While donkeys and horses share some similar characteristics, when it comes to understanding donkey behaviour there are some subtle yet distinct differences. Therefore, understanding the different behaviour in general is vitally important before starting any handling or training.

Of course, each donkey has a different personality and you will get to know your donkey as you spend more time with one another.

Bonding

Donkeys naturally enjoy the company of their own kind and when other donkeys are not present they may bond with horses, mules or other small stock. Due to their territorial nature, introduction to livestock must be supervised and take place over safe fencing. The Donkey Sanctuary will never place a donkey where there are no other donkeys present. Donkeys can develop very strong bonds with their companions and separating bonded pairs can create enough stress to result in the serious condition of hyperlipemia, which can be fatal.

Territorial

Domesticated donkeys may exhibit more territorial behaviour than horses. A donkeys’ territorial instinct is so strong that in many countries they are used to guard herds of sheep and goats against dogs, foxes, coyotes and wolves. Unfortunately, this territorial nature results in donkeys sometimes chasing and attacking small stock such as sheep, goats, poultry, cats and dogs. However, not all donkeys display this behaviour and can live happily alongside these companions. Never take risks with your donkeys and other animals, always insure that introductions between animals are supervised and take place over several weeks.

Love to learn

For a donkey, learning begins from the moment they’re born and continues throughout their life. If a foal has been socialised with other donkeys and allowed to develop correctly through the phases of juvenile development, then the donkey is less likely to develop behavioural problems as a mature animal.

Tips for training:

  • Every time you interact with your donkey they will learn something.
  • During learning a donkey doesn’t consider their behaviour to be good or bad, only whether it is effective for them.
  • Donkeys easily learn things that are closest to their natural behaviours. Activities that are unnatural to donkeys can take longer to learn because they are so far removed from their natural behaviour. These can include: Being driven or ridden, holding their feet up for the farrier, travelling in a trailer.

How donkeys are trained and handled will determine their behaviour. An experienced trainer who communicates well with the donkey will help a donkey to overcome problems and learn more rapidly than a donkey with an impatient or inexperienced handler.

Stoic and hard-to-read

A donkeys’ body language is often less expressive than horses, and so a change in their behaviour may be subtle and hard-to-read. A slight widening of the eyes might be misread as an increased curiosity, when it could actually mean fear or stress. A lack of movement away from a fearful object can easily be misread as confidence rather than the donkeys reduced flight response. The better you get to know your donkey and what is usual for them, the easier it will be to spot these subtle changes.

If you are keen to find out more about donkey behaviour, our fact sheet on understanding donkey behaviour may help you to learn more about these complex animals.

Behaviour problems

Donkeys can develop a number of behaviour problems for various reasons, but a medical condition should always be forefront in your mind. Pain, environmental changes, hormonal conditions, dietary deficiencies, hearing/sight loss, skin conditions, mares in season, food intolerances, and more can all cause problematic behaviour, and so an assessment by the vet should always be your first solution if you notice a change in your donkey’s behaviour.

Donkeys can also learn unwanted behavioural traits and so you should always be aware of what behaviour you are rewarding and what signals you’re giving during the interactions between you and your donkey. Donkeys are not aware of our perceptions of good or bad behaviour, they only understand what is effective for them, and so if they learn that a problematic behaviour can be effective in getting what they want then they will repeat it.

Genetics

Donkeys inherit their parents’ genes and perhaps the behavioural characteristics that go with these genes. It is difficult to know whether behaviours are passed on through the genes or if certain behaviour is learnt from parents during the juvenile stage. Therefore, it is important that all mares in foal are well-handled so that they develop the correct behaviours towards humans, and that foals should be consistently handled correctly as they are growing up.

Environment

Donkeys have evolved to travel long distances in search of sparse vegetation. This search for food, and the environment in which the donkeys lived, kept them mentally stimulated, fit and lean. The domesticated donkey lives in a restricted environment. As a result of these restrictions, domestication can cause donkeys many problems ranging from overfeeding, boredom and poor social interaction.

One of the most important elements provided by the environment is mental stimulation. Without this stimulation, problem behaviours develop; these behaviours are often designed to relieve the boredom of domestication.

  • Insufficient space increases the competition with herd mates for food, water, shelter and personal space; this in turn increases stress which can affect the temperament of the donkey.
  • Owners and handlers become a part of the environment through interacting with a donkey. Changes in the behaviour of people can change the behaviour of donkeys.
  • Any changes in the environment, herd dynamics or routine can change the behaviour of a donkey.
  • Environmental changes should be made slowly and planned carefully to allow the donkey to adjust to changes without becoming stressed.
  • Environmental enrichment is vital for domesticated donkeys.
  • Donkeys display emotions through sounds and actions. Learning to decipher when your donkey is happy or sad may seem like a hard task, but there are some tell-tale signs to help you gauge how your donkey is feeling.

If you own a donkey or are looking to purchase one and are unsure on the conditions you should be keeping them in, follow the link to our fact sheets to find out more information. Some useful measurements for your stable and keeping donkeys on small pastures should help you to make sure your donkey is as comfortable as possible. 

Steps to ease donkey behaviour problems:

  • Have the animal checked by a vet for pain/medical conditions
  • Seek professional advice if you are unsure of the cause and the behaviour is dangerous
  • Look at your own behaviour to see if that is affecting the donkey’s behaviour
  • Study and research the behaviour problem
  • Attend A Donkey Sanctuary behaviour course
  • Create a shaping or training plan, breaking the training up into small achievable steps
  • Listen to the animal’s body language, they are communicating with you all the time!
  • Reward good behaviour as a priority
  • Expect behaviour to get worse before it improves
  • Assess their environment for stressors

In all cases of behavioural problems, it is advisable to consult your vet first to eliminate pain as a possible cause of behaviour change.

If you are interested in donkey behaviour or are looking to train your donkey, follow the link to find out more and attend one of our behaviour courses, taking place in different sanctuaries across the country.

If you are seeking advice on donkey behaviour, please get in touch with Ben Hart at the Paccombe Training Centre on +44 (0) 1395 597644 (8.30am to 4.30pm, Monday - Friday). Alternatively contact the centre by sending a message.

Want to know more?

Information for donkey owners