Working with behaviour means that sometimes it seems that everything is about behaviour, as if all the concepts of learning, behaviour and working with donkeys can be found in every situation. That might be because of the famous Law of the Hammer which states "if the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail" so, my tool is the science of behaviour and learning. This law can often be applied to behaviour in all sorts of situations; at work and home and with donkeys too.
I have travelled to Italy for the first time in three years to work with the team at Il Rifugio degli Asinelli but to get to any destination or goal there is always a journey to enjoy or endure, the choice is ours, and so it is with working with behaviour, in trying to reach our goal we often miss out on the journey because we’re too busy, have no time or are just too focused on getting the job done. We need to take time with the animal we are working with and enjoy the journey no matter what.
We can set out with the best intent but in truth we have no idea what the animal, or in this case, the budget airline might just throw at us. Part of working with equine behaviour is being able to go with the journey on which the animal takes you, when you push too hard against the animal’s will, conflict and fear often result.
I sit back on the plane ready to use the uninterrupted time to catch up on some writing and reading. There are the usual jollities from the captain and crew, then the "sorry to say we have a problem" announcement. Due to thunder storms over the airport there are some delays, apparently a queue of 24 planes in front of us waiting to take off. The expected 20-25 minutes turns in to two hours on the plane, during which time I use my behaviourist head and just accept that this is way beyond my control and actually it means I get more reading and writing time. Working with animals behaviour you have to let go of the illusion of control, they are and should be in control of our interaction, especially if we truly listen to them, how far we stretch their comfort zones, how much, how fast, when, where, with whom are all up to the animal.
We arrive at Milan Malpensa airport. Now to the hire car and back to switching my brain to driving on the other side of the road which is something I have done before and written about in my Donkey Symposium blogs. Despite the fact that I know I can trust my brain to switch (it has been eight months since it last had to switch sides), I notice I feel slightly nervous so rather than focusing on this feeling too much I think about what I can do to change it. I let myself know it is alright to feel nervous despite my experience and advancing years; I remind myself I have driven on the right side many times before. I still feel nervous, so I remind myself that the human brain is incredible and that mine, through experience, can make this switch, I am still nervous so I visualise driving out of the airport meeting the first roundabout, I experience what it will look like and where I will look and what I will see from this side of the road.
With the neural pathways for right hand side driving all fired up my nerves subside and we are off. When we work with a donkey’s behaviour we have to learn to control our own otherwise we influence the animal’s behaviour so much we are not able to tell what behaviour is coming from the animal and what is being created in the animal by our fears, egos or personal beliefs. We have to control our behaviour in order for the animal to have the chance to understand our communication and not be controlled by our fears, and this control is the preparation for working with equine behaviour.
Finally, I’m on my way but after a while I feel uneasy. I recognise the first part of the journey even after three years it is familiar enough for me to trust that Sat Nav is taking me in the right direction. There is a thunder storm overhead and the darkness is growing. My mind wanders to my last trip and the 90 minutes I spent driving around Biella trying to find the hotel, and yes I did stop to ask for directions!
When the machine on the window takes me off what I think is the right route, i.e. the one sign-posted Biella, I am nervous. Never good with trusting a machine the best of times I wonder not at the machine's competency but mine. Have I put in the correct address? Have I left out some vital piece of information meaning the machine can’t possibly get me to the right place? I think when we work with behaviour it is too easy to blame the animal, child or employee for the results we get rather than actually retaining responsibility for the behaviour we are seeing. The donkey is not naughty or stubborn but rather we are impatient or don’t understand and are not clearly communicating what we want.
Trust is a difficult thing to earn, I know the GPS will do what it is supposed to and take me by the most direct route to the destination I have entered, but trusting a machine, especially if I don’t trust myself to have put in the right information, is pretty hard for me. I decide that the computer chip in the machine has far more information about the roads of Italy than I do and that I have put in the right address so I will trust that it will deliver, but at the same time not completely blindly following instructions, I still question the route, I take in the signs and keep mentally checking my bearings. You see when you work with behaviour you have to trust the animal to behave in the true nature of the species but you also need to keep questioning and to process everything the animal tells you through their body language and behaviour, that way you will know when you are off course and can readjust.
Of course the Sat Nav takes me right to the car park of the hotel, just by a different route than last time, and after all last time’s route wasn’t really successful was it? I realise that I was basing what I thought the machine should be telling me on a previous experience that wasn’t very good or successful. It can be hard to overcome previous conditioning and treat animals and people based on how they are behaving now not on how they have behaved in the past. However, to be successful working with behaviour you have to let go of preconceived ideas and past events if you are to be in the moment and work with the animal or person as they are now, not who they were weeks or months ago.
Finally I stop the car and feel grateful to have enjoyed the journey but relieved not to have taken longer or got lost to add to the experience. However I realise I can’t really tell you how I got here. If the machine broke and I have to drive back to the airport it would be hit and miss, the directions I took and turns I made are a bit vague, because the machine told me what to do. I have arrived at my destination but have I learnt how to get here again? Not really. Again it is the same with behaviour, I can tell you what to do with you donkey and mule, I can do it myself to show you but will that help you really learn how to make the trip next time?
It is great to have someone guide you so you don’t head off in completely the wrong direction and avoid common mistakes but to truly understand and learn how to work with behaviour you have to make the journey yourself, letting the best teachers - the donkeys and mules themselves - be your guide so you can learn to read their behaviour and have the confidence to trust them and yourself while learning the vital sixth step to working with behaviour, ENJOY THE JOURNEY.