We don’t really think too much about ranch dogs when we’re working with horses, but many horse owners have dogs, and it is important to train our dogs to be safe around horses.
Dogs should be supervised and given boundaries when they are around horses. This may not be a popular opinion, but I have heard a number of stories of dogs being kicked and sometimes killed; or horses spooking and hurting the dog, the owner, other horses, or himself. I have heard of dogs grabbing the horse’s tail and holding on as the horse runs away. This is not funny- this is traumatic for the horse and dangerous for the dog.
On my ranch, I do not allow the dogs to be in the stalls or paddocks. This simple rule solves so many issues- there is no chance that the horse will accidentally step on my dogs or kick them; I don’t have to worry about my dog biting a horse; and, I don’t have to worry about the dog eating manure- which is gross.
When I first bring a dog out to the ranch, I keep him on a leash or a long lead. I let him walk around the stalls and paddocks, and whenever he tries to go in (whether under the bar or through the gate), I tell him, “No!” or “Naughty!” very strongly, and when he stops, I tell him, “Good dog!” and reward him with praise. It honestly takes just a very short time to let him know that these areas are off-limits.
Sometimes my dogs will see if they can push the boundaries (I have two dachshunds, and the breed is pretty much known for pushing boundaries), and may meander into the stall- when I see them do this, I say loudly, “Out! Naughty!” and they have always run quickly out of the stalls. My shepherds never had issues going into the stalls after I taught them that they were off-limits, but they are known for being a bit more obedient.
Teach your dogs to stay out of the arena, even when the horses are not in there.
The arena is taught the same way as the stalls- I put my dog on a leash/lead and we walk around the empty arena. Whenever he tries to go in (whether under the bar or through the gate), I tell him, “No!” or “Naughty!” very strongly, just like when he tries to go into the stall, and when he stops, I tell him, “Good dog!” and reward him with praise.
When he seems to have the idea of not going into the arena, I will put a horse in there, then walk my dog around it. The dog may want to go in to see the horse, but, again, if he tries to go in, I will tell him, “No,” or “Naughty,” and when he stops, I praise him. I also do not want him to chase the horse, even on the outside of the arena- sometimes the dogs will like to run the fence line and chase the horses. This is not safe, either, and so I train my dogs to essentially ignore the horse as he runs around in the arena. I will walk him around the arena again, and if he stops to try to sniff the horse, I will tug on the leash and continue walking while saying, “Leave it!” It takes a bit of time, but eventually your dog should get the idea that the horse is not someone to play with.
I know some people will use their arena as an area to train their dog. In this case, your dog should still understand that he is not ever allowed in the arena, even when it is empty, unless you invite him in.
I allow my dogs to run around off-leash on the property as long as all of the horses are in their stalls or paddocks. When horses are out, however, the rule is that the dogs should be contained. It is too dangerous to have a dog meander around while we are working with the horses- a horse might spook if my dog runs up behind her (which, incidentally happened last week when my dog left his place without permission- thankfully, nothing happened, but it could have led to a dangerous situation); a horse might get scared if a dog comes up around him while a volunteer is working with him, etc.
Some people may say, “I train my horses to be safe around my dogs.” The problem with this is that you are depending upon a prey animal to be calm and unreactive, rather than teaching your dog boundaries. It is a good idea to desensitize your horse to dogs, but you should be able to work with the horse without the interference of a dog. I work to try to create a very safe space for people and the horses at the ranch, and it is safer to only allow the dogs to run around free when the horses are in their stalls.
A Safe Place
Your dog needs to have a safe place where he can be when you are working with a horse- either on the ground or in the arena. I have a dog run on the property that has shade, a doghouse, blankets, and several water bowls where my dogs could rest and relax while I was working with the horses. It has a six-foot fence and worked well for about a decade. Unfortunately, my current shepherd, Floki, ate the gate on the run, and when I fixed the gate, he learned how to physically move the run and finagle his way out of the bottom of the run, so I had to come up with a different safe place for him. Still, if you have access to a run, this can be a safe place for your dogs to stay.
If your dog does not have an area where they are sheltered like a run, you need to train them to stay in one place. Floki was great on the leash around the horses, and did not bother them in the paddocks or in the arena, but when he was off-leash while the horses were out, he would bark or even run toward them- again, creating a dangerous situation.
In order to create a safe place for Floki, I opened up the back of the SUV so he could sit in the back with my dachshunds, or he could sit next to or under the SUV, and attached a tie-out cable to his collar (I tried a leash, but he ate two of them). It took several months, but he finally stopped trying to chase after the horses, and I could take the cable off. He still sometimes will leave his “place” if I am out of sight and will come looking for me, but when he finds me, I tell him to go “load up” and he will go back to the car. It is a work in progress, but he is improving. My previous shepherds would stay wherever I asked them to stay without an issue, and I know that Floki should get to that point again.
Floki also has a second “safe place” on the ranch, and that is next to the arena. He cannot see me in the arena when he is in the SUV, and I knew he was uncomfortable, so I tied him to the tie rail (with a bowl of water and it’s in the shade) for the short time I was riding, so he would be able to see me. I did this because when he was tied to the car with a leash, he ate through the leash and ran over to the arena, scaring my horse while I was riding him (bareback, of course). Yelling at my dog while I was trying to sit several bucks and a few spins bareback is not something I ever wish to repeat, and I realized that what I was doing was not working. For several weeks, therefore, I tied Floki next to the arena, and eventually he learned that the area next to the arena is a place where he is safe and he can see me. He will go there and stay, even off-leash, while I ride or work with a horse. Sometimes he gets bored and wants to leave, but I call him back and he will go back to his place and lie down. Again, my other shepherds would stay there without an issue, and Floki should get to that point.
Our farrier has a lovely dog whose place is under his truck- he will stay under the truck for the entire time while his dad works on the horses. It doesn’t matter where the place is, but your dog needs to stay there. Your dog may take a long time to learn this, like Floki, or it may take just a few weeks, like our farrier’s dog- but either way, you need to be consistent so he knows the rules.