I Owe It All to Labradors

Jim Wofford acknowledges his debt to working with training subjects of the canine kind.

The weight of Tiger in my arms is substantial, but that weight is nothing compared to the weight of responsibility that settles on my shoulders when I take a new animal into my life. | Photo, Jim Wofford

I might have learned enough to train horses anyway, but I am convinced that one of the luckiest things I ever did in my horse career was to get a black Labrador. Labs have always been a sharp reminder of what it feels like to have an animal in my care and to know I don’t know enough to deal with that animal correctly. People remark to me that I seem unusually sensitive and patient while dealing with riders struggling to climb the learning curve. That is because I know exactly how they feel as they try to understand and communicate with their horses.

Although I was already a fair horseman by 1966 when I brought home my first puppy, the fact that it was a new and different type of animal convinced me I needed help. So I did what had worked for me with horses: I read books about it. It worked. My first Labrador was a lifelong friend, and I have been at it ever since, reading books on training Labradors and applying what I have learned along the way.

Since I am always trying to find and pass along new and different ways of learning how to train horses, I thought that as a mental exercise we would talk this month about training Labs. If you don’t quite get the points I am making, just substitute the word “horses” in your mind every time I say “dogs” or “Labs.”

Job Determines Training
Once you decide how you want your animal to earn his living, a lot of decisions fall into place. My Labs, for example, are purchased with a specific goal in mind: I want them to be good hunting dogs. This means they spend a fair amount of time around humans carrying loaded guns, so they cannot jump up on humans ever. I start training my puppies about this right away.

My puppies usually tell me just before they are going to jump up, and I make sure they run into the flat of my hand with their noses. They seem to get the idea quickly that jumping up on humans in not acceptable. I hope the analogy with horses is clear to you. Your horse outweighs you by a factor of 10:1. Make sure you teach him ground manners. An unruly horse is a danger to himself and to you. Decide how you want your animal to behave and be consistent about applying your rules.

I firmly believe that most animals want to please us, but we have to show them how to do that. Praise or punishment alone does not accomplish what you want. You need a judicious balance of these two techniques to produce a friend for life. Of course, justice should always be tempered by mercy; we will talk more about punishment and discipline in a minute.

Keep Signals Consistent

When animals are disciplined, they are happy, and then everybody’s happy. | Photo, Samantha L. Clark

Because I need to develop a language–a means of communication–with my Labs, my first task is to teach them the meaning of certain commands and signals. I use very simple commands and signals at first. Once they understand that “sit” means sit, “come” means return to me, and “whoa” means stop and look at me for a new command, I am able to teach them surprisingly complex tasks by adding small, simple commands in sequence.

When training my Labs, I think of commands and signals. When training my horses, I think of my aids. The terminology is different, but the concept is the same. What I say and do with my Labs is based on simple words that they understand. And it is here that people start to run into trouble training their dogs. Your typical overactive stable dog chasing the favorite barn cat hears the following, usually delivered at low volume in a singsong, tremulous voice:

“Oh-Snookums-you-are-such-a-bad-dog-come-here-sit-Snookums-come-here-don’t-hurt-the-nice-kitty-there’s-a-good-dog-oh-no-bad-dog-Snookums-now-you-have jumped-up-and-gotten-blood-all-over-my-new-breeches-bad-dog-oh-Snookums-what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you?”

If you think I am kidding, just listen carefully the next time you are around an unfamiliar stable. You will hear all this and worse. When dogs misbehave, you must be like Ezekiel 25:17: “Execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes.” What that dog should have heard at full volume (in what the U.S. military refers to as a “command voice”) was “Snookums! Whoa! Snookums! Come!” and then when he returns to your side, in a crooning, reassuring tone, “Good boy” without any fur or blood on his face.

Now, let’s consider this scenario in greater detail. First of all, if your dog has never been taught what “come” and “sit” mean, it is going to go badly for the kitty. Whether on or off a leash, if your dog has not been taught to behave at home, you are asking for trouble when you take him to an event. In addition, if Snookums is chasing the cat into a busy street, the potential exists for multiple tragedies.

Note that the lady in the bloody breeches did not use her commands and signals clearly, although she would probably refer to them as aids. Your signals, commands, aids, whatever you call them, must be clear, concise and consistent. This is the reason you must spend so much time perfecting your position in the saddle. If your position is sloppy, your horse’s understanding of your aids will be imperfect and his response will be sloppy.

It is difficult for an animal to deal with conflicting aids. One of my military heroes, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was a skilled horseman. Before he went away to West Point, he made his pocket money training difficult horses that his neighbors had given up on. He said that a horse “can be made to do almost anything if his master has intelligence enough to let him know what is required.” If you are telling a horse to jump something he is slightly suspicious of, and you are kicking and pulling at the same time, he will probably listen to the aid you did not want him to hear.

When I tell my puppy “sit,” I mean he should sit now. I don’t babble at him, and I praise him every time he responds correctly. Every time. My oldest Lab has retired from hunting now, but he still comes with me whenever possible, and I still expect him to behave. He should sit when I tell him to, and when he sits I still praise him every time. If I do this consistently, my animal will be disciplined.

Discipline Means?
There are several definitions of “discipline” in Webster’s Dictionary. Obviously, the first, and the one most people think of when I say discipline, is punishment. However, I prefer some of the other definitions of discipline: a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity; an orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior; control gained by enforcing obedience or order and, finally, training that corrects, molds or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.

While punishment is a very small part of my training of animals, it has its place. If my animal knows how to do what I want him to do, I expect him to do it the first time, every time. If I have to command “whoa” a second time to a young Lab, he will think that lightning bolts are about to descend from the throne of Zeus. The volume of my voice will increase and roughen, and my posture will become distinctly threatening. For horse-training purposes, if you close your heels, your horse should immediately go forward. If he does not, you should be there with a tap of the whip behind your leg. To be trained, an animal should respond to your commands.

Brig. Gen. Harry D. Chamberlin, this country’s greatest equestrian theorist, used to say that the horse must think that God is on his back and the Devil is at his belly. Similarly, when I say something, my Labs know what I mean, and they know I mean it. They also know that I love them enough to wear out my baseball hat on their backsides in public if their behavior warrants it. I don’t want to punish them, but it remains on my list.

Because voice signals and commands are an important means of communicating with your dog, the way you use your voice matters. The verbal commands used in the Army to march soldiers from one place to another consist of a “preparatory command,” and a “command of execution.” Stopping a group of soldiers on the march would sound like this: “Platoon! [short pause] Halt!” When I was in the Army, I often felt I was being treated like a dog. Little did I know that is exactly what was going on. For your purposes, the preparatory command is the dog’s name–“Tiger!”–followed by the command of execution, “Sit!” Or, your preparatory command to your horse might be a murmured “whoa” along with a half-halt, and the command of execution might be the closing of your legs. The language and signals differ, but the underlying concept is the same.

My animal’s reaction to a command is not based on situations. By this, I mean that I want the same response to the same command all the time. One of the most common mistakes I see riders make is to accept total responsibility for a refusal. It is the rider’s responsibility to remember the course, compete at the appropriate level for the horse’s experience and training, approach in a rhythm and not ask for impossible angles or efforts. The rest is up to the horse. The horse’s response cannot be to say to his rider, “You blinked. I can’t jump when you blink. I can’t work under these conditions!” Oh, no. The fact that you needed three-sixteenths of an ounce more pressure with your reins or that your heels could have been down another five degrees has nothing to do with it. He knows how to jump. You arranged an obstacle in his path, and his job is to jump, first time, every time.

Regardless of how egregious your error, you must use a “cluck” with your voice and apply your stick behind your leg. We must temper justice with mercy, which means I will probably just growl at a young horse still learning his trade. But if a wise older horse stops at a 3-foot vertical? You might want to close your eyes and turn away for a minute. I am about to “execute great vengeance upon [him] with furious rebukes.”

Maintaining Confidence

I have stressed the response of the animal because it is the basis of our communication with him. However, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with animals that are the product of selective breeding. Labradors have been bred for centuries to retrieve objects. Likewise, Thoroughbreds have been bred for speed and athleticism. Your horse might not be a Thoroughbred, but chances are he has a substantial proportion of Thoroughbred lines in his gene pool.

The point is this: Labradors have an instinct to retrieve. If my retriever starts to misbehave when I am training him for the hunting field, I do not punish him. I stop him from completing the retrieve and return him to my side. The act of not being allowed to fulfill his destiny is an act of punishment in itself. I will start over, preventing him from completing the retrieve until his reactions are correct for the situation.

In the same way, if your horse is a jumper, he has an instinct for his job. If he rushes his obstacles, he should be prevented from jumping until he displays the calm, disciplined attitude that we know is required for successful competition over obstacles. Your animal’s instincts will help you, but you must understand your animal’s background.

Throughout this column, I have stressed the need for consistency. If I ask for the same thing the same way every time and I get the same result, my animal is disciplined. He will perform more and more complex tasks cheerfully and willingly because he knows his job and he knows I will always praise him for performing his tasks.

This praise and continual repetition will make my animal confident. Since he believes in me totally, I can ask him for difficult tasks because I take great pains in his training that he is never allowed to fail. If my Lab cannot find the training dummy I threw into a hedge for him, I will secretly drop another one to make sure he finds the dummy I told him was in there. My partner will diligently hunt in any sort of ground cover for me because he knows I never lie to him. Equally, if I tell my horse he can jump that fence, he believes he can jump that fence because I told him to jump it. My animal’s confidence in me is an enormous asset, but one that I must test judiciously and never to the breaking point.

If you take anything away from this column, it should be that your communication with your animal must be clear, concise and consistent. If you do this, you will have trained a willing partner, and you will have a friend for life.

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Practical Horseman.

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