Many of us wouldn’t think of heading out to the barn without a dog in tow. After all, dogs enjoy the fresh air, constant activity and room to roam of the equestrian life as much as we do---maybe more.
But for the safety and comfort of all involved, it’s important to establish a positive and respectful relationship between your four-footed friends. That means carefully orchestrating the introduction of your dog to your horse and providing gentle but firm guidance for their interactions thereafter.
Of course, training is easier if your dog becomes familiar with the barn environment early in his life. Dogs have a key socialization window that begins to close around 16 weeks of age. Early experiences are imprinted as either positive or negative. Lack of experience with a situation or animal often leads to fear later in life. The dog will respond to something unfamiliar with the fight-or-flight response.
If you have a puppy, you can begin taking him to the barn with you as soon as he knows a few basic commands (more on those later). But be prepared to devote time to keeping him safe while he explores his new environment. Remember that a puppy, like a toddler, won’t have innate fears that can keep him out of trouble, so be especially vigilant in keeping him out of the path of vehicles, away from equipment and safe from other animals and flying hooves.
Quickly correct any barking at animals, chasing or other undesirable behaviors. As with any correction, the key is to interrupt the naughty behavior and offer the dog a preferable replacement behavior. He doesn’t know what he should be doing if you just tell him “no!” Fill in the blank with something better, such as a down and stay command.
If your dog is older, you may have a little more work to do, particularly if you adopted him from a pound or rescue. Find out what you can about his background, which will provide clues on how best to proceed. You probably won’t be able to learn whether he’s had any experiences with horses, so focus on understanding his personality. Try to gauge, for instance, how he responds to new situations. This will give you an idea of how resilient the dog is and how easily he will adapt to a new environment. Whatever you learn, go extra slow with a mature dog, starting out with short, simple visits to the barn, gradually expanding their duration and activity level. And be patient. Even if a mature dog is eager to please, he may have a hard time overcoming long-established habits.
Regardless of your dog’s age, three basic rules will aid his training for life at the barn.
1. DO YOUR PREP WORK BOTH AT HOME AND AT THE BARN
Long before your dog sets foot at the stable, be sure he understands basic obedience commands and is responsive even when distractions are present. He needs to know how to walk politely on the leash, sit, lie down, stay and most important---“leave it.” These commands are your means of controlling your dog in all situations. If he doesn’t listen to you at home, he surely won’t when presented with exciting new things at the barn. Brush up on your training by taking a class together or working one-on-one with an experienced dog trainer.
Meanwhile, take stock of the equine side of the equation. Most horses are fairly indifferent to and accepting of dogs, but some fear them. Others are aggressive toward dogs. Take some time to gauge how your horse is likely to respond to your dog. Introduce him to some calm and steady barn dogs to see how he reacts. If he seems fearful, you’ll need to set aside time to desensitize him to the presence of dogs. If he acts aggressively, you may need to abandon your plan to bring your dog to the barn.
2. START BY ESTABLISHING PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE
Dogs are funny. Much like horses, they don’t like to be forced into situations---and meeting a large, scary creature is near the top of this list. If your dog is showing avoidance or fear of your horse, don’t push it.
Signs of fear or avoidance in a dog include: tail tucked, looking away, licking his lips, yawning, pulling away, crouching and flattened ears. Instead of forcing your dog to “say hello,” which from his point of view is painting him into a corner, allow him to greet when he feels more comfortable. Use a leash to tether your dog a safe distance away while he observes you and the horse and gradually gains confidence. This could take 10 minutes, or it could take 10 days, or longer. It depends on your dog’s temperament and adaptability.
While observing you with your horse, your dog is learning a few things. He sees that you aren’t afraid of the horse and, likewise, that your horse is calm, quiet and predictable. Again, if you horse doesn’t meet these criteria, hold off on introductions until you have better control or choose a horse who is already accustomed to dogs. I call my personal horses “dog-training horses” because they are so used to seeing dogs on a daily basis at my training center. They will not run from a dog, flinch or be upset by a barking or lunging dog. These are the ideal horses to use for initial introductions.
3. ORCHESTRATE FIRST ENCOUNTERS FULLY
Once your dog seems comfortable around your horse, you can move forward. Turn your horse out into a small paddock or round pen so that he may move around freely. Next, take your dog on a leash and allow him to slowly move toward your horse.
Dogs typically explore new things first by scent. Allow him to smell the horse in a safe way, through the fence. Be sure to keep your leash loose, unless your dog misbehaves. A tight leash conveys tension and worry to your dog. Maintain your loose leash and gently praise your dog if he politely sniffs and greets the horse. Don’t allow the sniffing to go on too long because sometimes extended greetings can turn into play sessions and the dog may begin barking. Allow him to sniff for about five seconds, then quickly back up, call him to come and reward him.
Repeat this process until both dog and horse seem comfortable with one another. Keeping these initial meetings as positive as possible is really important for building a lasting trust. Correct any barking, lunging or nipping with a low, growly tone of voice. Step in front of the dog and firmly back him up. Command “leave it” and then “sit.” Once your dog is sitting quietly, gently praise and stroke him, and step aside so he can once again observe the horse. When he seems calmer and quieter, try your approach again. Make it clear to the dog that harassment of the horse will not be tolerated.
After the two have met, continue to supervise your dog closely while he’s at the barn, using a tether until you are completely confident he will stay close and not engage in chasing, nipping or other unwanted behavior. For safety’s sake, teach the dog that he is not allowed in riding arenas, round pens, stalls or tight barn aisles where he could get underfoot and stepped on or spook a horse.
Most dogs can happily and safely interact with horses. But you can’t take harmony between these two very different animals for granted. Dogs and horses often must be taught to behave respectfully toward each other. But once they’ve learned to peacefully coexist, you can relax and enjoy your barn time with them both.
About the author: Bernadette Pflug is a certified professional dog trainer based in Louisville, Colorado. She is a former search and rescue dog handler who specializes in rehabilitating problem dogs and training for off-leash reliability. She owns two horses and enjoys riding in her free time.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #440, May 2014.