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Some Universals Cover All Animal Training

Updated on December 20, 2012

Every kid wants a pony. So when my husband wanted to make my childhood dream come true, he bought me a horse.

She's a beautiful 7-year-old Palomino with large brown eyes and a blonde colored mane and tail.

However, sweet as she is, she is a rescue who spent a little less than a year turned out in a beautiful green field with little human direction. This makes her a really well trained animal with a mediocre attitude about complying with her humans.

Now, I've trained more canines in my life than I could probably count quickly, but I'm not exactly a horsey-training expert and definitely in need a little training myself. And while there are some significant differences in how various animals are trained and what safety mechanisms are implemented, some values carry across.

In the past 20 years there have been a variety of moments among dog trainers. Gone are the days when you dragged a puppy to the wet spot in the carpet and rubbed his nose in it. Rolled up newspapers are still ok for making a startling noise by smacking a table, but never an animal.

And the best way to get an animal to repeat a behavior is to reinforce it with lots and lots of positive recognition. Whether you are working on a horse, a dog, an elephant or a husband, positive reinforcement works.

Old cowboys - and unfortunately I ran into a few - talk about breaking a horse. Coming from a dog trainer perspective, breaking an animal’s spirit is never a good idea. An animal can be cowed into certain acts. However, when hit, threatened or cruelly punished, an animal may comply but will forever look for a way to either run or rage.

Animals don’t understand punishment. They don’t understand cause and effect from a long term stand point. If an animal acts out, a punishment after you’ve caught them, or once you find the issue, creates situation by which the animal does not understand your action is connected to his previous one.

However, what does work is patience, persistence and reward. Dogs are predatory animals. They function in a very specific way ingrained in their instincts through thousands of years.

Horses are prey animals. Their strength is in flight. They run. They also function this way because it has been their success for thousands of years. But, when any animal is directed – note, I didn’t say asked: this is not a request) to act, they must. If a dog does not sit, stay or down, the trainer needs to firmly, calmly work the animal, repeat the direction, reset the animal’s position and repeat, repeat and repeat until the animal acts appropriately. Then reward profusely.

Animals that are too hyper need to be exercised often to burn energy allowing them to focus prior to training sessions. Sessions need to be relatively short – 10-15 minutes – but also need to be repeated often. More than once a day if possible.

Start with the basics. Horses, like dogs, are pack animals. They live socially and to be successful, each pack has a hierarchy. There must always be a leader. If there is a void in leadership, nature will abhor the vacuum and someone will step up into that role. Animals must know that their trainer is the leader. When you ask an animal to perform an act that is unnatural such as standing in place when they are frightened, or to tolerate an uncomfortable act, it is important that they feel that their pack leader is in control. If their trainer is lacking in confidence, contradicts themselves or is inconsistent, the animal may panic, thinking that if the leader can’t protect and control them, they need to follow up on their instincts and will act out.

Mixed in with exercise and training, spend some time for just a little one on one time. Approach an animal sometimes solely with the goal or brushing, grooming or giving rewards. Animals will learn to associate the trainer with good things. But don’t go overboard. If an animal only cooperates because he will be rewarded, on the day there is an emergency and he must listen, if you are empty handed, he won’t. And don’t let animals get pushy. Large dogs and more importantly, big horses, can be dangerous. They need to respect personal space. And have confidence. If you don’t, learn, train, take a class, research, read. Because if a trainer does not enter a training area with confidence, the animal won’t have any confidence either.


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