"It wasn't until I wrote this post that a giant chunk of who, why and what I am as a trainer fell into place.
Horses, dogs, any animal ( or child for that matter) that gets passed around from person to person in life, needs to be given every chance they can to be safe from the Mr. Hitts in the world.
If I have the ability to shape them into pleasant, adaptable companions, then that is what my job is. The rest is icing on the cake. Cream cheese icing. Yum.
That is where I'm giving thanks today. For this chunk of light and this blog." - Mugs
I have been in horse limbo. Not just because I've gone from riding 6 - 10 head a day to my two broke horses once or twice a week. Not because I am so itching to mess with a young one, or three, but don't have the time or resources. Not because I am now spend 24/7 a day with a man I love but never shared more than four hours a day in the past 16 years, MUCH LESS EVERY FRICKING WAKING MOMENT.
No, it's none of those things.
It's because I just adopted Brockle. A dog. Not just any dog. He's a genius. He's beautiful. He's really large. He's a pound dog, who ended up there because he decided to stop being housebroken, start humping family and friends and ate a couch. From what I understand, it was the entire couch.
There were many reasons adopting Brockle was a bad idea. We have three dogs. We live in a suburban neighborhood, and we're already labeled as the weird old couple on the block. We don't have much money. He ate a couch. He is roughly 10 times the size of my other dogs.
But I reeeeaaaalllly needed a project. I feel safer with a big dog, and what's one more, right?
My husband did not want another dog. He did agree however, that we needed some life and action in the house. Why it had to be a 1-year-old German Shepherd Collie cross he didn't know, but he said okay.
Boy, do we have action.
Don't worry, I know this is a horse blog. I won't be regaling you with all my dog stories, although I have lots, because I do like my dogs. But two days ago I had this incredible Well Duh! moment on the way to the barn. It came because of the studying I've been doing on dog aggression. Yeah, well, nobody mentioned one more teeny tiny problem of Brockle's.
He became very attached, very quickly. We have become conjoined twins. He's gentle with the tiny dog, kind to the elder dog and wisely, very respectful of Charlie, my rat terrier. He is very careful not to jostle my unsteady husband. When my close friend came to visit with her very sweet, well behaved, low maintenance female lab, he attacked her. First the dog, then he threatened my friend.
He wants us to stay as a cozy family unit and keep everybody else away. Forever. At any cost. I have adopted a crazy stalker dog.
Now, don't get me wrong, we dealt with it, in ten minutes everybody was mellow, by the end of the night all of the dogs were racing in crazy circles around the yard, best friends forever. I am very aware though, that this aggressive response came from a dog who's essentially a big dumb puppy. When he matures around four or so, this behavior could become extremely dangerous. So I know I need to nip it in the bud.
Here's the crux.While I'm a competent horse trainer, I am not a dog trainer. As a matter of fact, my dogs tend to be more my roommates than something I have control over. We come to agreement on how to get along and then that's how we lead our lives. Life with my dogs is kind of like a big frat party.
Brockle is going to take more than a bandanna tied on the door knob to get the message across.
I hit the Internet and started to read up on dog trainers, especially those who specialize in aggressive behavior. I read up on GSD, even though Brockle is half collie, he moves like a shepherd, looks like an escapee from a GSD Krazy Kolor Breeder farm and I'm guessing, is protecting like one. And he's been through the kill shelter experience. So I've been reading.
When I'm trying to learn something new, I try to grasp the forest before I start climbing individual trees. I'll read several opinions, theories and so forth, then I'll look at facts, studies and experiments, and then get into personal opinion.
The concept I've been picking up is dogs needed to be accepted as dogs. Understanding their body language and knowing how to respond to it is key to gaining control. Being able to communicate our desires in a clear, concise manner comes from understanding what they're trying to say to us. So, they're not kids? Huh. Sounds reeeaaaallly familiar.
I got immersed in the pack leader vs. companion argument for a while, again, it was ringing some very familiar bells and I quit worrying about it.
Call it what you will, I need my dogs, which if I am honest, now are definable as a pack, to get along, with each other and whoever I choose to invite into our space, and to not bite, maim or kill anything other than their chew toys or the various vermin that raid my garden in the summer, my basement in the winter and my barn year round. Period.
I want my house to be peaceful and safe. I don't want to trip on a dog,worry about getting knocked into by a dog, have a dog take over my space or refuse to get out of my way. Same rules apply in how they treat my husband, who is definitely part of the frat party mentality, but needs to be safe. I also want it to be quiet and calm in my house. No fighting or charging the door, no wild greetings that end up with somebody getting knocked over. Barking when something needs to be barked at, but not just because it's fun to make a bunch of noise at nothing.
If it takes me being pack leader to accomplish this, so be it. I buy the dog food and pay the vet bills. they can deal.
So, I've been learning. About body language, taking control of space, making my requirements known and appreciating the needs of each dog, so they can, as a pack, pay attention and follow through with my expectations.
The two dogs who have been my mainstays for several years are Charlie, the rat terrier, and Dinah, the corgi/jack russell mix. These two dogs grew up as working barn dogs and my best buddies.
Horse training is, for the most part, a solitary and intense job, combined with lots of hard physical labor. My dogs were/are my daily companions, work partners and friends. I have talked about how smart they are for years. I never really trained them, they just do what I need, as I try to do for them and that's been it. Yet they are often complimented on their good behavior. They are polite, non-threatening, always within ear shot, and when we walk, they walk at heel when needed, leave livestock, people and other dogs alone, and are simply, very pleasant to be around. Although they are both breeds (or mixes) known to be yappy and hyper, neither one of them are. As a matter of fact, they are kind of serious and preoccupied.
I have felt very lucky with my dogs.
They are different at home. Dinah is bossy and cranky. Charlie is kind of sneaky. Both of them are jealous and needy. They fight once in a while. Dinah is a revenge pooper. They like to fly at the door when someone knocks, yowling like the Hound of the Baskervilles. They do the same when a doorbell rings on TV, if Jim calls from another room, or if I say "Hello" for any reason. When we're going for a walk, the second they see my walking shoes, they swirl around my legs, wrestling and growling, leaping and racing, non-stop Tasmanian devils until I open the door and let them out. Same thing at dinner time. They beg too. I call them idiots and a few other choice words, nothing changes, and we go on with life.
Now that we have worked our way up to four dogs, I've been hit with an "Oh my God, what have I done," sense of desperation. I've started thinking about what I want from my pack, and started studying on how to get it. I've begun seeing some HUGE holes in my non-training program, to evaluate how I relate to my dogs and how it effects their behavior.
The ideas I've grasped and been chewing on is the difference between training my dogs and our general sense of being. Expectations of how things just are, vs. sit, stay, go fold the laundry. When I first get on a concept like this, I acknowledge what I'm searching for, then lay it to rest, shove it to the back of my very messy mental closet and let it ferment. Sooner or later it comes back with some kind of understanding and I chew on it some more.
I was driving to the barn a few days ago and thinking strategy for Brockle and how I need him to be at the barn. It turns out he had no idea such delicious smelling, scary to look at creatures, existed on the planet. Horses, cattle, donkeys, turkeys, all doing their thing right in front of his highly motivated, very energetic self. Just waiting to be barked at, chased, killed, eaten, SOMETHING. What drama! What fun! What chaos!
Ahem. So I was making some vague plans on one level, and on another, wondering why Dinah and Charlie had never been this crazy, even though they too, are bred for action, and wishing I had another cup of coffee when it hit me. BAM!
Energy. Direction. Focus. I had trained my barn dogs, I just didn't know it. They weren't perfect and had started out way below it. We went through the sneaking away from the barn phase, the chicken phase (very bad), the barking at clients grandma's phase. The chasing stock phase...but each problem had been dealt with during my very busy work day, and had ended up with the competent, resourceful, happy and reliable dogs I have now. I have rarely raised my voice and could count on my fingers (which are half as many as yours) how often they've been hit over all the years.
So what was it? My horse trainer brain. The deep, consistent sense of calm that is always with me around horses, the clear, orderly expectations, the fact that time means nothing, only the task at hand matters. These things are so much a part of me when I'm working, I accept them as who I am. And my dogs did too. Without training them to sit, stay, heel in the conventional way, without conscious thought, my horse trainer brain (only engaged at the barn) explained what was needed and expected from my dogs too. And they fell over themselves trying to comply. Son of a gun.
I wasn't born with trainer brain. It took years of struggle, thought, learning from the smarter, wiser, more talented trainers I was lucky enough to meet along the way. It took lots of really dumb mistakes.
Trainer brain doesn't engage at home. Many times, there is no brain activity emanating from me at all when I'm home.
When I was a kid, we got our first dog, years before I ended up with Mort. I was an awkward, lonely, shy 4th grader, wrapped up in daydreams, writing, and drawing stories when we got Linus, a Samoyed and our first puppy. There were six kids in our family, but Linus was mine, not by designation, but by his and my mutual choice.
He was my best friend. I didn't train him, Dad did, we simply hung out together. He didn't listen to any commands from me, or do a single trick, but he always heard my secrets, my fears and my plans. I was his favorite friend, he was always up for an adventure or snuggling together in his doghouse so I could read a book in peace.
Our next door neighbor, Mr. Hitt, poisoned him when he was a little over a year old. Linus was wild, rowdy and uncontrolled unless my Dad had him, and he didn't like our neighbor. I found him dead, foam covered teeth bared and his head thrown back in agony. Vomit was spewed all over the corner of our fenced yard that paralleled the neighbors driveway. I could see the little pieces of half-digested meat drying in with the grass.
Dad couldn't prove Mr. Hitt did it, but we all knew. It was two long years, when we were transferred to Colorado, before we got another dog. This time, there was no wild, back yard bred Samoyed. This time, we got a nicely bred, registered field type Golden Retriever. Dad made sure Jud had manners, he trained him to hunt, to work a field, to retrieve up to ten wooden blocks in the order they were thrown in.
He was my Dad's dog, protected from the Mr.Hitt's in the world with solid discipline and good breeding. Jud and I had a secret though. He was mine and I was his, by choice. We shared secrets, hopes, fears and lots of adventures. There was another difference. Dad taught me how to work the dog. How to train him to quarter a field or jump off a dock on a retrieve. How to hold a pigeon so gently, with so much calmness, the bird was relaxed and not struggling. He showed me how to teach a puppy, afraid of running water, to swim in a stream. This time, maybe because I was older, maybe to make sure we kept the Mr. Hitts away, he taught me how to teach my friend to be productive, to have purpose, to be safe.
Here I am, forty some years and many good dogs later, still living in this dual world. My dogs are my friends, but they need to be trained, they need to be liked, they can't frighten or anger the people around us. I have to keep them safe.
My Eureka moment came when I understood that Dinah and Charlie were happier, more productive and safer when they lived with my horse trainer brain. Even though they were my buddies, they had jobs that directly related to their breed, lots of exercise and clear expectations from me. It wasn't about teaching them tricks or commands, it was about being.
At home, at the frat party, they felt like they had better take care of things, direct the action, and protect me, because I was off somewhere in Gomerville, with my muddled thoughts and Saturday morning cartoons outlook. My anxieties, fears and health issues were making things even worse, because they took me even farther from the thinking they could understand. At home, we were all about feelings and sensations. Scary, stagnant ones.
How about that?
I'm not far enough into my conscious learning about training my pack to be more specific. My body language is awkward, I can see Charlie and Dinah laughing at my attempts to talk to them on their terms, but I think they appreciate it.
I have made a list of expectations.
No dogs get to claim space, it's all mine. If I want it, I take it.
Dogs don't get to harass each other or me and Jim. No stealing food, no shoving into another dog when I'm paying attention to them, no intimidation tactics about who comes through the door, etc.
The great big goof ball Brockle cannot tease, torment, or whack with his feet, 14-year-old Dinah or 9-year old Sonocone, my husband's 8 lb. Maltese.
Dinah is boss, she eats first, and goes in and out the doors first (after the people). Charlie is my right hand man and pounds on Brockle when he gets out of line. Charlie is not, however, allowed to actually fight, scare or hurt him. Snocone, who just doesn't get life, may not be harassed by anybody, ever, and doesn't have to obey any rules at all.
What is amazing to me, if I put on horse trainer brain, I don't have to point or yell, I just expect, and so far have simply blocked bad behavior with my body. It's working. Brockle is getting some intense socializing, I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, but he is figuring out he can be calm and I'll keep him safe through the introductions. He has made three new dog friends so far, no attacks, and went on his first trail ride two days ago. Off leash, and happy.
My house is calm. My dogs are happier. I am happier.
Call it trainer brain, call it calm, assertive pack leader, call it whatever. I'm thinking it's all about clarity, purpose and balance.
I'm thinking my whole life my be about to change.