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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Friday, November 14, 2014

Notes from the Donkey Welfare Symposium - Setting the scene + training, Part 1

I'm back from California and the symposium was quite an experience!  I'm going to try to post my notes in several parts:  training and welfare (meaning everything else I learned!)

This post will be Part 1 about the training sessions I attended with Ben Hart from the UK http://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk/blogs/ben-hart . Ben works for the UK Donkey Sanctuary and was part of the team that presented at the symposium.  Actually the UK Sanctuary was one of the main sponsors of the 3-day event.

Shortly before leaving home, I found out that I was lucky enough to claim one of the 20 spots in the training clinic (3 afternoons) due to a cancellation. Since working with donkeys is my passion (along with making art) I jumped at the chance! I wasn't at all sure what to expect and I couldn't have anticipated what awaited me at the UC Davis campus.

Setting the scene:  About 30+ donkeys and one mule had arrived at the campus (they have a large veterinary school and teaching hospital) just a few hours before we did.  They had traveled 28 hours from Texas in a stock trailer and were clearly exhausted.  These donkeys were in the care of the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue (PVDR) - the largest donkey rescue in the US, now caring for 3,000 donkeys!  Yes, you read correctly, I didn't add a zero!

The enormity of the problem of unwanted, abandoned and neglected donkeys in the US is simply staggering.  Some of the contributing factors that contribute to the problem are climate change/ drought, continued breeding programs, economic hardship and the lowly status of donkeys in general.

Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue http://www.donkeyrescue.org/ is committed to taking in and re-homing any donkey that needs help - they focus on adoption so they can make room for more.  An adopted donkey always belongs to them, so if the new owners' life changes, the donkeys go back to PVDR .

So, on the first afternoon of the training sessions, we were asked to choose a donkey to work with. I didn't
have any preferences, so ended up with a young gelding (he's the roan in the picture above) who had been picked up as a stray in Louisiana 6 years ago and has been at the rescue ever since. He was exceptionally wary and I couldn't get near him.

Ben had us working with positive reinforcement using scratches on the withers as the reinforcement (+R) and backing away as the negative reinforcement (-R) i.e. removing the thing that the donkey wanted to avoid ... ME!  Of course each donkey was different and Ben talked about understanding and investigating species behaviour, breed behaviour and finally individual behaviour.

He asked us to become "donkey detectives," saying that donkeys are small communicators due to their stoic nature and that we need to scale down our body language.  He said that trainers need 10 solutions for 1 problem - I really liked that!

So how to work with a donkey I couldn't get near?  In a different setting, I would have begun with a long target stick and some treats, probably putting them in a feed dish after the donkey had touched the target.  Using food in this context would have been a bad choice in my opinion!  It would have been impossible to set the environment for success.

There were 20 students and a bunch of observers - introducing these donkeys to clickers and polite manners around food would have been a mistake, especially since the donkeys were moving on to other situations and the students were (mostly) novices at clicker training. 

Instead we practiced our timing using our body language.  In the small penned area I was working in, I followed my donkey at a distance that he felt was acceptable, trying to walk alongside of him if possible.  He kept retreating into the sheltered area. At first I didn't press him - I didn't want to corner him or make him feel trapped, so I moved slowly.  Eventually I stood in the doorway, giving him room to leave if he chose and that's exactly what he did.  I could see his eyes look fearful as he politely took a wide path around me to go back outside. But soon, I did step in with him and if he stood still, I left.

Here's the key point:  When he moved, I moved with him, when he stopped moving, I backed off.
That's how Day 1 ended.  I got to move closer to him, but not touch him, he began to understand the game and stopped moving more frequently.

Ben talked about working in baby steps towards a goal - successive approximation.  Our homework was to write a shaping plan for the next day.  He explained his strong conviction that we need to write down our goals and our baby steps towards them, that we should NOT keep everything in our heads and then "wing it" when we are with our animals as this will lead to moving too quickly and forgetting where we got to in our last session.

to be continued in the next post ...


  1. you are very lucky to attend such a clinic. We run a donkey sanctuary in Crete Greece taking care of old, injured and often abused donkeys. Would love to have had this opportunity.

  2. -R and small shaping steps can work great for getting animals to begin trusting humans and wanting to engage.

    I've done something similar with several donkeys with great success -- slowly approach until I see the first sign of apprehension, stop there, wait for any sign of relaxation or curiosity, and then retreat. Over time, the donkey (or horse) gets less afraid, more curious, and will even start approaching.

    Sounds like you and your donkey did great, especially given the not so great working conditions (lots of other people and donkeys around, donkeys in an unfamiliar place, etc.)

    And he's quite a cutie, by the way. :)