So having woken up at 5am to think about what to do today to help Dante as you do, I got to El Refugio del Burrito early to see Dante’s behaviour before the morning routine began. Seeing him at different times of the day and in different situations means I have a better picture of his behaviour so I can be more certain about possible causes. After all, today I am planning to go in a paddock with an animal that could seriously injure me, so I really need to be able to read his body language really well and be able to feel his moods so I can predict when or if he is likely to attack. What worries me is Lee, the farm manager, has told me that his biting is unpredictable and can come out of nowhere without much warning.
How do you know when it is time to step in to the paddock with a donkey that is dangerous?
Safety is really important, and risk assessment is a very important part of working with behaviour problems but to me avoiding risk is really difficult when working with animals such as Dante, so the way to stay safe is to ask the donkey questions by taking really, really small steps in training and listening very carefully to what they say. Accidents happen when people rush training, pushing the animal too fast and don’t listen to the animal closely enough.
However, there is a conflict in my mind between taking small safe steps, known as shaping behaviour, and my lack of time! I fly back to the UK tomorrow night, and before then I have to help Dante progress enough that I can train the staff to work with him safely so he has a chance at a normal life. It is easy in these situations to make the mistake of choosing lack of time as the deciding factor in how we interact with our animals. No, if we are to help Dante, then it has to be about him and how we communicate with him.
I start work from 10ft outside his paddock, watching his reaction to me and Jill the Welfare Officer who is filming the session. Always good to film sessions so you can watch them back later and learn or clear up any uncertainties and, of course, as everyone jokes, if it goes wrong and he does tear my arm off there is a chance of £250 on “You’ve been framed”, at least I hope they are joking.
Dante is pacing the paddock a little, probably in response to the movements of Monica and Fatima as they start the morning routines with the 93 donkeys and mules cared for here. Normally you wouldn’t choose to work with an animal at this time, but I feel in this extreme case I need to know, for Dante’s future and my safety, if the increased level of arousal caused by food will cause him to be more difficult to work with or can he work through it to remain calm and not redirect his frustration to me.
So I start to approach the paddock, a couple of steps at a time, observing his behaviour all the time, trying to read his mind through watching his body language. When I reach the fence he throws his head over the rail, pulls his “grumpy face” and then turns side on to say “scratch me then”. However, I don’t scratch him. You see I feel part of his problem is that he thinks pulling faces and being “aggressive” gets him attention, so from now on we have to be sure he doesn’t think that is the case. The only way to do this is not to give him scratches for ears back, pulling faces, and wait for him to stand quietly and calmly with his head away from me.
The timing of our interactions with donkeys is the most important part of what we do to help them learn. They for their part just want to know what we are doing, if the two legs rewards them for pulling faces then that is what they think works and they do it. If standing calmly with their head away works that is what they do. To do this well it requires constant attention to the tiny movements of the animal’s body and controlling our own behaviour so we don’t reward the wrong things. You see when you are communicating with another species without the use of words, the timing of what you do is our only communication.
However, for poor Dante, there is some frustration, this two legs doesn’t seem to work like the other ones. I think I can almost hear him mutter under his breath “stubborn two legs, so hard to train.” I wait for him to soften and relax his head, when he does, I scratch his neck hard to mimic the mutual grooming that donkeys do to each other. He loves it, pushing in to my hand and his bottom lips goes all droopy and relaxed, always a good sign.
Bless him, he continues to work with me despite, in his mind, my obvious lack of understanding. Then I see what I am looking for, a moment where he starts to swing his head into me, he hesitates for 6 or 7 seconds as he thinks and then puts his head back on his side of the fence and relaxes. This tiny movement is massive for him. He is starting to work out that something else gets attention, other than “grumpy face”. It never stops amazing me how quickly they can learn.
We give him some hay and set off to work on another part of “Project Dante”. We identified yesterday that despite having all the donkeys around him that there wasn’t much for him to do. Mental stimulation is so important for all donkeys and a lack of it was certainly adding to Dante’s problems. So Jill and I set out on a mission to raid the farm and find as many ways to mentally stimulate him as possible. We collected a salt/mineral lick, a large plastic bucket, a wheel barrow tyre, an old football, a couple of Olive branches, an old broom head and some cable ties.
15 minutes later he had finished eating and we returned to work. Now the process of shaping, or successive approximation as it is scientifically known, is about breaking down large behaviours in to very, very small steps. So that the animal can easily understand them and we can rebuild the whole behaviour easily for the animal. Imaging the process of shaping like a set of steps leading from where we are now, our starting point looking up to the final goal at the top of the steps.
Whenever you start a new training session, with a donkey, dog or child or even your own learning, even if the session was only a few minutes ago, we always start on a lower easier step than we finished the previous session on. At the beginning of new training like Dante’s we start each new session at the first step. This way, the animal realises what is happening and can start to feel comfortable. It also gives us a chance to assess the animal’s behaviour and see if it has changed which is really important with Dante, so I can stay out of his mouth. Which is something I failed to do a few seconds later! I didn’t move my hand quick enough as he snapped at my wrist. It was more of a love bite really, and when you work with an animal that bites, it is my responsibility to stay out of their mouth, so no punishment required. I just remove myself from his mouth, be thankful I have leather gloves on and carry on working.
We carry on like this for two small 5 minute sessions, with me scratching and him trying to work out how to train this two legs. I cuddle his head, I ask him to move his head, I stroke his nose all of which are designed to give me information about how much he can tolerate and where his comfort zones lie. He tests the boundaries a little here and there but that is natural and he begins to soften and I discover he really loves the very top of his neck, almost between his ears scratched. He even lets me rub his ears, which is unheard of for him.
We stop training and give him a little more hay, mainly to give me the chance to think about if I am ready to go in with him and the small steps that are required if I do. I ask Jill what she would do, and she tells me to start back at the beginning and see what we get. She is of course right, always good to get a second opinion.
So I start right back with walking up to the fence and progress again through all these little tiny steps. If this was a normal training session being done by one of the staff at El Refugio, then we would have finished the session already. Small short sessions help the donkey learn but also fit in with the busy schedules of the donkey care staff here.
I introduce the head collar, small steps again and he shows no concerns and lets me put it on and off his nose before I finally put it on properly. I am testing out what he will do in the paddock with me. Then as I slip it off his nose he lunges forward and his teeth whistle past my face, he misses but it is a reminder not to be complacent. I am not sure why he does this, so I just stay calm and go back to putting the head collar on and off and he doesn’t react again, sometimes we just don’t know why.
So I put the collar on and reach for the gate latch. As I undo it and start to open it I am watching all the time for a reaction that would tell me it wasn’t the time to enter his space, but there is nothing. Then there is the biggest heart pounding step, the one I have to take out from behind the gate, it is difficult not in that split second to have an image of Dante lunging forward to grab me, but only for a split second because all the work this morning has told me that isn’t going to happen, I have to trust him so my body language doesn’t change.
I work with him in his paddock for 15 minutes, not asking too much, just scratching and gently testing his reactions. Can he back up, which he learns in a few seconds. Can he move over when I lean on him, which only takes him a couple of goes to work out. I can’t tell you how tiny these steps are, so small they are unlikely to cause any confrontation and I don’t escalate what I am asking him to do, I just ask really lightly and give him the time to figure it out, which of course he does every time.
Then I have to carefully get out of the paddock all of which could be a trigger point for him, so I slide myself behind the gate with his head collar and lead rope on and then take it off over the gate to make sure we do everything we can to let him succeed.
Dante, shares a common trait with all equines, namely their amazing ability to figure out what is required of them and change their behaviour, they do it far better and faster than us humans. I breath a little easier at having been in with him and it has been a good experience for us both.
After one more very short session to reinforce what we have done so far - literally two or three minutes of me going in and interacting with him and coming out. Then it is time to enrich his environment with all the materials we had borrowed earlier. So some of his hay went into the large tub, with the wheel barrow tyre and ball to slow done the speed of eating, the rest went in to two small piles so he could move between them to eat. A feed ball with some very low calorie feed balancer for him to roll about. The olive branch spread around. The broom was fastened with the cable ties to the fence so he will be able to use it as a scratching post for himself.
It has been a great session, I still have all my fingers, and Dante has hopefully enjoyed the interaction and certainly the enrichment. My fear is he is not out of the woods and despite a great start there is a long way to go and in his next session in the afternoon that would prove to be the case.