Category Archives: Behavioral musings

Do You Want To Be Even More Comfortable?

Hey everyone! At the moment I’m looking around for a new horse here in Germany – gender doesn’t matter, should be at least 1,50 tall and between 1.5-5 years old. If you hear of anything good let me know!

Speaking of young horses, I’ve played around with a neat concept with the young Arabians I’m starting. So if you know about Parelli’s method or you practice some form of Horsemanship, you’re familiar with the idea that your horse should learn to release to the slightest amount of pressure.

To ask a horse to lower his head while you’re on the ground, the Parelli Program would have you put pressure behind the horse’s ears on the poll. When the horse puts his head down even the tiniest bit, you release (remove your hand).

With some horses this can take a while, and you’re standing with them out in the pasture or arena with a sore arm thinking… When is he just going to lower his head??? It is negative reinforcement.

And I thought to myself, how could I cause my horse to lower his head because he wants to feel even better? I’m not putting pressure on him, which doesn’t feel good, so he would move his head down to get “away from me”. Instead I make him feel good and relaxed so that he practically can’t keep his head up.

And what makes people and horse’s muscles relax? Massage!

I tried it out and massaged this gelding’s poll and his head just dropped to the ground (this was a horse that I could rarely get to lower his head with a light feel). So… that worked! I moved my fingers in deep, slow and soothing circular motions. His muscles were so stiff from having his head high constantly that he physically couldn’t stay stiff when I gave him a kind of neck massage.

The second time I tried it I hadn’t even touched his head and he lowered it on his own. Now I’m playing around to see what other techniques I could alter a bit to make the horse more comfortable.


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Filed under Behavioral musings, Horses

Using Grass as a Tool

Some people complain about their horse always diving down to eat grass instead of listening to them.

How can we turn that behavior into something that will benefit us? For starters, you won’t have to spend money on horse treats – just bend over and pack a fist-full of fresh stems! Much healthier for your horse, anyways…

But why not get rid of your horse’s habit and gain their interest in what you’re asking of them at the same time? I start out by making a “rule” between me and a horse that I don’t want them pulling me towards the grass or going down to eat it whenever they have the tiniest opportunity (you know how some horses are…).

I put a lot of pressure on my horse when they want to go down to eat grass while we’re doing something. When they come to me or do what I had asked for, we take a break and I give them a huge handful of grass or allow them to graze for a moment. That way I become their doorway to eating. Through working with me and paying attention, they get what they want!

You’d be surprised how fast horses get the hang of this “game”. Right when they notice how they can get to their treat, they’ll act fast!

Unknown Photographer I own no rights to this Photograph.

Unknown Photographer
I own no rights to this Photograph.

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Filed under Behavioral musings, Food, Horses

Sleeping In A Pack

On the road with my dogs, the moment I look forward to the most is going to sleep in my little trailer with a heap of blankets and all of my dogs surrounding me.

It really is a primal thing when you think about it – to not only share a space with others but to sleep in a “pack” or group. So long ago when people and wolves first started working together and slowly began living together, when dogs were truly working dogs, people and their wolves and later their dogs would sleep in the same space.

For safety or due to lack of abundant shelter, people and animals would gather together at night. You really become aware of how comforting it is when you close your eyes to the sounds of others deeply breathing.

So maybe a week ago I was in my trailer with three of my dogs. One was next to me and others were snuggled up in a corner. All were slowly falling asleep and the two boys in the corner were doing major synchronized breathing. I almost recorded it but, as always, when I got the camera out they fell quiet.

Snuggled into each other, they perfectly alternated their breaths – one would breathe in exactly as the other breathed out. Then they breathed in and out at the same time. This went on for a good half an hour or more. They were so synchronized and it had a major relaxing effect on the whole pack, including me.

After some time, they entered REM sleep and began dreaming… My Labradoodle began kicking his legs as he ran through dreamland and right as he did, the other dogs did, too! No joke! And after a while he stopped and continued breathing deeply and calmly. The rest followed his lead – all deep asleep.

This observation really moved me, how in-sync they all were even though they were sleeping. I closed my eyes and had the best nights sleep I’ve had in a long time!

Two of my dogs asking for snuggles in the trailer. Photo by Humanima

Two of my dogs asking for snuggles in the trailer.
Photo by Humanima

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Filed under Behavioral musings, Dogs, Human & Animal Interactions, Humans, Inspiration and Idols

Mowgli & His Branches

I’ve been lazy when it comes to writing, I know. The past few weeks I’ve been very focused on building up my new website and blog for my Guide Dog school and the one I am working for (more info to come). At the same time, the dogs and I have been doing a lot of traveling!

But in the mean time, my dog, Mowgli, has finally started to play with the rest of my pack on our walks. It’s not that he’s an antisocial dog. My other dogs are just big, one-year-old rowdy puppies and like to tumble in a big mess around the fields.

Mowgli is more of a one-on-one dog when it comes to playing and he doesn’t like a playing rough with a bunch of big dogs. What he’s done in the past is calmly walk around, hang out with me or join in with the other dogs when they go running around at full speed (Mowgli’s a cattle dog and loves to run).

So I’ve left him to do his thing, because he doesn’t have to play with the others! But how would we get a dog like that to have fun with a huge playing pack?

The day came where everything changed… A storm came through with strong winds and knocked many branches down from the trees surrounding our meadows. The place was scattered with sticks and branches!

Now the one thing Mowgli likes more than running is running with sticks. So when the other dogs started playing the game where one picks up the stick and the rest run after at full speed, Mowgli suddenly got interested. First he would play with the dogs because the stick was involved (it was more about the stick than playing with the others).

Lately, he’s been playing with them without any sticks present! And not just running around with them, but wrestling and playing around, too. For a dog to make a big jump like that with a personality like Mowgli is a big step. So it got me to think about how this could be introduced to other dogs to become involved with one another.

Of course the dog we’d be trying to interest would have to not be aggressive or over protective of objects, like sticks. But if we had a dog who didn’t like playing with big groups of dogs, we might be able to slowly introduce the idea by bringing in something they’re interested in. For Mowgli that was sticks, but for another dog it could be something else.

My dog Mowgli. Photo by Humanima

My dog Mowgli.
Photo by Humanima

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Filed under Behavioral musings, Dogs

Holding Vs. Pulling

I once had a teacher tell me that, when a horse pulls on a lead rope, to become a tree.

This meant a few things. I should be rooted and centered (not go flying off after the horse, but to “hold my ground”, in a way) and not to pull back on the horse. If the horse pulls, I just hold the rope but not pull or lean on it. So that when the horse stops pulling there is immediately some slack in that rope. If I pulled, I would consciously have to release the rope when the horse releases and my timing would be off. It would not be as fast as the instant release the horse would get if I simply held the rope. Even if that time difference is a mere few seconds – it makes a difference.

This concept came back to me in the form of a fence post while reading Zen Mind, Zen Horse by Hamilton MD, Allan J. On page 58 he wrote:

“For me, the fence post is the perfect symbol of impeccability because the post never gets angry or impatient. Many horsemen have pointed out that a fence post exerts pressure only when the horse exerts pressure upon it. It pulls back with precisely the amount of force the horse applies. If the horse relents the slightest bit – pulls a fraction of a gram less – the post “responds” and releases. It rewards the horse for his slightest attempt.

In its responses, the fence post represents total clarity, perfection and detachment. The simple fence post will therefore serve as our inspirational symbol of an impeccable teacher. The post’s responses are merely natural reflections of the horse’s actions. So, in a Zen-like fashion, we should endeavor to become fence posts and challenge ourselves to be as quiet, detached, and proficient as they are.”

Fence Post at Sunset Kansas Scott Bean Photography

Fence Post at Sunset Kansas Scott Bean Photography

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Filed under Behavioral musings, Handling Emotions, Horses, Human & Animal Interactions, Humans, Inspiration and Idols, Quotes

What Happened Before?

I wrote in a previous post how much I loved Tom Dorrance’s books. In many of the stories that come up, his response is simple (maybe not easy): what happened before what happened happened?

People would ask him, “What do I do if my horse bites me?” Tom’s response was, “I don’t know, I’ve never been bitten.”

Which means, he never had it get to the point where the horse bit him. He was always reading them and correcting or responding to the first signs of a horse trying to bite him. Tom also never got a horse so frustrated, scared and so on that they would even want to bite him…

If your horse bucks, what happens before he bucks? What can you do there? If your dog pulls on the leash – what happens before that happens?

Does your bucking horse move his ears or tail a certain way, tighten or arch his back, take shorter steps, get a look in his eye, breath shallow… Does your dog pant, tense, get vocal? It’s the little things, but if we can correct before anything really “happens” or gets to the point where it is hard or impossible to correct effectively, huge scenarios are avoided.

So. What happens before what happens happens with you?

Unknown Photographer I own no rights to this photo

Unknown Photographer
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This Isn’t Normal!

For a brain surgeon, a brain surgery is a common occurrence. For us, it’s… a miracle.

As we progress through different levels with an animal (or life in general), things start to become “normal”. First, even owning a horse or dog is a miracleHow is this even happening? Then we start working on something, then we figure it out, can do it with ease, and it’s on to the next thing.

But someone who sees you do something that is simple in your eyes, might be blown away. Maybe a trick you taught your animal, a dressage maneuver, and so on. Perhaps even the fact that you’re horse isn’t freaking out, aggressive or your dog is being polite and not trying to kill you could impress them!

You teach your horse to spin. For a while it is simply amazing and you’re so proud. After a while you just do it and don’t really think twice about how long it took you to teach and how amazing it is. It just… is.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in all the stuff that doesn’t seem to be working and you feel as if you’re not getting ahead. But look at where you are! You’re riding a horse. A predator. How insane is that? It seems normal, but it’s not – it screams against everything that is wired in our brain as well as the horse’s. Or, you are working with your dog and just the fact that you are communicating with another animal is mind blowing.

When I stop myself to remember to take nothing for granted, I am astounded by the little things. That’s a mind set I am trying to adopt more and more. How grateful can I be for the “little” things, all that I have already, and still move forward, forward?

Practicing it, I take lots of little breaks, especially when I feel I am pushing too hard and think about everything I have accomplished with this animal so far – no matter how small. What has improved just the tiniest bit?

Unknown Photographer I own no rights to this photo.

Unknown Photographer
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Filed under Behavioral musings, Human & Animal Interactions, Humans, Inspiration and Idols, Teaching Tricks

Learning From The Group

I have seen both horses and dogs learn a behavior by watching another of their kind with a human.

One time I was at the ranch teaching a horse to stand on a pedestal on command, and there was this one mustang who always stood at the fence and watched us. Every day I would work with this horse and the mustang would watch without ever looking away. A while later we let the mustang into the arena to run around and roll. First thing she did? Yup! Stood on the pedestal and looked at me without ever having learned it before.

Naturally, they can learn bad behaviors, too. A dog who has always been well behaved could start barking just because she has been hanging out with a dog who barks a lot. Or start chasing rabbits…

This group learning can be a great time saver when it comes to training. You have a couple of animals that know the rules, know how to do something, and all of the new ones will learn from them! For example, some cowboys and vaqueros will have their horses line up along the corral fence and face outward so that they can easily rope their horse of choice. This was taught to a herd of horses a long time ago, and now they never have to teach it to a horse again!

They just picked it up because the rest of the herd was doing it. So it gets passed on down the line.

Another good example is with my pack. I have a command to tell them to go to their places (a big bed they all pile on to). My dogs know this rule and do a really great job doing it, and now my new dog knows it! I never taught it to him, but he just followed the dogs on to the bed and heard me say the command. After two days, I told him to go to the bed, without any other dogs around, and he turned around and trotted to his spot. How cool is that? No training needed and how practical is that…

Of course learning in groups is how all animals learn anything, but I always find it interesting when they observe another animal and a human and figure something out because of it.

Two of my dogs on their bed. Photo by Humanima

Two of my dogs on their bed.
Photo by Humanima

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Filed under Behavioral musings, Human & Animal Interactions, Teaching Tricks

Dog Fights & Aggression

It can happen that even the friendliest of dogs growls at or starts a fight with another dog.

Aggression between dogs is natural. It should never be a regular thing, but it’s a result of a dog’s natural ability to resolve any problem in the moment. Humans like to ponder, plot,  and plan fights and arguments… We hold back from a fight and think, “Oh, she probably didn’t mean it” and we don’t talk to the other person up front about what’s bothering us.

Dogs talk about it the moment it comes to mind. There are rules in the dog world when it comes to fighting and this is something they (should) learn when they’re young. Isolated puppies, dogs living in kennels, and dogs generally not socialized, don’t learn rules and manners! That is why they might act aggressive to all dogs or start a fight without a “phase 1″ or warning (growl, glance, tension, high tail, etc).

The more our dog sees us as their leader and someone who is able to stand up for them, the less they are likely to take part in fights (even if the other dog “started it”). I’ve had my dogs get barked and lunged at by other dogs while they were all off leash. Instead of fighting back, they just ran over to me and made eye contact.

That is the correct reaction!

On the other hand, my dog, Mowgli, is allowed to growl at my dogs-in-training, or any other puppy for that matter, when they don’t behave politely around him. He is older than them and doesn’t like to be jostled around in their games, so he lets them know and then leaves it at that. He’s disciplining them and teaching them the rules.

There’s no fighting, no biting, no chaos – it’s a growl or a bark and a stern glare.That’s it.

I allow this, yes, because if I didn’t, it would bottle up and come back as frustrated aggression. It’s like that child of four: All of the other siblings bother him, shove him around, pull his hair, play tricks on him, and when he tells them to stop, his parents tell him to not be so mean. Pretty soon, that child will be very fed up and frustrated!

There are times when we can just allow our dog to tell a dog to leave him alone – and remember, the louder the fight (growls, barks), the less dangerous it usually is. It’s the silent quick fights that usually cause some blood shed and those are the ones you want to stop!

We want our dog to be well socialized and learn manners, as well as have the ability to stand his ground, but we also don’t want them to become aggressive and take charge of every situation, so we also need to prove that we can watch out for them. It’s a necessary balance!

Unknown Photographer I don't own any rights to this picture.

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I don’t own any rights to this picture.

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Filed under Behavioral musings, Dogs, Human & Animal Interactions

Mowgli Invisibility Switch

I have a highly confident, smart cattle dog.

Which is perfect, except I left something out: he’s insecure if he feels “wrong”. It’s hard to balance those two traits (confidence and insecurity), but it’s taught me a lot. I have to be very clear where he stands every minute (doing the right thing, not doing the right thing, etc) and then leave him alone.

The art of leaving him alone has gotten him over his fear (insecurity) of vacuum cleaners. Ever since he was a puppy he’s been afraid of them, even though he never had a bad experience. It was likely just the sound that worried him, but he never got over it, no matter what I tried.

Sure, I could ask him to lay down in the room I was vacuuming, but he was never comfortable and would rather evaporate than lay there. So a few months ago, I decided I’d just leave him alone. I figured, “Why does he have to be okay with the vacuum or even like it? I don’t even like it!” It wasn’t like he was extremely frightened or anything – just uneasy.

The other dogs that live with me for training all love the vacuum (they adore actually being vacuumed!). So I went about my vacuuming every day and completely ignored my dog, Mowgli. When I turned on that vacuum, it was like I was clicking the M.I.S. (Mowgli Invisibility Switch). As the months progressed, I noticed him slowly try to creep up to me as I vacuumed. You could tell he really wanted to come hang out with me, but was still too worried. He always popped up in the corner of my eye. It was hard to resist calling him over.

Then he saw how relaxed the other dogs were. Well, today was really wonderful, because Mowgli got to the point where he came right up to me as I vacuumed, tail wagging, and reached up to delicately lick my nose. Then he just lay down next to me as I vacuumed the dog bed and licked his paws – completely relaxed. I couldn’t believe it and just gave him a few snuggles before continuing to ignore him. (I didn’t want to give him too much attention all at once.)

Sometimes, simply leaving something or someone alone can be all it takes.

My dog, Mowgli  Photo Credits: Humanima

My dog, Mowgli
Photo Credits: Humanima

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Filed under Behavioral musings, Dogs, Human & Animal Interactions