Contact should be a secret between a horse and his rider. – Nuno Olivera
Many years ago there was a TV program called “The Great Egg Race” in which teams of crazy inventors were given Heath Robinson-like challenges to complete with a minimum of resources. It’s spiritual successor was found in Scrapheap Challenge, but the initial design brief, and the reason the first program got its name, was about transporting an egg in a rubber band powered car without it breaking. A similar team-building game is sometimes run in school workshops called the “Egg drop challenge”, where you’re tasked with creating a protective system for an egg to give it a chance of surviving a drop from a great height, using just sellotape and drinking straws.
The reason all this came to mind was through watching owners holding their dog’s lead. Now most of the training literature available on-line talks about what the dog has to learn, what equipment to use or not use, with a few comments about how to hold the lead. The horse world does encompass a different descriptive approach, which I think then gets closer to what I want to convey. They talk about softness and lightness, there is an emphasis on the feel rather than the concept.
It is well understood that a lot of “something” passes down the lead, but it’s generally seen as a bad thing. It’s also common to see a dramatic change in a dog’s behaviour from being held on lead by one handler, then passed to another, or even when tied up to a secure post rather than the lead held in hand. There must be a purely physical difference in the way the lead is held that the dog perceives and reacts to, a quality to which they respond, something that feels like confidence or anxiety. Would it be then possible to describe how that feeling is created? What is it about the physical connection that is so descriptive and communicative to the dog? I’m inclined to use this connection as much as possible, trying to enhance the positive messages that get passed along, then removing the medium but keeping the message, using my version of what in horse training is called “descent de mains” or a lowering of the aides. By establishing first the right feeling the lead can disappear, as the hand is lowered leaving only the weight of the lead in the hand.
Trying to explain this is what brought about the memories of the Great Egg Race. It occurred to me watching a dog held on the lead that we move too late and try to stop a dog’s surge of energy out of context. It would be like trying to transport an egg in an ill fitting Tupperware container. The resulting omelette is a demonstration of Newton’s First Law – things want to keep on doing what they’re doing even when they get pulled on their lead. The best techniques for transporting the eggs involved some cushioning and support. Egg boxes do exactly this, supporting fairly securely, with a bit of give and flexibility too. I think the dog feels secure being held securely.
The direction of support matters too, with vertical support being more secure and horizontal pressure becoming more of an over-the-edge plunge. This is directly linked to how gravity and hunger work together. Gravity is all in the up/down direction, everything up/down is then about balance. The hunger component is essentially left/right, forwards/backwards. It can also be up/down but to be experienced purely it needs teasing apart from gravity. These directions of forces and their interplay is the pure essence of what a dog experiences. Holding a dog using the lead pressure perfectly poised in opposition to gravity is the way to over ride the random fluctuations in hunger, the pull to the side. Over time the cumulative effect of the ever present constant in our world – gravity, will outweigh all the different feelings from forces in all other directions. Once the feeling has been created the lead pressure can then be switched to the opposite, joining gravity with downward pressure by dropping the assisting force. This then allows the dog to perform without the aid of support, and experience the full effect of self-collection.