm owner, staff and other riders. Even now, I always bring Maizy into the barn on a leash to access the situation before letting her go - what horses are in the barn? Is the vet or farrier working? Are there small children around?

Set Your Dog Up for Success

Maizy and Calla have become good
friends. Calla often grooms Maizy.
With proper training, dogs and horses
can enjoy each other's company.
It's easy to rush the process - of course you want to hit the trails with Fluffy right away. However, I have seen a number of dogs injured by this approach. The saying "slow and steady wins the race" rings true when training a dog to be around horses. 
  • When you first start bringing your dog to the barn, forget about working with your horse. Your dog will need your full attention at first. If I needed to work with a horse, Maizy was either left at home or locked in an empty stall.
  • Control your dog. Start out with your dog on a leash and gradually increase the time off leash. Until she was 10 months old, Maizy was ALWAYS on a leash when she was close to horses. She was first allowed off leash on the trails (with no horses in sight), then near the paddocks, and finally in the barn. Gradually increase the off-leash proximity to horses.
  • Pick the right horse. The barely handled two year old colt in the barn is not a good horse for your dog to be around. Ensure your dog is only exposed to calm, well trained horses until the dog develops some "horse sense".
  • When in doubt, leash your dog. 

Learn from your mistakes

This one is pretty obvious but it can be hard to do. Realise that, like with all training, mistakes will be made. It is how you handle those mistakes that makes the difference. Maizy has had her paw trod upon by a horse - thankfully, no damage was done and after a bit of reassurance she was back to her happy self. I should not have allowed this to happen, but it did - as a result, we took a step back and worked on being respectful of the horse's space. 

Assume Nobody Wants to See Your Dog

This is a big one. The majority of horsepeople love dogs but that does not mean they love your dog. There have been nights where I have wanted to simply brush my horse in peace, only to have a dog come bounding over wanting to play. And I'm not gonna lie, I promptly locked that dog in a stall. I do my best to ensure that Maizy stays out of everyone's way, both horse and human. Of course, this doesn't always happen (see the section about mistakes!) but with an apology, most people are quiet forgiving and are more than willing to give Maizy some love.

Time to Hit the Trails!

With proper due diligence and basic obedience training, most dogs fit into the farm life quite easily. There really is nothing better than having my dog with me at the barn, and I couldn't have asked for a nicer group of animals to spend time with.

Oh and the best part about the barn? It's one of the few things actually that tire her out:

After a day at the barn, everyone is
 ready for a nap!

1 comment :

  1. Good article! I own two Boerboels (Boerboel means "farm dog" in Africaans), and with continued training and positive reinforcement they are great with my horses. I also run an online pet supplies store that donates a portion of each sale to Rescue of horses, dogs and companion animals.