The articles I write always seem to be inspired by my everyday experiences. This is often the case because I am always actively seeking to learn new things, improve my training and be a better horseperson. I think I drive my family crazy because I can relate everything in some way to my barrel horses, and this month’s article is no exception. I wanted to share a story about a person who has not only influenced my thoughts on horse training, but more importantly, has given my family and me a much deeper empathy for the sacrifices our soldiers make.
My husband Cliff guides hunts on the ranch, so we always have hunters at our home during the winter months. I am often traveling to clinics and therefore not usually present for every group that comes through. But this one particular group comes every year and I always make arrangements to be there to help get them fed. A few years ago, one of the hunters brought his stepson who was a Navy SEAL and had served in Iraq. During dinner conversations, he explained he was waiting to get a dog from his best friend, also a SEAL with several tours under his belt, who trained Belgian Malinois/Dutch Shepherd police dogs. I have been fascinated with these dogs for as long as I could remember, so I asked for his friend’s phone number. When I made that first phone call so many years back, I had no idea how much I would learn from Joshua Morton, both about training and about life.
Joshua graduated high school with a very high GPA, and had offers to play soccer for some of the country’s top universities. Instead, he chose to serve his country in the Navy. Given his drive to succeed, he went straight into the SEAL program where he became a part of the Naval Special Warfare Division. It was here that he earned the opportunity to develop the Navy SEAL’s dog program for the East coast teams.
I originally called Joshua in search of a Belgian Malinois pup for my household, but he quickly made me aware that it may take some time to find the perfect fit. To him, no dollar amount – and I mean this literally – is worth sacrificing the well being of one of his dogs. He would never put one of his dogs in a bad situation, and he explained he always had to be sure each dog fit their environment. For these reasons, he has turned down many people who have called to inquire about his dogs.
I have always loved dogs, and I often talk about the similarities between handling dogs and handling our horses, but Joshua’s training techniques and his relationship with his dogs has given me an even deeper perspective. Learning to communicate and discipline your Dachshund is much different from communicating with and training a combat, police, or home protection dog. Like our horses, these dogs, if mishandled or misunderstood, can be very dangerous and easily ruined. Using force, aggression, or fear to train can make them even more dangerous. Therefore, Joshua’s training is based on mutual respect and trust. He views them as fellow comrades and treats them as such. He respects them, and through his care, guidance, and training, he creates an environment where his dogs learn to trust and respect him.
I have waited for two years for Joshua to find the perfect dog for my household. To me, the process for him was probably not much different than it is for me when trying to place a trained barrel horse with the right rider in order to give them the best chance for success. So, it was finally my turn and Joshua brought the puppy he had chosen for me out to my parents’ place. Her name is Eudora. My mom and dad were getting their finished home protection dog, so we met at Mom and Dad’s house for a joint training session. I, of course, had my horses with me and rode every day. We trained with the dogs, and then we went to the barn to train my horses. By the end of the week, we had many discussions about the similarities between our programs and I think he may even be interested in a horse!
What Joshua is able to achieve with his dogs goes so much deeper than just training and it became most apparent to me one afternoon, in particular. We went into town for several of our meals. One day, after lunch, he put two burritos on the dash of his truck, along with two of his finished dogs, loose in the cab with the air conditioning running. Later that afternoon, he went out to the truck got the burritos, which were untouched by the two dogs. I realized that the dogs had had access to the food for several hours and had not touched them. I asked Joshua how he taught them to do that and he simply said, “They respect my stuff.”
I think Joshua’s ability to think like these dogs is what makes him so successful training them. Breeds like this are a huge responsibility because they have the ability to injure someone seriously. When he is teaching a person how to handle them, he constantly discusses how their brains are working. A lot of his communication with them is through his thoughts and body movements, as well as verbal commands.
“You need to anticipate that the dog will bite and think three steps ahead. Watch what people are doing as opposed to what you are doing. Dogs of this breed are serious and watchful, and it takes serious and watchful owners to handle them. For example, a trained canine tactical dog will let you know if someone is thinking about doing harm to you or your family before they actually do it. It is up to the owner to recognize the signs before it does what it is trained to do,” says Joshua.
Many of Joshua’s training techniques and ideas are the same as the ones I use while training my barrel horses and teaching clinics. I try to emphasize to people that the horses are feeling everything the rider feels and that they know what we are thinking. My time with Joshua has validated my beliefs that our animals can sense and read our deepest emotions. Joshua emphasizes to his students that “everything runs down leash.” For our horses, I believe “everything runs down the reins,” and we must be able to think three steps ahead of our horses to be effective trainers.
The reality of getting to know a person who has sacrificed so much for our freedom is very different from reading about it or just seeing it on the news. Joshua served five tours and nine years in Iraq. He stayed an extra two to help the Iraqi soldiers with their dog program. Because he sacrificed so much, his life will never be what it might have been had he pursued a more selfish path. However, his dogs have saved him in more ways than I could ever imagine – they protected him during combat and saved his sanity after returning back home to a civilian life. The dogs give him a way to use his special skill set in his everyday life. Getting to know Joshua these past few years has made me so much more appreciative of the sacrifices he and others like him have made. It has also made me so thankful for the blessed and very sheltered life my family and I are able to live, because of all the Joshuas in our country. It also deepens my appreciation for the extraordinary minds of our animals and their ability to understand us, even when we may not understand ourselves.
Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit www.denakirkpatrick.com. Email comments to [email protected].