How Training Dogs And Horses is Surprisingly Similar!


(This is a bit lengthy so I shall warn you: Grab that coffee or beverage of choice and a bathroom break before you start!)

Dogs and horses are on different ends of the food chain. Horses are prey and Dogs are predators and yet despite these differences training them is not so different from the other.

One of the biggest training issues I have noticed, and I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, is how our emotions really play a vital role in training. Animals are keenly aware of body language and what your temperament is just by looking at you and judging your posture. How your animal perceives your mood will influence how they work for you. Now dogs and horses body language, and how they understand it,  is different in the finer aspects but similar in the big picture.  To see the difference and similarities try the following:

We will start with horses. Stand near your horse, cock a leg and take deep breaths. You’ll notice your horse relax, lower his head and possibly start to dose and/or even mossy over and nuzzle you. You’re giving him the “everything is alright. It’s time to relax” signal.

Now take that same horse walk towards him with long/quick strides, your shoulders back and squared and stare at him as you close the distance to him, even bare your teeth a bit. Your body language is saying “You’re in my way MOVE!!” You’ll either get the submissive horse who who moves away from you, sometimes rather quickly or the alpha horse that pins his ears and threatens to kick saying “NO! You back off!”

With dogs you can repeat the same exercise. When near your dog, relax your shoulders, cock a hip and don’t stare at your dog and don’t react if he comes near. Your telling the dog that “I’m chilling out,” and its ok for him to come close and greet you and your dog might even try to initiate playing.

Now Square your shoulders and walk toward him with quick/long strides while looking him in the eyes and bare your teeth a bit. This signals to the dog that “I’m boss!” and a few things might happen. Either the dog will not hold your gaze, droop his ears, hunker down, tuck his tail a bit, and turn sideways to you(at least a little bit), sometimes even laying down in complete submission, or will shy away from you. This is the submissive dog signaling “you’re boss. I didn’t mean to offend”. Or you’ll get “oh no you didn’t! I’m boss” and the dog will puff up, hold your gaze, lift his lip, continue to watch you and if you continue forward the dog will most likely attack. Don’t always expect a dog to growl and bark. The more confident the dog the quieter he will be.

In both instances the dogs and horses will respond to your more relaxed or aggressive stances.  Which would you be more responsive to: The instructor that is calm, relaxed and takes a mistake in stride or the instructor that is breathing down you neck with his hands balled into fists just waiting to yell at you, the instant you make a mistake? (Calm all the way for me if I do say so! and I’ve had plenty of experience with both kinds of bosses!)

The same similarities with body language is also true for how they react to training in a positive enforcement training session. Positive enforcement meaning the animal is given positive reenforcement, the treat and/or praise, for doing something correctly and the incorrect response is ignored/not reacted to.  The animals specific reactions might be a bit different depending on the stimuli but with the basics of how they learn is not so different.

Now granted you will never ride a dog (Unless you’re a kid of course. How I miss those days!) but when you teach a dog the basic commands, like “down” for instance, you typically use a reward, either food or a toy, to let them know exactly when they did something right and a high praise voice saying “oh good boy/girl!!” and lots of petting to reenforce the reward.

When first starting to teach “down,  you may say “down” and the dog thinks about laying down, that little lean forwards but no actual movement to the down. You give the dog the reward for the effort in the right direction. Next time you give them the word “down” and give him just a little pressure behind the shoulders repeat “down” and give him the reward when he starts to go down, and you repeat the process, progressing until the dog correlates the word “down” with putting his elbows on the ground. Once he knows this he won’t get the reward unless he does it correctly.

How different is this from horses? When working on the ground and teaching a horse something for the first time, like turn on the forehand, it’s not very different. You put your hand behind the girth roughly where your heel would be to cue from the saddle. You put pressure on the horses side and when the horse leans or shifts its weight, you praise and give a treat and usually say “good boy/girl” in a happy but calm voice and pat or stroke the horse to reinforce the reward.  The process will repeat until the horse easily moves his haunches away when given slight pressure in the same spot. Then you do it all over again from the other side and from the saddle until he knows whats expected every time. Then the reward isn’t given until he does it 100% correctly.

Notice in the beginning phases it’s kept as positive as possible. No negative consequences such as smacking, yanking, yelling or anything seen as a bad consequence for an action. There is a time and place for bad consequences but it should definitely not be when they are learning a new task. (No angry fire breathing bosses!)

To go with positive reinforcement you MUST be consistent! Ask the same way every time, progressively reward for all attempts until the task is known. Once the task is known reward after every correct completion of the task especially at the beginning. Once the task 100% known by the animal, then you can start using a more varied reward to keep the animals attention.

All animals(OK of the four-legged domesticated mammalian type that I’ve worked with) are very similar in how they respond to us. As long as we are the consistent ones, the animals will try to please. Of course you will have those master manipulators (My horse Cash for sure!)  who will try to be lazy and still get their reward without putting forth full effort, but if the training environment is kept positive and reliable, it just blows me away how quickly they can learn and are willing try to please(Alright I’ll say 99.9% since theres always that one exception). This willingness and from knowing they are rewarded instead of punished really seems to make it so they enjoy their job. And isn’t that what we are all after?

So now that I’ve potentially bored you to death or confused the living daylights out of you I will let you finish your coffee and what ever delicious morsels you are eating in peace!

Oh and before I go…Have you noticed any similarities in training crossed species? Is there any particular training methods that work best for you ( I always love learning new techniques!!!)


Questions? Comments? Concerns?? Shoot me a message or comment below!

(If anyone was wondering who the adorable puppy dog is in the picture its my good old Aussie Koda)

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