Lessons from a donkey

friday jan 2009 b.jpg

I have trained many dogs over the years and have helped so many people train their own dogs. While I am very patient and understanding there are times that I just think “This is not rocket science. Why don’t they get it!? Is there something wrong with them?”.

When one has been doing this for a long time it is so easy to forget what it is like to be a “newbie”. So I advise my crew to take up new hobbies to feel what it is like – this gives them great empathy for the owners in their classes. However, I have not followed my own advice of late. All that changed with Friday.

A couple of months ago I was asked if I would like a donkey. I thought about it. I have the space, means and time, so I agreed. My biggest concern was how the donkey would react to dogs because the donkey would be housed at our training school, which is next to my house. I was told that the donkey was very used to dogs, so that was a big concern abated. I have two sheep that are as easy as anything and have slotted into our routine with ease. And really, a donkey is just a big sheep with serious ears and no wool. Right….? Newbie error #1 – Don’t assume.

It wasn’t to be for a couple of months so I put the thought out of my head. Last week I got the call asking if I was still keen on said donkey. I said yes and I was given the option of a Friday or Monday drop-off. I thought Monday would be a better option as I would have a whole week to get into a routine before our busiest day of the week, Saturday.

Unfortunately the owner had no option but to bring the donkey on a Friday. I was nervous about this so I enlisted the services of two horse people to help with the arrival and settling in, which now had to proceed much faster than planned. And so donkey arrived.

As she backed out of the horse trailer my eyes grew bigger and bigger. This was no big sheep! My "extensive" knowledge of donkeys had left me with the perception of a brown fuzzy little creature that would follow around in a docile manner. Newbie error #2 – Walt Disney films are not conclusive evidence as to an animal’s anatomy and behaviour.

Instead of seeing the gentle animal that transported Mother Mary, I saw something that Satan would surely select as a steed - a slick, black, snorting behemoth emerged from the trailer and started breathing fire from its nostrils. (It appears that I may have imagined this as she was apparently quite sweet and relaxed, but my perception was thrown on its head and fear overtook me.)

After a while we decided to let the sheep out and let them get to know one another. Oh dear. The sheep were petrified and what ensued was a game of tag. Everybody else thought it was quite funny, but I was with the sheep on this one – this was horrible! I decided enough was enough and sheep were put safely away from psycho donkey (again I may have exaggerated this, but I do think I saw her doing the Hannibal Lector “sfff, sfff, sfff, sfff, sffff” thing at one stage). Newbie error #3 – Don’t panic.

Later on (and under supervision) I tried to lead her on the lead rein. Needless to say I was all thumbs and while donkey was very patient about it, I felt utterly useless. I was trying to lead her while looking at her. Newbie error #4 - Prey animals don’t like you looking at them when trying to lead them.

What makes this even more ironic is that the people helping me are people that I instruct in my classes. The shoe was firmly on the other foot! They were very gracious, but I am sure it was at least slightly amusing for them to see me floundering.

I was then informed of all the requirements. Fly repellent, deworming, vaccinations, hoof care, eye care, feed etc. I was surprised and dismayed as I thought she’d be just like my low maintenance sheep. Newbie error #5 – Do your homework first.

Later on that day I realised that I had made a grave error in that I separated donkey and sheep. I did this because they were petrified of her; however donkey did not like being isolated from them and showed her discontent by pawing and getting very irate. Newbie error #6 – Herd animals like to be in herds. Duh!

We had to move her to the sheep in the bigger enclosure, but by now the grounds were occupied with people and their dogs and we had established that donkey doesn’t walk on a lead rein.

Well, we closed the perimeter gates and advised everyone to stay clear and so we started with two leads reins, three people and two sheep as enticement. What followed was not a pretty sight and brings me to Newbie error #7 – Being a dog whiz means sweet blow all when you’re dealing with a donkey.

At one stage I thought I was going to pop a vein in my head. I may have sworn (OK, I swore a lot) and I felt shooting pains in my left arm. I wondered if this was the beginning of a stroke. Finally after a 20 minute ordeal we got the donkey in with the sheep. Sheep were not happy, but they were coping. After a short while they all started grazing and donkey was content.

I felt totally useless, scared of the donkey and wondering how the heck I got myself into this. Newbie error #8 - I thought I was prepared, but I was clearly not.

The following day Friday would have nothing to do with me – and rightly so. However I was determined to put my fear aside and do my best. I am very proud that today I managed to get her in and out of the stable, hold her halter, lead her one step, feed her carrots, brush her, put fly repellent on (not very thoroughly) and clean her eyes (not very thoroughly either). I am still scared of her and I completed most of these tasks with shaking hands and my heart beating in my throat. I think Friday was a little unsettled too. I am hopeful that as we get to know one another I develop more confidence and Friday feels that she can trust me.

She is much higher maintenance than I imagined, but she’s my responsibility now and so she’ll get whatever she needs. It’s still well within what I can manage so that’s a relief.

Empathy in dealing with newbie owners feeling overwhelmed is so important. Even with good intentions they can end up over their heads just like I did. As trainers we need to be non-judgemental and supportive - a donkey called Friday reminded me of that.