As a trainer passionate about helping people understand more about behaviour of the animals they interact with, I work wherever people will sit still long enough to listen. From the dry heat of Ethiopia to the mild wet weather of Ireland today, I deliver my message about the true nature of donkeys, the importance of small steps and thinking with the donkey’s brain.
I use all my experience and knowledge to try to get people to see what I see, and feel the generous calm nature of these amazing creatures. I pour over content the night before to tailor make it for the participants, I tell stories, give examples, show video, use slide presentations, talk, discuss and ask open questions. I use participatory methods, games and interaction and yet I am never sure what will work, what messages stick or what difference it makes or what people will take away with them.
But there is always one teaching assistant that can be guaranteed to get the message across, simply and yet incredibly effectively. Yes you guessed a donkey or a mule.
When they take the stage, they totally steal it. My attempts to influence pales by comparison to their ability to overcome their fears from past experiences and transform their behaviour in front of people’s eyes.
In Ethiopia it was a working donkey without a name, who I was told, took three people to hold him down to trim his feet. Yet despite obvious fear and discomfort within less than six minutes of work he was brave enough to calmly pick up his feet. Then he trained a vet and his owner to calmly do the same thing. That sort of transformation is impossible to argue with and the teaching he gave continues to ripple through our work in the region.
Today in Ireland it was a donkey called Olsen that was very fearful of being caught, especially in open spaces. Now in the care of the Irish Society for the Protection of Animals, he has improved since his arrival. Olsen was very flighty and nervous, and clearly very fearful of people.
When I start to work with a donkey in these situations, I have to put to the back of my mind the group of 20 people scrutinizing every step. I have to be in the moment and make it totally about the donkey - what they are happy and comfortable to do. I have to control the pressure I feel to perform and get the donkey to do more than they are ready and I have to totally trust the animal that they will stretch their comfort zones and try their best and achieve whatever they can in the moments we are together. After all I work for a charity that is about the welfare of donkeys so in every interaction the donkey has to come first, second and third.
Everything I have taught the participants in the “classroom” has to work. If the donkey doesn’t respond, then credibility is lost and my chance to help donkeys is somewhat lost too, but I have to walk the talk and not force the animal beyond what they are calmly capable of.
Olsen goes through the behaviour patterns we have talked about, stretching his comfort zones in such a way, that to start with I am just walking within 20 meters of him and reinforcing him for standing still. We see how stoic and how small the signals and body language that Olsen shares with us. As we talk about the difference between training and having to get the job done on welfare grounds, he shows clearly where progress is made and training sessions should end. His behaviour becomes worse before it gets better as he clings to learnt behaviour that has worked so well in the past to get rid of people.
He shows his processing time. That’s the time it takes a donkey to consider whether they will comply with your request. He shows how small the steps need to be in order for him to safely learn.
Then, in the middle of the yard after 20 minutes, he chooses to stand still and let me touch him, then scratch him calmly and repeatedly on his withers. His bottom lip starts to quiver in a sign that I have hit the spot and he begins ever so carefully to accept and even then enjoy the contact and the scratches on his withers.
The transformation with both these donkeys begins in this small way as they kindly demonstrate what I was saying in the classroom was the truth and works. How did I know it was the truth? Well I learnt it from the best teachers, which is always the donkeys and mules themselves.
Perhaps often the most difficult lesson for us humans is to become the student and accept the lesson that we are being given, even when we are in apparent positions of authority. Who hasn’t learnt a vital life lesson from a small child, a pet or a less experienced work colleague?
Once we accept equines are our best teachers and we willingly accept the lessons they offer, we can grow ourselves, but perhaps more importantly we are better able to release the potential of other donkeys and mules as they make their incredible transformations from nervous fearful animals to animals of confidence, charm and character.
By the afternoon, Olsen quietly gets to his feet on my arrival and shows how calm he is. He is already less fearful and more trusting, immediately letting me approach him and then within 90 seconds lets me start scratching his neck and withers. An incredible change given the small amount of time we spent with him this morning. His apprehension is subsiding and he feels less tense.
The question participants ask in these situations is always “Yes Ben he can do it with you, but how will he behave with other people?” So Kelly tries and obviously in front of a group of people you expect a different performance, not because of the donkey’s ability, but because of the change in a person’s body language. Kelly does great approaching calmly within a few feet then Olsen starts to step back and move away. I can see this is the moment she thinks “What if I get this wrong and undo all the good work Ben has already done?” Not only does her body language change but in her words “stops feeling and starts to think.” After a slight pause, some reassurance and instruction to start feeling and stop thinking, Kelly is away when scratches arrive and Olsen is relaxing.
Olsen lets several staff and volunteers practise their new behaviour skills with gentle approach and scratches as calm as you like. He lets me approach from the other side as he transfers information from one side to the other. And I wish you could have been here to see the moment he took a small step sideways in order to ask for more scratches.
I breathe a sigh of relief as once again a donkey proves to be the best teacher, humbling me to silence, and demonstrating how donkeys learn. These brave donkeys got over their fears and have helped other donkeys and mules by showing people how donkeys really learn how quick they are to work out what we two legs want and how if we are responsible for our communication they can calmly overcome in minutes what we humans take months or years to overcome.
What the participants will remember is not all my efforts in the classroom but the transformation in a donkey, the understanding of the tiny movements of body language and feeling of connection with the animal who proves as always to be the best teacher. We humans just have to learn to accept the lessons they give us.