Lately I’ve been thinking: what tools do we actually need when working with animals?
I’ve seen people do everything without bridles, ropes and leashes that people with them have done – sometimes better. So do we need tools at all? When I walked through the pet store earlier today I paused before these huge shelves holding rows and rows of different kinds of dog collars, harnesses, treats, clickers, dog halters, and leashes of all kinds…
For me it’s been narrowed down to simplicity. I need tools for: safety and reinforcement. I don’t need a choke collar or a bridle to control an animal. I could use a bridle for refinement, but I do not need it for control.
There are also trainers out there that require their students use the equipment and tools that the trainer sells. Cesar Millan has his special dog collar, clicker trainers have their own “unique” clicker and treat pouches… and almost all horse trainers sell their own equipment. Because they tell you that it only works if you use a carrot stick, a martingale, this special saddle, this unique whip. Sure, some of the tools offered are effective and have their place in training.
Those are some tools that might make training easier for humans. But what do animals use as tools?
Body language! That’s it.
I’ve mentioned it in so many posts, I know. It’s a simple concept, but not an easy one to master. I put leashes on my dogs when I walk through the street, especially in the beginning, but that’s not what I use to train them. It doesn’t matter what’s around my dog’s neck – I’m not using that. It’s just there. The leash is simply attached to it, and the leash makes it possible for me to keep the dog near me as we build our relationship. The leash is also a safety net, when we’re next to a road for example.
Same with horses: we can easily force, yes, force, a horse to be with us by catching him and putting him on a lead rope or in a bridle. But what if you didn’t have those tools anymore? Would you still be able to do all of those things on the ground and riding? Without any lead ropes, halters, nothing? Really. Then the question comes up: if we can’t ask our horse, or dog, to do all of those things without a lead rope, were we really teaching him those things?
In reality, the horse didn’t have much of a choice. He was put on a lead rope, he can’t get away. But if he had a choice to leave – you might just have nothing to show for all of that training. So the question comes up again: what tools do we actually need when we work with animals?
I teach my dogs to heel through body language. Not by pulling on the collar, so it doesn’t matter what collar I use. I save my money by not buying any fancy ones and use a normal band collar. Or, with my own dog, no collar or leash at all. And with my horse? I try to see if I can do all of those things I ask for without a lead rope. Some of these tools have their place. Halters and bridles can be great from time to time to refine or reinforce. A stiff whip (those don’t hurt as much as the ones with some “flick” in them) are great for protection. You can use it to drive a horse out of your space if they get to close to you, as well as ask them to go a bit faster. So, when working with horses I usually have one of those with me, and that’s it!
A fun experiment might be to go one by one and take each of your tools out of your program for a while (unless you need it for safety, like a leash or a muzzle). See how much of your communication with your animal is missing. Does he or she still listen at all? Or did nothing change? Then see what happens when you take a different tool away and maybe use the other one again. Play around and then see if you can only use the tools that are necessary.
How much can you accomplish with pure body language?