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‘Tis the Season to be Gentled

Farm boy gentles foal

By Kim Everson, DVM

The happy conclusion of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy (the biographical story of her husband Almanzo’s childhood) is Mr. Wilder granting Almanzo’s greatest wish–a horse of his own–with the promise “We’ll take him out on a rope, first thing tomorrow morning, and you can begin to gentle him.”

Gentle (v.) 1. To make less severe or intense. 2. To soothe, as by stroking; pacify. 3. To tame or break (a domestic animal, for instance). 4. To raise to the status of a noble. (American Heritage Dictionary)

I’d read Farmer Boy as a child but my strongest memories of this term are from veterinary school when I volunteered to socialize the school’s training dogs so they could find real homes.  These dogs had been used to teach veterinary students restraint and examination skills. However, students were increasingly bringing their own pets in to practice on, and the teaching dogs were happily becoming obsolete. It was time for them to retire. The kennel workers who cared for these dogs’ needs really cared for these dogs, but years spent in a cage had made the dogs socially inept. It was up to us volunteers to help the dogs learn how to be human companions.

We followed a behavior modification protocol developed by a veterinary behaviorist. The first step in the program was “Gentling and Body Massage.” In this program, “gentling” is described as the process of raising a gentle adult animal. The dogs we worked with were already adults and used to being handled, but we needed to be sure they felt relaxed and comfortable around people. Gentling involves establishing trust that human hands are positive, safe things. Anyone who has successfully tamed a feral cat or kitten has used gentling techniques.

Gentling is basically petting that progresses to massage and manipulation of the body parts. As with any behavior modification program, this was a gradual process. The animal’s tolerance for touch dictated the rate of progress. If at any point the dog tensed, pulled away, became apprehensive or aggressive, we had to stop and slow down or rework the previous stage of gentling before proceeding. Eventually all the dogs learned to appreciate not only regular petting but more thorough touching of their feet, ears, lips and bellies. Being comfortable with this level of touching would allow their future owners to provide them a higher level of care (e.g, checking for ticks, tooth brushing, trimming nails, etc).

Once the dogs had been thoroughly gentled (it took weeks for some dogs, months for others), we were encouraged to work on deference training. Deference training is essentially teaching a dog manners. Proper deference training is gentle and consistent, never harsh or violent. We do not need to force the puppy or dog to submit (the popular model of human as “alpha” has fallen from favor and is far more detrimental than helpful!) In deference training, every good thing the dog receives — meals, treats, petting, playtime, walks, etc. — comes after the dog is sitting calmly and attentively. This behavior can then be built on for advanced obedience, retrieving, agility, and even canine assistance.

Relaxed dog sitting calmly

Satisfied that the teaching dogs were relaxed around people and understood basic commands, our final task was to help acclimate the dogs to the outside world. Having grown up in simple kennel with limited exposure to a fenced exercise yard and classrooms, some of the dogs were unnerved by things like bicycles, strollers and umbrellas. Even children were a strange new species to the dogs. Relying on the trust we’d established through gentling and deference training, we attempted to expose the teaching dogs to as many new experiences as possible. If the dog became anxious we asked it to sit and watch us. By focusing on us and watching us for cues, the dog became used to the strange new thing and learned not to fear it.

After months of socialization and training, all the former teaching dogs found loving new homes. The new owners were taught the gentling protocols so they could reinforce and advance their new pet’s training.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, taming a domestic animal may be done by “gentling” or “breaking.” Although used synonymously these words imply very different techniques. Gentling is the time-tested and animal-lover approved way to tame and train animals of all kinds. That doesn’t mean people don’t find it challenging to do properly. In our fast-paced modern lives, the patience required to slow down and work at another being’s preferred speed may be hard to summon. However, the rewards of “gentling” an animal rather than “breaking” its spirit are worth the effort. Because in the end, a gentled animal will act gently and, if American Heritage is correct, perhaps even nobly.

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