Tuesday, July 19, 2011

All Good Training Is Consistency

I have a training philosophy that has stuck with me most of my life, and that is that whether you are training horses, dogs or kids, the principles are the same, and hinge upon consistency.  Horses, dogs and kids all crave leadership, routine, and affection, and if you can motivate their behavior with these three things, they will also learn independence, which makes the trainer's job much easier.  The key is to consistently present their choices of behavior, consistently adhere to punishments when they choose wrong, and be consistently affectionate when they choose right.  Sounds so simple, right?  Yet, in my many years as a dog owner, a horse owner and trainer, and as a riding instructor and mother, I have seen many who do not embrace consistency.

To become a good citizen of the world, a horse/dog/child must learn to be polite, respect others, and follow rules of conduct while working to achieve a goal.  Allowing them to get away with an infraction in any of these areas does the horse/dog/child no good, as they will eventually have to face their shortcomings in the 'real world' - whether that is at school, at a horse show, or when socializing, and truly, society's punishments are much harder to face.  A good parent/trainer sees their job as, not to be a buddy and enable poor behavior, but whose responsibility it is to give the horse/dog/child the tools to be a good citizen.  I have had many parents who bring their kid to me for lessons who back talks, is disrespectful to adults, throw tantrums and makes excuses or lays blame for their behavior.   Frequently, those same people have horses that are spoiled by treats, lazy or cranky, walk all over you, threaten to rear or buck when made to work, and are potentially dangerous.  And yeah, their dogs are the same way! 

The horse/dog/child gets that way because they know that they are in control of the situation. They know that if they beg and push long enough, and loud enough, they will get the treat, the toy, or whatever their heart desires.  In the case of horses, most of them really just want to rest and eat, so they can use various ways of intimidation, stonewalling, ignoring and aggression to achieve that ends.  The key to gaining control is to decide what you want them to do, give them a choice, and then back it up with a punishment that fits.  If you have a horse that walks into your space while you are leading them, you give them the choice - walk at arms length from me, or I will discipline you.  Then, when they break the rule, the punishment should fit; in this case, I would make the horse not want to walk on me, by using the end of my lead rope against the horse's chest, and if that wasn't enough, I would lift my arms and "shoosh" them off me, followed by getting them to back up and turn away from me.  Since most horses are strongly motivated by rest, whenever I have a horse that chooses bad behavior, I will make them work until they choose good behavior and then let them rest.  I rarely give horses treats, nor do I feed my dogs table scraps or give my kids a lot of toys (or sugary treats).  It isn't necessary to bribe them, and they will have more respect for you in the long run if you let them rest, share a pleasurable activity or give them an affectionate rub instead.

It seems that many people aren't sure, first, how to discipline, and second, when to discipline.  Many ignore bad behaviors when no one is around, and then, when the horse/dog/child does something wrong in public, they are embarrassed and don't want to discipline in front of other people.  If you have been practicing consistency all along, the horse/dog/child knows that it doesn't matter if other people are around; the rules still apply.  If you are riding a horse and would like to talk to someone, but your horse won't stand still, excuse yourself, lope some circles, and ask the horse to stand again.  If your dog is tearing around acting wild, they should take a time out in a kennel or in a stall or safe room. Kids who continually misbehave are playing the odds that either there will be no consequences, consequences that they can handle, or that the consequences equal attention.  Only when you consistently make the consequences of their actions worse than the desired choice will they begin to stop and think before they make their move. 

Sometimes it is very inconvenient to be consistent; it means working your horse longer and more frequently, it means taking your dog to obedience classes, or cancelling a fun outing because your child hasn't been following rules.  But usually you don't have to do this for long, as the lessons will sink in, and through positive enforcement, the horse/dog/child begins to see that good behavior pays bigger dividends than bad behavior.  It is important that the punishment fit the crime; it is just as detrimental to go overboard with punishment as it is to not discipline at all.  If your punishments are too light, they carry no weight and aren't a deterrent, if they are too harsh, you will lose their respect and trust.

Tomorrow I will talk about consistency in the saddle.  Have a wonderful day, and take care!!