Rita, the Unapproachable Mule that I’m working with in the Donkey Refuge is making progress! I still can’t approach her so close that I can touch her, but she comes pretty close to me now.
Husbandry skill: deworming
The herd she’s in (all donkeys, she’s the only mule) needed their deworming done. Rita hasn’t been dewormed in 6 years because there is NO WAY you can approach her.
They have tried everything and even tried to sedate her in the hope they could get her, touch her or approach her, but nothing worked…
When I started with positive reinforcement (May 2022), it was really hard. I had to learn Rita’s language (I never worked with a mule before and Rita was on top of that very, very traumatized. Still is!)
Anyway, two weeks ago the herd needed to be dewormed and Rita too.
The staff makes these ‘food balls’ with soaked pelleted and sweet food, in which most animal would eat their meds.
We tried putting the dewormer in these magical balls because she did take them with her antibiotics last month when she got hurt!
Rita bit into the ball and spit it right out! Yak!
I thought, why risk damaging the trust by ‘tricking’ her into eating the dewormer paste?
Here comes Key to Success #1 for Trainers: Principles of Learning & Motivation!
Instead of tricking her, I made sure that every interaction with the food ball with dewormer was positively reinforced.
Instead of putting the dewormer in the inside, I asked the staff to put it on the outside… (Yes, they gave me a puzzled look)The Principle is, to train Rita to accept an aversive (with positive reinforcement and choice).
Choices in Training
I gave her choices: There was more to eat than just the ball with dewormer, she got treats (normal food pellets) in other food bowls and on mats.
The aim of deworming training was simply to teach her that the smell is OK. I put food around the edible “deworming ball”
t took a while for her to approach the deworming ball, since she was unpleasantly surprised before when she bit in one of them and got a (not so nice) surprise…
Next step in the deworming training
Reinforcing her to touch the food ball. Again, deworming was on the outside of this edible ball. That took also a few training sessions to teach her to touch it consistently. Goal was to make the smell (and later taste, too) familiar and to associate it with good things happening.
Then I reinforced ‘using her lips to touch’ it and also reinforced pushing it with her chin against the rim of the food bowl and so she squeezed it. At the end of our training she finally ate part of the ball!
Training after that, she ate part of the dewormer food ball, again.
Last training she ate the whole ball, at the end of our 1-hour training. The training after that, she ate it again. All of it. It took her a whole hour again!
Today she choose the food bowl with the dewormer ball first! Which was interesting!! And gave hope! Within the first 15 minutes of our training she ate the ball! WIN!
Each ball has just a few ml of dewormer on it, but this is such a promising start!
I hope to get her dewormed within the next 3 sessions. I’ll keep you posted!!
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