Ribbons in the Yard!
By Betsy Kelleher
If you have both dogs and horses, have you noticed the similarity in training? Our new dog, Ribbons, has opened my eyes, so to speak. I was proud of the way she always stayed at my side, until one day I did something I would never have done with a horse!
We live in a mobile home park, and dogs are supposed to be on a leash. I sure didn’t want to take chances with a new dog at first, so I took her out several times a day, on the leash, to do her business. In spite of my efforts, she held it 27 hours before having an accident in the house while we were gone. And then she held it 40 hours! It might have been less, if I hadn’t put her in a crate the next day when we left for lunch.
Ribbons was well trained in her former home, to use a fenced back yard. She had been trained NOT to go in the front yard. How could I tell her it was ok now to do her business anywhere outside? I had asked her to walk beside me on the leash, and she didn’t try to pull away, so after a few days I felt secure taking her to the back yard without the leash. I was desperate. Then I took her way out into a big field and unfastened the leash. She ran a distance away, did her business, and ran back to me. Finally! So I avoided more accidents in the house by letting her do her business off the leash, out in the field.
A change of environment and schedule is always upsetting. Ribbons had shared space with five other dogs, and she had probably never been alone in her life, for three years. She was visibly depressed at first, with separation anxiety!
For six weeks now, Ribbons has enjoyed our walks, staying with me whether on the leash or off. She is not a playful dog, so our walks are her main exercise. Not long ago, we walked out to the big field and I unfastened her leash as usual. She was sniffing around, and then I saw her eat something. Ribbons, NO! I called her to come to me. When she didn’t come, I called her again in my louder voice. I started to walk toward her. And suddenly, she was a black and white streak, running straight for home. She never looked back, never stopped. For a short-legged Boston, this girl can move out when she wants to. Mom was mad and she wasn’t staying around!
I headed home as fast as I could walk, thankful I didn’t hear any screeching brakes. Ribbons had run the whole length of the field, crossed the road beside the field, plus a cement parking area and a grassy space, then around one mobile home and out of sight across another parking area and another road to get home. When I reached our driveway, she was in the yard, standing at one side, watching me. I walked up the porch steps and opened the door. She came up the steps to run in the door and under the coffee table, her favorite hiding spot. I didn’t say a word. I was just glad she knew where her home was.
I couldn’t help grinning, however, as I thought about her speedy escape. That was quite a sight, a black and white streak of motion skimming along hardly touching the ground. But it was scary and I didn’t want to see it happen again. Perhaps I had given her too much freedom too soon. She will be walked on the leash for awhile. I also realized that I would NEVER have tried to catch a horse the way I tried to get Ribbons to come.
I remembered watching someone trying to catch a horse many years ago, thinking how stupid! She was yelling and running after it, and it just got more intent on getting away. That’s not how you catch a horse! So why didn’t I think of that when I yelled at Ribbons to come to me?
Ribbons is a timid dog. I’m not used to a timid dog. Lil was not timid. Lil was in your face, always wanting to play. And although she was born in the very same home as Ribbons, Lil never had a problem peeing or pooping anywhere in the yard. I want Ribbons to have fun, to play, to relax and enjoy being with us. So far, she doesn’t play with any toys I’ve given her. Perhaps I’ve been too intent on taking control. I remember a column I wrote last December, Giving Up Sometimes Works, which applied to this very issue.
I did a search online for timid dogs and came up with some rules. Avoid direct eye contact. Ok, I need to work on that, because I’m probably acting like a predator. Don’t face the dog directly, but turn your body slightly. Relax your body. Ignore the dog as much as possible and let the dog initiate contact. Let the dog set the pace for training, and use treats. I’ll bet these rules for a timid dog apply to a timid, spooky horse as well! The goal is to offer comfort and confidence, to instill courage not fear, to establish an environment of acceptance, to create a bond. A predictable routine is important. And every confidence-building incident is a step in the right direction, with a reward for each try, just like with horses.
Regarding separation anxiety, one article said to teach your new dog as many commands as possible, like sit, stay, relax, come. Do these exercises in various rooms of the house and in the yard, and praise and treat liberally. I remember reading something about teaching horses a new exercise in more than one place, like in the arena as well as a field.
We want obedience, but with both horses and dogs, we work to win the animal’s respect and trust rather than using force. Yelling at a timid animal doesn’t gain control, it breaks the connection. And when you lose connection with a horse, you start over to rebuild the bond. Sometimes you get the feet to move, in a round pen. Well, I sure got Ribbons to move her feet, but not in the right direction. At least she knew where she belonged. So I started over, keeping her on the leash. Ribbons is a sweet dog. She cuddled up with me on the sofa soon after we were back home. I didn’t get mad or punish her. I was just happy she was safe.
On the other hand, when I found a pile of poop on the carpet in my office, I did take her to the scene and I told her NO and gave her one light pat on the rump. Honestly, it was a very light tap, just enough to tell her this was not acceptable. Suddenly, she FROZE! Her eyes got big, and her whole body tensed up and just froze in place for several seconds. And then she ran for safety under the coffee table. The next morning, she did her business in the back yard. And I gave her a treat, and rubbed her and petted her and made a big happy fuss over her. She jumped around and ran in circles and I played her happy game with her.
I know I’m still dealing with sad thoughts of Lil and how this new dog is so different! Patience, I tell myself. Take a deep breath. Look at this sweet girl and love her with understanding for all her recent adjustments. I am so glad that God understands our feelings—our fears and our deepest sorrows. Perhaps Ribbons and I can heal each other. Sometimes God uses dogs.
(Originally published in the October 2013 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)