Written by: Karin Apfel
Dog trainer, Karin Apfel, describes how to create safe introductions between horses and dogs.
When you have two furry friends, you want them to like each other so you can spend quality time with both of them. It can be hard initially to predict or control how this will go, and sometimes the first meeting can be pivotal. While there are dogs that chase horses and horses that fear or even dislike dogs, in many cases, they can learn to tolerate and even care for one another.
Have Reasonable Expectations
To start with, your success or failure at building this relationship comes down to recognizing that your animals will have a say in it. A fearful or aggressive animal may take a very long time to reconcile to the other, if ever. After all, these are naturally antagonistic species. Horses are prey animals and dogs have many of the predatory features of their ancestors, the wolves. You are dealing with some hard-wiring in their brains and bodies that can be hard to overcome.
On the plus side, both dogs and horses are social animals and are known to frequently develop relationships with other species, in particular with humans (also predators), so there is plenty of genetic potential working for you as well. You can help this along by being vigilant and keeping both animals calm and under control during early meetings. Dogs that chase cars, bicycles or other moving objects may not be good candidates for meeting your horse. Such a dog might be good in the barn or while the horse is tied and being groomed, but if the horse is moving, that chase instinct can easily kick back in. But, if your horse is very placid and the introduction is carefully managed, you may be able to have them together for short periods of time.
Alternatively, you could have a horse that is aggressive with dogs, either through territoriality or fear, possibly from a previous bad experience. The risk to the dog might be too great to attempt a compatible relationship.
Horses and dogs share a similar peak socialization period during which novel experiences are easily accepted. This is about three to 12 (some say up to 16) weeks for dogs and four to 12 weeks for horses. If you are starting with a puppy under 16 weeks of age, simply carrying it out to let it sniff noses with a friendly horse and letting it watch you around the barn from the safety of its kennel or from someone’s lap can be sufficient introduction. Horses with positive experiences with dogs should be used to minimize the risk to the puppy. While some may advocate for letting nature take its course, puppies can easily be stepped on or kicked and now you have, at best, a substantial vet bill, or, at worst, a dead or traumatized puppy, so be cautious. Once the puppy enters adolescence, however, you may have to increase your supervision as it tests its adult wings and is experiencing higher hormone levels.
Obedience training is very helpful here, as is keeping your pup on leash so that he is unable to practice any undesirable behaviours. Many of these begin simply with curiosity, but can be startling to the horse and cause the relationship to unravel. These might include jumping up on the horse (your horse might tolerate it, but will her new barn mate?), grabbing at enticingly moving tails, barking at an irritable horse or beginning to chase. The best approach, by far, is prevention. If your dog (or horse) does develop a risky habit, you may need to enlist a trainer or behaviourist to help work through the problem.
Introducing an adult dog to your horse is best done if the dog responds immediately and happily to some basic commands. These should include “come,” “wait” or “stay” and probably “down” or “sit” so that you can pre-empt a chase or keep your dog quiet should a horse, either your own or another, take offense to your dog’s presence. If nothing else, teach your dog both ‘come’ (come towards me) and “leave it” (come away from that) as thoroughly as you can. These two should be sufficient to get your dog out of any tight spots. www.horse-canada.com/articles/ horse-canada-featured-article/ for an online bonus lesson on how to teach the leave it command.)
If either animal is nervous about the other, start with enough distance between them that they can see one another, but still take treats and respond to commands. If at all possible, work only with one fearful animal at a time. If you have a nervous dog, use a relaxed horse that can stand tied (or munching hay) without getting restless or anxious.
Let’s assume you are taking an adolescent (over 16 weeks) or adult dog to visit your horse for the first time. Keep the dog on leash and approach the tied or held horse at an angle (not directly towards). As soon as your dog becomes very interested, stop approaching and take a moment to give your dog a treat. You can also ask for an easy obedience command, such as sit, to check that he is not completely mesmerized by the horse. Take another step forward and pause again. If your dog remains calm, praise and give him a treat. If he gets agitated or fearful, simply turn away and spend some time calming him down further away.
After you’ve done a few baby steps forward, tell your dog ‘leave it’ or call him and walk away. Give him little breaks between training sessions to keep him confident and curious. For some dogs you may need to start 40 feet away, and for others they may not become that interested in the horse until you are 10 feet away. Approach gradually, with the goal of keeping both horse and dog calm and receptive.
Once you get close enough to let the dog sniff the horse, keep the sessions very short if the dog is nervous. If the horse should stomp at a fly or swat the dog with a tail, the dog could react badly through sheer nerves. A few seconds of sniffing followed by a “leave it” and a nice treat is much less stressful for both animals than a long period of closeness.
Riding With Your Dog
If your dog responded well to approaches and can remain calm around the horse for long periods, then you can start to train him to move with a horse. Have someone else ride or hand-walk the horse while you walk your dog alongside it. Use a head halter or front attachment harness if you need the extra control, but try to keep the leash loose as much as possible. A tight leash creates a feeling of frustration in the dog that can result in behaviour that may make the horse nervous. Praise and give treats for calm behaviour. If your dog wants to dive in and check out the moving feet, use your leave it command to bring the dog away.
Next, repeat this with you mounted on the horse and someone else walking the dog. Some dogs can get quite concerned when the owner is mounted and no longer beside them. You will also need to change gait to see if the dog can maintain control when the horse is moving at speed. It can help to add some distance when this occurs, but some dogs that can tolerate a walking horse cannot stop themselves from chasing a horse that is moving fast. You need to know this before ever leaving the ring. It can also be very helpful to introduce a young dog in the company of an older, seasoned dog, but both dogs should be held by someone other than the rider during the training phase.
Once you start hitting the trails or roads, resist the urge to tie the dog to the horse or to yourself. The leash can easily get tangled in the horse’s legs or pull the rider off. If you progress to riding in a group, it might be wise to ride at the tail end of the group so that you can see if your dog is getting into trouble. If, at any time, you feel your dog might be getting over-excited, dismount and leash your dog to prevent problems.
There is no one solution that suits all dogs or all horses, so take some time to consider what approaches will work best in your situation. Take care to integrate these two species can pay dividends in the future, when you can each benefit from the added companionship.