We left you last month throwing treats into feed tubs. I hope some of you took the challenge and tried to think up your own training plan. I would love to hear them if you’d like to email me. So, now what to do? I chose to add in a target stick.
I wanted something that didn’t look like a whip, as I was sure that would be a poisoned cue for these guys. I found a small orange plastic ball and attached it to a sturdy wood dowel about 3 feet long. I placed the target in the feed tub and held the far end of the stick, hoping that they would bump the ball when they reached in for their treat. It worked! I then moved the ball up a bit above the feed tub and made it possible for them to touch it again on the way to the tub. As I gradually moved the target further from or above the tub, they clued into the fact that touching the target got the treat dropped into the bucket. As soon as they figured this out, as soon as the “light bulb” came on, we moved forward in leaps and bounds. I would find them waiting at their dishes as soon as the door started to open, showing me that they wanted to play. They would move from the tub to touch the target which was a great step towards getting them to follow the target stick. In a very short time, I could get them to follow the stick while I was moving a bit as well, always making sure to end up close to the feed tub for the treat delivery. I now thought it was time to add in a bench. As John Lyons says, “Eventually, everyone will sit down.” You may have thought of some other step and that is great! But I was getting tired of standing, and sitting would also allow Blossom and Flower to see me in less of a poisoned cue posture.
I got out a bench and set the feed tub close to it and offered the target stick. Again, when you add new criteria you must relax the previous criteria, so for a short time I had to be happy with having the dish farther from me than I had gotten to before the addition of the bench. It didn’t take many repetitions before the dishes were back fairly close to me and their targeting was solid and prompt again. I then started to bring the target closer to my hand by sliding my grip down the stick. This brought them very close to me. Close enough, in fact, that I could have touched them on their heads, but I didn’t. This was so hard NOT to do! I knew that it was definitely not the right move at this time. Like the killer whale analogy, I wanted them to touch me first, not the other way around.
By gradually inching the target closer to my hand, I was able to set up the transition to having them target my hand instead. From their point of view, my hand was now a target they could touch to get a click and a treat. And they did - they touched me! They were now very close to me as well, which was great. If I had rushed things earlier and tried to touch them first with my other hand, I’m sure they would had left. Instead, I made use of the target stick again, which they were comfortable with, but this time as an extension of my other arm. As they targeted my hand to earn a click and treat, they allowed me to also stroke them with the stick. This approach enabled me to reintroduce touching to them in a nonthreatening, different way. Soon, they were comfortable enough to take a treat from my hand. Now that was a great feeling!
The mule was braver than the donkey with regards to following the target, so I was able to get her into a stall which made it possible to work with each animal on its own. I got Flower to target to the halter (see Youtube video) and once Blossom was alone she got braver, too, and soon allowed herself to be groomed and have her feet done. (Now that was a real killer whale challenge - showed me just how powerful this technique is.)
I won’t go into detail about all the steps that we went through, but by now I’m sure some of you are wondering just how many hours a day I trained. That is another great thing about clicker training. I spent perhaps 20 minutes a day doing this. Ten minutes before morning chores and ten before afternoon chores on most days, but not every day. They would process the information each night and the next day or time we played, they were ready to move onward with the lessons. They were now eager to see me, no more running away and, in fact, they were coming towards me very eagerly.
It is such a wonderful feeling to see animals that, not too long ago, would cower in the far corner, now looking forward to our interactions and eager to come and play. The building of the trust in our relationship had begun. In the months that have followed they have progressed nicely. They still have a long way to go, and there are a lot of poisoned cues that rear their ugly faces that have to be figured out and de-poisoned.
So why did I decide to train them with this approach? Well, I wanted to find out just how powerful this training method of using positive reinforcement and marker signals could be.
Time spent: A few hours out of my life.
Helping the fear go away: Priceless!
Blossom is almost ready to be re-homed so if you are looking for a really cute and wonderful donkey/alarm system please feel free to contact me.