Born to Trot

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We had a sick donkey and a ticking clock, so there wasn’t time to fool around. Our friend Tanya McKean, a horse trainer and veterinary assistant, clicked a rope to the donkey’s halter, then looped it under her butt and swayed way back, using her full body weight to persuade the donkey to place his hoof — just one hoof, just for a second — on the road in front of our house.

No dice.

Sherman didn’t squirm or fight; he hunkered down and locked his legs, making it clear that seasons would pass and civilizations would crumble before this stone statue of a donkey would twitch a muscle. “That’s O.K.,” Tanya said, digging in just as stubbornly. Sweat trickled down her temples. “Now we wait.”

For Tanya, this wasn’t a battle of wills; it was a fight for Sherman’s survival. In 2015, my family and I rescued Sherman from a miserable, cramped stall where he’d been held by a hoarder near our home in Lancaster County, Pa. Tanya rushed over immediately to treat Sherman’s diseased and horribly misshapen hooves, but that was just the beginning. The real challenge, she explained, would be persuading this infirm animal, who was still weak from confinement and dazed to find himself in the full shock of daylight, that he had to begin walking again. Movement is medicine, Tanya told us, and especially for equines: Their digestion depends upon the churning of their legs. If Sherman didn’t begin to walk — and soon — he was a goner.

“There!” Tanya announced triumphantly. Slowly, Sherman straightened and took one grudging step onto the pavement. “Never underestimate the power of a second chance,” Tanya added, and it took a beat before I realized she didn’t mean Sherman. She was talking about me. Nothing about Sherman’s past experience with humans had given him any reason for confidence, she pointed out. Before we could help Sherman, we had to prove to him that he could trust us.

Strolling With a Donkey

That afternoon, I couldn’t wait for my daughters to get home so I could make another attempt at winning Sherman over. My 14-year-old daughter, Maya, held Sherman’s rope while 10-year-old Sophie went out in the road to check for oncoming cars.

“You just loop it under your butt and sit back,” I began, but before I could demonstrate, Sherman walked right past me.

Just hours ago he’d treated this road like a river of lava, and now he was clumping along like he’d been strolling it his entire life. Either the girls and I were world-class donkey whisperers or something else was going on — which meant something else was definitely going on.

Sophie cracked the case a few minutes later with a brilliant maneuver: She stopped and came back for her turn. Maya handed her the rope, but when we tried to get Sherman going again, he froze. We clucked and chirped and tempted him with treats, until Maya got bored and wandered ahead. Sherman instantly began walking again. Sherman didn’t need a stick or a carrot, I speculated. Maybe he just needed company.

CreditAlfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House

He wasn’t the only one. My hope was to nurse Sherman back to health by turning him into my running partner, but since I was an absolute novice at animal training, I began a research expedition to learn from the experts about what makes animals tick, a project that led to my latest book, “Running With Sherman: The Donkey With the Heart of a Hero.”

Yodeling With the Pack

I spoke with Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, and Alexandra Horowitz, the Barnard College cognitive science professor who literally wrote the books on canine behavior, and I spent a bitterly cold night riding a dog sled through the northern Wisconsin darkness with husband-and-wife mushers Quince Mountain and Blair Braverman. Blair would stop the sled every once in a while to change the lineup, swapping the dogs around according to split-second behavioral signals that were invisible to me but screamingly obvious to Blair and Quince.

“Why is that one yodeling all the time?” I asked, wondering how a lean, galloping Alaskan husky somehow had the wind to howl along in a nonstop ululation without ever breaking stride.

“That’s Refried,” Blair replied. “When everything is going right, she gets so happy, she can’t stop singing.”

Right there: That was the moment when I should have grasped everything I needed to know to help Sherman. But the light bulb didn’t really click until later, when I met Guillermo Torres. In 2015, Guillermo was 30 years old when he moved to suburban Philadelphia from Mexico with his little corgi, Patas. A materials planner for a credit-card company who spent his days scouring price lists and shipping schedules, Guillermo was feeling homesick and alone.

“But I had to change my disposition when I came through the door, because Patas was so excited to see me,” Guillermo says. “I had to pretend to be happy, throw the ball for a while. Being happy for him would change my attitude for real.”

Guillermo wanted to repay this gift of joy his dog was giving him, but he was already showing Patas his full devotion. “So I thought, ‘Maybe I can pay it to someone else. There has to be other lonely people in this city, right? This happiness he’s given me, another dog can give to someone else.”

Guillermo soon found Monster Milers, a group of Philadelphia volunteers who are trained to take shelter dogs on runs. At first, Guillermo was worried that the pit bulls he was assigned would act up around other runners, but to his surprise, he found that the bigger the group, the better the dogs behaved. “They’re more focused,” he says. “It’s very interesting to see the change that comes over them. I’ve never had a problem.”

Soon, Guillermo was taking his shelter dogs to a big downtown running store for its Sunday morning group runs. Even a little Chihuahua named Legs got his chance. “I thought I’d have to carry him, but he was the best!” Guillermo laughs. “He scritch-scritch-scritched down the sidewalk like a little chicken and did the whole four miles. He wanted to keep going.”

Legs made such an impression that within two weeks, he was adopted. It began to dawn on Guillermo that it wasn’t just the running that the dogs loved, but the running group.

“It can get crazy at times in the shelter, barking 24/7,” he explains. “But when you take the dogs out with lots of people, they sense the social atmosphere and fit right in.”

Likewise for Guillermo; thanks to his time with Monster Milers, he became a popular sight on the Philly running paths and was adopted himself by the Fishtown Beer Runners, a raucously chummy gang known for loosening up even the most nervous novices by ending every run in a bar. “Before I knew it,” Guillermo recalls, “I had more friends than I could keep up with.”

Running With Sherman

Back home, I was seeing the same transformation play out with Sherman. Tanya always told me that the secret to training any animal was to watch them long enough to figure out their natural drives, then channel what they want to do into what you want to do.

But while watching Sherman, I had an idea. Maybe there was a shortcut. I’m sure Tanya is right that every creature has its own quirks and personality traits, but there’s one thing that all of us — dogs and donkeys, humans and animals alike — have in common: We all want to feel so surrounded by family, we’re ready to yodel like Refried.

Sherman was so happy to be sandwiched between my daughters, I moved aside and let them do their thing. As the girls kept walking, Sherman hurried to stay with them, following so closely that his snout was bobbing on Sophie’s shoulder.

Sophie walked faster, then a little faster, until all four of us burst into a run. We turned around and raced toward home, thrilled by a music that none of us had ever heard before, not even Sherman: The drumbeat of his own four flying hooves.

Christopher McDougall is the author of “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.” His latest book, “Running With Sherman: The Donkey With the Heart of a Hero,” is based on his popular New York Times column, “Running With Sherman.”