I remember when I was excited about seeing cows on our walks in the countryside—that was when I had no worries that my dog would run barking after them. (A tactic known as "worrying livestock" here in the Countryside Code.) These days, I keep an eye peeled for any signs of livestock or horses, knowing my dog will, if he's off lead, run after them. (Even though I'd never had any real evidence that he'd react like this—we've been careful to only walk where there's no livestock—I knew in my gut that Sparky would react to other animals the way he used to to dogs.)
We went last week to a livestock chase prevention workshop (we were the only ones there) held at Company of Animals. He didn't show too much interest (he was on lead the whole time) and was offered treats whenever he looked away from the sheep. He actually got nose to nose with some small horses there. We were encouraged, yet I still had no illusions that he'd not give chase if let off lead.
So when we came upon these cows at Queen Anne's Ride in Windsor Great Park, I was glad to have an opportunity to practice our new "look away" skills. Although, frankly, I was busy taking photos, and I forgot to reward Sparky when he looked away. We did reward him with the "life reward" of creating distance between him and the object he was afraid of—the cows.
In hindsight, we probably let him get a little too close for comfort, and we probably let the lesson go on a bit too long. Because after he spent a few minutes meeting the cows close up, as in this photo, he decided to bark at them when one of them moved suddenly. (You don't think cows can move suddenly? Yes, they can. And they weigh around a thousand pounds each, so the idea of suddenly moving cows should worry you. Especially if you're a 50 pound dog.)
So we walked away from the cows, and then we saw three horses, turning in front of us to walk ahead with their riders. They were walking slowly, so they didn't get move of sight, and then my husband had the not-too-brilliant idea of letting the dog off lead, since they were 200 yards or so in front. Sparky hadn't even seemed aware of the horses, so I didn't object. Big mistake. Sparky took off after them, not responding to our whistle or calls.
The horses were turning down a lane, heading toward a stable, and we heard a bark in the distance. Then Sparky came running back toward us at full speed. We don't know what happened, but we didn't see the horses bolt, thank god. And he apparently only wanted to warn them off, but still--it could have easily ended in disaster.
People ask me why I'm working so hard on Sparky's recall (which is actually very good), as well as on his general training. This is one reason. There are few places here where there are no horses, and no livestock. And we really enjoy taking him on walks, but not when he has to stay on lead the whole time. It's not nearly as much fun for us, or for him. But we can't risk another horse chasing incident, or risk him slipping inside a pen with sheep or cows.
So we're taking it slower. No more off lead countryside walks until his recall is 100% and he's had more experience with the "look away" behaviour that gets rewards.
Now, I didn't mean to turn Friday's Cow Blogging into another dog training story, so I'll leave you with more photos of these lovely gentlemen.