From naughty to nice

After undergoing a simple four-step rehabilitation program, Gibson went from a terror around the barn to a welcome visitor.
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After undergoing a simple four-step rehabilitation program, Gibson went from a terror around the barn to a welcome visitor.

If you’re like most horsepeople, you know a great barn dog. Every barn or trainer seems to have one---the mellow fellow who hangs out near the arena, quietly waiting for his owner, never giving anyone trouble.

dog with whip

Chances are you wish your dog were like that. But when you take him to the barn, things rarely seem to go as planned. Maybe he chases horses, barks while you ride or gets into tussles with other barn dogs.

How do you train a dog to become a quiet, compliant barn companion? As a professional dog trainer and horse owner myself, I am often asked that question. And I am happy to report that, with the right tools and techniques, it is possible to integrate your pooch into your equestrian lifestyle.

Consider, for example, the story of Gibson, a dog who was recently brought to me for rehabilitation. “Gib,” as his owner calls him, is a lovely 3-year-old neutered male Australian Shepherd. He belongs to an active horsewoman who competes in the A-rated hunter /jumper shows with her Dutch Warmblood.

Katie has owned Aussies since childhood and enjoys taking them to the barn and horse shows. Like her other dogs, Gibson grew up around horses. For many months, he 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. He also got into 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 hostile to dogs, and he actually ran Gibson out of the pasture with his ears flat and teeth bared. 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. “If one of the horses was nervous or if I had to get after anyone, he would become distressed and whine, bark, get in the way or put himself in a compromising place in an attempt to help,” Katie recalls.

Katie tried to teach Gib to stay next to her while she was longeing, 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 who doesn’t stand still. Her prancing made Gib nervous, and he jumped up and bit her on the upper leg,” she says. “He didn’t bite [hard] enough to even break the skin, but I knew I couldn’t bring him to the barn if he was going to act like that.”

Katie decided she needed help with Gibson. She enrolled him in my two-week boarding school program---intensive training that allows me to work with dogs on my farm, around horses, goats, bunnies and other dogs. The program has four basic steps:

1) Establish leadership. A dog won’t find you relevant unless he perceives you as the leader. In the dog world, leadership boils down to controlling movement and re-sources: The leader decides where we go, when we stop, etc. Much as you ride a horse, you must walk a dog with intent, being in charge.

To help Gibson recognize this leadership, he was introduced to a vibrating, electronic collar at the beginning of his training. This is a great tool for teaching a dog to be responsive at a distance.

Our exercises were simple. With the dog on a 15-foot leash, I walk forward. At first, like most dogs new to training, Gibson would run ahead. Just before he hit the end of the leash, I push the vibrate button on his e-collar and change direction, walking away from him. The vibration alerts the dog to pay attention to his handler. When he catches up with me, I praise him and offer a small amount of his food. I feed him all meals this way for up to a week. In this way, I control both movement (deciding where we go) and resources (his meal). We continue walking, changing direction anytime he runs ahead, until the dog figures out that the best place to be is next to the handler.

2) Teach the basic commands. Once the dog has mastered walking with me without leash pressure, I begin to add other commands: come when called, sit, down, stay, leave it and go to your bed. These commands serve as a basic template to control the dog’s movement. If he 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 to ensure that the dog has full understanding of what they mean. Each cue is trained gradually to set the dog up for success.

3) Add distractions. Once the dog understands his cues, we begin to make things a bit harder for him. I increase the duration and distance on stays and comes. I ask for attention and compliance around quiet horses and other livestock. If the dog makes a mistake, I gently coach him, reminding him of what I am asking him to do.

4) Proofing.
In the final step, you make sure your training is complete. This entails offering heavy, real-world distractions to test the dog’s compliance in various situations. For Gibson, this meant traveling to our horse trainer’s barn and testing him around
her dogs. We made sure to give him a loose leash when he was greeting other dogs, so he wouldn’t feel trapped. Gibson did great
with this.
Next, we put Gibson on a down/stay while my daughter longed her horse, who was acting very silly, cantering and bucking. These were previously all triggers for Gibson to chase and nip. It’s important to have someone else to work the horse, so you are able to focus on the dog. Gibson was corrected when he did anything other than what he was told to do, which was down and stay. Once that foundation training is laid, the corrections are few. Gibson had to be corrected only once or twice before staying down while the horse was longed. Next, Gibson sat quietly in a corner of the arena during lesson time. Although supervised, he showed no indication of his previous tendency to chase or nip.

Almost immediately after Gibson returned home from training, Katie took him to a large hunter/jumper show at the Colorado Horse Park. She reports that he did wonderfully, with none of his previous naughty behaviors surfacing.
To maintain this success, Katie will have to continue to ensure that Gibson listens to her commands and behaves well at the barn. But this case shows that with a little patience and careful training, just about any dog can become a trusted barn and show companion.

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 to off-leash reliability. She owns two horses and enjoys riding in her free time.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #445, October 2014.