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The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
Quote Mark

Marcel Proust


Stubborn ass or intelligent donkey?



How fast can donkeys learn? 


Obviously the rate of learning depends on what donkeys are trying to learn.  Donkeys easily learn things that are closest to their natural behaviours.  Activities, which are completely unnatural to donkeys such as being driven, ridden, holding their feet up for the farrier, or travelling in a trailer, can take longer to learn because they are so far removed from the natural behaviours of the donkey.  Their rate of learning can certainly be as quick as a dog or a dolphin, both of which are considered to be extremely intelligent animals.  Anyone who owns a donkey will be aware that they quickly learn that the sound of the door latch to the feed room opening means that food may soon arrive.  They learn to control their humans very quickly, easily training them to scratch their itchy spots, or to deliver food rewards. Often, you will see donkeys reverse up to their owners because they wish to have their bottoms scratched.  During this process of learning, we are seeing a donkey train its owner to scratch the appropriate spot on command – pretty clever!


Donkeys that have been well handled with positive techniques in the past are more likely to be confident and more motivated to learn new things through their interaction with humans and their environment.  In order to learn most effectively, the lessons need to be offered in small, easily understood sections or steps – this is a process we call ‘shaping behaviour’.  All donkeys are individual and their ability to learn is varied.  Much relies on the ability of the trainer to be able to communicate accurately and consistently what is required.


What motivates a donkey to learn?


Donkeys can be motivated most successfully by things that they would naturally find enjoyable such as food or scratches, social interaction with other animals or perhaps being turned out into a field of grass.  Not all donkeys are motivated by the same rewards, nor are they motivated to the same levels.  The use of scratches to motivate the animal is reminiscent of two donkeys mutually grooming each other and it has been scientifically shown in horses, that grooming the area of the withers can lower the heart rate of the animal.  However, patting a donkey is not really viewed as a positive experience by the donkey.  Donkeys do not pat each other, and therefore find it difficult to understand what patting means.  Patting is very similar to swatting a fly or smacking the animal, therefore it is always best to scratch the animal as a reward for good behaviour. We like to pat our donkeys but scratching is much more appreciated by most donkeys.


The donkey can also be motivated to avoid negative stimulus such as a pull on the lead rope or negative body language.  The donkey is motivated to perform the behaviour to stop or avoid something it finds negative.  This type of motivation should be used carefully with full understanding of the consequences of misuse.  The negative stimulus should not be over used or increased.  When it is necessary to use this type of negative stimulus to motivate the donkey, rewards should also be used to encourage the correct behaviour.


Can you teach old donkeys new tricks?


When donkeys are older or if behaviour has been established for many years it is easy to believe that their behaviour will not change.  However, it certainly is possible to teach old donkeys new behaviours.  Once older donkeys are mentally stimulated, by giving them problems to solve and challenges to undertake, they begin to learn new activities more rapidly.  Obviously an older animal will have more established behaviour, which is harder to change, so training may take longer.


The nature of donkeys is not to be aggressive, stubborn or difficult but purely to learn and survive. Therefore, what is the answer to the question, are donkeys intelligent? They are good at learning to survive and they are good at learning to avoid activities they find difficult, frightening or painful. They have good memories and learn very easily. Donkeys are very good at being donkeys.


© The Donkey Sanctuary

Reproduced by Kind permission of The Donkey Sanctuary

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