Please e-mail me with any questions, comments or suggestions. I always listen to and consider advice, but please do not be offended if I do not always follow it!
Learnt From My Own Mistakes!
I dont want anyone training llamas to take this list as advice; I would hesitate to give the latter. In training, we all have different animals and different physical surroundings. In training llamas we bring along our individual human personalities. But, in the hope that some of this might be relevant to other trainers in certain situations, I set forth a random, hotpotch, "trivial-and-basic-mix" of things that I have learned about my particular seven llamas in their relation to me, their surroundings and to each other, from mistakes I have made. New entries are at the TOP
HERE GOES ... (TAKE A DEEP BREATH . . THERE'S 41 of the damn things ! ! )..
.that there is at least one llama in the world that is impossible to halter. I'm talking about my Toby again! The resistance is very, very deep seated. Yes, we can get it on by overpowering, and I get the occasional period when he'll just drop his nose into the halter, but most of the time it is impossible.
..that llamas are very sensitive to changes in my appearance. This afternoon, it started raining hard. I had left my raincoat at home and my husband gave me his to put on. I don't think I have ever worn it before. I went into the llamas' field and was instantly treated as a stranger.
That it isn't a good idea to do a training session when there are fireworks going off in the area! Dusk is my favourite time for training, sometimes under lights, but here in UK early November is the time for many firework displays in private gardens. I thought my boys were used to such distractions, but I was wrong this year.They were completely unsettled, though the fireworks were half a mile away. I gave up!
That it is a mistake to ask a llama to obey a movement command that will put him in a vulnerable position, when there are other llamas around: I should have known better: I was asking Toby to kush today and then realised that he wasn't doing it because he could see Oscar just around the corner of the field shelter
that just when I think I know a bit about my herd, something happens that completely dumbfounds me: Tonight I moved my herd into a new field. It was full of juicy grass, the sort that llamas shouldn't have too much of. I knew that the llamas would completely ignore me,one of the problems of a food-reward based training method. Besides, it was hot and the time of day that I don't get much response even when they're hungry. Imagine my astonishment when Oscar left his juicy pasture, walked over to me and demanded, yes demanded, that I started a training session. I think I got his total repertoire out of him. I cannot for the life of me understand why it happened or what was the cause of it all.
that when the media takes an interest in my work and wants to film/photograph it, it is invariably the so-called "tricks" that they are interested in.Perhaps I should expect it, but surely there is more to my work than this: the basic training I do. And really, though I guess there are one or two routines that I would, myself, call tricks, most of my non-basic training concerns obedience to hand and verbal signals.
that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to train my alpaca to stop spitting at me!...I've tried everything! I've finally accepted that he almost certainly cannot help himself in a situation where he has to work to get his food reward. It's sheer exuberance. Over excitement. A way of expressing himself? It certainly isn't accompanied by any form of aggression such as biting or kicking or barging. The way to stop him spitting is to stop training him and that would be a pity; we both enjoy it!
...that if a llama has to scratch he HAS to scratch! ..... whether he's enjoying his food, out on a trek, or succeeding in a piece of training and is about to get his reward from the frustrated trainer...if he has an itch, it is top priority to scratch it.
..that...(and this is one for those interested in clicker training)..that, as Jim Logan said on his wonderful cicker training videos of the 1980's, "What you click is what you get". In some instances of training, split second timing is vital.Often I think the click of the clicker should be just one syllable ("click" but no "er") Just for fun (his as well as mine) I have been teaching Oscar to open his mouth wide, as for the dentist. I want him to hold it wide, not just open and shut. I need to click whilst the mouth is briefly wide open.But it is so easy to miss that brief opening and to click as the mouth closes....
that some llamas simply will not change in their habits, despite attempts on the trainer's part to do this...and maybe it is best just "to accept the things we cannot change".I took Toby out for a walk today.Or tried to.Just down the road from the farm. We've tried it many, many times over the years but things have never really improved. It's stop-start-stop-start all the way out, and sometimes long periods of being frozen. He really is incurably herd-bound. Maybe I should accept this and always have a companion or two?
...that there are times when you simply cannot catch your "easiest" llama, and having trapped ( not caught) him or her, he or she will refuse to be haltered. And there seems to be absolutely no reason for it.Why oh why are llamas so unpredictable. And unfathomable!
...that if you have got a llama that needs its toenails trimming more than other llamas ( some never seem to need it) it will be the very self same animal that is near to phobic about having its feet handled. I've got two like that in fact.And I HATE cutting toenails (even my own). It has taken me many many hours to desensitize the rear legs and feet of two of my boys.
..that when the grass is sweet and new, it is pretty useless trying to get any work out of the llamas in the way of training. It's one major drawback of having a training system that relies on food reward. The "learned training" is still there to some extent, though the boys would rather munch than obey commands, but as for learning anything new, it's hopeless.
.....that a llama feels very vulnerable when it has its head at ground level. It should be obvious of-course: an animal which is prey not predator, dependent on its vision to see approaching enemies. I was trying to show off retrieval exercises to a friend, but Oscar was initially unwilling to put his head down to pick up a thrown beanbag in the presence of a stranger.
..that whenever I reach a point where I'm thinking I know a bit about how llamas tick, it is a very short time indeed before I get into a situation where I am completely mystified by their behaviour. My haltering problems are, of course, now legendary. But why, oh why, am I able to successfully halter my hitherto difficult-to-halter gelding umpteen times one day, only to find that the next day he regards the same halter with abject terror? I don't get it.
....that, if you've got a llama that is tricky to halter, it will be ten times more tricky and the llama will be far more resistent, if you are in a hurry or have a deadline. I think llamas pick up on tension. I have certainly come to adopt the practice of haltering long before it's needed-sometimes even the night before, for a vet visit, a show or a trek.
...that, for reasons completely beyond my understanding, a llama will suddenly,"unlearn" a piece of training, reverting to difficulties previously overcome. I've found this to be true in my problems with haltering, but, more recently, with footwork.Why oh why is it? Everything seems to be equal-the weather, the training pen, the distance of the llama buddies, the quality of the treats, the time of day even. But one day the picking up of a foot is easy with the llama cooperating 100%. The next day it's back to square one with the same animal doing all in his power to resist. I dont get it!
...that it is a good idea to keep a distance between a llama that is being trained and his buddies. In talking to Jim Logan awhile ago, he said he always kept a distance of 30 feet. I have infact trebled that to sixty feet for my training.It isn't just the distraction factor, the influence of herd dynamics is stronger the closer animals are to one another. Added to this, if a clicker is being used, there is a possibility that other clickerwise llamas may expect a reward on a click sounded close to them. (Do they really know that "it isnt their game" if they have been conditioned to associate the click with a treat?)
...that in a training programme that is food-reward based, it is useless trying to train in a situation where the pupil has easy access to "free" food. Llamas (like many humans) prefer not to work for their reward. If training is attempted in a grassy field, or next to a pile of hay, they will not co-operate.
...that desired behaviour can sometimes, quite suddenly, get "unlearned". I'm thinking here particularly of haltering. Four of my boys were dead easy to halter in the first three or so years of life. Then gradually, one by one, without my doing anything different that I am aware of, each one decided that the halter was not for him. I currently (Aug 2011) have a haltering prob !!! And I hate to ask my husband to wrestle it on, on the few occasions that it sometimes HAS to be worn. It strengthens the aversion.
....that if Im about to lose my cool, it's best to simply walk away. A great deal of damage to the training process can be done if I get mad and sound off. Hours of work can be thrown away.If an animal doesnt gve me the response I want, it is usually because I am giving him confused signals.
....that llamas are opportunists and I have to be firm in my commands. If I am working at, for example,"Coming When Called", it is a mistake to reward a llama that has come uncalled, even though he may have raced hopefully 300yards across the field. I have to be hard. The uncalled animal is invading my personal space, uninvited.
...that if I go into my llamas' field looking significantly different, they will, at first, treat me as any other newcomer. Like today. It was chilly and I simply chucked on my husband's old anorak,put up the hood and dashed out and into the field.(They hadn't seen this coat before on me.) Ordinarily everyone, bar Maggie, would move towards me. Today that viewed me with great wariness and moved away.Things greatly improved as soon as they heard my voice, but it took several minutes before they were convinced it really was me.
...that yet another of the things that can distract llamas and make them untrainable is FLIES. In the past two weeks, for the first time ever, my llamas have been irritated by flies. I think the drought here has produced large numbers. Poor animals! Continual head-shaking.Nothing seems to deter the flies
....that when a llama has to scratch, it HAS TO SCRATCH !!! I've found with my lot that if they get an itch, no matter if they're in the middle of a scrumptious meal, about to accept the yummiest treat or about to obey a command in training, the alleviation of the itch takes absolute priority...the toe nails of a rear footcome forward and, scratch, scratch scratch ! And the expression whilst they're doing it! Heaven!
.....that if I go into the paddock looking, (or perhaps more importantly, smelling) differently from my usual, then my trainee llamas may well be confused, or even fearful. Today I happened to wear a bright yellow jacket, rather than the old red one that I invariably wear. I could not understand why three of my herd were very wary of me at first.
.that llamas are neither cats nor dogs. Neither are they able to make that same bond with us that a cat and, more especially, a dog can form. I have to be honest here: I dearly wish it were otherwise, but I have never seen a scrap of evidence that my llamas would really enjoy my company were it not for the food factor. Tolerate yes. But would they seek out my company if I didnt feed them? I doubt it. But like hundreds of llama-owners, I feel it would be wonderful if my animals loved me in the same way as my cats do!
...that it is a mistake to attempt to train a llama that is ravenously hungry. I am writing this in December when my animals are probably at their hungriest. I have attempted a couple of training sessions this week before feeding or haying. The result was an over-concentration on the food reward, to the extent that the two llamas involved simply werent concentrating on what they were doing. Toby, infact, was chucking any old bit of training at me. I had far better results using treats after they'd been fed!
....that in a training method which is treat-based, the llama has to want the treat to be motivated. If he is still munching the previous reward, he will not be interested in working for another one. The answer is to give rewards that can be eaten very rapidly. This is especially true when fine-shaping a behaviour which only takes a second or so to complete, such as picking up an object and handing it to the trainer.
......that I should not expect people who have had no experience of herding/prey animals, such as horses, llamas etc., to be able to understand their natural instincts. Those of you who read my website will gather that I play some silly games with my boys..retrieving, football etc. I recently agreed to have a TV company attempt to capture some of this nonsense on film.To my amazement, over thirty people showed up to accomplish this and having jumped into the llamas' field complete with a vanload of arclights, cameras and God-knows-what-else, they yelled:"Okay, let's see it ". I think it is a great credit to my llamas that they didnt hotfoot it over the horizon.
...that it is a mistake to carry on a training session too long even when, and maybe especially when, things are going excitingly well. Jim Logan told me off for doing this recently.We were training a llama to get targetwise and things were going so very well that I wanted to go on and ON!..Really,10-15 minutes is the optimum time before a break. And the llama comes back to the exercise with renewed interest. (Jim and I also trained chickens and their maximum attention span is one minute. His daughter timed us with a stop watch!)
...that in a training method that is (initially) food-based, it is a poor use of time to attempt to train individual llamas that, for whatever reason, take ages to pick up the offered reward. I have one llama who, when offered a treat by hand, fiddles about with it for perhaps 15 seconds before finally and slowly taking it into his mouth. In clicker work, the shaping of any behaviour requires that the tempo is fast...else the llama forgets what he is being rewarded for. And so do I.
....that however easy it is for me to put a headcollar on a llama, I must not assume it will always be easy.Thomas was dead easy for five years, but now...! Yes, there is a reason. Of-course there is a reason. But I damned if I can find it. Same halter. Same method. Same me.
...that in clicker training, where the rule is that a reward must always follow the click (the conditioned reinforcer),this is not the case for the clicker-trained-llama that is close to the training pen but not actually the one being trained at that moment! Does a llama really understand the difference between "my reward" and "his reward".A click means "reward". No ifs nor buts. Food for thought!
Added later: I discussed this with Jim Logan. He said he always used a 20-30 feet rule.
.that in a method of training that, in its early stages , relies heavily on food rewards, it can be very time-consuming to wait whilst llama-students recover from a spitting session. My students are unable to take food, post-spit, for some twenty minutes. However,I have noticed that this familiar hung-jaw grimace isnt just when its owner has spat, but it often happens when another, unrelated llama some distance away has spat up into the air. It seems the fine spray of the saliva pervades the air, drifts and affects the non-spitters so that they react with the dropped jaw we've all seen. I wonder if this mouth-airing is actually a sign of stress rather than the bad taste of the spit?
.. that there are many, many things that cannot be achieved by operant conditioning methods, even when training conditions are ideal. Powerful though the tool of operant conditioning is, it is limited in what it can achieve. I put this down to the fact that this approach can only ever say "yes". It is not binary. There is not even a "perhaps"..
..that, even though my training programme is food-reward based, it is not a good idea to attempt to train when the llama is desperately hungry.Grass is in short supply now and the llamas are hungry, particularly just before their hay and hard feed arrives. On a couple of occasions this week I have tried to train just before feeding with the result that, such is their over-anxiety to please, that I'm getting much of their repertoire of trained behaviours ( kushing/spinning/rolling/backing etc etc) flung at me off-cue. God only knows what would happen if any of their apparatus was around!
...that, (again..!) ..even when using a food-reward based method, it can be a mistake to attempt training when the llama student is over-hungry. This is the time of year (Dec.) when grass is over and the llamas are "starving".Today, I was late feeding and thought I would do a session with Oscar. A big mistake. He was over-keen and all I got was a recital of almost his entire repertoire of behaviours: spins, backing, kushing, rolling..all unrequested ( and unrewarded!). He was too keen to hear me.
...that in clicker training, you can lose a whole afternoon's work by getting that bridge ("click") sounded, a fraction of a second too late. What you click is what you get.If you're using a clicker, you really, really have to concentrate hard!
...that it takes just one member of a herd to reach puberty, with hormones kicking in, and the entire dynamics of the herd is disrupted. This can lead to all sorts of probs in training.
....I suspect I've said it before, but I'll say it again: it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to train in high wind. Just like horses, llamas get ultra wary in windy weather. I am sure it is because, as prey animals, all their sounds and their sense of smell, are distorted. They need to be extra wary for survival, hence little time to expend on non-essential training.
....(oh dear, this has been a real hard lesson for me)..that it is extremely difficult to display in public, the training that I am demonstrating in videos, here on this website. Because llamas are animals of prey, when put in unfamiliar settings such as a Show or a Village Fete, they can become very wary. It is this wariness that has ensured their survival afterall.The surrounding unfamiliar sounds, sights and smells have all to be checked out before they can relax. Add a nearby dog show, a marching band, the ice-cream vendor, the fire brigade, horses and what have you and all this adds up to a situation fraught with potential dangers for the poor llama. So much more relaxed on his own farm!
....that a series of short, intense, training sessions are of more value than one long one.It is easy to get so enthusiastic about a piece of training going well, that the attention span of the learning llama gets overstretched.Ten minutes seems to be the optimum time for my boys...and then a ten minute break.
...that boys are far easier to train than girls !!! No, I need to qualify this. I should say " In my experience..." because I've really only tried to train two girls and mostly in work connected to driving. I havent made any progress with clicker work with either; they seem to be very different animals from the male llama.
..that some llamas are far more difficult to train than others. And I suspect that some are virtually impossible.Why, oh why, are so few so-called expert trainers (of all species of animal) so reluctant to admit that there are impossible animals. Afterall...we all know impossible people!
...that it is one thing to train a llama to perform in a certain way in their familiar, quiet, home surroundings, ...but it is QUITE ANOTHER ballgame altogether to repeat the same thing in public.Was the failure to realise this, behind the disappearance of the performance classes for llamas from our British shows??
...that it's counter-productive to attempt training if I'm in a bad mood or if, during the course of a training session, I've got impatient.Llamas, like all animals, pick up on mood. Also,it is impossible to think rationally if one has lost one's cool.
...that it is usually counter-productive to try to train my boys when it's very windy.Like horses,my llama-students get very nervous in wind and concentration is very impaired.
...that if I am using food training treats, I should wait a few minutes after a spitting session. Llamas need to drop their jaws after a spit and seem disinterested in eating for up to 25 mins.Frustrating!
...that herd dynamics can play a huge part if I am working with my student in close proximity to other llamas. My Dillon will instantly fold down to the command "Sit down" if he's alone with me. But ask him to do it when the other boys are around and it's another story. Clearly he feels vulnerable..or undignified.
...that if I'm using a method dependent on food reward, I am also dependent on the llama being hungry.Sometimes they aint!
......that if I have my back to the sun, I might well be getting a good view of the student llama facing me.... but HE might well be dazzled!
....that the sense of smell (olfactory) in a llama is far, far greater than a human's. If I offer a food reward with a hand that also smells of horse, cat, llama dung,handcream..or, far worse, llama spit, my reward will be rejected and, in some instances, act as negative reinforcement.
...(this is something I keep overlooking in my work on colour recognition)...that, unlike us, the llama has a large blind spot under, and on each side of, his chin. The field of vision in a camelid is very strange and something I'm hoping to find out more about.
....that if I reward behaviour that is offered off-cue, then I will get off-cue behaviour. It is EXTREMELY tempting to reward a llama that has just performed an unrequested piece of training, such as retrieving, with enormous effort and accuracy. One has to be firm and hard!
.....that there are times when, for no reason I can ever understand, the llama is simply not interested in training.Is it a distraction that he,rather than a human,can see/smell/hear/sense? Is he feeling off-colour? What is it?
......that if my student llama is being trained in something involving his mouth (eg retrieving), he needs to finish munching his reward before I ask him to use his mouth again! Small treats are the best and quickest!
MORE TO FOLLOW !!... I'M LEARNING ALL THE TIME !