Category Archive : behavior modification

Checking My Ego: Lessons in No.

Today I had to check my ego. I went to visit my horse, Ben, and I had every intention of riding. It had been a week or more since I had seen him. My schedule is intense, and my efforts to continue to build my online business to make more time are going slow at the moment. This leaves me limited extra bandwidth, which unfortunately Ben often pays the price for. This is on me. Ben fortunately lives in a large pasture with four other geldings, and has a good time in his offer hours...days....sometimes weeks. But today I had made space to go ride my horse. My intent was to practice some of his skills under saddle, to use the time to relax and focus on our goals with his collection, and responsiveness. I have finally been able to transition him to bitless (Ben was initially trained in a very classical manner, and I have been working towards a more modern, less forceful way to interact with him.)

Ben said no.

He was not aggressive about it, or explosive which has been his method in the past to communicate when he was overwhelmed, or frustrated. But he wasn't feeling it. As I went through the routine of practicing mounting up (a historically problematic area for him) Ben said no. He refused to stand to be mounted, his tail swished consistently and his agitation was obvious in his body language. Ben has always been particular about who gets to ride him, and today he told me that he did not want to be ridden.

There might be a dozen reasons for this. I don't work with him enough to keep his eagerness to explore and learn sharp. It was early morning, and I had called him away from his breakfast (which he came willingly, but still.) The list goes on. But the point was; he wasn't interested.

In classic horsemanship guidelines I would have been required to force the issue. You would have heard some old cowboy telling you “Don't let him get away with that!” And a variety of other euphemisms that boil down to: make the horse do it. But I have worked very hard to teach Ben to present his feelings in a less explosive, and dangerous ways. I have worked hard to unlearn my own very classical horsemanship education (that started when I was just old enough to spell my own name.) And in this paradigm of putting the horse first, Ben made it clear he did not want to do what I wanted to do, and I took him at his word.

I stress a lot on the value of letting our dogs say “no.” I teach that a no is valuable. I teach that it is meaningless to have our dogs say “yes” if we do not also allow them to say “no.” This is not something that many horse people practice, it is something I am making strides in practicing. Today, I practiced it.

As I went through the work I noticed Ben's agitation, I also noticed my own frustration that he was not willing to cooperate and follow the cues I had given him. As my frustration increased, so did his. And at some point I realized what was happening: Ben was saying he did not want to be ridden today.

I completed a successful approximation towards our goal, I stood on the mounting block (For those who don't know I am very short, and Ben is absolutely huge) put my foot in the stirrup, marked it and get back down onto the ground and rewarded Ben for holding still during that. Then instead of taking advantage of the fact he was cooperating that far, and jumping up on him, I respected his feelings, and rewarded his good hard try by walking away. He followed me to the barn where I untacked him , gave him a nice brushing and returned him to his pasture, and his waiting breakfast. He shoved his head in his feed trough and didn't watch me leave as he normally does.

Could I have continued and just made him deal with it? I had no intentions of working him hard today, it was going to be more a mental work out then a physical one. It was mostly to just spend some time with him, practicing basics (as with dogs the basics are your foundation of everything else.) All in all it wasn't going to be a stressful day. And I could have made him hold still for me to mount him and proven my point that it is useless to say “no.” But what would that have taught him? What lesson was he likely to take home from that? Was it that being ridden won't be bad? Maybe. Or would it be that subtle, peaceful objections will be ignored in the face of his owner's desires? Also maybe. And if it is the latter, what do you suppose he will do the next time he is uncomfortable or unwilling to try something I am asking of him? Do you think he will remain polite, and peaceful? Or will he, in an attempt to be certain he is heard, escalate his responses? Perhaps to a level where he endangers one or the both of us?

I know Ben well. Perhaps in many ways better then I know myself. I know that when he is frustrated, angry, upset or scared he will explode. That explosion can be very dangerous for small humans, and for Ben himself. I have worked hard over the last two years to help Ben learn to trust me, to believe me when I say everything will be okay. In order to not undo that trust, I have to believe him when he says he doesn't want to do something. I have to frame uncomfortable, or scary things in a way that allows him to trust me completely when I ask him to do them. I have to respect his no, so I can trust him when he says yes. Ben is my ride or die, but that is meaningless if he doesn't have a choice in the matter. Today he made his feelings clear, so I put him back in the pasture where he promptly resumed his breakfast with out looking back.

As I reminded my ego to check its self, and set aside my daydreams of riding my horse today, I realized that practicing what I preach matters. And it matters the most when it's hard for me to do. As I drove away from the barn Ben's head was still in his trough eating breakfast. He was hungry. I am not keen on working out when I'm hungry either.


"The more chances we give them to say no, they more chances they have to say yes." - Pine Irwin CPDT-KA, ABKA L2, PPG, FFCT, IAABCM, SFCS , QTDE

Dogs vs. Backyard Dinosaurs: Keeping pet chickens safe with dogs

This past week the rescue I work with was contacted by two different people to take in dogs who were attacking/harassing/killing chickens. We were able to help them thankfully, but in reflection I feel very sad for these two otherwise delightfully sweet dogs. They were simply doing what dogs do.

With the pandemic came a lot of changes for our world, one of which was the rise of backyard chickens. Or backyard dinosaurs as I like to call them. I have had chickens in my backyard for years, I absolutely adore them, and someday should film training them using the same methods I use on dogs and horses (ducks, and pigs too apparently!) And as delightful as backyard chickens can be, they do pose a challenge when it comes to our dogs.

Many owners are finding a sudden problem of their dogs wanting to mess with their chickens. Many of these dogs were not raised around chickens, and now are faced with the challenge of ignoring their instincts and not chasing the flightless birds hanging out on the lawn. And owners are facing the reality that their sweet, wonderful dogs might pose a threat to their equally wonderful chickens.

So what are we to do? How do we maintain the safety of our flocks in the presence of a predator? Except in this case the predator is Fido, our family golden retriever.

Can dogs and chickens coexist?

Absolutely! But there are some things we need to understand about dog behavior, and chicken behavior though. The first is that dogs are opportunistic predators. And chickens are prey. Not only that, chickens behave like prey: they tend to flap off, making noise and running when startled. Which can easily excite the prey drive in a dog, even in our softest, most mellow and fluffy of pups. This can also cause other problems if the dog catches the chickens, stress to the birds, injury or even death. And as such knowing what to do to help our dogs and chickens coexist is important to keeping everyone safe and happy. We have to acknowledge this reality, and understand that it is something that will always color our are dogs and chickens interact. This is not a problem for dogs, after all it is what dogs do, and we very rarely condemn dogs for chasing squirrels.



It is rare that you will find a dog who is more willing to leave the chickens alone than chase them. I am more surprised by dogs who ignore the chickens, then I am by dogs who are willing to do chickens harm. As mentioned above, dogs are predators and will behave the way predators do. So our first line of defense in protecting our chickens is management.

A secure chicken coop and run is paramount. Having a safe space with plenty of room to secure your chickens is not only good husbandry, it is the best way to keep your chickens safe from all kinds of threats. Hawks, raccoons, foxes will all cross through suburban environments for an easy drive thru meal of a pet chicken. Your chicken run should have some kind of roofing, either a solid roof or a wire roof that provides protection from above. But when you have a dog in the yard you should also reinforce the fencing around the run, and a way to keep the bottom of the run from being dug under. At my tiny urban homestead I have cinder blocks around the base of my run, and I have wrapped hog panels outside the chicken wire that makes the bulk of the fencing system. These hog panels are designed to keep very large pigs in place, and since they are very sturdy they are the perfect defense from dogs pushing on the chicken wire inside and weakening my fence. The cinder blocks are there to keep the dogs from digging at the fence and creating holes to stick heads through. At my house one of my dogs will absolutely cause the chickens harm if he gets too close to them, when they dogs are in the yard the chickens are secure in their run. I took special care in raising my hens to train them to “kennel up” on cue.

The second phase of management is the age old, tried and true best practice for keeping dogs safe: a leash. Yep! When in doubt: leash up. Leashes are an important part of managing the situation to keep your chickens safe, and your dog from making poor choices. Here at the River Hawk Homestead when a dog needs to go potty, but the birds are out in the backyard enjoying their bug patrol duties, I take the dog out on a long leash to go potty. This allows me to really reinforce their good behavior of ignoring and disengaging from the birds, as well as keep them from getting too close and making a poor choice with the birds.



The next step in dog and chicken cohabitation is that favorite word: training. We want to work with our dogs very quickly as the birds come home. I teach a strong, and well reinforced “leave it.” But I also train my dogs (on a long line) in the yard with the birds to do mat/stationing behaviors. Teaching them to maintain a comfortable position on a platform or a mat while the birds are about. Both of these behaviors will go a long way to helping your dog know what is expected of them when the chickens are around.

The final training piece is a rock solid recall. Being able to call my dog back to me and direct their focus to appropriate items is key to harmonious living with birds. I want to make sure I can ask my dog to walk away from the birds of their own accord, and easily give them an appropriate alternative to chasing my birds.

In conclusion: Yes dogs and chickens can live together. But that picture may not look like the bucolic image of a dogs sniffing in the yard with chickens milling about. For many dogs it will look like good management and ongoing training practices to keep the birds safe, and the dog's safe from their own less than desirable impulses. And if you find yourself overwhelmed; reach out! I have a lot of experience with chickens and with dogs (obviously) and I am happy to help guide you! You can even get a consult on how to train your chickens to recall and kennel up on cue! (My behavior consulting is not limited to canines!)