Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Donkeys Teach

Just watching a group of benign donkeys teaches us some deep things about patience, endurance, serenity and flexibility. In fact, when a human works with these noble equines, he or she is in for an educational experience—often when we think we are teaching them, they are in reality teaching us even more. I learn a lot about human relationships as I spend time in the round pen with my long-eared pupils. Gaining trust, communicating accurately and rewarding right responses are essential elements in training donkeys as well as in developing good human relationships.

Gaining a donkey’s trust takes time and patience. Because these sturdy equines have such a strong sense of self-preservation, they are more cautious than most animals—they don’t want to get hurt. They know instinctively that humans are omnivorous, capable of having them for dinner. And, as dedicated herbivores, they have to figure out whether or not we can be trusted not to eat them. Once they are convinced we mean them no harm, they become docile and more or less cooperative. It goes without saying that in human relationships, trust is the essential ingredient. We can’t have any kind of long term compatibility with another person without it.

We have to keep in mind that donkeys can’t read our minds. We have to communicate very clearly, in “language” they can understand, what it is we are trying to get them to do. How stupid it would be to punish an animal for not doing what we want it to when the animal does not have a clue what that is. Usually, a donkey balks when it does not understand the trainer’s wishes or when it thinks some harm will come. Clarity of communication is essential. That is certainly true in human relationships as well. I have even known cases in which men and women deliberately misinterpret the words of the other—yes it often comes to that. The remedy is to back off, pause a moment, reconnoiter all the verbal skills you have ever learned and say, “Now, let me try to restate that. What I really meant was…”

Donkeys respond better to rewards than to punishment. If we carry a pocketful of treats and give the animal one when it responds to our requests appropriately, we get that behavior nailed down quickly. However, if we hit the donkey or even yell at it for inappropriate behavior, the equine interprets that as, “Hey, maybe he’s going to eat me—maybe I can’t trust this human after all.” So a reward system works wonders and punishment does not work at all. The analogy to human relationships is obvious. We love it when someone we care about brags on us and we hate it when we get fussed at.

So training donkeys has taught me a lot about human relationships. Without trust, we can’t have a lasting relationship. Thus, we should figure out ways of gaining and retaining the trust we so desperately need. Next, we must keep those lines of communication open. If those begin to shut down, we just need to be aware of the need to talk—about anything: just keep jabbering. Also, we should try to reinforce the positive aspects of others and not be so hard on the negative ones. The old proverb, “You gather more bees with honey than with vinegar” comes to mind. May I put forth a new proverb? What things so ever ye teach a donkey, that shall ye also learn.

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