Donkey Training

Donkey Training

Donkey Training

Disclaimer: I am not a professional donkey trainer or training instructor. Donkey training work should be undertaken with the help of a qualified or experienced person and the age, health, breed and temperament of your donkey need to be taken into account. 

Animal Learning Theory

Classical Conditioning (Pavlov)

This is the term used to describe how animals learn to associate one thing with another. For example, a donkey may learn that his owner fetching the key to the store cupboard is always followed by mealtime. This is a conditioned emotional response.

Operant Conditioning

This is the term used to describe learning by trial and error, where an animal learns that certain behaviours result in certain outcomes. For example, if a donkey wants food, he will learn how to open the door to the store cupboard. The donkey learns because he is motivated to eat. Operant conditioning uses positive and negative reinforcement to increase desired behaviour.    

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Donkey Training Terms

Positive Reinforcement

Increasing a desired behaviour by adding something pleasant to the environment. For example, giving praise or a food reward to your donkey for coming when called. Positive reinforcement occurs after the desired behaviour takes place.

Negative Reinforcement

Increasing a desired behaviour by removing something unpleasant from the environment. For example, releasing pressure on the lead when your donkey stops pulling away. Negative reinforcement occurs just before unwanted behaviour is about to take place. When the unwanted behaviour stops, this should always followed by positive reinforcement so that the donkey knows when he’s done what you wanted.

Reinforcement Schedule

When teaching a new behaviour continuous reinforcement is needed, i.e. a food reward each time the behaviour is carried out. Once the behaviour is more reliable it is important to begin intermittent reinforcement, i.e. not rewarding every time but every second or third time. This can either be variable, such as only when the behaviour is particularly good, or fixed ratio, rewarding after the behaviour has been carried out a certain number of times. 


This is when you tempt your donkey to move with you or towards a target by holding something desirable for him to focus on and follow, such a treat. Your donkey needs to know you have the treat and be close enough to see it or smell it but not eat it. The idea is to use the treat, or lure, to teach a new behaviour. The treat will not be needed once the behaviour is learnt, or at least not all the time.

Donkey Target Training

Target Training

This starts with luring your donkey towards the target using a treat. When your donkey touches the target you give him the treat and plenty of praise. This is repeated until he makes the connection between touching the target and receiving a treat. If the donkey comes near the target but doesn’t touch it he shouldn’t get a treat. You should resist moving the target towards your donkey to help him. As the donkey progresses you can make it harder by placing the target in different positions (high, low, left, right, near, far). Once touching the target is reliable, you can then shape other behaviour using the target. Target training can be combined with clicker training.


Shaping can be used to teach complex or simple manoeuvres. Actions are broken down into single, manageable steps so that you gradually build the behaviour you want, using positive reinforcement at each stage until the complete behaviour is learnt. For example, to lift your donkey’s feet, you might start with touching the legs, then the feet, then lifting the feet for a second, then a few seconds and then longer, over several sessions. The idea is to progress at the animal’s pace, to build confidence and make learning easier. 


This is an important training tool, especially when working with donkeys, who like to take time to think about what they’re going to do. Once you have indicated what you would like your donkey to do, if you can resist the urge to rush and allow your donkey time to work things out for himself, you will see results quicker than you think.

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Factors that affect donkey training

Factors That Affect Training

Age & Health

A young donkey may learn more quickly than an older donkey but a young donkey may have a shorter attention span. You need to consider any health issues your donkey may be suffering from before deciding on appropriate training.

Gender & Hormones

Uncastrated Jacks can be aggressive and require special handling. Jennies may be harder to train when in heat.

Temperament & Experience

Temperament can be described as reactive or non-reactive, responsive or unresponsive, busy or inactive. Some donkeys are more willing to learn than others, some are more capable than others. Some are comfortable when approached, some nervous. It can vary across breeds and individuals and will also depend on experience and what the animal has learned previously.

The Brain

Neural pathways develop as we carry out behaviours. When learning something new the pathway in brain is not established so we find it harder.  The more a behaviour is carried out, the thicker the pathway becomes and the more established the behaviour becomes. Established or well-learnt behaviours can take longer to undo.

When training it is important that an animal is not in a state of arousal (fear or excitement). Training requires the use of the cognitive part of the brain. If an animal is aroused he will be using the emotional part of his brain and it will be impossible for him to focus on training.

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Clicker training for donkeys

Clicker Training

Clicker training uses operant conditioning along with positive reinforcement. A clicker can work well because it is easier to get the timing exactly right and the sound does not vary as it does with the human voice. The clicker is a conditioned reinforcer and is used in conjunction with a primary reinforcer such as food, to teach your donkey a new behaviour.

To begin with the trainer uses classical conditioning to teach the donkey that a click is followed by a treat. This involves simply clicking and treating repeated until the donkey responds to the click even when distracted, having paired it with a treat.

Operant conditioning is then used to teach the donkey to carry out a desired behaviour on command. As soon as the behaviour is carried out, the trainer clicks and then treats. The donkey learns that that behaviour gets a click, which is followed by a treat. This is repeated until the behaviour is established at which point the click can be replaced by a verbal cue.

The advantage of clicker training is that once the donkey has learned to work for a click, it is possible to use it to teach other behaviours using the same technique. Because the donkey is not motivated directly by the food but by hearing the click that means food is coming, the trainer is able to shape increasingly complex behaviour. 

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Catching Your Donkey 

This is Donkey Welfare Adviser Mark, catching Buttons, who is initially resistant, preferring to run in the other direction. This may be because he is not used to Mark or not used to being caught. It could be because he’s in a playful mood or it could just be his personality.

Mark uses Waiting, standing patiently before approaching Buttons slowly and carefully. He doesn’t chase after him or try to grab him and he stays calm even when Buttons repeatedly runs off. 

He touches Buttons on the nose a few times before trying to attach the halter. When Buttons lets him touch his nose he gets a stroke. It is important to reward each step towards the behaviour you want as this lets the donkey know they are doing well and helps to build confidence and trust. 

Mark also shows affection to the other donkey, which raises his value as a source of attention and provides reassurance to Buttons that he is friendly and safe to approach. He uses positive reinforcement again at the end, giving Buttons an extra special reward of some really good scratches when he finally catches him.


Catching Your Donkey Donkey Society of Western Australia

Catching your Donkey (Attaching a Halter) The Donkey Sanctuary

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Lifting Your Donkey’s Feet

Lottie has a history of showing resistance when having her feet lifted. It’s possible that she’s not used to it or is fearful. The way to prevent her pulling away is to keep hold of the foot rather than letting go.

If every time she moves away her foot is dropped, she learns that moving away works. Keeping hold of the foot as she tries to move away teaches her that it doesn’t work. Once she stays put, she learns that nothing bad happens, she just has her feet picked. In time, she should be happier allowing her feet to be lifted.

Start with the front legs. It helps to have someone else holding the donkey steady at the front. You should also rule out any hoof conditions or other medical issues that might make it hard for your donkey to lift his or her feet. If in doubt, consult a vet.  

Please note: Only attempt this is you feel physically strong enough. If your donkey is extremely reluctant to have his feet lifted and is liable to move a great deal and kick out, you may need to sedate him. Otherwise you (or your farrier) may be at risk of injury.   

If your donkey is extremely reluctant to have their foot lifted and kicks out, you can use Shaping and break the action down into smaller steps. Start with touching the bottom of your donkey’s legs during grooming. Touch for just a second, then next time for a few seconds. Graudally build your donkey’s tolerance over several sessions. Repeat this touching the feet and then lifting the feet. 


To Lift Your Donkey’s Feet Donkey Society of Western Australia

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Tying Up Your Donkey 


To Tie Up Your Donkey Donkey Society of Western Australia

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Leading Your Donkey


To Lead Your Donkey Donkey Society of Western Australia

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Basic longreining is where you walk behind the donkey with long reins. It is usually a preparation for teaching the basic aids for driving. The reins are used to indicate direction, along with voice commands (“walk on”, “go left”, “go right” and “stand”).

These commands are taught during longreining and used in drivng. You need to attach a harness to your donkey and it’s important that this fits properly. You can then practice walking behind your donkey holding the rein until the donkey stops and starts when asks. You can use cones to practice changing direction.

It’s best to use a very clear voice command. Simple voice commands such as “walk on” or “stand” can be useful in day to day handling, even if you don’t learn longreining or driving. 

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Donkey Driving
Debbie Street, 5 times British Supreme Donkey Driving Champion

It’s important that when harnessing the cart, it is correctly fitted so that it doesn’t put pressure on the donkeys’ back. 


Driving Articles The Donkey Show Site 

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Donkey Trainer Meredith Hodges
Meredith Hodges, Alberta Donkey and Mule Society

Donkey Training Resources

Donkey Sanctuary Guide to Understanding Donkey Behaviour

Harts Horsemanship Website Ben Hart is one of the UK’s leading equine trainers. He works with horses, mules and donkeys all over the world and his scientific approach has been used successfuly by UK equine charities including WSPA, The Brooke and The Donkey Sanctuary.

Foghorn Farm Donkey Training Informative and straight-talking blog by Rachel Karneffel, Colorado donkey trainer and riding instructor.

Equine Behaviour and Training Association An online resource for anyone interested in equine behaviour, from novice owners to academics. 

Woolshed 1 Website and blog by agricultural journalist Dr Clive Dalton – article on basic donkey senses, social structure and communication.

Equine Enrichment Facebook page created by groom Alice Robinson to “share ideas and explore the ways we can enrich the lives and behaviour of our equine companions”.

Empowered Equines 


Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training articles and advice. We also offer lessons and training to anyone interested in Positive Reinforcement for horses. We’re building up our program in order to expand to incorporate therapy for survivors of trauma, horses and humans alike. York, Maine.

Donkey Whisperer Farm Online coaching, consulting and training and regular blog posts.

Donkey Training and Donkey Driving Information and resources for donkey training and driving.

The Donkey Listener, Angelia Silvera, Tennessee

The Donkey Listener Resources on donkey training, including safe handling and care, driving, riding and hiking with donkeys. Videos, books and more from Tennessee-based donkey trainer Angelia Silvera. Also check out The Donkey Listener YouTube Channel.

Training Donkeys Step-by-step training guide by Meredith Hodges of the Alberta Donkey and Mule Society, including catching, halter training, leading, obstacle courses and lunging, all with plenty of insight into the best ways to train donkeys. 

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Please note: Donkey Training should be undertaken with the help of an experienced person and the age, health, breed and temperament of your donkey need to be taken into account. 

Copyright 2016 Amy Swift