Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sharing Attention: Improving Relationships Between Horses and Dogs

This is my first blog post with training tips for the HORSES AND DOGS CLICK! challenge on my Bookends Farm Facebook page. If you aren't on Facebook and want more information, let me know and we'll get you involved somehow.

I was inspired by seeing a video clip of a Dog and Horse Trail competition in Germany. I shared the video and wished we had something similar.  A friend suggested I start an online contest, so I did! It's very casual, the purpose being to encourage people to work with their dogs and horses together and train them, rather than avoiding the problems that sometimes come up when you have both species. 

I've had a lot of interest and I want to keep this fun, collaborative and encouraging. I'm going to post videos and blog posts about the way I would go about working toward this goal myself.

In order to start a project like this, I think of two main approaches.  One is to work each animal separately on the various criteria required (I'll copy the details at the end of this post). The other is to be sure the animals are comfortable in each others' presence. 

Since we still have complete snow cover here, I can't be working in the arena but there are certainly things I can start working on. One is the relationship piece. As we have six dogs and six horses, I have lots of pairs to choose from. I'll be using different individuals for different posts, depending on which ones I think will best demonstrate the topic.

For this post I have chosen to use Beetle as the demo dog.  Beetle is 15 years old and while he has always been very comfortable and confident around the horses, he never had what I would call a good relationship with them. He was comfortable and confident because he would quickly snap at them if they got too close.  He didn't chase them; just didn't want them in his bubble. As a senior citizen, he deserves some training time and anything to make his life more pleasant is a good goal. He no longer sees or hears well, so can be pretty anxious in the barn. I hope this will help.

The horse I have chosen to use is Mariah. She also is a senior who deserves some training time. She's a good match for this job because although she is enormous, she is very, very good with the terriers.  I once locked Eloise in her stall by mistake shortly after I got her and didn't discover it until I got back to the house.  I didn't realize what happened so I went hunting for her and finally checked Mariah's stall. They were both in there, Mariah happily eating her hay and Eloise safe as could be. 

In the past, if a horse has threatened Beetle with lowered head and pinned ears, he'd fight back. I am confident that Mariah won't do this so I can focus on Beetle's emotions. If I was concerned, I would begin with them much further away. 

Since this is the beginning of this project, I like to begin with a bit of a dry run.  This is something I have heard Ken Ramirez speak of on several occasions. Set up the training and run through without the animals to make sure you have the equipment, yourself, props, etc all as you need them. It doesn't eliminate the possibility of missing something, but it helps and you will see me find a couple problems here. 

I decided that shavings bags would be a good platform for Beetle in order to get him closer to the height of Mariah's nose. Keeping her in her stall keeps her big feet out of the equation and her head can still come out of the grill window for training. Rather than doing a complete dry run, I try a little session with just Beetle.

What did I learn in my run through with Beetle alone? Before I began, I thought about my treat situation. Many years ago I accidentally used the same pouch for horse treats that I had liver treats in for the dog earlier. That horse was NOT happy. Since then I have been careful to make sure all horse treats are clean of anything which might offend their noses or taste buds. The dogs are fine if I feed them a hay stretcher pellet by mistake, but not the other way around. In the winter, I keep my left coat pocket well stocked with hay stretcher pellets for use during the day. I keep a pouch clipped on to my right pocket with dog treats. I realized that put the treats on the opposite side of the animals the way I had the setup in mind but thought that might actually be a good thing so that I could turn to each animal, rather than getting sloppy in my treat delivery which could encourage them to come for the treat rather than wait for it. And in practice, it felt right. 
The first thing I noticed after turning the camera on is that Beetle wouldn't be able to get up on the shavings bags by himself.  A couple years ago it would have been no problem but he isn't as spry as he used to be.  I had to pick him up and he really doesn't like to be picked up so for the next run I add a step for him (and you will see why that turned out to be a very good thing!). 

The next problem is that I automatically expected a polite sit from him. That's kind of a default for me in expectations of dogs. Sit before we do anything. I really wasn't thinking clearly to expect this of Beetle because he has not been comfortable sitting for a couple years. His knees pain him and when he, along with my other older dog, became reluctant to sit when cars passed us on walks, I realized it was because it hurt! I no longer ask him to but here I was expecting it. After a couple times when he slowly does sit, I remember and stop expecting it. 

Finally, you saw me find that even though I had carefully placed the shavings bags where I thought they should be, I had my back to the imaginary Mariah and needed to change my position.

I was ready to bring Mariah into the next session and here's how that went:

I thought about having Beetle stay on the lower step at first but he jumped right up to the top so there we were. Another Ken Ramirez tip: when working with multiples, everybody gets reinforced even if they haven't been cued for a specific behavior.  If nothing else, they have to sit there while somebody else gets attention! In this case, I just wanted both animals to find out that there was reinforcement for both and they could be happy together. 

First I ask Mariah for a fist target. She complies (not a touch but close and we're not looking for precision at this point) and I click and both Beetle and Mariah get a treat. Then I ask Beetle to target but oops! I give him a fist target and I use a flat hand as a hand target for dogs, while I use a fist for horses. I switch and open my hand. My brain is starting to smoke already. 

I wanted to start out by asking for something specific from each animal to give them something to do and reward each so they knew they were both "working" and wouldn't be tempted to offer unwanted behaviors. Once they had each responded to a hand target, I moved to seeing if they could both just be patient.  And I measure patience in nanoseconds. We aren't building behaviors, or duration or precision. The goal here is to just be together and see that it's good. As long as Mariah keeps her head away from me, I click. We do that three times but I begin to feed them closer and closer so their heads are practically touching. So close that poor Beetle gets bumped (by my hand, not Mariah!) and tumbles backwards off the bags. Next time I will turn the bags the other direction so he has a better platform!
At the end, I give each of them a final handful: Mariah in her feed tub and Beetle on the lower step so that they are separated a bit and no problems ensue when my back is turned as I turn the camera off.

Safety and comfort is a priority here. I didn't exactly set that up successfully for Beetle by having him take a tumble. Next time I will be more careful. I am happy with the behavior from each of them, however! I saw no unpleasant emotions. Beetle might look worried from someone else's point of view- his tail is pretty tight. But at his age and in winter, that's not unusual. I will keep an eye on this as I don't want him climbing up on the shavings bags just for food if it hurts or he's uneasy. I will probably do more with him alone and might see if I can find something with a little better grip for him to stand on. Mariah was her saintly self and I think would be happy to repeat this again.

Here are my rules/guidelines for the contest:

Team of three: one human, one equine, one canine
Goals- to promote happy interactions among species in practical setting using positive reinforcement training.
Criteria- marker and food reinforcer must be used for each of the 10 exercises for both horse and dog. 

Course- design your own! Must include:
1. Dog to be on leash at beginning, let loose for all exercises, then put back on leash at conclusion.
2. “Heeling” of dog next to horse’s shoulder and/or person’s side; minimum of 10 yards at walk and 5 yards of trot. 
3. Horse and dog together over a rail type obstacle of any height
4. Horse to demonstrate correct nose-to-tail bend through 2 consecutive changes of direction, using cones or similar object (handler may change sides in-hand)
5. Dog to stay in marked, but not confined, area (rails, colored sand) while horse and human go 10 yards and demonstrate backing of 5 steps minimum
6. Dog to recall over or through any obstacle while horse remains calm and still
7. Horse, dog and handler to cross “bridge” of any safe material (plywood, secured tarp), large enough that all four of horse’s feet will be on it at once (no height necessary)
8. Dog to stay at safe distance while horse and handler open gate, pass through, recall dog to stay again while horse and handler latch gate.
9. Dog to demonstrate sit and down for minimum of 5 seconds (can be during any of the above exercises)
10. Bonus- dog to retrieve object to handler while horse remains calm and still. Object can be thrown or placed prior to retrieve.

Judging to be both objective (completion of all 10 exercises) and subjective (happiness of all three team members, quality of work). I will choose my own favorite (or maybe favorite 3?) and will also tally “likes” of each video submitted.
All riders must wear a helmet! (or your video will be removed)

Two divisions- one ridden and one with horse in-hand. For in-hand division, horse must be connected to handler (no horse liberty work).

Videos may be submitted starting July 1 and ending July 4 at midnight EST. Judging by myself and likes will be July 5th through the 12th.