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No Excuses!

Years ago, when I trained horses for a living, a friend and I were setting out with our horses from our training barn when we were approached by someone new to our barn. She was interested in joining us on the trail, and even though her horse wasn't with her we assumed it wasn't some half savage psycho that would spend the whole ride trying to kill it's rider. We immediately invited her along. She said she'd like to, but looking at our three dogs milling around, she said she couldn't because her horse didn't like dogs. We both stated that our dogs were both respectful and wary of horses and would be doing independent doggy things off on their own, and she said, her horse couldn't be around dogs at all.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with barns, saying a horse cannot cope with the presence of a dog is akin to saying that someone on a boat can't cope with water! Dogs, all well-behaved, are everywhere at barns and horse shows, and on the trails that we ride.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are plenty of horses who find dogs offensive. I've had several horses that would put a dog through a wall if it came too close. Horses are prey animals and dogs are predators, the possibility for an uneasy alliance always exists.

Dogs can also be jerks and spook, attack, and otherwise frighten horses. Barn dogs are necessarily well-behaved around horses, but there are plenty of random dogs willing and able to inflict damage.

Lastly, horses who are high strung can find dogs popping in and out of bushes as they pursue rabbits and squirrels problematic. After all quick movement out of hiding is exactly the behavior you're likely to see from the predator who is about to eat you.

My issue with the woman whose horse couldn't cope with dogs was her attitude. She believed it was ok to have a horse that freaked out every time a dog was around. She believed that trying to find a barn with no dogs, and never trail riding, and putting her horse away was an acceptable accommodation for her horse's behavior. All of these options were easier than simply training the horse to accept the presence of dogs, which she dismissed as 'too hard'.

I took serious issue with this. First, presumably this woman actually wanted to enjoy this horse, but with her current limitations, she had found him almost impossible to ride at almost every barn in town, the washes were out because of off-leash dogs, and the trails were out for the same reason.

Second, how fair is this lifestyle for the horse? He already lived in the stall 24/7 when she wasn't around because she felt the presence of dogs near or around the pasture would cause him to injure himself trying to escape, and now even the times she wanted to ride were severely limited because there were about ten boarders who had dogs and brought them out when they were at the barn. If she saw them, no matter where she was in her ride, she would immediately dismount and return the horse to the stall lest anything happen.

She was currently trying to get the barn owner to change her policy and disallow dogs at the barn.

We were not going to be friends. She felt I was selfish to continue to bring my dogs in the wake of her story, and I felt that she was selfish to ask everyone at the barn to accept her horse's limitations because she was too lazy to train the horse to cope with dogs.

Why do I bring this up? Because recently I, the poker of internet bears, got into a bit of a ruckus online with a group of folks who wanted to make fireworks illegal because their dogs were scared of them.

Now, I don't live in a location prone to the use of fireworks. Gunshots, insane thunderstorms, jets ripping the sky apart just feet off the deck, random explosions from...?, yes; fireworks, no.

But unlike jets and thunderstorms, I can control fireworks and utilize them to train my dogs to accept, or at least not completely melt down at the sound of them. I can buy them and desensitize my dogs to them.

But instead of making their dogs stronger, instead of training their dogs to accept that the world is sometimes scary loud, these folks want to take away the rights of everyone else. This attitude just floored me! You have two choices, make your dog stronger even if it's hard, even if it takes time and work, or ask the world to accommodate your dog. (They also threw in Autistic folks and PTSD sufferers to bolster their argument).

I cannot speak for PTSD, or Autism, or random fireworks phobias, but I can speak about dogs. Dogs can be trained. Noises that are not so close that they hurt can be accommodated. Yes loud noises are startling! They startle everyone! What is important is recovery. After we hear the loud noise we put it into context (jet, thunder, monster eating the walls of the house) and act accordingly: look for it; avoid high ground; take a selfie with the monster and get eaten.

Animals have lived in the wake of thunder for millions of years. Dogs have lived in a world filled with gunshots since the common ownership of the gun began until about a hundred years ago when getting the nightly rabbit for stew became a thing of the past for most folks. As gunfire faded, engines arose, with all the awooga horns, and backfiring. I live four miles from a highway and I can easily hear the motorcycle clubs as they roar by.

I don't like the sounds of semi truck airbrakes being applied next to me, or a lightning strike so close I duck instinctively (as though that'll do any good!), or the ridiculous bass-heavy music pouring out of some soon-to-be-hearing-impaired teenager's car. I wear ear protection when I shoot a gun.

I'm not asking my dogs to love fireworks. I'm not asking them to go on the road with Iron Maiden; I'm simply asking them to function in the moments after they hear a loud noise.

I think asking our dogs to experience unpleasantness and move on instead of collapsing is necessary, and too many folks with their (laudable) desire to simplify and ease the process of learning for their dogs are leaving out the necessary skill of coping with unpleasant things. Life isn't always unicorn farts and fluffy kittens. Sometimes life is jets, and fireworks, and scary objects, and teaching our dogs that being afraid is ok, but losing our minds isn't.

I think we must take unnecessary fear out of our dogs' lives as much as possible. We should not use harsh aversives or fear of mistakes to train, but we must introduce elements that the dog finds worrisome into training. We must teach our dogs that some things are scary. Bees sting; cactus hurts, unstable surfaces are tricky, and the possibility of falling is real. We must teach our dogs that falling is an opportunity to get up; that getting stung is an opportunity to have better bee biting technique (honestly! I have a consummate bee - and wasp! - murderer who can snap them in half with her incisors before they have a chance to sting!).

When we permit a dog to live in fear, any fear, we make that dog's world smaller. We limit their capacity to experience joy and resilience.

The choices are simple - make your dog strong enough to enjoy the hard parts of life, or make life so easy that it becomes boring for all of us.

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