Teaching a stock dog to work cattle alongside horses—something that’s crucial on vast Western ranches—begins with asking the dog to distinguish between types of prey. “We’re actually controlling and curbing a strong predator instinct,” explains Merle.
For this reason, establishing the human as the leader is a prerequisite for work with both horses and stock. Once the dog learns to act on his herding instincts only when given the go-ahead, the introduction of horse and dog usually proceeds quite smoothly. “The first time that our dogs see a horse, we want to be aboard [the horse]. That way, the dog starts to think of the horse as part of the human,” says Merle. Once the two become accustomed to one another, dogs quickly form bonds with “their” horses. “If someone was to get on my horse and ride off,” says Merle, “my dog would follow that horse until I called him away.”
Provided neither party is threatened by the other’s presence, and especially if there is some mutual benefit like play (or, as in the case of stock dogs, a working activity that feels like play), both horse and dog can certainly begin to view each other as just another member of the pack/herd.
“But, they’re predator and prey, fundamentally,” says Anne Dickens, director of publicity for the British Carriage Dog Society, “so why do they get along? I’m convinced it has more to do with the human than with the dog and the horse. Dogs see that the horses are a part of our lives, and therefore a part of their lives as well. And it works both ways. The horses trust the dogs because we trust them.”
Whether it is that trust, a working relationship, or simply mutual curiosity, there is little doubt that dogs and horses do form some remarkable bonds. Dickens was witness to one such partnership during the 2008 Carriage Dog Trials in Worcestershire, England (an endurance and obedience event designed to both demonstrate and test the Dalmatian’s traditional role as a companion to horses and carriages).
Midway through the 25-mile course, half of her two-pony team had to be retired due to a high heart rate. Having been declared a “jolly fit little pony” by the vet on call, the remaining pony (named Polo) was left to run the second 12 miles on his own. As the team of two dogs, one driver, and now only one horse struggled to finish the course in time, Dickens watched as all began working—for the very first time—as a genuine team.
“With about three miles to go, my dog Fenris picked up on Polo’s energy and concentration and fell in beside him, where his harness mate would normally have been,” says Dickens. “He stayed there for the next couple of miles, every few moments glancing up at Polo, seemingly urging him on. It was quite extraordinary—especially from a dog who usually keeps his distance from the horses.” Eventually, Fenris’s sister Freya noticed what was going on and fell into place on Polo’s other side. “Now, it might be that they just got excited by the speed and thought it was a jolly game,” says Dickens. “But the way they behaved and the look on their faces made me think they knew the stakes were high and we all had to pull together as a team.”
Such partnerships, whether fleeting— like that of Fenris, Freya and Polo—or lasting a lifetime, are a perfect illustration of the depth and breadth of our animals’ capacity for understanding and emotion. Doubtless, our ability to enjoy these complex relationships may forever eclipse our capacity to understand the precise evolutionary and behavioral mechanisms that make them possible. But this much is clear: In their openness to the unknown, their tolerance and their willingness to trust, animals may have a thing or two yet to teach us.