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Horse Sense
The whys and hows of the canine-equine bond
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He’d been a birthday present for my mother. The Artful Dodger, we called him. A broken-coated Jack Russell Terrier, he sported a lopsided look, with one ear soft and dropped, the other starched upright in full salute. From the moment we brought Dodger home and posed him atop my old Paint horse, Clyde, for a quick photo-op (Dodger’s markings made him look like Clyde’s Mini-Me), it was clear that this dog was born to be around horses.

During his 14 years as Head Stable Dog, Dodger led the charge on morning and evening chores. He was frequently underfoot and escaped more than his fair share of flying hooves. But he also knew his job, and was tireless in his efforts to purge our stable of marauding rodents. And whether playing chase with the yearlings or lounging in the sun with the seniors, it was obvious that Dodger not only loved being close to the horses, he also had an innate sense of just how close was too close. Horse sense just seemed to be in his genes. After all, Jack Russells were bred as fox-hunting dogs, designed to run with the horses and follow the fox when it went to ground.

Years later, while working as a horse trainer at a ranch in northern Colorado, I witnessed a different level of interspecies interaction as I watched the cowboys, their horses and their dogs—Border Collies, Heelers and a few “ranch-bred specials”— at work sorting cattle. Whenever a wary bovine decided to make a break for it, the team of three intensely focused individuals would begin an elaborate dance of ducks and dodges designed to guide the wayward cow back into position.

As I continued to observe these working dog/horse teams, I began to suspect that the nature of this interspecies interaction was far more complex than what could be described by the classical predator- prey analogy. While both dogs and horses are, at heart, social animals who readily form long-lasting attachments to specific individuals, their reasons for forming social groups are fundamentally different. As prey animals, horses rely on each other for survival. Something you may have noticed if you’ve ever seen a group of wild (or domesticated) horses at rest in a field: While most of the herd sleeps, there is always one individual who remains alert and watchful, ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice.

Most wild canids, on the other hand, form packs to better bring down prey, living as a group to hunt more successfully. Hence, for dogs, membership in a pack is desirable but not necessary for survival. As domesticated animals, however, dogs are forced into a constructed social hierarchy that might include one or more dogs, at least one human and, in the case of the working dog, a whole host of other creatures.

Indeed, since their domestication, interspecies relationships between dogs and other animals have become not only possible, but also relatively commonplace. Part of the reason has to do with an evolutionary process called neoteny, in which particular aspects of a species’ development slow to the point where adults retain many traits previously seen in juveniles. This process has been at work in dogs since their wolf ancestors first began lingering around human settlements, and is responsible for producing the type of canine we all know and love: that cuddly, playful creature we bring into our homes and often allow to share our beds.

Not surprisingly, this perpetual juvenility curbs the majority of dogs’ most aggressive predatory instincts. Herding dogs, for instance, utilize predatory tactics to control their flocks, but fail to follow through on the instinct to bring down an animal in their charge. It is also what allows dogs’ work to seem an awful lot like play, and what frequently makes the line between playful pursuit and aggressive harassment more than a little bit blurry.

Merle and Sandi Newton of Crystal Rose Cow Dog College in Red Bluff, Calif., have been professionally training stock dogs for over a quarter of a century. Perennial champions at regional and national cow dog competitions, the couple knows a few things about identifying that fine line between playmate and predator, and what it takes to foster a good working bond between canines and equines.

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