As a horsewoman, I am always seeking to ride with a ‘feel,’ rather than with gimmicks, gadgets and force. If I am ‘feeling’ of my horse, and my horse is ‘feeling’ of me, we end up having the same ideas about where to go, what to do, and can do things easily together. Working with 'feel,' sometimes known as natural horsemanship or “whispering,” can also be done with dogs. Here are four things that good horsemen do that you can use to improve your ‘feel’ and deepen your relationship with your dog.
Maintain a “bubble of space.” For horsemen, this goes further than just the practicality of establishing respect and trying not to get run over; it also helps their horses mature and gain confidence. For example, any horse or dog can feel your comfort when they are nuzzled up to you and cuddling. But good horsemen teach their horses to respect a ‘bubble’ of space between them so that the horse learns to feel their handler’s comfort out at the end of the lead rope. A horse feeling comfort out there is more confident, less troubled, and better able to safely respond to the rider than one that can only feel comfort inside the 'bubble.' You can work at this with your pet, too. Teach your dog to feel your comfort ‘out there,’ at the end of your leash, and to not crowd your ‘bubble.’ A dog feeling comfort from you at a distance, such as on a sit-stay, will be more confident, less troubled, and more responsive to your commands than a dog who can only feel comfort in your lap.
Keep a “float” in the reins (and the leash.) Good horsemen want to be able to ride their horses on draping reins, so that when they take hold, just the slightest drawing of the reins should cause the feeling horse to be ready to respond in an instant. If you are always hanging on the reins, the horse will become dull to the movement of those reins, and eventually tune you out. The same concept is true for leashes; keeping a loose leash, with a “float” in it, means you are maintaining contact with your dog through your voice, your body, and your mind – not through force. For example, take our Right Here fall-back exercise, where you go two steps forward, say ‘Right Here’, walk two steps back, and when your dog is with you, turn and go the other way. It only works if you are not dragging your dog along by the leash and collar! You must do this on a ‘feel.’ If your dog can feel you turn, because your leash has a float in it and he can feel you drawing it into the turn, there will be no need to pull or correct…because your dog will be feeling of you and already with you.
Make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. Horsemen who aspire to follow legends like Ray Hunt, and modern cowboys like Buck Brannaman recognize this phrase as the key to staying mentally ahead of your animal partner. For example, instead of asking a fidgety horse to stand still… a good horseman may actually encourage the horse to keep moving…but in very small circles. Circles are difficult, and at some point the horseman will invite the horse to stand and rest. If the horse won’t stand and gets fidgety again, the horseman will simply go back to trotting little circles. This process is repeated until eventually, the horse figures out that standing still is a lot easier than moving in those small circles, and he will stand. It wasn't spurs, whips, or punishment that got the horse to stand still, it was the rider making the wrong thing (moving) difficult, and the right thing (standing) easy. For dogs, our ‘Say Please’ exercise works the same way. When you put a treat on the floor, you make the wrong thing – grabbing the treat – difficult by covering the treat with your hand or shoe. You then make the right thing – waiting and looking at you – easy, by uncovering the treat and giving it to the dog when he waits politely and stops trying to grab it on his own.
Don’t dwell on the consequences. Operating with a feel doesn’t mean there isn’t room for consequences. All-positive-all-the-time is ineffective and wasteful in terms of time and energy, and is just plain unsafe. Proper discipline may be politically incorrect to some, but it is essential to those who want to lead, not follow. Good horsemen don’t dwell – they get in, apply the consequence, then get out…and go back to operating on a feel. Most folks think you kick a horse to get one to go...but if good horsemen want their horses to go, and they will ask with the energy in their bodies. If their horses don't respond, only *then* will they kick; as soon as the horse is going forward, they stop kicking and go back to using their positive energy. With dogs, for example, you might calmly ask the dog to 'Keep Off' a person at the door. If the dog doesn't respond and starts to jump up, you might block that jump with your leash as a consequence and say 'No.' Then, rather than continuing to holler and fuss at the dog and dwell on the mistake, you'd simply loosen your leash and go right back to asking for that 'Keep Off.' You might have to do it several times - but eventually your dog will figure it out. Get in, and get out, and go back to being positive and hopeful about the outcome you are trying to achieve.
These are just a few of the scores of ‘horse whispering’ techniques that can be applied to your dog training. Explore, experiment…and FEEL. It takes quite a bit of dedication to get good at it. But once you latch on to it, you'll never hope for anything less. Good dog handling – like good horsemanship – is like a dance: one should lead, one should follow, and it should ‘feel’ good to both partners.