April 12th Musings and Thoughts: Distance Downs and Horses

Wednesdays typically don’t see a lot of training happen, as I do riding lessons on Wednesday nights, and today at lunch got eaten up by other necessary errands. So Perrin got a happy off leash romp in the forest today, but no formal training sessions. I did think about some training related items today that I wanted to record so I can come back to them later.

I have been thinking about Perrin’s downs done at a distance. I  have been working on building distance into his position changes for a while now and had hit a snag. If I set Perrin up in a sit or a stand, then walk up to 150 ft away, he downs nicely on command. If we are on an off leash walk and I ask him to down even 5 feet away one of two things happens: 1. Nothing or 2. He returns to me and downs when he arrives. The first is a focus and engagement issue that needs to be addressed separately. The second response shows me that he doesn’t understand what I am asking of him in this context, while he does understand the concept of distance in another context. I think I have finally put my finger on what part of the picture is the problem: motion.

Perrin understands that down means “when standing still, lie down on the ground from whatever position you are currently in “. He does not understand the concept of having to come to a stop where he is, and then downing. Now to build a training plan to help him understand the concept of downing from movement!

My other thoughts were about the approach I choose to take in dog training. During my lesson tonight, the horse was scared of some equipment in the corner of the ring, spooking and shying away from that corner. We worked on the standard approach to this issue in the horse world: just make him do it. “He is just avoiding work”, “He doesn’t get to choose what we do”, “He just needs to listen to you and ignore it” are all well worn refrains in this area. While this was going on, all I could think was “How would I approach this differently if this were a dog who was scared of something in the training area?”. I can assure you my approach would be drastically different. The idea that we were going to solve the issue of the horse spooking at the equipment by forcing him over to ‘prove’ it wasn’t scary didn’t seem like an approach that was going to work. I know that in dogs, this sort of approach (flooding) is not effective, and can have some serious side effects, sensitizing the dog to that stimulus and having the opposite of the intended outcome. I think it is interesting that an approach and philosophy on animal learning that is common in other species is not yet the norm in horses.

The concept that the animal is manipulative and scheming to avoid work is common in certain groups of dog trainers as well, and the more I have gotten into dogs, and seen some other perspectives, the more that I find it illogical and as anthropomorphism. Quite honestly, dogs don’t have the brain power to ‘scheme’. They don’t do things just to piss their humans off (although some days it really feels like it), they are doing what works for them (seeking reinforcement or avoiding punishment). If I believed my dog was truly that manipulative, it would suck all the fun of being around him out of training and sharing time together. And it has in the past before I found a way of training that makes us both happy and has more reinforcement for me in it (ie success).



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