Monday, April 7, 2014

Useful Cues

Wendy wanted to know whether I always lead Emma or switch off when we go walking....

If we are on the road, I keep both donkeys on the lead.  Ramsey stays at my right side and Emma stays at his.  In the woods, I usually lead Emma and let Ramsey loose.  I can always count on Ramsey, Momma's boy that he is, to never stray far.  He always wants to be with Emma or me so he certainly won't leave the pair of us.  If Tessa is with us, then I always keep Emma on the lead and sometimes, Tessa as well if she is a bit too wound up.  

I do like to let let Emma run loose when I can because she has such fun, but she is much more independent minded and will wander much farther afield.  I really don't think she would run away, but I do worry that she might get in trouble wandering too far.  Because of that, I only let her be loose when we are deep in the woods and nowhere near the road, houses or old barbed wire.

I know there are several folks out there who are interested in walking with their donkeys and I thought I'd share a couple of cues that I have found to be very helpful if you ever find yourself in a position to go donkey trekking.

The first is a kind of "OK" cue.  It is inevitable that you will encounter things along the way that the donkeys will be frightened or wary of.  While working at home to desensitize them to scary stuff is invaluable, it is impossible to desensitize an animal to everything the world has to offer.  I have also found that too much desensitizing work without a positive outlet, is a good way to cause burnout in a horse.  If they are constantly bombarded with stuff they have to "get used to", they will get very sick of work very fast.  I find it much more useful to teach a cue that lets them know that whatever monster they are facing isn't really all that scary.  You can then use that cue as needed while getting on with more fun stuff, like hiking in the woods.

I like to teach this to my horses as well, although it is not as easy as it has been with my donkeys.  A horse's gut-instinct reaction to scary things is to run away.  Before you can give them an OK cue, you have to get them to stop moving.  Donkeys, on the other hand, excel at this.  Their gut-instinct reaction to scary things is to freeze and asses.  While they are assessing is the perfect moment to step in with an "it's OK" cue.  If you have done your homework correctly, they will relax and think, "hey, this is a never-seen-before-monster, but Ma has just given the all-clear cue so it must be OK."  It is a way to teach them how to manage their fear rather that trying to teach them not to fear at all, which is bound to fail at some point no matter how much effort you put into it.

The way I do this is, I believe, a variation of clicker training.  I confess, I am not great at clicker training.  I get tangled up with the clicker and my habits of verbally praising are too ingrained.  Instead of a clicker, I use a voice cue and a treat. 

I start with basic target training combined with a verbal "it's OK".  Once they have that down, I start introducing scary objects and using them as targets.  If I have gotten it right, as soon as they hear, "it's OK", they stop seeing the scary thing as a monster and see it as a target instead.  They go from wary to looking for their goody almost immediately.  After a while, they start to accept that if I say, "it's OK",  then it is OK.  If I use that when they are in their freeze-and-asses mode, I can usually talk them out of being afraid of things.  Very useful.

The other cue that I find invaluable is: "be careful".  This is something Tanner taught me a long time ago.  I tend to talk to my animals quite a lot and, from the time he was a puppy, I would tell Tanner to "be careful" anytime we encountered something that was potentially hazardous.  At some point, I realized that Tanner immediately responded to my unconscious, reflexive warnings.  He had learned to heed my command even though I had been totally unaware of giving one.  Once I realized what was happening, I tried to be a little more purposeful about it, but it is still largely something I do subconsciously.  If I see a threat (such as a porcupine on the trail) before tanner does, I say Be Careful and he will stop, look, examine then ask me for direction.  In the case of porcupines, it's "let's go the other way shall we."

When I started taking the donkeys out in the woods, I made a point of doing the same with them.  If we come to a spot with iffy footing, I infuse my voice with the genuine concern that Tanner ALWAYS responds to and give them the same kind of "be careful" command.  It did not take the donkeys long at all to respond just the way Tanner does, by slowing down, looking hard, smelling hard and looking to me for instruction.  Very, very useful.


  1. Wow, that is some cool stuff. I wish I could teach any of my animals that kind of stuff. The dogs pretty much do what they want. lol

  2. I clicker train my dogs and when i stil had them, I used to clicker train my horses too. (And I do talk to mine at the same time. It's a nono for purists but it still works fine for what I want to train.) I used to totally love how teaching, "Touch the scary thing," changes a horse from a timid reactor into a thinker who looks at new things eagerly, and you can see them saying, "Oooh new thing! An opportunity to earn a treat!"

  3. Hmm. Interesting. Really like the 'It's ok" cue. Think I'll try that one out.

  4. That's great! I just realised I do something completely similar... but I can't let them completely loose, too dangerous.
    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thank you for the great tips! I will work on the 'It's Okay' and 'Be Careful' cues. I love being able to read about what you and your herd are up to. Thank you for taking the time to write about it all.