Winter is here complete with gray skies and blowing winds. Even when the skies are sunny and the wind is NOT blowing, it is cold! I “bundle up” looking like an ad for “technical clothing” to brave the outdoors. With camera in hand, I make my way to the barn to spend time with my precious donkeys.
If I do nothing else, I can muck their stall and paddock. The donkeys follow me trying to “help” by tipping over my muck bucket or stepping on my rake. They make me laugh as I bury my hands into Jack’s thick winter coat. He emanates heat warming my hands through my gloves. Soon, he is leaning on my legs; I can feel his warmth through my technical pants. I hug Jack around his neck and whisper to him as I look into his eyes; those deep brown soft eyes stare back at me.
I hug each donkey in turn making sure I scratch butts and rub ears. Each receive an animal cracker as a treat; a freebie since nothing was asked of any of them. Wilbe lets me scratch his forehead now. I can pet him all over his body and he doesn’t flinch or move away from me. I wish the weather was warmer so that I could train him/them but the cold is seeping through my body now. Stabbing pins and needles of cold until I can no longer feel the cold. Although dressed warmly, I can no longer feel my toes, my legs, or my face.
Jack wants to play so I pick up an old dog toy that was given to the donkeys. I hold it out and Jack takes it into his mouth and shakes it. I click and treat him for interacting with the toy. We play this game a few times before I toss the toy to see what Jack will do? The other donkeys watch him as he leaves me to go to the thrown toy. He picks it up, shakes it, then drops it. I click and treat him for doing this. Then, I go over to the toy and hold it out for Jack again. He takes it again. Click/treat for doing as I asked him to do with the toy. I toss the toy again and Jack promptly walks over to the thrown toy and paws it. I ignore this behavior. I’m hoping Jack will pick up the toy and bring it to me for a treat? I’m waiting to see what he will do; how he will interact with the dog toy and with me?
We play this game for awhile. Jack gets a click/treat every time he picks up the toy and lets me take it from him. I’m hoping we can sequence this behavior to Jack actually picking up the toy from a distance and bringing it back to me? I click/treat Jack for approximations of this behavior to see if he will understand what I’m asking him to do? Just picking up the toy, shaking it, and allowing me to take it from him is quite a lot to learn in one day. I end our play/training session on a positive note hoping to make it to the barn tomorrow to play this game again?
After putting away the muck bucket and rake, I give all the donkeys another animal cracker and head back to the house. The warmth of the house brings back the stabbing ‘pins and needles’ feeling to my feet, legs and body. My hands are particularly stiff as I sit in front of my space heater trying to warm up. I physically hurt after my short time “out at the barn”. Although I have photos on my camera to download, I leave that for another day.
I’ve quit trying to explain the feeling of being with the donkeys to others. Most do not understand why I would cause myself discomfort to go out to see them. They’ve never looked into those big brown eyes to see the intelligence and emotion they contain. They do not understand the connection to another living species. Nor do they understand basic learning theory of positive reinforcement for patterns in behavior. The donkeys have a choice to do what I ask them to do and once they understand what I’m asking them to do, I’m 99% sure they will choose to do what I’m asking. Communicating with another living species is a powerful feeling. It is why I will head out to the barn tomorrow regardless of the weather.