How to Get Through to an Ox
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Last week I told you how my oxen team, Topper and Stash, almost tumbled down a steep slope while pulling a log out of the woods. As they stood at the edge of the ravine, it would not have been useful for me to get angry at them. They would have tried to move away from any display of excited emotion and likely have tumbled into the gorge. Animal behavior reflects our thoughts. Express frustration or excitement, and they'll get worked-up, too. This is true for animals, dogs, horses, and even people. I had to give up thoughts of fear and clear my brain to allow a solution to fill my thinking.
That day disaster was avoided, but I needed a strategy to prevent future tragedy.
Prevent A Tragedy
While Topper trusts me and looks to me for guidance and direction, Stash is not as willing. He's the one who ignored my commands and led his partner to the edge of the ravine. Stash would have to learn to follow my every command without question. More-experienced teamsters had told me that working one-on-one with an ox is the best way to gain its trust, so that's what I did.
Based on our recent problem, I decided to teach Stash to move sideways. Oxen need that skill to line up with a load. A human can't carry a 200-pound load to the oxen; the oxen must move close enough for the teamster to hook a chain to their yoke. The "sideways" commands I use are "put in" and "put out." Stash knows many commands but not these two.
During his first one-on-one training session, when I gave the command "put out" (move sideways to the right) followed by a gentle tap with my goad stick (a light-weight stick used to reinforce commands), Stash moved forward, not sideways. No good. To stop him from moving forward, I tied him to a stationary object; the ATV (all-terrain vehicle). Attached to the ATV, Stash could not move forward; the only possible movement was left or right. Now he had to figure out a different response. To let him know that standing still was not an option, I kept tapping him with the stick. At first, he ignored it but then tried various strategies to get me to stop: He moved to the left (wrong response), he kicked out with his foot (another wrong response) but eventually, he shifted his weight to the right (almost-correct response). The movement was slight, almost imperceptible, but as he shifted, I spoke the "put in" command, stopped tapping, and rewarded him by rubbing his shoulder with a brush.
Notice I did three things as soon he thought about shifting right:
1. Stopped tapping;
2. Said the command "put out" once; and
3. Immediately rewarded him.
I've often made the mistake of repeating a command when the ox is NOT giving the required response. This is a common mistake that some dog owners make, repeating a command when the canine is not listening. It is not useful to yell, "Whoa," (or "Stop" for a dog) if the animal is running away, unwilling to stop. He will associate the word "whoa" with what he is doing, running off. When training, I say the command only when the ox (or dog) thinks about performing the task.
Oxen Mind Reading
So, how did I know what Stash was thinking? By observation. When cattle think of something, their bodies will respond – sometimes the movement is hard to notice; you have to watch for it. The key is giving undivided attention. If I had been thinking about unpaid bills or why husband Bruce didn't take the trash to the dump, I would have missed Stash's change of thinking. The same thing is true for dogs. Watch a dog's behavior, and you can read his mind.
Reward for even thinking about the right response is essential. Food would work but can be distracting. So instead, I use brushing as a reward. It's effective because Stash loves being brushed, especially in places his long horns can't reach – his back and shoulders. Reward works with people too. For instance, when I tell Bruce he is handsome and smart, his face lights up with happiness. The same thing happens with a steer, but instead of facial expressions, he'll put his head down, stretch his back, and close his eyes to demonstrate joy.
The Thinking Ox
After 15 minutes and three successful "put outs" and "put ins," I ended the session. Stash had worked out what I was asking and learned that he got a luscious backrub if he obeyed. I'm sure he thought about it after our session because the next day, instead of enduring 15 minutes of tapping, Stash responded correctly almost immediately.
It will take many more training sessions until he will step right or left in every situation, but this extra training will only be effective if I am patient and give Stash my full, calm attention. More about calm, assertive teaching for cattle and other animals in my next column.