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By Betsy Kelleher

     Before I could think about this year’s horse training goals, we got a dog. We haven’t had a dog for many years, and adjustments take time. Changes can be upsetting—as well as a great opportunity for learning. This month’s column looks at horse training from a “dogs-eye” view!

     Motif’s Diamond Lil is a five-year-old Boston terrier, the very same dog that my husband saw last August at the Illinois State Fair. One of three dogs in a playpen, Lil seemed particularly excited to see Russ as we walked by. She jumped up and down, pawing the air, and then brought him her toy. He picked her up; she licked his face. And he talked about that dog for months, until I found her owners through the internet—and they agreed to give her a new home with us.

     So what does our new dog have to do with horse training? Well, that’s an interesting angle (in my opinion). Lil has an alpha nature, her former owner warned us. “The only thing you really need to know about Lil is this: so long as she gets to be Queen of the Known Universe, she is happy. Period.” She said Lil will “dig” at you if she is not getting enough attention. Yes, I often feel her little paws digging at my leg! Lil is a lot like my mare, Walker’s Velvet Queen (Lady), who demands attention and food and paws to get it! Anyone who has read my columns knows about Lady. And now we have two black and white animals with loving personalities that demand attention! And I can blame Russ for both of them.

     As I write this, we’ve had Lil for two weeks. We decided three times to take her back, but I think now she will stay. She definitely demands attention, just like Lady. And the minute Lil knows you’re going to play with her, she becomes an excited bouncing bundle of joy. She brings a toy, and will fetch it when it’s thrown, but loves that tug of war. She’s already given us lots of laughs, and I’ve heard laughter lengthens your life. But I did want to do more than play with a dog this year, and she was supposed to be my husband’s dog, not mine. I have plenty of other things to do!

     Our first evening with Lil was an overwhelming introduction. We sat down on the sofa to watch TV, and she was up on top of us, jumping at our faces, and acting absolutely frantic when we tried to hold her back! I finally put her in her pen for some time out—for US! Since then, I have tried to apply my horse training experience, and we had a dear friend, Mary Ann Bowers, come over for a one hour session of dog training. Now we can eat sitting on the sofa while Lil waits on the floor. But the minute we are done eating, she sneaks up on the sofa beside us, ready for her share of attention. Did I mention that Lil is a very smart girl (just like Lady)? These active dogs with sharp minds need to be kept busy, and they need to learn self control. And sensible obedience training is priceless for both dogs and horses.

     I’m sure some of my readers disagree. I became aware of the growing trend in horse training last year from a new video, Path of the Horse, but I was somewhat surprised by a recent post on by a reader of my first book, Sometimes a Woman Needs a Horse. She said she had to remind herself that my training experiences in the book were from years ago, not current methods. She had problems with my book because “training has evolved” from when a friend helped me train my first horse back in the late 70’s. She liked my Scripture references, but she had a difficult time relating a horse’s submission to our will and our submissive relationship with Christ. She says she does not “perceive horses as submitting to our will and being obedient” with today’s training methods. She likes partnership, with the human benevolent leader willing to listen as well.

     Listening is definitely part of good training. We learn about the feelings and needs of our animals by taking time to “listen” to their actions and reactions. For instance, I see both Lady and Lil wanting a huge amount of attention. That can be exhausting at times, but it’s easier to build a good relationship because they are seeking it on their own! I remember one trainer I knew back in the late 70’s that kept his relationship with horses strictly business—no nuzzling, no petting. But I like the affectionate hugs that Lady gives me and Lil’s exuberant reaction when she sees me. The relationship is the greatest joy of ownership! We just need to set boundaries and be consistent. Remember that every owner is a trainer. Whatever works to make a happy animal that is well behaved, is probably good. If the animal is not happy and well behaved, then something isn’t working.

     Terms are often misleading. Words like obedience and training and submission often mean different things to different people. Good training need not involve forceful methods or painful practices. I don’t believe in punishment except in cases of biting, kicking or other dangerous actions. Training involves too many things to present the whole situation in a certain number of steps or a specific pattern of exercises. What works for one horse or owner may not work for another. Obedience is a result of understanding what is expected, a willing attitude and respect for the one in charge. A good relationship between animal and human is the main source of that respect and the foundation for any training success.

     I have followed Carolyn Resnick’s beautiful blog, and I have read a few books of similar viewpoint. I find it interesting, but I fear it could go in the direction of Dr. Spock’s influence to let the child be a child. That’s ok if you don’t do anything with the horse. But when the horse (or dog) gets in your space and interferes with or threatens your life, it’s time to take charge (with the right attitude). I am not saying this new philosophy does not involve good training. It seems quite complicated and in order to really understand it, I’d have to buy a lot of books or DVD’s or sign up for special training courses. And you have to spend a lot of time with your horse, which certainly is not a bad idea, if you have it to spend.

     I see this new movement in horse training as an attempt to get away from the harsh methods used by some trainers in the past, and that is good. But let’s not throw out the good parts of the old ways in the process.

     Since getting our new dog, I see more than ever the joy of having an obedient animal rather than one that disrupts normal activity. The relationship between human and animal should be beneficial to both. Some owners need to spend more time establishing a relationship of trust and respect. Others simply need to learn to be firm without frustration and anger. How much do you allow an animal to rule your life? I truly believe an animal is happier in the long run when he or she feels safe and comfortable, accepted and loved, respecting the owner and knowing the boundaries. I agree with a certain Facebook friend who said it this way: structure, discipline, consistency, confidence and security as well as affection should be provided in return for the loyalty of dog or horse. We have to earn their trust and respect and there’s never a short cut.   

     God gave man dominion over this world. I looked up the word “dominion” in a concordance and found 19 Bible references. In Psalm 8:4 (NIV), the writer (David) asks God, “what is man that you are mindful of him,” then continues in verses 6-8, “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, and all that swim the paths of the seas.”

     It is our God given responsibility to take care of this world that He created for us, with wisdom and loving control. So far, we haven’t done the best job of it, and we are suffering in many different ways. God’s Sovereignty provides forgiveness and mercy, but He doesn’t usually take away natural consequences. There are Godly principles that apply to all relationships. As we learn to find peace and joy living within His principles, we can follow that same pattern as we work with our animals and with other people. Just as we respond to our Father’s great love, we want them to respond to our own.

     The problem, of course, is that many people do not live by His principles and therefore cannot apply them. Living and loving require discipline. Life is safer when there is respect for one another and self control. With the right relationships, we can eat supper on the sofa without a dog in our faces and we can enjoy our horses with less danger. Dominion is not a bad thing when administered with love.

(Originally published in the February 2010 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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