With a little effort and tried-and-true advice, introducing your dog to your horse can be much easier than you ever thought.
Horses and dogs…in an ideal world, we’d take our canines with us to the barn, shows and on the trails. But what if your dog doesn’t really like (or at least respect) your horse? Or what if your horse gets reactive (predator alert!) whenever your dog is around, putting you all at risk?
Fortunately, you can spend time together, safely and harmoniously. With a little effort and tried-and-true advice, introducing your dog to your horse can be easier than you think.
Before we begin
A quick assessment of your dog’s behavior is in order. Does he pay attention to you and walk on a loose leash? Can he be tethered, crated or hold a down/stay? If there’s pulling and barking, and you have to micromanage him, enroll in training classes before you invite your dog to the barn. Being proactive and teaching the basics will result in an improved quality of life and a safer environment for you, your dog and your horse. If you’re comfortable with his obedience skills, congratulations! Let’s go!
Training day at the farm
Before your first training outing to the barn, allow some extra time for lively exercise. A dog that has bounced around and taken the edge off will be more relaxed, receptive and respectful. He’ll also be less reactive (especially important at the barn) and will be better able to learn new skills in a new environment.
When you arrive at the barn, walk around and let your dog scan the scene while he’s securely on a 6’ leash and the horses are safely behind fences. Allow him the opportunity to look and smell as he walks, but insist he remains on a loose leash. If he shows concern, help diminish it (and not empower it) by being the confident leader you know you are. Energy up! Legs moving! Verbal praise ongoing! Your dog will pick up your positive vibes and follow. Pull out some of those yummy treats. If you are confident and consistent, it will encourage him to be too.
Is your dog pulling forward? Is he so distracted by the horses he can barely focus on you? Change direction, re-engage, reward the moment he glances your way and then continue forward. Walk backward until he checks in. Use your energy, motion and verbal praise to convince him you are much more exciting than any horse in the turnout.
At safe intervals, when your dog is moving forward without pulling, stop and allow him the opportunity to process everything. Stand still, relax your leash and body, call his name and give him a treat every time he looks at you. When you see he has settled his brain and stopped moving his feet, continue your walk.
Ready for round two?
Before moving forward, perform a quick evaluation of your dog’s comfort level. Does he need another walk before moving on to more challenging exercises? Or does he seem comfortable walking on a loose leash while checking in consistently? If so, let’s bring your pooch inside the barn and to the outdoor ring.
For this session, stand outside the ring or find a safe spot in the aisle and relax the leash. If your dog pulls, give a quick pop to redirect and then re-engage and reward with verbal praise. Just as you did on your walk, relax your body so he matches his energy to you and wait him out until he lies down. When he does, it’s treat time. Remember, as with horse training, teaching your dog a new skill set requires patience and persistence. It may take several sessions before he is ready to progress to the next steps.
Dog, meet horse
Have you completed several successful walks past turnouts and the outdoor ring? Can he relax and voluntarily lie down while you chat in the aisle? Great! For this next training session, enlist the help of a fellow horse owner to go for a walk with you. It’s best to use a confident horse that has already been exposed to dogs so you are not training them both simultaneously.
Be sure to reward each time he checks in, and stop at regular intervals so both canine and equine can digest the exercise. Giving the horse a moment to graze and the dog another opportunity to earn treats and work on his voluntary down and relax, will also create a positive association for each animal. Keep a safe distance between horse and dog, even if this initial training session is progressing smoothly.
If all is going well, stop here for today. Remember, short-term success brings long-term results. Over the next several days, enlist the help of different horses and owners until you are eventually able to walk your dog side by side with any horse in the barn. Practice makes perfect, so the more time you can spend doing this, the better he will become. The more miles walked and the more horse partners, the better. Each time, ask more of your dog; try walking with a looser leash, maintain more eye contact, and develop consistent overall comfort and relaxation. Before you know it, your dog will treat horses like familiar friends, enabling you to leave the leash – not your dog – home every time you head to the barn or show. Happy training, happy riding!