Of Ponies & Puppies
Less than a week ago, we brought a new puppy into our lives and the training has begun in earnest. As I watch my dear husband puzzle through the process, it strikes me just how much we equestrians learn about training from our trainers and horses. The insights and experiences are as relevant with household pets as with our barn buddies.
On day three of new puppy parenthood, we overtired our puppy, underestimating how much sleep she needs. As a result, I headed off to an evening get-together with girlfriends only to receive a string of texts from my husband indicating that our 10 pound ball of fluff was out of control: jumping, biting, and unable to calm down. Of course Whimsy fell promptly to sleep minutes before I returned home, presenting a picture of angelic sweetness.
As Al and I sat on the couch, enjoying a moment of peace, I described to him the process we use with horses. The trainer teaches the horse to be manageable, then teaches the owner how to achieve these results themselves.
While that’s how it’s supposed to work, it’s not an easy process and tends to move forward in fits and starts since most owners lack the quick reflexes and physical skill of a professional trainer, as well as a thorough understanding of why horses respond the way they do. Looking at our sleeping puppy, it struck me how thoroughly training can improve or ruin an animal.
Having ridden horses for years and raised several puppies, much of Whimsy’s training is intuitive for me. Al, however, was a newbie —inadvertently bring out her wild side — flashing, razor-sharp puppy teeth enthusiastically applied. While I could calm her down, Al was at a loss.
“Just as my horse trainer can bring out the best in my horse, she can’t do it for me,” I said. “You have to learn the skills and practice them.”
We watched several training videos as Whimsy dozed peacefully and developed some training ideas for the following day. I left Al with the goals of bite inhibition and stopping play before it escalated, then headed to the barn for a riding lesson.
During my lesson, Natalie encouraged me to be more firm with Micah when he ignored my leg aids. As it turned out, it was just the right advice. Being tentative is one of the most damaging things you can do in your animal/human relationship. A horse or a dog will look for a leader and if you don’t insist on the leadership position, you’ll quickly lose it. After a couple of firm canter/walk transitions, Micah shaped up and gave me more prompt, correct responses.
I was fortunate that Natalie was there to strengthen my resolve. It’s hard to exude confidence when you’re not quite sure what to do. As riders, we’re lucky to have trainers to guide us, telling us when to be firm, when to give, when to repeat an exercise, and when to move on. They help us choose which battles to fight and when to wait another day. We gain confidence from our trust in them … although at times we need to fake that confidence until we have enough experience to make it real.
At home, Al is learning the skills and developing the confidence to keep our bundle of joy from turning into a tiny terror.
“Imagine what it’s like to deal with a 1,000-pound animal when you’re feeling unsure,” I said. “Now that’s scary!”
As we correct the problem of over-tiring our puppy, letting her settle into our household routine, we’re all working things out. Training is a big job, requiring thought, consistency, and diligence — the time spent is well worth it.
Note: In September we lost our 16 year old Standard Poodle, Skittles. She loved going to the barn and visiting with the other dogs up until her final month. She was truly an exceptional dog. Little Whimsy is also a Standard Poodle, and I have high hopes that she’ll one day be barn-worthy. Her joyful presence has filled a hole in our lives.