The animals we work and live with do not know the dangers of our human world, yet we often expect them to behave as if they are fully aware of such things. We expect them to give us an appropriate behaviour for the circumstances they find themselves in, often without thought for the fact that animals are a different species and so will have different instincts and behaviour to those we want them to express. A human behaviour trait is to try harder if the first time we ask doesn’t work. You ask your dog or horse to do something, and they don’t comply with your request. One of the first instinctual responses you have is irritation, and so repeat your request in a stronger manner. Our first choice is often to apply more pressure, in the form of force and coercion. It’s all downhill from there, as you employ increasing pressure to make the other party do what you want. Again, a human trait, that you must not back down, you must show strength or you will be considered weak, and whoever you were trying to tell what to do will then be in charge of you. This piece of advice is often given to horse and dog owners, with the label of dominance. However, dominance is a human concept, inappropriately applied to how we interact with animals.
The best piece of advice to give to people regarding this, is to forget you heard it, stop thinking you must do what someone else says you should, and instead, start using common sense and genuine care for the animals you are with.
You do not need to make your animal feel scared or unhappy.
You do not need to follow rank reduction programmes, or dominance theory.
You do not need to continue until the animal does what you want.
You do not need to listen to advice that you should not let your animal get away with anything, they must obey at all times.
You do not need to listen to advice that you should withhold love, affection and comforts as your animal will come to expect them, and think he is in charge.
Some of my clients actually sigh with relief when I tell them this.
It is said that doing everything before your dog will show him you are dominant and the alpha. You must eat first, go through doors first, etc. IT WILL NOT.
Your dog will just get hungrier whilst you eat, usually resulting in attempts to secure some of your food! Your dog does not understand that whoever goes through a door first is considered to be the most important – he just wants to get out in the garden.
That continuing to force your horse until he gives a behaviour will show him you are in charge and dominant. IT WILL NOT. Your horse will become increasingly anxious and learn that you are a source of pain, and to be avoided.
If you don’t show him who is boss he will run rings round you. HE WILL NOT.
Allowing an animal to do something different to what you have asked, or choose what he wants to do will lead to chaos. IT WILL NOT. A lack of teaching will lead to chaos, plain and simple.
There is a better way, and that is teaching with positive methods, giving a choice, and using positive reinforcement for the best conditions for learning, improving confidence and self awareness. This in turn gives, safety, reliability, and contentment.
When I am with animals, I am not the alpha, leader, or in charge. I am part of our group, whether that is me and my two horses, me and my dog, or another scenario. We each have strengths, preferences, things we enjoy, and whoever is best for the task at hand is the one the rest of the group is guided by. A true partnership is about giving all members of the group the ability and freedom to express themselves and choose what they do or don’t do, as long as everyone is kept safe.
So how do we achieve this?
I am their teacher, helping them understand how to interpret this human world they live in.
As they learn, I become their guide, suggesting a good course of action.
As they become aware, they become my guide; I go along with their choice as long as it isn’t dangerous, or completely wrong for the situation we are in.
As our relationship of trust, understanding, and awareness develops, we each contribute to what we do that day, and how we solve any difficulties along the way.