Saturday, October 21, 2017

Layers of Safety When Working with Dogs and Horses

Dogs and horses. They are equally important in my life and in my business. I love learning from specialists with either species because it always informs my work with the other. So while this lesson was learned in a dog based setting, I took the lessons home for both.

A couple weeks ago I attended an Aggression in Dogs seminar with Michael Shikashio and Trish McMillan Loehr. It was an excellent seminar for anyone who works with dogs in any capacity. During the weekend, Michael shared his "layers of safety" or "levels of protection". When working with aggressive dogs, he makes sure he has as many layers as possible...up to 7 or 8 or more! What are these layers? With an aggressive dog they can include having the dog

  • on a leash
  • behind a gate
  • behind a closed door
  • wearing a muzzle
For the people they include
  • using your training bag as a barrier for a dog coming at you
  • having citronella spray on a belt clip
  • wearing protective clothing
Even if you used just these listed (yes, use them all), you would have seven layers of protection.  

Tomorrow I will be the examiner at a Pony Club testing. And if anyone knows about layers of safety, it's those involved with Pony Club! In this case, we aren't dealing with aggressive dogs, but with kids and ponies. Or horses and adults. Our first level has to be teaching and training. The child should be mounted on a safe pony...oxymoron though that may be as we all know there is no such thing as a "bombproof horse". But I'll try not to get sidetracked. Next we need to teach the child how to ride well to be safe on that pony.

But these things sometimes go sideways. So we also have equipment layers: helmet, sleeves, safety vests, breakaway stirrups, and yes...medical arm bands. We also have environmental controls: enclosed arenas or fields, other animals secured behind fences and carefully managed lesson areas.

In my life, horses and dogs are mixed on a daily basis. My dogs accompany me to the barn for chores and hang out there when I work horses. Our walks frequently take us around or through horse turnout areas. Anyone who has been around horses and dogs for any period of time knows the risks and has heard the horror stories. Dogs, horses and humans can suffer physical injury as well as mental or emotional trauma as a result: dogs being kicked or stepped on or strangled by ropes; humans being kicked, run over or run away with if a dog frightens a horse; horses getting tangled in ropes or running through fences. 

Enough nightmare scenes. 

This is on my mind currently because we have a new canine addition to the family this week: a 6 month old Jack Russell Terrier. I am very aware of how I set the scene for daily life as a result. I need to keep everyone safe while still providing all with the enrichment of farm life: horses need to be turned out, puppies need to exercise and explore their worlds, humans still need to do chores. 

Four years of living here and I am still in love with the kennel in my barn, most likely because I lived the previous decades without one. This is a place where dogs can safely hang out and have access to a dog door with a kennel outside. Inside they can see me working in the barn. Outside they can see me working in the paddocks, arena, etc. So if horses are in the aisle or I am working with them, the dogs are in the kennel. But if I have turned horses out or they are securely in stalls, adult dogs are free to be with me, or sleeping in the sun in the aisle, or (most helpful) hunting vermin. 

I have spent the first week here teaching the new puppy, Wilder, that the kennel is a fun place to be. He really didn't think it was the first few days because he wanted to be with me and he cried piteously when locked in the kennel (a sad history of being excessively crated/kenneled in his short life). My other Jack, Eloise, was with him, he had a comfortable bed and plenty of room to move around and explore (the kennel doubles as a feed room). But since he was so stressed in there, I wanted to limit the time he was confined until he acclimated. So as soon as horses were turned out, I would open the door and release him. 

The main layer of safety I have on puppies is a long line. A narrow gauge paracord for a smallish puppy, and attached to a harness (not a no-pull harness), our puppies have this attached to them all the time for up to a year. Puppies are unpredictable. This allows them to explore a much larger area than a leash, run around, but still be attached to me. So even when released from the kennel, Wilder had the long rope on. If I could pay attention to him, I let it drag and just picked it up if he started to wander away. But if I was likely to get distracted (being honest with myself), I simply tied the line to something sturdy in the barn so he couldn't wander off. 

Which brings me to this noon. I had gone out to do noon chores and my first job was to put up a new line of fence. Dogs accompanied me. Wilder had a wonderful time playing in the grass and harassing Eloise and falling down and eating grass and harassing Eloise and finding horse manure to eat and harassing Eloise. About half the time he was dragging the line, but when he headed for manure or got tangled around fence posts or headed toward a horse paddock, I picked up the line and called him back to me (after which he got treats and pats and verbal praise galore). 

Once the fence was ready, it was simply a matter of opening a gate to let the ponies through. I needed to put Wilder somewhere secure so when I went in to grab a grazing muzzle for one of the ponies, I simply tied his rope to a blanket rack in the barn so he could be in the aisle or barnyard and watch.  As I walked toward the ponies who were dancing around anxious to get to grass, I hesitated.  One of the horror stories which sticks with me was of two Corgis killed when they were tied in a gateway and horses got loose and galloped through the gate. Being tied, the dogs had no way to get out of the way. 

I looked back at Wilder. Then I turned around and went back to tie him shorter, so that he could not get out of the barn. There were now three layers of safety: the fence around the horses should prevent them from getting anywhere near Wilder.  He was tied in the barn aisle so he couldn't get to them.  If the ponies somehow got loose, the chain across the aisle way would prevent them from getting into the aisle. It wasn't until afterward that I realized those three layers only worked one direction.  They prevented horses from getting to him, but there was only one layer, the rope, preventing him from getting to horses, since he could easily get under the chain and the paddock fences. 

Thinking about layers of safety gives me a new way to look at life when dogs and horses are both involved, as well as when working with each individually.