It’s a Marvelous Night for a Moon Dancer (or, How a Mini Donkey Trained Me To Be a Better Trainer)

I recently was fortunate enough to be able to attend a learning experience that I found to be extraordinarily informative and I wanted to share my experience with anyone who might find it interesting. While this post isn’t about dogs (the primary species I work with) it has an awful lot to do with learning and training in general. 


At the beginning of October I flew to the state of Washington to attend a week-long immersive course called Dive Deep: An Advanced Training Course at the Karen Pryor Academy Ranch. The course was presented by Ken Ramirez and consisted of a combination of daily in-depth lectures and opportunities to train the resident Ranch animals: goats, mini donkeys, llamas, and alpacas. 


Upon returning from lunch on the first day, everyone returned to their desks and each of us was greeted with a photo and description of the animal that we would be primarily working with for the rest of the week. Each trainer was paired with either a goat or a mini donkey. There was also a handout with descriptions of the behaviors you could choose to teach your learner for the week. There was excitement in the room as my fellow trainers exuberantly shared with each other who they would be working with and what they would like to help their animal learn. I should mention that putting a room full of talented and skilled trainers together all but guaranteed that the ideas and training/shaping plans were going to be bandied about like a bunch of unanchored helium-filled balloons in a room full of 10 year old kids. The excitement truly was palpable. 


I was delighted to be paired up with a donkey named Moon Dancer. Her bio included her age (10 years), weight (263 lbs.), how long she has been living at The Ranch (since 2017) and her physical description. Her bio also included the fact that she is very bonded to her “twin” sister, Moonglow. Moon Dancer and Moonglow shared not only a special affinity for one another but they were nearly identical physically. Each of their bios provided visuals so that they could be distinguished from each other. Notably, Moon Dancer had “zebra-like” striping down each of her lower legs, a characteristic that none of the other Ranch donkey’s possessed. It was an extremely recognizable (and who am I kidding, adorable) physical feature that helped me identify Moon Dancer right away. I hadn’t even met Moon Dancer yet, and still, I could sense my own excited anticipation of what our meeting was going to look like. 


Training Session # 1     

Before we were to work with our animals, Ken demonstrated what a training session would look like with a goat and then what a session would look like while working with a donkey. Ken seamlessly glided through showing us how to properly reinforce our learners, and then demonstrated target training exercises and cooperative care and husbandry exercises as things we could work on during the first learning session. One of the things Ken emphasized when working with the donkeys was that we should be mindful of reinforcing the donkeys for maintaining what Ken called a “courtesy bubble.” A courtesy bubble is used at the Ranch to teach the donkeys to keep a polite distance away from their handler of about 2.5-3 feet. Even mini donkeys are not small animals and if they are super close to you in proximity, they can certainly make you feel crowded. It is also more difficult to reinforce a donkey in a safe way when they are standing directly in front of you: you need to feed them from a flat hand since they have a hard time distinguishing a hay pellet from a finger or thumb (not saying I found this out the hard way, but I might have found this out the hard way.) 


Ok, so our first session would be focused on “picking up our donkey” (finding our animal in the paddock and leading them to our designated training spot), teaching the donkey to maintain their courtesy bubble, practicing targeting with our hand or a target stick, and lastly working on teaching them something called a scissor step which is used at the Ranch for helping the donkeys become comfortable with tactile and cooperative care touch.


While I didn’t entirely have any notions of grandeur, I certainly was entertaining ideas of exactly what my training session would or should look like. I would step into the paddock and Moon Dancer would easily follow along beside me as I moved with her to our designated training spot. I would then take a few minutes for us to get to know one another. I would get comfortable feeding her reinforcer of choice (hay pellets). I would reinforce her for maintaining her “courtesy bubble” and then we would work on the scissor step Ken had effortlessly maintained while demonstrating it with a donkey named Ashley. While not entirely easy, certainly doable for an intermediate trainer such as myself. I mean, this wasn’t my first rodeo with training, right? 


Mice, Meet Man (or Woman, As the Case May Be)

But oh my, as the famous saying goes, how quickly do the “best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I stepped into the paddock and quickly identified Moon Dancer because of her fashionably adorable zebra “stripey” legs. Well, that was easy enough. As the other trainers quickly “picked up” their donkeys and moved with what seemed like ease to their respective training area, I realized that Moon Dancer was very hesitant, almost avoidant. First of all, she didn’t want to leave her bonded sister, Moonglow’s side. Secondly, she was very nervous about my training partner. I don’t know much about donkey body language but I have worked with enough fearful animals to recognize discomfort when I see it. Moon Dancer would follow me for a few feet at a time and then stop in her tracks. It took many hay pellets and asking my partner to move to our area of the paddock ahead of us to achieve our goal of reaching our section of the paddock. 


Once we reached our destination, I immediately began to practice my reinforcement techniques so that Moon Dancer and I could get into a comfortable rhythm. I was also working on reinforcing Moon Dancer inside of the courtesy bubble as instructed by Ken. Moon Dancer had very strong opinions on what her idea of a courtesy bubble was compared to the way that it had been demonstrated by Ken. In other words, she was all up in my business and crowding me for space and hay pellets. No matter what I did, and how hard I tried, she would continue to push past the courtesy bubble to make her way closer to my training pouch which was securely fastened around my waist. If it hadn’t been, I have visions of her absconding with the hay pellet filled pouch because she’d clearly had quite enough of this silly trainer and her courtesy bubble, thank you very much. I kid about that, but after the first session ended I actually felt pretty defeated. I had not successfully maintained a courtesy bubble, Moon Dancer was clearly not comfortable with me yet, and the one or two times I had attempted to practice the scissor step, it hadn’t worked. As I listened to the other trainers recap their sessions and how well they felt it went, I really questioned my abilities as a trainer. What kind of trainer can’t complete even the most basic tasks? 


Pondering, and Pondering Some More

I spent the rest of that evening contemplating my session with Moon Dancer. And I came to some small but very meaningful conclusions: 

  1. As I mentioned, I have worked with many, many fearful animals. My time in case management, as a teacher of young children, working/volunteering in a shelter, and my time as a behavior consultant for Pet Harmony have all informed the decisions I make when working with someone experiencing fear, anxiety or stress. What is the one thing that all living things need in order to learn, grow, and prosper? In my opinion, before any learning can be successful, the learner has to feel safe. They have to trust that they are not going to face danger and they have to feel safe while in the presence of their teacher. Conclusion #1: Moon Dancer did not feel safe with me…yet.
  2. When I first entered the paddock, I had been thinking in terms of a prescriptive approach. I had formulated strong opinions about how the training session should look and what I should accomplish. Pet Harmony’s enrichment framework instructs us to take a descriptive approach (you can learn more about what that means in Canine Enrichment for the Real World). What is the learner in front of us teaching the teacher? Are they ready for the training plan? Are they ready to enter into the back and forth dialogue that must exist between teacher and learner in order for the session to be productive? What was the outcome of the session? Was the outcome desirable in relation to the set goals? Conclusion #2: Moon Dancer most certainly was not ready for what I had been asking of her. That was on me for not recognizing it sooner, not her. Also, I had not been able to reach my preconceived goals because I had not set realistic ones for my learner.
  3. I hadn’t done the most basic of things before I had stepped foot into the paddock. I entered the paddock, as one of Pet Harmony’s owners Emily Strong likes to say, “all jacked up on Mountain Dew.” In other words, I was so jazzed about the training session and also pretty nervous (cause you know, Ken Freakin Ramirez is walking around the paddock watching us all train) that I hadn’t bothered to check in with myself and slow myself down enough to consider how I was feeling. I would never approach a session with a client in that mindset. I always check in with myself to see how I am feeling, especially when working with fearful and/or reactive animals. I remember to pause, take deep breaths, and slow my thinking. I honestly don’t remember thinking or breathing during my first session with Moon Dancer. I mean, obviously I was breathing because I am sharing this with you now but thinking back to that session, I distinctly remember my heart racing, and having semi-clammy hands that were causing hay pellets to stick to them. Conclusion #3:  Poor Moon Dancer. She didn’t stand a chance with a sweaty, racy-hearted teacher standing in front of her, asking her to do things that she wasn’t feeling safe enough to do.
  4. And finally, I had allowed myself to compare my training session with Moon Dancer to the other trainers’ sessions with their learner. Not only was that not being fair to me, it was not fair to Moon Dancer, either. I had been comparing and contrasting my session with her to what others had experienced instead of focusing on the unique learner (and teacher) I had in front of me. Conclusion #4: While understanding learning theory and the behavior sciences is paramount to being an effective teacher, remembering that each individual is, as Susan Friedman likes to say, a study of one is even more important. That study of one approach applies to both teacher and student. 


Back to the Drawing Board

Did I need to recalibrate? You betcha! Did I come up with ideas on how to do so? Sure did! Was my next training session with Moon Dancer more reflective of what a great teacher/learner “dialogue” should look like? Yep! Was it perfect? Not by a long shot! Was that ok? Of course! Why? So glad you asked!  


I had recognized the primary components of why my first training session with Moon Dancer had been less than stellar. None of that responsibility was hers to bear. I realized that I needed to slow waaaaaay the heck down and establish a relationship with Moon Dancer and allow her to learn to trust me before we were able to do any other learning together. And so I did. At our next session my only criteria for Moon Dancer was that she could be comfortable taking food from me and that my mechanics were on point before we attempted anything else. We worked on those basic tasks for the entirety of the session. And although not perfect, I could see the change in Moon Dancer. She was less hesitant, she was more relaxed, and she stayed close to me and my training partner, leaning into both of us for lots of scritches at the end of the session. That was a huge improvement over the session the day before! 


Moon Dancer, I Believe This is the Start of a Beautiful Friendship 

The remainder of my week with Moon Dancer was vastly different. We mastered the scissor step, she aced the two person cooperative care exercises, she was booping a buoy target like a pro, I was able to use a  training mat as a station to help us both maintain that previously elusive courtesy bubble, and I even began to teach her how to trot alongside me. Let me tell you, if you’ve never had the opportunity to have a mini donkey trot alongside you, 10/10, would highly recommend!


Near the end of the week, Ken approached me and told me that Moon Dancer was one of the few donkeys at the Ranch who had not had much opportunity to work with visiting trainers. He hadn’t wanted to share that with me at the beginning of the week because he did not want me to have any preconceived notions about how to work with her. I am so thankful that he made that decision because it made me more proactively problem-solve than I might have otherwise. But it further helped my understanding of why she was so reluctant to jump right into training with a total stranger, let alone training while being surrounded by a whole group of people she had no previous learning history with. I guess the moral of the story is that if we want to be effective in our role as teachers and trainers, we shouldn’t forget to start at the beginning with a new learner no matter how badly we want to impress ourselves and others. Foundations first, always. Finally, I will close with this thought: 


Moon Dancer, you are a true gift–a uniquely perfect, stripey legged little donkey, and I thank you for being patient enough to teach the teacher. And for helping me to remain a humble learner myself. I love you more than words can say.


Now What?

  1. When you are working with any learner, do you take the time to pause, breathe, observe, and allow them to lead your first interaction? Do you listen when they are communicating to you that they aren’t ready yet? 
  2. Are you committed to building a trusting relationship with your learner with the understanding that trust is an incredibly valuable reinforcer for many different types of learners? 
  3. If you are working with a non-verbal learner, do you understand how they communicate? This is such an important component for Pet Harmony’s trainers and consultants–so much so that we make sure we are helping our clients understand how the species they are living with communicate. 
  4. If you are a pet professional yourself, do you check in with yourself so that you remain accountable to your learners? 
  5. If you’re a pet parent and you want help learning these skills, our team of behavior consultants can help you here! If you’re a behavior professional and you want to learn how to help your clients and their pets with these skills, check out our PETPro professional development program!


Training Tips

  • Learn how to read the body language of your learner. Careful observations of not only what your learner is doing, but also what is occurring in the environment at the time they are doing it, is paramount to understanding how to proceed with any training plan. 
  • There is no shame in building a solid foundation with your learner before you work on anything else. Trust is built one interaction at a time. Think about all the ways that you can build up a hefty trust account with your learner. Food often works, sure, but think outside the box and really use your observation skills to see what your learner will value the most during any given interaction. Is it space? Fun? Play time with their favorite toy? There are multiple ways to build trust and those ways may change over time. It is always wise to trial, evaluate, and adjust during the length of your relationship with your learner. 


Happy Training! 


6 thoughts on “It’s a Marvelous Night for a Moon Dancer (or, How a Mini Donkey Trained Me To Be a Better Trainer)

  1. MaryKaye, What a beautiful read!
    I feel so honored to have met you and been paired with Moon Dancer’s twin. What serendipity that we shared similar experiences both on and off the paddock. Thank you for so eloquently recapturing the experience. My heart is full. 🧡

    1. Aw, thank you so much for the kind words Rochelle! I am so happy that we were paired with our lovable twin girls, Moon Dancer and Moonglow! Our experience with them (and car rides ;-)) was nearly identical. They really were such wonderful teachers, weren’t they?

  2. I love this post and story! Reading things like this just makes my heart swell 🙂 Thank you for sharing and for all the valuable information and reminders that trust can be a valuable reinforcer. <3

    1. Thank you so much, Hannah! I agree about trust being such a valuable and important reinforcer. Without it, how far will we really get? Establishing trust is honestly one of my favorite things about being a trainer and behavior consultant just as it was when I was teaching kids. When you see that your learner really feels safe and secure in your presence, ah, that’s when the learning really takes off!

      1. Wow! That was a read I absolutely did not want to end! Agree with above sediments: My Heart Is FULL & SWELLING 💓
        I’m going to be getting a puppy in the spring and I found this to be so very helpful & informative…trust & safety is the key, start there and breathe, lots of breathing…and yes, sleepiness nights, patience and questioning “why oh why did I get a puppy, what was I thinking?!” Kidding!
        Thank You, Marykaye, donkeys and dogs, of course, are lucky to have you as a gifted, patient, problem-solving teacher🐾🫏 I’m certain I’ll be calling you when I have my new family❤️ member!

        1. Thank you for the kind words Sis! And I am so glad that the post resonated with you so much! New puppies are the best so remember to breath, breath again, and enjoy! Puppyhood can feel as slow as molasses and wickedly fast all at the same time but it really does go by quickly.

Comments are closed.