Thursday, October 25, 2012

Donkey Training 101

I've been meaning to write something about my experiences in training Ramsey and Emma.  He is growing and learning so fast that it is hard to keep up though.  This is sort of a catch up post since I feel like I am starting late (with the writing anyway, I have been working with Ramsey right from the start).  I am learning as much or more from Emma and Ramsey as they are from me and I would like to try and keep track of some of it.  Perhaps it can be useful to some other donkey owners so I will try to post updates as we go. 

So, some thoughts on donkey training...

Ramsey's "training" started the moment I first laid hands on him.  Animals learn something from us every time we interact with them in any way, whether we mean them to or not.  I try to always keep this in mind when I am with them.  Ramsey has been handled extensively from birth and he has already learned a great deal.  He leads fairly well, picks up all of his feet, is learning to stand tied and is very easy to handle. 

He craves attention and considers me to be a natural part of his herd. This is a good thing, but also means that he has to learn how to be a good "human" as well as being a good donkey.  Too often, I meet animals who have been handled from birth and they are dangerously spoiled and obnoxious because they haven't been taught this.

Working with Emma is a bit different since she was not handled at all until she was about a year old.  She is naturally cautious and wary of new things.  She is also calmer, steadier and has the patience of a saint.  Ramsey is almost frighteningly fearless.  In a few years, he will likely be calm and steady as well, but he is too young for that now.  Emma often needs reassurance and convincing while Ramsey can be pushy and demanding.  They are both intelligent, lively, affectionate and are constantly pushing me to come up with new "games".  They don't like repeating the same things over and over and they get bored easily if not challenged.

I don't have any big expectations of Ramsey at this age other then learning basic skills and exposing him to as much as I can.  Mostly, he is learning about boundaries and what is and is not acceptable behavior.  When dealing with behaviors that I don't want (especially things that will be dangerous for him or me), I try to teach Ramsey the way Emma teaches him.  When he does something she does not like, she turns away from him and ignores him the first time.  If he repeats the same behavior, she gives him a glare and a small shove with her nose.  If he repeats again, she may grab the top of his leg or hock with her teeth, shove him with her shoulder or hip, glare and threaten to bite, etc.  He seldom repeats after this point.

When Ramsey does things to me that I don't want him to, I try to copy these methods in my clumsy, human way.  For example, a month or so ago, Ramsey tried to jump up on me the way he does to Emma.  I stepped away with a stern NO and walked away from him.  The second time he tried it, he got a stern NO with a solid swat and a push away from me.  He thought about it a third time, but a glare and a NO changed his mind.  He has not repeated it since.  This all happened in three swift, random encounters during the course of a single day.  This is totally normal baby behavior and I was expecting it to happen at some point.  I was, in fact, glad he tried it as early as he did as it was very easy to correct then. 

There is no one method or training system I use.  I have a lot of experience with horses, but donkeys are so different that I often feel it gets in the way rather then helps.  Mostly, I try to watch how Emma trains Ramsey and copy her methods.  Some of the training guidelines I have come up with and try to follow go something like this:  
  • Ask for very small things.
  • Set him up for success, don't ask for something unless I am fairly sure he can do it.
  • Reward every effort, ignore mistakes.
  • Praise the behaviors I want, even if I didn't ask for or expect it. 
  • If he is wound up in play mode, save training for later.  Forcing the issue at this stage causes more trouble then it's worth.
  • Be flexible and adaptable.  Plans are good, but they never survive long.  Don't get hung up on them.
  • Don't get in a fight.  If something isn't working, go back to what does work and start over. 
  • There is time, don't rush.  If he doesn't get something today, he will tomorrow or the next day. 
  • There is no such thing as "training time" and "non-training time".  He is learning from me every time we are in contact. 
  • Keep in mind that he is also learning when I am not around, pay attention and observe the changes. 
  • Keep it short.
  • Make it fun
I love working with Ramsey and Emma, they have so much personality and lively intelligence.  They are such a joy, "work" isn't really the right word.


  1. Has Ramsey been "fixed"? I have been reading some horror stories about Jacks and their unpredictable behaviour when they sense jennies (or humans) are in the right time of the month.

    1. Funny you should mention that...I just made his appointment this afternoon:)

  2. Great post. He looks soo cute on that photo. Sounds like his training is going well. I knew a donkey foal who was very naughty last summer, he had been handled a lot to get him used to all sorts of things but he had no respect for humans and would always be jumping up at them! I wonder what he is like these days!

  3. This piece today and The Wisdom of Donkeys are my two favorites so far. Thanks, Kris!

  4. You have donkey foal training down pat! And yes, WORKING with them is not the right word. It's more like trying not to laugh too much at some of the things they come up with. :-)
    Have you gotten past the kicking stage yet?

    1. So far, he only kicks when he goes flying by at warp speed. He will kick out as he passes. It only happens when he is really wound up and it happens so fast it is hard to discipline. He has never actually connected (he isn't really trying to, it's a play thing, but I'd like to stop it). Any suggestions?

  5. Mine do the same thing sometimes, kicking out in donkey-joy when they run by me. I've learned to just try to move out of their way before it occurs to them :)
    Btw, I think you're a natural when it comes to training!