Welcome to my blog - a diary about living with donkeys, notes about care, my training sessions and the absolute pleasure of donkey companionship.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Thinking like a Clicker Trainer

Becoming a positive reinforcement trainer is a many-layered process.  Why?  Because it's so much more than simply applying/ using training techniques to teach and "get" behaviour from an animal!

I find that clicker training, allows us to develop relationship and trust with our animals in a huge, life-changing way.  You build a history of positive reinforcement - every interaction layers on a deeper bond.  You learn how to be non-reactive when something happens and how to replace old ideas of  "I don't want you to do this"  with "I DO want you to do this!"   Clicker training instructs while punishment intimidates.  I think I have shifted how I relate to humans too.

As primates and predators, we humans have developed a top-dog approach to life in general - we have overwhelmed and devastated numerous species to extinction; we have punished, (perhaps unwittingly) and dominated our environment. But for me, at least, clicker training demonstrates that our animal companions are amazing teachers too if we choose to develop non-hierarchical relationships with them - it's a two-way communication.  We are open, we are asking questions and we are listening.

My most painful injury from a donkey was the time I tried to impose my needs/ goals on Ringo.
I put him in his stall with some hay (a daily routine.)  I knew he felt claustrophobic being confined - he wasn't used to it, but I thought he HAD to get used to it (for all kinds of reasons) and I HAD to MAKE him allow me to be in there with him - lumping my goal: "Ringo stands quietly in his stall with me in there also" into one huge lesson that put him over threshold.  Big mistake and he slammed me so hard against the wall, I thought for sure my knee was broken.  To make matters worse, I screamed so loud, the poor donkey shut down and nearly fainted!  Yelling and admonishment are forms of punishment!

Of course we make decisions, we have training plans and management plans, after all, our companion animals are in our care.  Perhaps because of this, it's very hard to drop the "tell them who's boss" attitude entirely,  or have a specific agenda, when training or not.

But here's what a clicker trainer would have done with the above scenario:  broken down the overall goal into tiny steps, all the while keeping the donkey feeling comfortable, not stressed, and feeling successful by rewarding each tiny step along the way.  Ringo would have been relaxed, learned to trust me.  I would have been reading his body language and I would have been solving the problems he was having by gently asking (not telling) him to allow us to work towards the goal, step by baby step.  It would have taken some time for sure, but the pay-offs would have been huge and ever-lasting.

So what I am learning after some years now of working with positive reinforcement, is that done carefully and thoughtfully, there are many rewards for both learner and teacher.  You can teach anything really, to anyone from any species through a systematic and gentle approach.  It turns your head around, opens your heart and mind in unexpected ways.  Not only that ... it's FUN!


  1. Oh how well put this all is! I have been so appreciative of the chance you gave me and my donkeys by introducing me to clicker training. Just yesterday I mistakenly left Paco's halter on as we finished his morning session. Once he was out in the paddock he wasn't sure he wanted me near him ... I think he thought, 'Hmmm - I'm wearing a halter - I'm in the paddock on my own - something is up - where is the vet?' So each time I approached him he got very nervous. Because of the reading and work I've done with clicker training I moved the other donkeys out of the way - set myself down on my paddock stool - and waited for Paco to come to me. When he did I started the way we do our learning sessions with targeting. Then I moved gently on to touching his face. And then when I used the word cue 'Ready?' he knew I was going to remove his halter and it was no problem. All that was great. But what I like THE BEST was his reaction. He relaxed and came up to me to put his head against my chest in relief. He decided to 'trust' what I was asking - and felt even safer after taking this step. Next week is our farrier visit ... I will keep working with this philosophy WITH the farrier. He has agreed to follow the same routine - targeting - touching - and then asking. And if Paco says a definite 'no' ... we'll wait a few more months. I think trust is more important than nicely filed hooves. (As the snow has disappeared and he is now walking on the rocks on the hillside and the gravel in the paddock his front hooves are beginning to break off and shorten some on their own.) Keep your fingers crossed for us!

    1. Hi Wendy, Thanks for such a wonderful story about Paco - you have given him a great gift with your patience and understanding. The problem-solving part of clicker training is wonderful, eh? Every animal is so different and I love that there isn't a "one-size-fits-all" solution. Alex Kurland has said many times "the animals will show us what they need to learn!" So true. Keep up the great work!