I’ve often said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse. Ronald Reagan
I’ve been working with dogs for many, many, years at this point. I’ve trained thousands of
owners dogs, and my work load is pretty full, so I’m constantly able to re-evaluate my techniques and refine my approach, as well as fine-tune The PAW Method. While I will never be able to learn and know everything about dogs and their behaviors and interactions with humans, I will never stop adding to my cache of information, and will continue to learn until I’m gone from this world. But I recently realized that there was on crucial element I was missing.
I haven’t learned how to learn in a long, long time.
Look at it like riding a bike. I’ve been able to ride one since I was 6. Now everything I do on a bike is merely adding to information that I’ve already learned, but I’m not learning how to “bike” all over again, if you will. The same has held true with working with dogs. I’ve been “dogging” for so long, it’s second nature to me. But I forget sometimes that the methods I use are foreign to most people (hint: that’s why they work). I don’t do click and treat, nor do I feel the need to physically correct or punish a dog. I essentially teach people how to “dog” from the beginning, in a whole new way. Like learning how to ride a bike again, only in a fashion completely different from how you originally learned.
I need to learn how to learn again.
So I decided to do something about that. Meet Bounce.
Bounce is a beautiful, sweet Thoroughbred owned by Jessica Cardillo, who runs Foundations Equestrian out of Olmsted Falls, Ohio. Jessica has been working with horses for as long as I’ve been working with dogs. I decided that it was about time for me to put myself in my clients’ shoes, and take instruction on a completely foreign concept. Namely, learning how to “horse”.
I’ve learned a few things. More than a few things, actually (such as the best way to shovel manure). But here are what I feel are the most important, especially how they apply to working with dogs.
1) Horses are huge.
No, that’s not me, but that’s how big I feel on top of Bounce, who is 16 hands high at the withers (base of her neck). That translates to 64″ high…not including her neck and head.
I am conveniently terrified of heights.
Aggressive dog with a bite history? No problem. Need to get onto the second step of a ladder to paint a wall?
How does that help me work better with my clients and their dogs? Well, I work with a lot of people who own dog-reactive dogs. These people are typically shell-shocked from trying to walk their dogs. They are constantly scanning the area around them for a
threat another dog, and live in perpetual fear of a dog running up to them, or some idiot with a dog on a retractable leash who wants to let the dogs “just say ‘hi’ to each other”. They are literally terrified of their own dog, and how their dog reacts to other dogs.
I am literally terrified of getting on Bounce. I will be sitting over 5′ up in the air. That isn’t exactly what I’d classify as My Happy Place. But funny enough, just as sometimes I have to Pilot my clients, Jessica ends up Piloting me with Bounce.
“Put your foot in the stirrup, swing your leg over, and climb up there”, she says in a bored yet amused voice, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
But wait, maybe it is.
I’m no stranger to Piloting my clients through a scary situation, such as walking their dog-reactive dog past another dog on the other side of the street. ”Come on, let’s go. You’ve got this”, I say, as if it’s no big deal. And my clients do it, and do it well! But I’ve never been in the situation of being told it’s No Big Deal. But guess what….it wasn’t.
First time sucked. Second time…sucked. Third time…still sucking. Actually, it always sucks. I’m still terrified of heights. Only now, I’m more accepting of the situation, at least on top of Bounce. I’m never going to like mounting up, just as my clients with dog-reactive dogs are never going to enjoy passing another dog, but at least I’m comfortable with my fear, and I have the tools to manage the situation (sit up straight, heels down, and relax), just as I give my clients the tools to work with their dog-reactive dogs.
2) Muscle is worthless.
I have always loved working with dog owners who also have horses for one major reason: they already know they can’t muscle their way through a horse. If a horse doesn’t want to do something, you ain’t gonna physically make ‘em! So horse people don’t even try. They understand that might doesn’t make right…if it did, your horse would always be right. That translates onto their dogs. Horse people don’t force an issue. They rely on the horse trusting them. They do what’s called ground work, which is essentially Piloting a horse on a very long leash called a longe line, basically getting the horse to work with you and trust that you have the answers before you climb up on their back.
Fortunately, Jessica and Bounce are a team. Jessica has worked with Bounce, done the ground work, and Piloted Bounce so much that anything I do on Bounce’s back that’s wrong doesn’t freak Bounce out. They have an unspoken communication between them.
Bounce: Mom, Tall Lady is sitting all wrong and she’s posting off diagonal.
Jessica: I know, sweetie. She’s screwing it up. It’s okay, though. I’m watching her. She’ll be fine.
Bounce: Okay. Just checking.
In other words, Jessica has Piloted Bounce so much that she trusts whatever Jessica does. Because it’s always been okay, it always will be okay. Jessica didn’t have to beat Bounce to achieve this, nor did she beg Bounce to trust her. Jessica simply took the Pilot position, answering questions for Bounce when she asked them, (“Can I refuse this jump?”) by calmly, but firmly restating her answers (“No, sweetie, you can’t”) using her body language, and correctly reading her horse’s body language. The more questions Jessica answers for Bounce, the easier it becomes to answer questions.
Not much different for dogs of any size. Muscle is what distances you from your dog rather than bonding with them. Makes you Master instead of Pilot. Dictator instead of Protector. Feared Alpha instead of trusted Leader. Just because you can (maybe) physically manhandle your dog into submission doesn’t mean you should. Trust is the means that enables you to work with your dog.
3) Your head will spin.
“Heels down! No chicken arms! Hold the reigns tightly! Heels down! Make her move, squeeze with your calves…she’s slowing down! Coffee cups – your hands are falling down!!! Heels down!” - Jessica Cardillo
All of this is said without a breath in between. And I’m scrambling to try to keep it all together, while actively not falling off Bounce.
Back to the bicycle again. I can ride a bike easily, and I’m sure most of you can as well. However, think back to when you were first learning to ride a bike.
There were so many things to remember! How to brake. How to steer. Balance! And there were plenty of scraped knees and roughed-up elbows. But more and more you were able to put pieces together. Maybe not all at once…but more and more pieces started to feel comfortable. You could pedal without thinking of it anymore. Braking became more natural. Steering got better…pretty soon, you were “biking”! You got it!
Sometimes my clients get a bit overwhelmed. I have faith that they will get it, but they are convinced they are failing miserably, simply because they need some reminders.
Stand up straight. Stop talking to Fido. Relax your arms. Stand up straight. Fido’s meerkatting…answer his question! Stand up straight. – Kerry Stack
I see my clients’ heads spinning, especially when learning leash skills. They’re thinking they’ll never get this right. So much to remember…but then I watch them. I’m not telling them to stop talking anymore; they’ve stopped on their own. They’re standing up straight. Their arms are a bit stiff, but this about progress, not perfection. And next thing you know, they’re “dogging”, and suddenly a beautiful grin comes across their face. They’re doing it!
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio
If you live in Northeast Ohio and are interested in learning to “horse”, Jessica can be reached at 440-821-4887 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Bounce can be reached through feeding of carrots, brushing of her face, and a bit of spoiling and love.