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, November 17, 2014

Donkey Welfare Symposium Notes - Part 2

Here's a continuation of my training notes from the Donkey Welfare Symposium at UC Davis.

Day two:  After a morning of fantastic lectures (I'll write about those is Part 3) we arrive at the donkey training area with our shaping plans in hand.  Ben looked at them and made suggestions about how to break down the training steps even further and add more detail.

I was glad that I had taken the course in Operant Conditioning Behaviour Analysis through Dalhousie University - we had to write shaping plans so they are not new to me!

My goal was: stand on left side of my donkey and lay my hand on the donkey's shoulder while he is standing still- simple as that!

I also wrote that the donkey's attitude should be calm and attentive.  A note about this:  training for a calm, relaxed attitude (as well as for the behaviour you are looking for) was a BIG "aha!" for me last year.
This sounds so obvious to me now, but I didn't always link behaviour and attitude - I was simply happy to get the behaviour.  This is not good training IMO.  But I think I should write another post about this and ... I will!

Back to UC Davis:  my shaping plan also included an evaluation of where we had left off the day before which was: couldn't touch "Louie" but he stopped moving away from me at more frequent intervals.

Then I wrote out my steps towards my goal: 
Step 1:  approach and stop 10 feet away
Step 2:  back off and repeat
Step 3:  approach and stop 9 feet away
Step 4:  back off and repeat

and so on ... working in baby steps at the donkey's pace until I am able to stand beside him.  I won't touch him yet.  I am watching him to see how relaxed or nervous he is and I can back off and repeat steps, closing the gap in smaller increments as he needs me to.

This is about the donkey and not about me or about reaching my goal quickly.  Depending on the animal and his history, it might take days ... or longer!  

However .... voila!  Here's me and Louie a short time after we started working!  I have a halter slung over my shoulder - it's just there, not intended to be used yet. 

The big brown jenny came over to see what we were doing!  She offered a lot of comfort, and support to the gelding - it was quite amazing to witness.  Very fuzzy picture!

Day 3 and I have a halter on Louie.  He's anxious again and doesn't know where I might be taking him. Past experience would factor into this big time. 

Shaping Plan for Day 3 -

Evaluation of Day 2:  was able to touch Louie and put on a halter while he was standing quietly.  He relaxed during the scratching reinforcement and allowed me to run my hand down his front legs.
Seem to be gaining his trust.

Goal:  ask for a weight shift forward or hopefully 1 step with halter on

Step 1:  Repeat approach, scratch on withers and back off and few times.  If donkey is calm and standing still, move on to ...
Step 3 :  Halter on, reinforce for standing quietly with scratching and praise
Step 4:  Use firm, gentle pressure on lead rope, stand next to donkey's shoulder.  Release pressure immediately following weight shift or step forward - reinforce!

I was successful in leading Louie to the front off the small enclosure.  I let him walk back on his own.
Ben talked again about the importance of shaping plans, saying that it gives a clear place to stop for the day (or session) that without a plan, we will be tempted to push on .... ask for more and he feels this is a mistake. 

Have a written plan and stick to it. Small steps forward and you will stretch the donkey's comfort zone slowly and methodically without pushing him to a place beyond his threshold.  You want to end every session on a good, positive note.

Here's Ben working with Abner, the very anxious mule:

Ben also talked about the need to become a "behaviour detective," always watching the animal's response and body language. Also important to perfect one's own timing.  The release of pressure must be immediately following compliance from the animal (my words)  as this is the reinforcement (-R) removing the pressure.

I really enjoyed learning about this process without using food.  Although clicker training is my method of choice, I do think there are occasions when other options  might be useful.

Ben did a demonstration with Abner using food however.  He feels wearing a treat bag is very useful in cueing the animal that "yes, now there are food reinforcements available."  This is different from some other approaches ... I've heard excellent trainers say that they always have treats in their pockets so that they can reinforcement anything they like, even though not in a formal training session.

I have noticed though with my own four donkeys, that they certainly recognize the treat bag as an invitation to work.  Although we are always "training" when with our animals (important to remember!) we are also giving them cues all the time too, through body language, words, gestures and tools/ training aids.

more coming in Part 3 ...


  1. Dang!! I was at this seminar, did the training part with Ben...saw you, but had no clue you were YOU! I am so sorry. I love your blog and read it daily.. I would have loved to have gotten the opportunity to talk to you. Next year!!!! May I have permission to share your notes on Save Your Ass Long Ear Rescue's FB page and/or website? Of course I would credit you! I won't do so without your permission. (awfirestone@gmail.com) I have been so busy with rescue stuff that I havent even had a chance to re-read my own notes yet!

  2. Thanks for sharing your notes. This sounds like it was an interesting seminar and I'm enjoying reading your notes.

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