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Training A Donkey Like A Dolphin and A Mule Like A Killer Whale, Part 1

So I can hear you all saying, “What does this have to do with clicker training?” Well, I thought this month I would share with you some of the work I have done with a couple of rescue animals, Blossom the donkey and Flower the mule.

A few months ago I took these two in, pretty much sight unseen and with little information on their history, so I wasn’t exactly sure what would come out of the trailer. I can tell you that, when they arrived and were turned loose from the trailer into the barn, trust was definitely NOT in their vocabulary!

It had been a very long time since I had seen such fear in an animal. As they stood huddled and shaking, heads buried in the far corner of the barn, I have to admit that the question “What have I gotten myself into?” did cross my mind. (I’m sure there were other words crossing my hubby’s mind.) It was not so much that I hadn’t worked with fearful animals before but it had been quite a few years and I didn’t have a suitable place to start playing with them. Plus, I had never restarted any with just clicker training.

The words of Ken Ramirez (Executive Vice-President of Animal Collections and Animal Training at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago) flashed across my mind... when you are training an animal, any animal, no matter how small or innocent looking, you should treat them as if they were a killer whale.This implies several things, including the danger issue, but also the fact that you can’t train a whale by forcing it to do what you want. No halters for a whale. So I thought, these animals are behaving more like really wild, fearful animals, who would much rather be somewhere else; so let’s pretend they are killer whales (or whale and dolphin, to be fair) and train them accordingly and see where that takes us. I imposed upon myself a limited set of tools to work with, so as to more closely resemble the killer whale situation and also the situation of a beginner trainer. Ken allows beginner trainers to use only a limited set of tools (all positive) and behaviours, even with animals that are advanced in their training.

My biggest challenge was how to manage the environment I had available to ensure success. Managing the environment is always important when training. I had no round pen anymore and the barn wasn’t connected to any of my pens. It was the middle of winter, so no chance of rearranging frozen-in-the-ground panels outside; I was stuck with working with them in the barn. Luckily, my barn has stalls on the one side and a small open area on the other so there was a bit of manoeuvring room. Even getting them into stalls was out of the question, in the beginning. As soon as I would enter the barn, if they had ventured into a stall for food, they would immediately run out and huddle in the far corner.

So, adhering to the principle that the ANIMAL decides if the reward is something it wants, not the trainer, I had to figure out what was going to be rewarding to these two guys. Think of it like this: if you like white chocolate and find it rewarding, and gave it to me for a job well done, I probably wouldn’t do that job again very readily if I thought I’d get the same reward because I am not fond of white chocolate. However, if you gave me dark chocolate as a reward I’d go to the ends of the earth to get more.

Hand-feeding treats was not an option available to me just yet. Food does not always have to be the reward, and we do train with pressure and release of pressure when we are working with our horses, so I could use the release of pressure as the reward to start with. My mere presence was pressure for them, so that was where we started. At first, all I could do was open the barn door. This would send them flying to the farthest corner. I waited until I got a glance in my direction and then closed the door. My leaving was their reward - their “dark chocolate.”

It was comical to watch the expression on their faces go from one of panic and fear to “what the heck is up with this human?” They rather quickly caught on to the “if I look at her, she will leave” game. I gradually increased the amount of “look time” needed to get me to leave as they started to relax and get more curious. Each time I could see the wheels in their heads turning, “This human is different.” Luckily, I have to walk to that end of the barn several times a day, so it didn’t take long to get in many brief training sessions. Pretty soon they would actually turn and face me, not just glance over a trembling shoulder to check me out. As their fear decreased and their curiosity increased, it was time to move on. They loved to eat, so adding in the click and treat was just a matter of figuring out how to do it without actually being close enough to hand feed. I borrowed a page from the dog clicker trainers, and I guess the killer whale and dolphin trainers too, and decided to toss the food at them after the click. I did modify this a bit and tossed the food into two feed dishes that I left, fairly far from me to start with, in the place they liked to go whenever I was at the door. I practiced my mechanical skills, as they are very important when training, and even more important when dealing with trust and relationship building. I settled on a sideways toss into the buckets, which seemed non-threatening.

I started by standing at the door and when they looked at me in a calm manner (remember: the click will mark and reinforce both the mental state as well as the behaviour at the time of the click), I would toss a treat into each dish and then leave. I would leave to remove the pressure, but very soon I could stand still and click and toss and they would venture towards the buckets.

After getting consistent behaviour, good training procedure says it is time to move on, to change the criteria. I will continue this article next month. See if you can come up with a training plan for these two.

Blossom 7 months after rescue.

Until next time, keep it positive.

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