Work Dogs The Way We Work Horses

Dr. Mark during his cowboy years.

I have just returned from working “in the field” with horses in South Dakota.  Actually I was working around horses and was helping Dave Pauli of Humane Society of the United States dart captive wild mustangs with an immunocontraceptive called PZP.  It is always a pleasure working with Dave and I love being around horses.

In high school, my dream was to be a cowboy and as soon after I graduated high school near Minneapolis, MN, I started working on a ranch near Red Lodge, MT.  I worked on several different ranches that still used horses to round up the cattle.  And when I was a veterinarian in private practice, horses were often my patients.

Now I work more with wolves and dogs.  At times when I teach about dog handling, people remind me how similar it can be to working with horses.

Dogs recovering together in a large room after surgery.

There are times when we have to work with dogs that are loose in

large rooms or pens.  This might be a hoarding situation with large pens or in a disaster response or with captive wolves.  Some trap/neuter/release (TNR or ABC-Animal Birth Control) programs around the world cannot build individual kennels and have to keep their dogs, recovering from surgery, in one or more large rooms.  And then they have the difficulty of re-catching them for transport to return them to where they were caught.  It can be terrifying for the untrained handler to work dogs in these rooms.

One of the calmest ways to gather up a dog from a room is by slowly and calmly moving the dog toward a transport crate and guiding the dog into the crate. (For safety, it is good to have something in your hand like a Y pole, but do not use it to threaten the dog unless he challenges you.  Remember it can be very effective even when used in a minimal way.)  Unfortunately a lot of people tense up and try to force the dog into the corner  and into the crate and it not only increases the frenzy and craziness, it is also usually unsuccessful or a fight.

The best pens for captive wolves typically have a small pen or kennel attached to the bigger pen and handlers will move the wolf into the smaller pen where it can be encouraged to enter a crate or handled with Y poles (see my wolf handling video on this blog.).  I have worked and taught at many different captive wolf breeding facilities or zoos and have seen how many people try to push these wolves too hard.  The harder they push the wolves, like dogs, the more stubborn they become.

Move in Waves

I have come to learn that the best way to move or guide dogs (and wolves) is by putting on a little pressure, then easing up, then adding a little pressure again, then easing off.  The energy is like waves on a beach.   Many people have reminded me how this is just like working horses from the ground.  You put on a little pressure, then release.  A good horseman will repeat that ebb and flow in a rhythm that builds a wonderful relationship and connection with the horse.

Moving a dog into a crate with dog resisting.

If you are working in a large area and trying to move a dog (or wolf) remember that the canid needs time to think.  If you continuously put on pressure, they are only reacting to escape or protect themselves.  First give them a little pressure to guide them to where you want to go, then stop, and let them think of the best way to do that.  Often the dog will stop to face you if you are too strong a threat and if you keep putting on pressure, they will only stay facing you to protect themselves.  Allow them to feel relaxed enough to look around.  Back off just a bit and keep a calm energy and mannerism (and extend compassionate thoughts).  Seeing the dog looking around for an escape is a good thing.  That escape might be the crate you are encouraging them to enter.

Softening pressure allowing dog to look aroundThis can even work in a very small space.  Sometimes when we are trapping dogs, like in the photos to the right, we like to move one dog into a connecting trap or into a connecting crate.    The first photo shows the dog facing the handler and creating a stand-off.  That is the wrong time for the handler to put pressure on the dog.  My friend, Sonam , removed the pressure just enough so the dog felt safe enough to turn around and while the dog was facing the crate, he added a soft pressure to move him into it.  So with very little effort, and a lot of patience and compassion he was able to encourage the dog to cooperate.

Minimize Stimulus

Many people handling fearful dogs do not realize how intimidating they are to the dogs.  Remember: You are scary. Sometimes a line of people are needed to move a wolf to another end of a large pen, but they do not have to do anything extra to scare the wolf.  I have seen a line of people at a captive breeding facility who each had a rake or shovel in their hand and were waving it around.  It is their fault that they were not working with a calm and manageable wolf.

The same is with the dog.  Dogs and horses are both very sensitive.  My continuous lesson when riding horses is learning how to give softer signals to the horse.  And my continuous lesson in working with fearful dogs is to be quiet and calm when I am not applying pressure.  You do not need big movements nor do you need to swing large objects to move a dog.  Practice using the least amount of stimulus when moving dogs.

Give It Time

Sometimes you have to capture and handle a lot of dogs in a short time.  So be it.

But whenever possible do not rush things.  A very common reason why we cannot catch or handle dogs successfully is because we are rushing ourselves and rushing the dogs.  Time and patience is one of the most valuable tools we have for catching and handling dogs in a calm, humane, and effective way.

Horseman will never rush when they train or work a horse.  They let the horse set the pace and they take as much time as it takes to make progress in building a connection with the animal.  Most of the time you might be simply snatching a dog with a net and there is no connection to be made.  But often we are so close to sliding a leash around their neck or cornering them in a corner and needing to close the space.

When you can, allow the dog time to calm down.  It cannot stay tense forever.  It is a good time for you to calm down and breathe as well.  Many people think they must hurry, but then they take much more time trying to catch the dog.

So work with dogs the way a good horseman works with horses.

9 Responses

  1. Terrific article. Thanks.

  2. Have you read Pat Parelli’s book “Natural Horse-Man-Ship”?

    I recommend it to clients who have very fearful or formerly feral dogs.While it isn’t particularly well written, there are some really excellent ideas and tips in the book for working in pressure / release mode with flighty animals.

  3. Here’s a post I wrote on how I used one of Parelli’s games to desensitize a foster dog to touch:

    If you look on ebay you can sometimes find a cheap used video of the Seven Games. There are also a lot of videos of Parelli work on YouTube. If you don’t have Parelli-cultist horse friends nearby, video is helpful.

    I got to play ‘games’ with a friend’s Percheron/Morgan yesterday, we had a great time.

  4. The pressure-release — I call it a “pulse” — is also how we move poultry into “traps” or just into their coops for the night. A slight head-turn is often all takes.

    I’m learning (ongoing struggle) to STFU when my two young dogs are cooping the turkeys, because all the “advice” I offer them just screws it up. Part of what I had trouble accepting was the dogs apparently abandoning their task — but they aren’t, they are pulsing out and releasing pressure. Sometimes an ornery tom uses this moment to escape, but more often the bird hops into the coop. And the pup soon rounds up the escapee. The dogs have a predator’s inherent understanding of pressure; once they learn the *goal* of the chore, it’s best for me to stay out of it. Now, when they start rousting the turkeys for the evening, I go into the barn and do other chores, don’t even WATCH. When the two youngsters come inside to greet me, panting and smiling, the turkey count inside the coop is always complete. (The turks are the only animals here who resist being put to bed — all the others need no persuasion.)

    I haven’t yet found the sweet spot that pressures my goats just enough to get with the program. But then, they aren’t particularly scared or inherently respectful animals.

    The pulse-hold-gradual release is also the pattern I was taught for deep-tissue manual body work on both animals and humans — in this case, the pressure is not a metaphor, but the actual physical pressure applied. I do not think this is coincidence. It has a clear behavioral/learning component for the recipient of the massage. Horses pick it up fastest of all, and some quite snarky horses will become willing participants in one session.

  5. I should add, separate observation, that my fearful former feral foster (whew!) responds to frontal pressure as if he were a prey animal. This is after eight months living as criminal evidence and being cared for by volunteers, and six months with me, four of which have been spent as a house dog.

    Unlike a prey animal, he is very quick to follow, so just turning my back and walking where I want him to go accomplishes most of what I want him to do. He follows closely and frequently touches with his nose. I believe this is a genetically-determined behavior; the “heel” position he takes up is identical to that often seen in well-cared-for members of his breed, including my own somewhat related bitch, her sire, and many of her offspring.

    • “Pulse” is a great description since it does not really suggest we back off (unless we need to) but rather just ease up on the pressure.

      Obviously the reason why this all works for you is because you are sensitive and aware of the subtle reactions and messages from the dog. The first time I saw a video of Turid Rugaas I was amazed at how much there is to learn about reading dogs and I am still learning.

      Thank you for sharing your skills and perspectives. Mark

  6. Heather, what you’re describing as well as what Sharon does in the ‘butt scratch games’ videos with RePoe – is pretty much exactly what Pat Parelli does in what he calls “the following game”.

    I did this with the horses the other day. With a horse you start by looking at its hip, then when it feels pressure and starts to turn away from you, you take pressure off by turning and moving away from it. After a few repetitions, even a very shy critter will usually get the idea that you’ll leave all pressure off if it follows. One needs practice and good observational skills to tell how close to stand and how much pressure to apply, but it’s a great tool for these kinds of animals.

    I did this with RePoe the day I picked him up from the Barking Bus and it worked like a charm.

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