Introducing dogs and horses

Dogs and horses can be the best of friends. The key is introducing them in a respectful manner! Follow these tips for success.

Do you have both a horse and a dog? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they got along well so you could bring your dog to the barn (if allowed) and hit the trails with both your furry companions? It can be done, but given that horses and dogs are naturally antagonistic species – one is prey and one is predator – you may need to put in some time to make it all work. Luckily, both species are social and can extend their relationships outside their own species, most notably to human beings.

“Horses have a good reputation for developing buddy relationships with a variety of species other than their own,” states Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVB, professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia. “Dogs are the same way. However, it depends on the individuals.”

How social are they?

The more “social” each animal is, the more likely they are to successfully acclimate to one another. It depends on genetic potential as well as early experiences. Genetically, some dogs are more inclined to chasing or herding livestock, while others may be more placid. Herding dogs in particular (e.g. border collies, Australian cattle dogs) are born with an innate desire to control moving things. For these breeds, you may need to use a leash to control access to your horse for a longer period than you would with, say, a Bernese mountain dog. Small dogs such as pugs and hunting breeds such as retrievers are often naturally uninterested in livestock, so less inclined to chase or nip.

Horses and dogs share similar peak socialization periods during which novel experiences are most easily accepted. This is about three to 16 weeks of age in dogs and four to 12 weeks for horses. Exposure to other species during this socialization period can be extremely beneficial for increasing the animal’s acceptance of alternate species as companions. All these factors can play into the length of time it takes for interactions to become relaxed and friendly.

Puppies and foals

If you are starting with a new puppy, just carrying him up to a friendly horse and letting them sniff one another is a great start. Take your pup with you to the barn and let him watch you interact with your horse from the safety of a kennel or someone’s lap, or have a friend hold the leash while offering the pup treats for good behavior. This will not only make introductions less dramatic, but will reduce the chances of the dog developing a desire to chase the horse. It also reduces the likelihood of injury to the pup as he bumbles about between the horse’s feet. The latter could result not only in a hefty vet bill, but also a traumatized puppy that will forever mistrust horses and may act out fearfully or aggressively in self defence. It can also be extremely unnerving for the horse.

Cassandra Levy of Nobleton, Ontario, owns two horses and three dogs, one of which is a ten-week-old German shepherd puppy. “I do not believe in ‘letting them figure out’ how to behave on their own or letting the horses teach them,” she says. “My dogs and horses mean too much to me for accidents.”

Similarly, horses that became familiar with dogs at a young age will be much more tolerant of new dogs. Even the presence of barn cats can help horses perceive other predatory animals as non-threatening. The more they’ve been exposed in a positive way to novel stimuli, the more likely they are to maximize their genetic potential to be accepting of new experiences, particularly those related to those experiences.

Training is key

If you are introducing adult animals, both will require some basic but reliable skills so you can manage them effectively and prevent problems from arising. This is even more crucial if you are performing the introductions by yourself. Your horse should be able to stand quietly, back up on command and be responsive to lead pressure. Your dog should be able to sit and hold that position for several moments, and have a solid come-when-called. Ideally, you will have also taught him a “leave it” cue so that the dog happily ignores things (horses, barn cats, feed, etc.) when asked. Fido should also be able to walk on a leash without frantically pulling. In the beginning, you will have your dog on leash most of the time, but a tight leash is not only frustrating for the dog, but the added excitement it creates can be disturbing to the horse. These skills should be fluent in more places than just your living room or backyard before you take your dog to the barn.

Andrea Harrison, a dog trainer and dressage rider in Picton, Ontario, owns several horses and dogs and also fosters both, so she is often performing introductions. “Dogs should have a very reliable recall in the face of temptation before being off leash anywhere near the horses,” she says. The smallest and oldest dogs are not ever allowed loose with the horses. “It’s just too easy for them to get hurt.”

Leash manners are important too. “Space is your friend…the dog should be on leash and a fair distance at first,” says Andrea. Keep him at a distance and “under threshold” (the spot where he is aware of the horse but is calm and not overly interested). You can move closer if you see that both animals are neither nervous nor overly excited. Feeding small treats (to either animal) can add positive associations.

“My puppy is tied in the barn where she can see the horses and get to their doors, but not get into their stalls beyond the threshold of the door,” says Cassandra. She also uses props to keep everyone safe once the pup is given some freedom. “She met my horse Caesar over a muck bucket in the open door; he could reach over and sniff her, but there was a safe barrier.”

If you have any concerns that your dog or horse will be frightened and act out, make sure you have a helper to assist in the introductions. Take things slowly and watch for signs of anxiety or over-arousal in either animal. It is far better to err on the side of caution and end up with a peaceful relationship than to problem-solve after a negative experience.