All of us, including our pets and livestock, deal with fear. Humans might worry about mortgage payments, an upcoming audit, or severe illness. Our pets might be afraid of thunder, fireworks, strangers, or going to the vet. Helping our pets overcome their fears is easier than you might think. It's certainly easier than dealing with the bank, the IRS, or COVID-19.
Like most of us, I've made the mistake of rewarding an animal at the wrong time – not with snacks, but with kind words. A cow is scared of a rock, so I decide, wrongly, to reward her by crooning, "It's alright. I'm here to protect you from that rock." This is what the cow senses from me, "You are right to be afraid. And whenever you shy away or shudder in terror, I'll treat you to some more honeyed words." I'm telling my cow it's OK to be afraid, but I should help her overcome her fear.
Here's an example: When oxen haul heavy loads, a chain connects their yoke to whatever they are going to pull – whether it's a log, a wagon, or a load of stones. The pair must be comfortable with the sound of a rattling chain. Several years ago, when Stash was in training, the rattling and clinking would make him jump. Rather than reinforce his fear with sweet talk, I brought out my more-experienced steer, Topper, and demonstrated Topper's indifference to the chain. Stash was reassured and didn't mind the chain after that.
Recently I brought Topper into the woods to haul some logs. When I walked him into the work area, he was frightened and wanted to get back to the barn. How was I to calm a 1,500-pound ox with enormous horns? I decided the best action was to let him return to the barn, as fast as he wanted, but on my terms: by walking backward!
And he did it. This accomplished three things:
1) He got to practice walking backward, which cattle hate to do;
2) He returned to the barn, but I stayed in control; and
3) He respected me for understanding he was uncomfortable in the wood lot.
The next day we returned to the same spot, and this time he was calm and relaxed, and we hauled some logs.
Unlike some humans who ride rollercoasters and watch horror movies, animals don't want to be afraid, but we can figure out ways to help them get over it. Rewarding them for fearful behavior will never work; helping them overcome their fear does. Next time I'll talk about how silence can be more effective than speaking when training or re-training animals.
Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm (www.milessmithfarm.com), where she raises and sells beef, pork, lamb, eggs, and other local products.