The first challenge is actually to get to Davis, California. It sounds glamorous to say I am going to California, and yes I am lucky, but travelling for work is not a holiday, it is about getting where you are going, doing a great job and getting home as soon as possible, to cost the Sanctuary as little money as possible and keep up with all the other things that I have to do. So I left home on Wednesday at 5.30am to drive to the airport and will be back at the airport on Sunday afternoon to fly home again, in time to be back at work Tuesday morning. But for me travelling is a great way to practice the practical application of the science of behaviour and I always learn so much about myself and I am always reminded of the behaviour of equines as I travel.
I know I am a behavioural anorak and need to get out more!
First there is the airport and 10 hour flight, time for some behavioural reading and an appreciation of the challenges equines face during their transportation experiences, the need for regular food and water stops, need for rest and leg stretching, the effects of confinement and the disorientation of not knowing where you are going and why, at least I know what is happening and why. Good thing is US customs does let me in, having taken my finger prints, just in case I turn out too dodgy.
Then the comfort zone stretching begins, find your way through an unknown airport to find a rental car. So now just the small matter of navigating through an unfamiliar city, during rush hour. No sat nav, that would be too easy, and it would cost the Sanctuary another $60, so down to a sense of direction, preparation and a map. It is amazing to me how we ourselves choose to or choose not to stretch our comfort zones, yet our donkeys and mules are expected to stretch theirs without question and purely at our discretion. Having a plan and prepared in advance really helps much like a shaping plan for training donkeys, smoothes the journey of training. How do you know how to get there if you don’t know where you are going?
Our brains are amazing, less than 15 hours ago I was driving on the left side of the road and now my brain can switch and allow me to drive on the right. Alright I have had a fair bit of experience of this swapping sides, but it reminds me about our neural path ways and how once we learn a behaviour the potential for it to reoccur is always there, so be careful what you teach. I also think about how to start the journey I am having to concentrate so hard, but as we progress all the old neural pathways are activated and I start to enjoy the view. Much like our donkeys revisiting an old behaviour, we and they too need time to “get in the groove” some more patience at the start of a behaviour always pays extra dividends and creates a better response.
It also makes me think about what it must be like for our donkeys fresh out of the lorry to a new home, we are excited and can’t wait to meet greet and do stuff, yet for me right now it feels like I imagine a donkey would, slightly dazed with sensory overload, disorientated and not sure who to trust. Actually, donkeys need time to settle in, find their feet and we would do better to allow them much more time to settle in. Often owners of donkeys and horses tell me they have been out with their new animal for a walk or a ride the day after they have arrived, that is just way too quick for the animal. They need time to learn how their new two legs behaves and who they can trust, if you get new donkeys take a couple of weeks to quietly let them settle it before you do to much stuff.
I find my way, over the Golden Gate Bridge, just for the experience and right in to a two and half hour traffic jam. Perhaps not what I needed right now, but I can only have one reaction. As those of you who have attended a Stage 5 behaviour training course at the Sanctuary will know, we talk about patience and being in the moment and its importance to good training. We can only control our response to the traffic or the animal’s behaviour, but we cannot control the traffic or the behaviour. To train well we have to learn to stay in the moment because that’s where the animal is, they can not tell we are preoccupied with the future or the past, they think our body language represents what we are feel right now about a situation.
This traffic jam also allows me the chance to explore the random attribution error. This is the principle by which we often mistakenly blame an individual's behaviour on their character rather than on the situation. So I suspect that I may have not driven perfectly during this journey, and another driver may, as we all have at times, thought “what is that jerk doing?” It is highly unlikely someone saw my bad driving and thought “I wonder if he is English, just off a 10 hour flight, not fully used to driving on the wrong side of the road and not quite sure where he is going". We all do it. That person who cuts us up is a fool, at best at worst something unprintable. How often do we think about the bad driver, maybe he has had some terrible news about a family member and he is rushing to the hospital to be by their side, or perhaps he is late for his first job interview after three years of being unemployed, maybe he has just been fired or told he has cancer. Funny though when we drive badly it is not us it is the situation that made us do it. What relevance for equines? Well, all too often, in fact nearly all the time I hear people blame their animal's character, he’s a git, she’s naughty, she’s stroppy, hormonal, mareish or he is dominant. Maybe or maybe not, but it is much more productive to look at the donkey's environment and situation, that is a far greater cause of their behaviour. Look for the situation as a cause, fear, not enough stimulation, incorrect diet, pain, stress, frustration and you can do something about it rather than just blame the animal.
Anyway the good thing about all this traffic and arriving at my hotel at 9pm US time (4am UK) is that I am calm, I have been putting so much pressure on myself about this presentation that I could have missed out on enjoying the experience by not being in the moment, and there is no way you can do your best training with donkeys or humans when you are pressured, and trying to get them to achieve something within time restraints, I cannot control the results only my performance. This trip has fortunately reminded me to relax, enjoy the journey and to lower my expectations, it is not about me it is about what the donkeys can achieve and how we can help them. Thank goodness for the traffic jam I might have missed out on the learning.
In the morning I will visit the University where the Symposium is being held and meet the donkeys for the first time and I will tell l you about that next time.