Saturday, May 16, 2009

I clicker trained the donkey

In 2001 I adopted a burro from the Bureau of Land Management. Bandit was about 9 months old, and had been brought in from Death Valley, CA. He didn’t know ANYTHING about how to live in captivity.

At the auction, they ran the horses and burros down a long chute (several hundred feet) of pipe corrals and into the trailer. When he was delivered to my house, he was in a horse trailer with plywood over the windows so he wouldn’t try to climb out. The first thing he did was jump over the pipe corral panels and into the big corral (about ½ acre with wood rails). It was large enough that he didn’t feel confined, and didn’t try to escape. Plus, my two horses were there, so he had some company. 

He didn’t know how to drink out of a bucket. I dug a hole in the dirt and filled it with water, and he drank out of that until he worked up enough nerve to drink out of the bright red bucket in the corral. I left a lead rope tied to his halter, because I figured we’d never catch him, and herded him into a smaller corral, about 40’ x 60’. 

Over a period of several days I’d go out and sit in the corral. I quickly learned that he wasn’t going to come anywhere near me as long as I was sitting in the beach chair I’d set out. So I sat on the ground, and let him go explore the beach chair on his own when I wasn’t around. By the second day he was sneaking up behind me, sniffing and checking me out. He was friendly and eager to see me by the end of the first week.

Gradually I was able to touch the lead rope and put a little pressure on it. The BLM people recommend you leave the lead rope on because when he steps on it, he will learn to give to the pressure without associating it with a person. That seemed to work.

Time for clicker training

I won’t go into the theory and methods used in clicker training, but you can learn more here.

I had clicker trained several dogs, and found they caught on quickly, so I decided to try it with Bandit. He needed to learn to let me halter him. I started by holding out the halter, and every time Bandit sniffed it, I’d click and give him a small carrot. Gradually I got to where I could put one arm over his neck and take hold of one side of the halter. We continued the steps until Bandit was getting close to actually sticking his nose through the opening.

Here’s where I goofed. I accidentally clicked one time when he took the noseband in his mouth. I didn’t give him the treat, but it was too late. We had to start over from the beginning. We probably did that little step 100 more times over several days before he quit biting the halter! Eventually he got it right and allowed me to halter him quickly and easily. Then we moved on to leading, brushing, and playing with his feet. Bandit was a clever student, maybe smarter than his trainer!

Photo above: Terry letting Bandit approach and sniff. Second photo: Bandit and Sage the quarter horse playing

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