5 Skills every barn dog needs
Dogs and horses seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Just about every horseperson I know is also a dog lover, and of course, we want our two best friends to get along so we can share our time with both. But that’s not always the case.
Many dogs lack the training and impulse control to be around horses. Good barn dogs have a special set of skills that make them a pleasure to have around. I’m reminded of this each time I trailer my daughter’s horse to her trainer’s place and we’re met by the sweetest Corgi, Dixie, and tiny little Maltese, Dallas. These dogs know to stay out from under the horses’ feet, they come as soon as our trainer, Leanne Williams, whistles from horseback and, most important, they’re glad to meet everyone who visits.
As a longtime rider and a professional dog trainer, I have seen the best and worst of horse-dog coexistence. Although some dogs simply aren’t suitable for the barn environment, most just need to learn a few basic skills to stay out of trouble.
To help you teach your dog the same skills that make Dixie, Dallas and countless other barn dogs around the world so beloved, I’ve outlined five basic commands he needs to know. As with horses, the key to successful dog training is communication and consistency. If you have trouble changing your dog’s behavior, don’t hesitate to seek the assistance of a professional who can help you both get it right.
COMMAND #1: “OUT”
For me, “out” is the command used to tell the dog to leave this space immediately, whether it’s because he’s bringing muddy paws into the house or standing in the middle of the barn aisle, blocking the way as you’re taking out a horse. “Out” is an important command for both safety and convenience. As with all training, it’s best to teach the dog separately from your work with your horses. The dog needs your full attention while learning new behaviors so that you can correct, reinforce and coach as needed.
I would suggest training this behavior in a variety of settings so that the dog begins to generalize its meaning. First, in a smaller space such as a stall, command your dog “out” while pointing to the exit. Be sure to position yourself so that you are not inadvertently blocking the exit or making it feel too narrow to pass through. If the dog doesn’t begin moving toward the exit within a couple of seconds, spread your arms and gently herd him out of the space. As soon as the dog has left the area, stop herding him, back off and gently praise.
COMMAND #2: “DOWN”
Anytime you want a dog to stop doing something, you need to give him an alternate behavior. Otherwise, he doesn’t know what you want and will often return to the previous behavior. Let him know that you like it when he hangs out nearby, but out of the way. Once you have shooed the dog out of the stall, ask him to lie down until you are done. I prefer to use “down” rather than “sit” because it’s too easy to spring up from a sit. When you are ready, release him with an “all done” command. Make this a consistent release cue meaning, “You are free to do as you like, within the rules.”
COMMAND #3: “STAY”
The “down” and “stay” commands are often paired. Compliance with these commands will keep your dog fromdoing a number of things you don’t like, such as chasing your horse around the round pen, nipping his heels while he’s being longed or running through the arena while you are riding. Again, this will help your dog to understand that you really like it when he observes what’s happening from a distance.
Assuming that your dog already knows the “down” command, adding “stay” is best done with the help of a tether—a leash or rope that will prevent the dog from running off. Much of training involves funneling the dog into the right behavior until he understands. A tether will help you to do this.
First, ask the dog to “down” and “stay.” Next, tether his leash to something sturdy, such as a nearby tree. At first, take just a couple of steps away. Quickly return, verbally praise and reward him with a small treat. Refrain from petting the dog here because it will encourage him to jump up from his down/stay. Immediately ask for another “stay” and take a few more steps away. I usually add two to three steps with each repetition. Again, quickly return, praise and reward. Repeat this until you are able to walk 50 to 75 feet away. Gradually, increase how long you leave the dog on his “down/stay.”
If at any point in this process the dog gets up, quickly return and put him back on the exact spot where you originally left him. Do not treat or praise when he lies back down. Remember, he broke your command and must do it correctly before being rewarded again. I like to use hand signals with both the down and stay commands, so that later, from a distance, even while on horseback, you can gesture to the dog and he will understand what you are asking. For down, I simply point to the ground. For stay, I place a flat hand in front of the dog’s face. Immediately return your hand to neutral as you walk away. Getting a good down/stay takes practice. Plan on using your tether to help prevent mistakes for at least 90 days.
COMMAND #4: “COME”
The “come” command is probably the single most important skill for any dog, but for a barn dog it can be a real lifesaver. I like to use both a verbal cue and a whistle for this command because a whistle can often be heard from a greater distance than our voices. If you are able to get a good whistle out of your lips, that’s great. If not, consider purchasing a good, loud whistle that can be kept around your neck for quick use. When teaching the “come” command, begin with your dog on a long leash or longe line. Be sure he’s hungry and that you have some good treats on hand.
Start by just informally walking with your dog. When he is not paying attention, call “come!” and then whistle. Immediately back up, and praise your dog as soon as he takes the first step in your direction. If he doesn’t head your way, continue backing and gently reel him in on his long leash. Once he reaches you, ask him to sit, and touch his collar as you feed him a tasty reward. The sit and collar grab are both important parts of this sequence because it is your opportunity to attach a leash if needed when he is later working off leash. Repeat this several times until he is coming reliably when you call. Once he’s good on the leash, allow it to drag on the ground and call again, each time from a little farther away. If he ever ignores you, step on the long leash and reel him in as before. Reward this behavior reliably for at least two weeks. Even after that, be sure to offer enthusiastic praise.
COMMAND #5: “LEAVE IT”
“Leave it” is a command that tells the dog to leave alone whatever he is thinking of bothering. It’s typically something he’s looking at, sniffing or considering eating. If his eyes are on it, his attention is on it. “Leave it” tells him, “Do not touch whatever you are thinking of touching.” “Leave it” is very helpful for calling a dog off from chasing a horse, eating the horse’s feed or manure, or licking up spilled dewormer or other medications, which can have dire health consequences for a dog.
To teach this behavior, start with a treat in each hand. One will be your off-limits item, the other your reward. Present the leave-it hand to your dog, command “leave it” and quickly close your fist. Leave your hand right in front of the dog. Wait patiently for him to stop sniffing at your hand, even for just a moment. As soon as he does, reward from the other hand. Never reward with the forbidden treat, nor allow the dog to grab a treat off the ground. Repeat this until the dog immediately leaves the forbidden treat and looks to you. Now it’s time to make it more difficult. Leave your hand with the forbidden treat open while you command “leave it.” Again, reward when the dog leaves the treat. Continue making it more challenging for your dog until he won’t even think of taking the forbidden treat. Once he has that level of understanding, you can begin applying the command to everyday items in the real world.
Not every dog is cut out to be a barn dog. If you have a grown dog who does not enjoy his visits to the stable, it’s probably better to leave him home. But, if you have a good barn dog candidate, teaching him some of these important skills will open up a whole new world for you 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 to off-leash reliability. She owns two horses and enjoys riding in her free time.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #431
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