Miniature Donkeys are Unlikely Allies for those with Prader-Willi Syndrome

Dogs and horses may be the stars of most animal therapy programs, but at the Latham Centers residential program for adults with special needs, it’s donkeys who are changing lives.

The Massachusetts-based program provides care and support for children and adults with special needs and specializes in serving those with Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS)—a complex genetic disorder that can cause developmental disabilities, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and an insatiable appetite that can lead to obesity. These challenges require individuals with PWS to constantly exercise incredible self-control in order to lead healthy, positive lives.

In 2008, Latham Centers discovered an unlikely ally for those with PWS: donkeys. Dr. Janice Forster, an expert in PWS treatment, suggested the idea to Latham Centers based on the success of donkey-assisted therapy programs in Germany. Within a year, Latham Centers purchased a residential home with property for livestock in East Sandwich, Massachusetts, and adopted six miniature donkeys. Although the donkeys did not come to the center with formal therapy training, they were gentle-natured, friendly, and up to the task. After a few months of training by Latham Centers donkey trainer Kristiane Thompson, they proved they would shine in their new roles as therapy animals for the adult residents of Latham Centers’ programs.

Residents of Latham Centers Learn Life Skills Through Donkey Program

Each resident’s journey through the donkey program begins by interacting one-on-one with a donkey until Thompson feels that the resident is comfortable enough to join the program’s six-week training course. During this “Donkey 101” course, students learn how to safely interact with and care for the donkeys. Graduates of the course can then participate in daily feeding, grooming, cleaning, and even training activities.

Esau enjoys every minute of Diane’s attention. photo courtesy Kristiane Thompson

The residents have flourished through the program. The donkeys’ calm, engaging personalities put the clients at ease and enable them to practice new skills in a judgment-free environment. For example, mastering the skills required to convince sometimes stubborn donkeys to follow them through a simple obstacle course helps residents improve their own patience, persistence, and ability to form relationships based on trust and respect.

Patrice Carroll, the director of PWS services, explains, “As our individuals learn to nurture and encourage the donkeys to become more compliant, they are strengthening their own ability to self-regulate their emotions and behavior.”

The joy of successfully accomplishing a challenge that requires patience and teamwork—skills that can be difficult for those with PWS—is evident on the faces of residents as they lead their donkeys over a series of logs on the ground. Even mundane tasks such as mucking out stalls improve physical coordination, teaches responsibility, and provides clients with the pride that comes from caring for another.

“I like working with the donkeys because they’re very interested in what you’re going to do with them and they bond very closely with you,” says Janice, a Latham Centers resident.

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Interacting with the donkeys helps clients with PWS better understand how their actions affect others. If a resident moves too quickly or loudly, the donkeys will respond by walking away or noisily expressing their disapproval with a pointed bray. This clear and immediate feedback provides residents with an opportunity to see how their actions affect others, which helps them self-correct.

Carroll says, “When working with the donkeys our individuals learn to use the power of their own calmness and gain the donkeys’ trust.”

The donkey program also provides an opportunity for individuals with PWS to become mentors. Latham Centers residents who have completed the donkey care course can team up with individuals who are still working toward their certification. The more experienced residents are able to pass along valuable advice, both about working with donkeys and living with PWS.

“It is a huge confidence boost for the mentors,” says Thompson. “They are so proud to share what they have learned.”

Expanding the Reach of Donkey-Assisted Therapy 

In the future, Latham Centers hopes to expand their donkey program to their Children’s Services Program. In addition to their current fundraising efforts, they will be holding a unique donkey “wedding” in May to raise money for this goal.

Latham resident Dalton shares a hug with Angus the donkey. photo courtesy Kristiane Thompson

With personality and charm to spare, the gentle, engaging, and sometimes stubborn donkeys have become invaluable partners in Latham Centers’ efforts to provide adults with special needs with the skills and confidence they need to lead happy, successful lives. The beloved burros have captured the hearts of Latham Centers residents and changed their lives in the process.

“I have been a part of this program for more than eight years and I have never seen any challenging behaviors from our individuals while they are around the donkeys,” Thompson says. “The donkeys are very calming. They bring out the best in everyone.”

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