4 Tips To A Better Barn Dog By Bernadette Pflug, CPDT
If you’re like most horse people, you know a great barn dog. Every barn or trainer seems to have one. The mellow fellow who hangs near the arena, quietly waiting for his owner, never giving anyone trouble. Chances are, you have wished this was your dog but if even allowed to come to the barn, things may not have gone as planned. Maybe he chases horses, barks while you lunge or ride, or gets into tussles with other barn dogs? What do you do? How can you train your dog to become a quiet, compliant barn companion? As a professional dog trainer and horse owner myself, this is a fairly common issue I receive into training. It is possible with the right tools and techniques to integrate your pooch into your equestrian lifestyle.
I want to share with you the story of Gibson, a recent training client that I rehabilitated and is once again back at the barn. “Gib,” as his owner calls him is a lovely three year old, neutered male, Australian Shepherd. He belongs to an active horsewoman who competes in the A-rated Hunter / Jumper shows with her 14 year old Dutch Warmblood. Katie has owned Aussies since childhood and enjoys taking them to the barn and horseshows. Gibson is no exception, and grew up around horses. For many months, Gibson did well at the barn with only minor issues of chasing the occasional chicken or cat but things changed when he reached adolescence. Gibson began whining and barking whenever Katie was out of sight and was getting into frequent fights with other dogs at the barn. Soon, the horses became an issue too. Katie notes: “I think the problems began when he was around a year old. He and I were walking out to get my horse in a large field. I’d forgotten that one of the other horses in the pasture was particularly hostile to dogs and he actually ran Gibson out of the pasture with his ears flat and teeth barred. After that Gib was especially nervous around bay horses.”
Gibson’s anxiety began to increase. If a situation with a horse became tense, his behavior would worsen. Katie recalls, “If one of the horses was nervous or if I had to get after anyone, he would become distressed and whine, bark and get in the way or put himself in a compromising place in an attempt to help.” In order to keep more control of Gib, Katie began trying to teach him to stay next to her while she was lunging, a decision she admits was a mistake. “The breaking point was when he bit one of the horses. I was working with a particularly high strung mare that doesn’t stand still. Her prancing made Gib nervous and he jumped up and bit her on the upper leg. He didn’t bite enough to even break the skin but I knew I couldn’t bring him to the barn anymore if he was going to act like that,” Katie said.
Katie decided Gibson had to get help. She enrolled him in my two week Boarding School program. This is an intensive training that allows me to work with the dogs on my farm, around my horses, goats, bunnies, and other dogs and even take them with me to lessons with my daughter’s horse trainer where they are exposed to a big barn setting, different dogs and horses and people riding. With all dogs, my program begins with the same basic concepts.
1) Leadership – No dog will find you relevant unless he perceives you as the leader. Leadership in the dog world boils down to controlling movement and resources. The leader decides where we go, when we turn, when we stop, etc. Much like riding a horse between your hands and legs, you must walk a dog with intent, being in charge. To teach this, first Gibson was introduced to a vibrating, electronic collar. This is a great tool for teaching a dog to be responsive at a distance. While working the dog on a 15’ long leash I walk forward. At first, like most dogs new to training, Gibson would run ahead. Just before he hits the end of the long line, I hit the vibrate button on his e-collar and change direction, walking away from him. This vibration serves as an alert to pay attention to his handler. When he catches up, I praise the dog and offer a small amount of his food. I will feed him all meals this way for up to a week. In this way, I am controlling both movement (deciding where we go) and resources (his meal.) We continue walking, changing direction anytime he runs ahead, until the dog has figured out that the best place to be is next to the handler.
2) Ensure dog knows basic commands and is responsive – Once the dog is fluent at walking with me, without any leash pressure, I begin to add in other commands. Coming when called, sitting, down, stay, leave it, and go to your bed. Dogs are naturally non-verbal communicators. We must remember that English is a second language for them. These cues serve as a basic template to control their movement. If a dog is on a down/stay, he is not chasing horses. If he comes when he is called, he will stop when asked and return right away. I review each of these commands ensuring that the dog has full understanding what they mean. Each cue is trained gradually, setting the dog up for success.
3) Add in distractions – Once the dog understands his cues, we begin to make things a bit harder for him. Increasing the duration and distance on stays and comes. Asking for attention and compliance around quiet horses and other livestock. If at any time the dog makes a mistake, I gently coach him, reminding what I am asking him to do.
4) Proofing – This is the final step to ensure your training is complete. Proofing is offering heavy, real world distractions, ensuring the dog is compliant in all situations. For Gibson, this meant traveling to our horse trainer’s barn and testing him around her dogs. Be sure to give the dog a loose leash while he is greeting other dogs, so as not to make him feel trapped. Gibson did great with this. Next, putting him on a down/stay while my daughter lunges her horse who is acting very silly, cantering quickly and bucking. All previous triggers for Gibson to chase and nip. It’s important to have someone else to work the horse, while you are able to focus on the dog. Gibson was corrected for anything other than doing as he was told, which was down and stay. Once that foundation training is laid, the corrections are few. Gibson was only corrected once or twice before laying quietly while the horse was lunged. Next, Gibson sat quietly in a corner of the arena during lesson time. Although supervised, he showed no indication of his previous desire to chase or nip.
Almost immediately after coming home from training, Gibson’s owner took him to a large Hunter/Jumper Show at the Colorado Horse Park. She reports that he did wonderfully, with none of his previously naughty behaviors surfacing. To maintain his behavior, she will have to continue to take him to the barn and require that he listen to her commands and behave quietly. With a little patience and careful training, just about any dog can become a trusted barn and show companion.
Bernadette Pflug, owner of BlackPaw Dog Training, is both an equestrian and certified dog trainer located in Louisville, Colorado.