Learning takes place all the time and as a result of yesterday’s experience in the clinic at the Donkey Welfare Symposium I am better organised today. We start out with a demonstration of working with behaviour and timing and the importance of shaping behaviour using Abner the mule who have become one of my favourites – not that you’re allowed favourites of course, they are all amazing.
We start with working at picking up his feet because of course he has a reputation for kicking out and being very difficult to handle with his feet, but with a few minutes of careful reinforcement and good positive scratches that shape the behaviour he is ready and willing to teach the course participants what can be achieved if we follow the six steps that I have set out for them. Those six steps are:
- Understand the true nature of the animal you are working with.
- Understand communication of positive and negative reinforcement.
- To shape behaviour.
- To stretch the comfort zones.
- To have a shaping plan.
- To enjoy the journey.
Those are the six things that we are concentrating on in these three days and Abner brilliant demonstrates their practical application.
The course participants have been asked to write a shaping plan overnight and this is the first time that any of them have tried writing out their plans and these plans are so important because they provide direction and focus and this frees the mind to concentrate on the moment. It is so important, when working with donkeys and mules, to be in the moment and to be able to connect with them. If you are busy thinking about all sorts of other things, you interfere with your body language, you interfere with your ability to listen and you change the interaction that you have, so with shaping plans in mind everybody sets off to start working with their donkeys and everybody makes improvements.
Donkeys start to have their head collars on, to have their feet handled, to start learning to lead, it is fantastic for people to see the improvements that can be made in such a short space of time with such minimal intervention, just by using the science of behaviour.
We were able to demonstrate some leading with one of the donkeys that has clearly learnt in the past that pulling away from the human handler is a good thing to do and again a quiet reinforcement with scratches and good timing within two or three minutes she understands what we want. Again this reinforces my message to this symposium - the donkeys aren’t the problem, we are. You put the right communication in place and use small steps, it's amazing how quickly they learn what we need them to learn to work with us and exist happily and freely and fear on either side of the relationship.
With just one more day to go I am quite excited about how far we will be able to take them but at the same time quite sad at the prospect of not being able to continue the work with these donkeys for several weeks so I look forward to sharing with you tomorrow how far they come and some of the insights of the course participants.