Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Learned Helplessness: Ours or Theirs?

     Holy smokes, Mugs has risen from the dead, whacked me awake and told me to git to writin'.
An article shared with me by an old time reader (I think?) and FB friend, Laurie Herzig, got my motor running.
Read this excellent article first, then I'll come in behind it.


    This article refers to a state the author identifies as learned helplessness.  I have always called this sorry mess "shut down," and will continue to through my post. Beckham brings up some interesting points about how we create a shut down horse, where it shows up, and how a shut down horse can bite a rider in the butt when it comes out of it.

   If you walk through the stalls at a major equine event, dressage, reining, reined cow horse, hunter/jumper, any of them, you can find a shut down horse, maybe several, depending on the discipline.

   The shut down horse is the one with his head jammed low in the corner and his butt to the door. Every time you pass by, the horse will be in the same spot. If he's eating, it's listless, just an uninterested nibble. You can talk and coo all you want, this horse doesn't respond.

   In my world, I observed this state, for the most part, in pleasure horses and, I'm sad to say, reining horses. I would see them here and there elsewhere, but those were the horses who seemed to give it up the most.

   The best dude and children's lesson horses spend a lot of their life shut down. I boarded at a roping barn with a very successful trainer on site. Although we all agreed a one armed "lady" roper would be a sight to see, I saw too many dead-eyed horses to be willing to spend much time with them and, truth be told I value my remaining thumb too much.

   Beckham discusses ways to shut horses down. Tying their heads around, tarping, tying them down, endless drills, running them to exhaustion, I think that's most of them.
   Here is where I'd like to push some.

   Running a horse to exhaustion will cripple your horse, blow up the blood vessels in their lungs and all kinds of other delightful things, but unless you kill them, once they air up, they'll go again. Endless circles, again, having been there, done that, is only boring to us, and then, only if we quit working the horse. A perfect circle is about so much more than mindless loping, the only time it's boring for horse and rider is if the rider makes it that way.

   These activities are about movement. They make sense to the horse, even when pushed to exhaustion. Could you break them down? I guess, but it would be physical more than mental. Horses get running, it's what they do.

   Shut down happens when there is no escape. No chance for flight and too much punishment to fight. Shut down happens from brutal treatment, from a trainer or the guy on five acres who is going to show the world he's in charge.

   Not all pleasure or reining horses are surviving through learned helplessness. It's the ones who spend hours with their heads tied up to make them so sore they won't lift them. It's the horses who are ridden with their mouths tied shut, their heads trapped by draw reins and sometimes a little something across their poll, to complement the twisted wire snaffle in their mouth. Add that to constant pressure from spur and leg to drive those hind legs deeper and you've got a recipe for a horse just giving up. It's never offering a true release. If and when the horse fights back, then they are torn a new one until they comply. It's called shit training. Anybody can do it.

   If you want to add to the stress and feelings of never being able to escape, keep them in a box stall. Only bring them out to train on, then put them back. Never give them down time. If you have to go out of town for two weeks, leave strict orders to leave them in their stalls. Then, if they're restive, beat them some more and tie them close without food or water until they're ready to work.

   Even then, horses, being the rock stars that they are, will still try, will still carry a spark. It's hurting them for no reason. It's creating a world with no sun, no time with other horses, no place to stretch out and run, or play. or sleep. It's using pain as a training method, more pain for discipline and more pain just because.

   Let's go to my favorite activity to hate. Mustang makeovers. Trainers have 100 days to train their mustang and then compete for who's mustang will do the most useless shit in an arena full of screaming spectators.
   The horses that win are the ones who are already dead. At least in their mind. They will do anything that's asked of them, just so they aren't hurt any more. The announcer will talk about the love between the horse and trainer. What an amazing crock of crap.
   A healthy mustang is not, I repeat not, going to ride in a car, carry a flag, and kiss his trainer after 100 days without making a deal with the devil in order to survive.
   Then, the horses are auctioned off to people green enough to think this is a good idea. They get the horse home and BAM! two months, two weeks or two days later, the 'stang comes back to life, and boy, is he pissed. See, he was never trained, he went away into his head, waited to die, then got brought back by the kindly new owner. Except, now that he can think again, well, he's not impressed.
   There will be some good ones there, I'd be looking at the losers horses. The ones with an alert expression, a little jumpy, but manageable, the one with a nice walk, trot, lope, and stop. The one that will travel a straight line and hold a circle. Because that's the horse that was started right. That's the horse who thinks life on the domestic side is pretty damn interesting.
   Finally, I can see "my horse was shut down," becoming the new, "my horse as abused," excuse for bad behavior. This concerns me.
   When someone buys a well-trained horse that begins to act the shit after a few months, it's probably not because the horse was abused before. It's more likely you didn't take the five free lessons the trainer offered when you bought the horse. Or because you're not quite there when it comes to feel and you missed that stuck out rib as you came into your lead change. Or, you toss him out on forty acres and assume the horse has enough round pen reasoning to let you walk right up and slap a halter on them.
   A shut down horse can't learn. They're gone. The rider can force it through the motions, but it will never have the spark of a champion. It won't offer a perfect circle that took hours to create and intense communication between horse and rider. Shut down horses don't communicate. Judges don't reward the broken, spiritless horse. They can see it from the stands and hate it as much as we do. Good trainers will tell you to turn a shut down horse out for six months, then bring them back, because they can't fix broken.
   As a buyer, there are signs you can look for. The horse is dull eyed, and doesn't acknowledge or move away from you. He is dull to handle and ride. Doesn't look around when outside, or leading to the tie rail. Doesn't show interest in anything, but is still obedient in all ways. Don't buy that one.

That's all I got.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

I Saw a Dog

Clare and I were at our local animal shelter a week ago. She was wanting a second barn cat and it looked like she had found a keeper. A slight, white female, gentle, with no sign of claws or teeth during her frantic efforts to grab Clare's hand through the bars.

The cat was dumped as a teenager in a North-end neighborhood, then spent a year begging for hand-outs and pumping out kittens. The North-end is traffic heavy, loaded with coyotes, foxes and children, and cold as hell. After surviving all these challenges, somebody finally took pity on her and brought her to the pound.

We adopted a sweet, loving cat, now known as Rowena, who impressed us all by being immediately attracted to my 2-year-old grandaughter, Hazel. She's a cat-broke kid and loved her back just as much. This was a fairy tale placement as far as our animal shelter folks were concerned. They like my family. Over the forty years that we have bought various pets from them, we have never returned one, or given one up. We're gold star used-dog and cat buyers.

While Clare was busy falling in love and filling out paperwork on her (now Hazel's) cat, I was hanging out with Hazel, playing climb the chairs and American Bandstand Revival. I'm not technically allowed at the pound, since I tend to come home with something, but Clare was keeping me on a short leash and Hazel had control of the remote. It was all good, but I saw a dog.

A very pregnant young woman, with a toddler and a medium/small black dog in tow, came through the door and stopped at the Animal Intake desk. I glanced, then forgot the interpretive magic-Gaia- witch-dance Hazel and I were doing. There was something about that little black dog.

She was sleek and shiny black. Maybe twenty to twenty five pounds, about knee-high to the fairly short woman who held her leash. She had kind of a whippet thing going on, but sturdier, beautifully muscled, clean legged,  and a high, arched neck. Her head was broad, her muzzle square, and she had a set of alert drop ears. Her eyes were large and brown, set well into her face, not bulgy or weepy, just crackling with curiousity and intelligence.

There was no hesitation in the dog, she watched people and critters equally, yet she never tugged on her leash. She looked up at the woman often, her relaxed tail whip-like wagging a polite question, would wait a few beats, and when she got no response, would go back to watching the activity arund her. She was alert, but not afraid, calm, but ready to go.
This was my kind of dog, she made my heart hurt, she was so much my kind of dog. I even asked about her.

"I found her in my yard," the woman said. We're on a busy street, and when she was still there a few hours later, I brought her here. I didn't want her to get hit."

Which was good. I can hope this fine dog will find her people. She vibrated with good health and good cheer, somebody had to be missing her.

On our way home, I thought about how I choose my dogs. I have mutts, and I have purebreds. One of them is quite fancy. They are different shapes and sizes, different hair coats and colors. All of them met the criteria I just wrote about. All of them are great, healthy dogs, each with their own unique approch to life.

They may come from different backgrounds and sizes, but they all share the same things that draw me in. Well built, athletic, active and smart. I don't care if they are mutts or responsibly bred  whatevers. If they draw me in, then that's how it goes. I haven't been let down yet.

I'm tired of the battles,  "Adopt, don't shop vs. Responsibly bred purebreds." I find them sanctimonious and boring. I am not a pro. I am however, observant, responsible, and experienced. If I buy a pup I want to look at the parents. Then I see the puppies.
If I buy a mutt, I look for the same things I would in purebred parents. Then I meet the dog. I have criteria. I am smart enough, and savvy enough to not listen to the spiel coming from the dedicated volunteer, or breeder. I can trust my gut because it's been tempered with experience.

There is a certain look in a second-hand dog that I wait for. It's when they look me in the eye with an invitation. In my mind, the dog is saying, "Let's blow this joint and go do some shit." Whatever it really means, I don't care, I still reach for the credit card. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Brockle - Protection Dog Fail

My boy Brockle grew up some in the last few years. He filled out and came into his own as my right hand dog. He still spends much of his spare time watching me and the rest of his time walking at my side.

Thanks to my excellent trainer (HMT), protection work taught me a lot about my dog. By channeling Brockle's aggression, I was able to gain control of it. By gaining control I was able to discover how much he didn't want to bite. Brockle doesn't want to bite anyone, or anything for that matter.

If he felt danger approaching he would become anxious.  At least he did if I was on the other end of the leash, he was perfectly willing to let the HMT be eaten by the bad guy (decoy). He would offer every kind of delay tactic he could think of, while becoming more and more agitated. Finally he'd explode and go after the decoy with everything he had.

Brockle will go down in history as the dirtiest biter the HMT ever came across. This is not a good thing. Dirty biters refuse to honor the protective sleeve they are trained to grab.

He was never rushed. We were several months into obedience, playing tug and encouraging prey drive before he went to defense. Still, the first time he actively defended me, something triggered and he began to try to bite in earnest.

Brockle would knock the sleeve aside and go for the throat, belly, thigh or groin. He would slither up under it and go for the face. It got to where he wouldn't play with the sleeve anymore. He was becoming wary of our decoys, even his best friends.  Brockle didn't see protection work as an amped up tug-of-war like the other dogs. He saw people he trusted acting in a threatening manner. My dog was not amused. In his defense, he always listened to my "Leave it!" and faded off, it seemed like he was relieved.

We decided to back off and just play ball on our weekly workouts.

My good friend, Batman, was always one of Brockle's favorites too. He worked on our place most week-ends and the two of them put in a lot of ball time. He was also a kick ass decoy - the last one willing to work my dog.

Batman offered to play with Brockle. After all, he wasn't geared up, what could go wrong?
He threw the ball out in the field, and my dog bounced after it, his tail a flag wagging in the wind. He scooped up the ball, Batman called, "Good boy!" and clapped his hands. Brockle bounced over, all happy and cute, until he was maybe a yard from our friend, spit the ball out and leaped for his groin. He caught his jeans, but not any skin. Like I said, dirty biter.

That was the day we ended protection training.

We still went to training, but now it was to bring him down. To make friends with the people he felt had crossed the line. A lot of ball, a lot of obedience work and tons of ball slowly brought him back.

As the summer progressed we did the same at home with the crew working on my barn. Batman was there to keep an eye on things and I figured out his triggers. By fall, Brockle was almost back to normal. His recall was about perfect, I could put him on and call him off and he was reliably friendly with the people coming in and out of our place.

He will nip the goats when I tell him to "Put em'up!" He will air snap at a horse trying to slip out a gate and he still fights with my rat terrier Charlie. That, of course, is still Charlie's fault. He'll chase down a rabbit, roll it and let it go, just like he used to do in the dog park. Like the many dogs he rolled, the rabbits don't appreciate him-even if he doesn't want to bite.

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