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Reward your dog”

One of the things that my dog agili­ty instruc­tor often says is “Reward your dog,” most often when the dog has done what the han­dler asked for, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly what the han­dler wanted.

There are many ways in which dog agili­ty and rid­ing are dif­fer­ent. Dogs are not hors­es, in agili­ty you’re expect­ed to not be in con­stant con­tact with your dog, and seri­ous injury is less com­mon in agility.

But there are some strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. In both sports, novices overuse voice and hands to direct the ani­mal, while experts use tor­so and legs. Both are often faster-​paced than novices appre­ci­ate. Both require mus­cle mem­o­ry. And in both sports, an activ­i­ty that should ulti­mate­ly be reward­ing for the dog or horse can ini­tial­ly be scary.

Horse in a pastoral setting with a spaniel and a setter
Paint­ing by George Stubbs

Any time the dog or horse is doing what you ask, that’s praise­wor­thy, even if it was­n’t what you intend­ed. The reward is earned, and you should give it. Most dogs like food treats, or tug toys, or items they can chase, or that com­bine two or three of these attrib­ut­es. None of these work well for a rid­den horse—even food treats can only be giv­en at the halt, and the horse reach­ing for them dis­tracts from bal­ance and straight­ness and turns the halt into a stop. But the one thing almost every dog and horse (and human stu­dent) wants is reassurance—“You’re doing good!”

One way that hors­es bond with each oth­er is mutu­al groom­ing, and a com­mon groom­ing des­ti­na­tion is right in front of the rid­er’s hand: the area along side and in front of the with­ers. Because you’re the leader, when you scratch your horse there, you’re  telling him “I’ve got your back,” and when you’re rid­ing, you lit­er­al­ly do.

Relax­ing a rein to scratch is some­times coun­ter­pro­duc­tive when you’re being pre­cise with the aids, and that’s where the voice comes in. Hors­es reas­sure each oth­er by voice all the time, and while we can’t dupli­cate the details of what they’re say­ing to each oth­er, we can reas­sure by voice in a way they under­stand. Reas­sur­ing vocal­iza­tions gen­er­al­ly drop in pitch and vol­ume: “GOOD boy” (this is dif­fer­ent from dogs, where ris­ing pitch can elic­it excitement).

You might be think­ing that reward is impor­tant for train­ing, but is super­flu­ous for les­son hors­es and espe­cial­ly school­mas­ters, because they already know what to do. But they need rewards more than ever, not because you’re teach­ing them what to do, rather because they’re teach­ing you, and that’s how you let them know you appre­ci­ate the les­son. I’m not very good at that, because I often feel inept. But when your teacher is a horse, that’s real­ly the only way you can show gratitude.

So now you have the tools. Reward your horse. Good boy!

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