On Dogs, Themselves and a little bit on Horses

By Lynn –

I took a ‘test’ recently to determine if I could get into a horse training class at my local university. Let it be known that I ride Western pleasure horses with nice low headsets, easy jogs, moderate lopes, and with the one I usually ride, an attitude the size of Texas that comes in pretty handy when we do flag races or barrel races. I ride on a correction bit (that’s a curb bit with some extra joints in it, for you non-horsey people), loose rein, pinky pulses on the rein if needed for contact, and I grip the sides of the horse with my knees for stability.
They placed me on a barrel racer with an attitude that ran Bar’s across the Great Plains and back, and had me ride with a twisted wire snaffle gag bit (again, for you non-horsey people, let’s just say that it’s a rather severe bit that I’ve never used before) that was run through a martingale to keep his head down. Barrel racers are taught to RUN DARNIT if the rider’s hands are low and his body weight sitting straight up or slightly forward. And if I even so much as brushed my leg against his sides, the horse takes off.

It was interesting, to say the least. I had to tack up, walk, trot and canter (I call them those instead of “jog” and “lope” because darn if this horse had the fastest and most back-breaking gaits I’ve ever ridden), and stay in a somewhat tight circle while maintaining almost English-style-like contact on the bit to keep the horse from running off with me. The first direction took me a bit to learn exactly HOW this horse worked and what things I had to adjust in order so that I could maintain control and make myself a better rider for him in the 10 minutes I spent astride. Once I reversed and started the other direction, I understood almost exactly what Spirit was about and that, while broke, he was taught how to run barrels, how to be fast, how to have three speeds: stop, slow, and fast. NOTHING in between. To make a long story longer by a few words, I passed the ‘test,’ received permission and am now registered to be taught how to break/train a horse to be started after the New Year.

It reminded me that, just like the difference between Bar and Spirit, no two dogs are the same. My family and I have been spoiled so badly by the big Z that when it comes to actually fostering or owning another dog, they’re not too sure if they want to do it. Z came to us knowing basic obedience, no chewing, no jumping, easy to boundary train and crate train, and pretty much housebroken, and all that was at 7 months coming from a shelter. Except for a not-so-small aggression problem that gave me two new scars on my hand, he was a breeze compared to the Sheltie mix we took care of with the intent to own. Maybe it was simply that she was a female, maybe it was that she was taken to the equivalent of Doggy Dachau when she came to our house, maybe it was that she was just way softer than what we were used to: oh she was smart, all right&she had brains in there that her owners didn’t even know about&she was just a STUBBORN little thing! I think we kept her for the entire 2-3 weeks while her owner was moved into a retirement home out of state and not ONCE did she potty where she was supposed to: Granted, it was only 2-3 weeks, but that dog would hold it for days at a time just because she wasn’t given free reign of the yard like she was used to. Not only that, but she also drank water like she’d been in the desert for the past week. All freedom privileges were revoked, from off-leash in the yard to any walks at all as she was used to pottying on walks and we wanted to break that habit. She ate dog food twice a day, no ground round mixed in as she was accustomed&no free handouts&took her about a week to get her to even start looking at her food dish when it was time to eat. We had her professionally groomed (which usually happened only twice a year if she was lucky) and weighed her every few days just to get her out in public, as well as to see if the extra 15-or-so pounds were coming off.

I make her owners sound like slobs really, and they aren’t. See, they were spoiled with their last dog as well: he didn’t shed at all, he was older, quiet, less active despite his lapdoggish breed mix&and when he eventually died, they were fine with not having another dog. Enter Missy in some strange coincidence and they found themselves completely over their heads.

What I’m trying to emphasize here is not only good ownership, but knowing your dog and how to use his talents to your best advantage&what his purpose, his breed is for; having the time and resources (physical, financial, land, etc) available to you to care for him&but also knowing how to get your dog to perform his BEST. My professor looked at Spirit years ago and saw a barrel racer in him and I see (and experienced) that’s what he loves to do, run. He has neither the conformation nor the headset for a halter or a western pleasure horse like Bar does. Could he have been taught to slow down and Bar to not have quite his Alpha-horse mentality? Probably. Can you teach a collie bite work and a Chihuahua to be a personal protection dog? Quite possible. Heck, I’ve seen a Malinois run agility and while he finished, he definitely wasn’t zipping around the course like those border collies were. He had to think things through, go through the course very methodically, at his own pace. Could he go faster, like the Tervuren in the same trial? Probably. Was it in his nature to? Probably not.

Think about what your dog is, both what you want him to be and what he was born to be. Are those two visions the same? If not, how can you work to make them as similar as possible?

Now try and use that exact same mentality with another dog that you’ve never met before, you don’t know its background, only that you need to work with it somehow to get it to do WHAT you want in the manner you want it. Kind of different, isn’t it?