By Deborah O’Neill
After reading a recent article by Claire Warrender from “The Courier” (19th of July 2020) detailing a very traumatic event involving a horse, rider, and dogs, I have decided to write my own article detailing training and advice to help in these situations.
Whether you are an experienced trainer or a novice owner this article can help you understand you animal better and improve them around livestock.
This article will cover how to positively get your dog or horse more comfortable around other animals, how to pre-plan and pre-train your animal for any possible incident, how to try to avoid incidents and what to do if your in an accident. Hopefully, this piece will encourage people to consider how their dogs behave around livestock and how horses can cope with these scary situations.
In Claires article an experienced horse and rider was out hacking, the horse got a fright due to the dogs. The rider fell off and broke her leg in both places, the horse bolted towards the main road and the dogs, accompanied by their owner, just walked away, and left the injured woman.
After an incident with myself and being trapped in a field with 5 dogs, 2 broken bones in my leg after a fall and no passer-byers to help. I can understand how frightening and terrifying this is. To physically not be able to walk, be in extreme pain but also deathly worried about still looking after the animals in your care. If you do find yourself in a position where you see an incident or injured animal or person. Please do not leave them, offer help and support. Even if it is just so the injured person does not feel as scared and alone.
The woman rider thankfully had her mobile and was able to not only call an ambulance but also her friend to rescue her horse from the dangerous main road. This is like what happened with my accident, I was able to contact a couple of the dog’s owners, two very kindly, rushed to help me. My partner was also contacted and came to the rescue. I was lucky as I was able to be carried to a vehicle and ensure the dogs were taken home safely.
But this is not always the case, there are many incidents of lost or injured pets who have ran away in the panic and uncertainty.
Incidents like this happen more regularly than you think, whether its with a horse and rider, a cow, sheep, another dog, a dog to human attack and road traffic incidents or a simple slip and fall. It is every pet owner’s worst fear.
Owner’s rightfully worry and want to know how to avoid situations like this. I understand, no matter how much pre-planning is put in place, it is called an accident for a reason. So, I will also explain what to do if this ever happens to you and the best ways to keep yourself and your pet safe.
The article I read, is not very explanatory on the incident circumstances, therefore, does not detail what the dogs did to cause the horse to react. However, from my experience accidents involving dogs usually include barking, lunging, jumping up, chasing, biting/attacking, or appearing around a corner and both parties get a fright.
What are the training methods used in this article?
For the training of any animal, I use positive and force free methods, at no point should you ever have to scare, punish, or force a dog or horse (any livestock) into a situation or to change unwanted behaviours. All this does is created a bad association between the dog and livestock or horse and dog/livestock, instil fear and frustration and severely reduce your dogs’/horses’ bond and trust in you.
Ensure that during the training process you regularly, and consistently, reward your dog for the desired behaviour. When a dog or horse receives any kind of reward (treats, toys, praise, environmental rewards) their brain releases dopamine which activates learning and neural pathway creation, this is one of the reasons positive training works better as a training method.
How to start Bombproofing your horse around dogs
First, I will cover pre-training and planning for incidents to give your dog/pet and owner the best outcome.
As a previous horse owner and trainer, and currently a dog trainer. I can see the incident from both sides. As a horse owner, it is important to train and “bombproof” your horse as much as you can before going out hacking. Get your horse used to dogs on the yard in a safe and controlled environment. To truly get them used to dogs ideally you would want them to be unreactive and relaxed around dogs who are stationary, gently walking, running, barking, and jumping. Allow your horse to safely observe dogs at a comfortable and non-reactive distance doing varying activities without stressing the horse or dog. This will help your horse to learn more about how the interact, how they play, run, bark, lunge and desensitise them to this.
After this you can work on getting them used to “unexpected situations”. The easiest way to do this is to find a building or wall with large grounds. Keep your horse a safe distance (about 20 foot to begin with) and have a friend with a dog at the other side of the building or wall out of sight. Keep the horse in the same place, to begin with, but ask your friend to allow their on-lead dog to walk in and out of sight of the horse. You can build this us by increasing distance, changing locations, adding noise, adding excitement, dog being more active (such as running, jumping). You can do the same with people instead of dogs to help “proof the wanted behaviour” around dogs and people. By doing this you are creating small and manageable levels of stress which the horse learns from. The more repetitions and different variations, your horse experiences positively, will help teach your horse how to behave and cope with unexpected meetings, in a controlled and safe environment. This learning will stay with them out on your hacks and with other situations. It will build their confidence and resilience. If your horse is still struggling to improve around dogs, I would suggest assessing your horse’s confidence levels and resilience then put a training plan in place to improve these or getting a professional trainer involved to assist you.
Do not punish or scold your horse for reacting to dogs or livestock. This will not help the situation and will make it much worse. All your horse will learn from this experience is that “Bad things happen when dogs come near” and it will affect their bond and trust in you, which you need to reassure them!
Where to start with training your dog around livestock
For dog owners, it is important that you teach your dog how to react to livestock, reduce their prey drive and increase their owner focus. To do this, is reasonably simple but, you need to put in the work. No dog owner wants their dog to cause possibly injury to another animal or person or yourself. At the end of the day, if your dog is livestock worrying then the dog legally can be shot and destroyed, so it is also in your dog’s best interest!
To teach your dog how to behave around livestock, you do not need to be in a field with livestock to do this, all training can get done at a safe and secure distance from livestock. I should not have to say this, but do not punish your dog for reacting to livestock. This will not help the situation and in fact will make it much worse. Say your dog got into a field of sheep, will that dog come back to you if your going to give it into trouble?
For training and “proofing the behaviour (making the wanted behaviour consistent) your dog it is all about the 4 D’s:
Distance from the distraction
Duration of the experience
Difficulty level (i.e. what we ask of them in the situation, adding movement of livestock etc.).
As with training any behaviour or cue, you start in a quiet, low distraction area, close to your dog but far away from the distraction, a short duration of interaction/training and we only ask them to do basic and easy behaviours. Once they have mastered the cue or behaviour at these levels, we can increase the 4 D’s until the dog is comfortable at a close distance, with good owner focus, and around a considerable amount of livestock or moving/running livestock.
Keep your dog on the lead, and follow the 4D’s, keep your dog at a non-reactive distance. This distance will vary from dog to dog. Some dogs will not react to horses when 10 foot away, others maybe 50 foot away! Therefore, you must assess your dog’s current threshold and coping levels. How far away is your dog when he fixates/barks/lunges/loses attention on you?
Is your dog non-reactive if livestock are moving or even just stationary?
Is your dog relaxed with just one or two livestock but cannot cope with a larger group?
Is your dog ok with smaller prey but not larger?
How long can your dog stay relaxed at that distance without becoming overexcited or reactive?
Once you know this you can get to work. Start at the non-reactive distance as we want to reward and encourage this behaviour. Do not put your dog in a situation you have not prepared them for or when your dog feels to emotional around the situation and they must react. As we train the dog, we are building new routines and neural pathways, therefore, the more your dog is reactive, scared, excited the more he will repeat this urge.
Once your dog can do this consistently and comfortably, you can start making it more difficult for the dog such as adding movement, noise, excitement, increasing distance etc. If you increase these and your dog starts reacting again, the reason usually is that you have increased the difficulty (4 D’s) too soon, go back a step and work slower towards your final goal. There are many Dog Training Professionals, such as me, which can also help you train your dog around livestock.
As with Horses, sudden or surprise situations can be hard for your dog to cope with. You can help them get used to this by safely and positively introducing them to unexpected situations such as another dog or livestock coming in and out of view. This build’s their confidence and resilience including instilling a better trust in each other.
That is all good but, does the training work in real life?
Once your dog or horse is more experienced around other animals, your animal will have more confidence and tools to use if any situation arises. Dogs and horses are still wild animals. Horses are Prey/flight animals and dogs are predatory animals, horses are inbuilt to run from danger and dogs are inbuilt to chase. It is a hard feat to cover come this, but it is possible with time, training, and practise. They may never be 100% but with training we can get them as close to this as possible. As previously said, every dog and horse is different, some will be bombproof after training others will take a bit more work.
As a previous horse owner of a young highly strung, sport horse, I understand the frustration and dedication it takes to train your horse to be ridden, to show jump, how to react to livestock and especially how to react around dogs. At the time I also owned two dogs, one puppy and one rescue, I wanted not only for my horse to be safe on hacks but also so I could take the dogs with me on my travels. After training both species, they all got on great, better than even I expected! I had such lovely hacks with them all. Due to the training if we ever met other dogs or livestock (stationary, running, lunging, or barking) my horse was completely unreactive, not bad for a two-and-a-half-year-old! I was only ever thrown from my horse once due to a surprise event, a gunshot. My horse reared up, I fell off and amazingly my horse just stood next to me for comfort and support. Now that is some astounding bond and trust!
How to plan your walk or hack to avoid possible incidents
Wnether you are a horse owner or dog owner, there are certain things you should always carry with you on a walk. You must always have a mobile phone with charge and credit, some cash, a first aid kit and a whistle. A whistle can be used to create noise and attention for help, the noise also travels further than a voice. Ideally you should also have a couple of local people you can call in an emergency to ensure you and the animals are safe. If you have emergency Contacts, put them into your phone as “Emergency Contact” as if your unconscious emergency services may be able to use your phone to call help. Ensure you have your animals are covered with a pet insurance plan which also includes public liability (what if your animal injures another person or animal or causes a car accident?) and accidental injuries.
The main solution may sound simple and obvious, but it is the most important. If you feel your dog or horse will not cope with a situation which you see coming ahead then increase your distance from the situation and allow your animal to self-soothe and calm down. Then take note of the situation and work on improving their confidence in the situation for the next time! Trust me your pet will be extremely relieved, you have removed them from the situation, and this will build their trust and bond with you. It will also teach your animal that if they feel scared or uncomfortable, they can move away from the situation without reacting and remain calm. If your animal feels they have a choice and know what to do in a situation then they will be much more likely to offer the desired behaviour.
If you are a horse owner, ensure the saddle is well fitted, the girth is tight enough (it loosens with walking), your reigns are not damaged or worn, you have a jacket on (can be used as a sling or bandage) and of course gloves and a helmet.
If you are a dog owner, ensure you have a lead (ideally two leads in case one snaps), ensure the dogs collar or harness is secure and properly fitted without damage and a jacket (many uses such as to keep you or the dog warm if in shock or also as a tourniquet or stretcher for a dog). Make sure you wear suitable footwear and chose your walking location wisely especially in winter.
What to do if you are involved in an incident
Let us say, the worse had happened, you have been in an accident. Either on your horse or with your dog. You had put in the training, you did everything you could to plan for a possible incident but nevertheless, your worst fear has come true.
- First, you must ensure you and your animals are now safe from danger. If you are in a dangerous position or place, and it is safe to do so, move to a safer location. Now take a few big deep breaths, lower your heart and breathing rate. This will also help to calm you down, slow down any possible bleeding and help you to focus.
- Next, check yourself for any injury or damage, to allow you, to assess the next step.
For any of these call an ambulance immediately
Is it severe?
Do you have a head injury?
Are you in and out of consciousness?
Is it more likely a break or excessive bleeding?
If its severe bleeding your main priority is to slow the bleeding. You can still lose dangerous amount of blood while waiting for help arriving so take the initiative and try to temporary slow the bleeding. Apply pressure on the wound and elevate the injured part of the body as much as possible.
- At this point, if its severe, you have called the ambulance, help is on the way. After this you can shout or whistle for passer-byers assistance if required. If its not severe you can skip to the next step.
- Call your animal to you and place them on a lead (or for a horse hold the reigns), many animals can fear people in uniform so may run in fear if emergency services arrive or any other situation arises.
- Next, Check your animal for any possible injuries. Bear in mind dogs and humans in shock do not feel as much pain so ensure you check your animal over thoroughly.
- Is your animal’s injury severe?
Is your dog Conscious?
Is your dog breathing (Not at all/shallow/rapid or irregularly?
Any extreme pain or limping?
Have a head injury?
Is your dog bleeding heavily?
If the answer to any of these is yet Call a Vet as soon as possible and arrange transport to the vets.
- Administer any first aid, if you are able, before taking your dog home or whilst await the vets. Monitor their breathing and heart rate, it should start to regulate after the incident. For bite injuries and car accidents check the lungs are not punctured or that they have any internal injuries. Signs of internal damage to animals include distended stomach, laboured breathing, pale gums, collapsing, vomiting etc.
Once you have done an emergency injury check on yourself and your animals. You can assist wither you are able to get them home safely or if you need assistance. At this point if you have not already called your emergency contact to come and assist, you can do this. Try to keep yourself and your animals as still as possible until help arrives in case there are other injuries you may be unaware of.
Whether you needed ambulance/emergency contact transport, or you managed to get everyone home safely yourself. You will still need to monitor yourself and your animals, sometimes injuries do not show up for a few hours after the incident such as some head injuries and concussion. Monitor at least every hour until the next day and depending on the severity of the accident you may want to get yourself and your animals checked over by a health professional.
We all want the perfect pet!
Putting together dogs, horses, and livestock can be problematic but there are many ways, as detailed in this feature, that we can help them and keep everyone safe. Everyone wants the perfect dog or the perfect horse but, ill let you in on a secret, there is not one! Every animal is unique. They have different personalities, feelings, levels of training, fears, strengths and weakness and experiences. Therefore, they should be treated as such and have tailored training, a good example of one shoe does not fit all!
As owners, we are guilty of always striving to have “the best pet” and with training, time, love, and commitment every person can improve their pets training and behaviour. It is important to acknowledge your goals, ensure they are obtainable and just keep moving the goal posts. If you have small achievable goals It allows you to observe progression easier, this also gives yourself and your dog a confidence boost every time the goal is reached, encouraging you both to continue progressing!
Canine Trainer and Coach
Owner at Mizz Pawz