MY TRAINING TOOLS

A BRIEF LOOK AT HOW I WORK Revised March 2011

It seems like the methods I use in training are constantly under a programme of modification because this entire venture is a learning process for myself as well as the boys. But basically I work using operant conditioning..

Operant conditioning is really a posh way of saying that I train using a system of instant rewards for desirable behaviour, shaping that behaviour bit by tiny bit by successive rewarding. Operant conditioning has been used to train a very wide range of mammals and birds, including dolphins, pigeons, horses and dogs, to achieve, in many cases, almost anything they are physically capable of..

And the reward?
Personally, I use the same reward-system as Jim and Amy Logan of Snowridge Llamas in USA, who have done incredible work in training llamas. Their reward, known technically as the primary reinforcer, is in the form of hand-given grain. I use lots of different treats in training, but I am always aware that the test of true, established training is for the llama to work without any reward at all.

The Bridge: I said "instant rewards" above. Now I'm going to contradict myself. I actually use a signal (termed a conditioned reinforcer) and this signal acts as a bridge between the desired response and the delivered reward.The llamas are conditioned to expect a reward immediately following the signal.

The Signal

I use two sorts: my voice, indeed at the time of writing, I am increasingly using my voice, but often, if I have my hands free and particularly where precise timing is of the utmost importance, a clicker.

My voice

The advantage of a verbal signal is that it's convenient to give it, particularly in work that involves both hands like haltering and desensitising. I say the words "Good boy" quite a lot in training, I have developed a special tone of voice in saying the same two words, which leaves the llama in no doubt at all that a reward will follow.

The clicker.. and why a clicker anyway?
Well, it makes a distinctive sound.The clicker is a small plastic box with a metal spring which emits a loud click when pressed. Unlike the human voice, it is truly consistent. It rapidly and crisply marks the successful completion of a desired behaviour. There are many instances where a verbal signal takes far too long in time. I am thinking in particular of the time I was teaching Oscar to drop toys into a box; I had to capture/reinforce the split second he opened his mouth, when I was shaping his behaviour. What you click is what you get.

So how does all this work?
Underpinning operant conditioning training are the primary reinforcer (the food!) and the conditioned reinforcer ( the click or "Good Boy") which is associated with the latter and precedes it. When the llama makes a correct progressive move , however small, in a training session, a click sounds and the reward follows. In due course, the llama works for the sound of the click or "Good Boy".. Once the behaviour has been learned, it can be further associated with a hand signal or a spoken command. Oscar and Toby both respond to the word "Sit" (they kush down) and they further respond to my finger pointing to the ground as a signal to go down. This is known as putting the behaviour on cue. Over a period of time the bridge and reward can be witheld spasmodically.. Indeed it has been proved that by refraining from rewarding each time, or, to be technical,"putting the behaviour on a variable schedule of reinforcement", the llama will try harder and give a bit more. Some behaviourists have likened this to the playing of a slot machine, where to win each and every time would become boring.

The drawbacks of Click & Reward

Clicker training is a powerful tool, but it is a method of training which only ever says "Yes". I am finding that there are times when I need to say "No" in training and to say it firmly. I am increasingly experimenting with methods of doing this.

Again, another drawback: it is a method which, to some extent, is dependent on the student being hungry. A llama full of the fresh grass of Spring is quite difficult to motivate!

 


I have to say this: My approach to my llama training is unashamedly practical and down-to-earth, because that's the way I see my animals. I am aware that there has been an emergence in the last few decades of "gifted" animal trainers, many of them internationally acclaimed, particularly in the field of dogs and horses. Many adopt methods which are described by themselves or others as natural. I have respect for these trainers, but unlike them, I do not see myself in any way gifted in my communication with llamas, merely sensitive to their cues. Nor can my approach be described as particularly natural. I am not a "Whisperer"!

And there is the cold realisation that, however much I love my llamas ( and I do!), unlike cats and dogs it is a one-way bond. Sadly, and I would give the world to change things...though I might provide food, shelter, veterinary care, love, security, you name it...all they can appreciate at the end of the day from my quarter is ... food.

If you can add anything to my work or have any questions or comments, please e-mail me.

 

 

WHAT am I training my llamas to do.. and why?

At this time of updating my writing, Feb 2008, I have trained all the male llamas I own (five in total), to perform tasks which are arguably useful to their management. For example, all my small herd accept haltering and will stand reasonably still for grooming. The boys obey several verbal commands backed up with hand signals. These include sitting (kushing), rising, walking forward and standing still. David is now backing to hand signal. Thomas, Dillon and Oscar will load themselves into my van and all four load into the trailer. I can pick up front and back feet without a fight.
All of these above behaviours are obviously useful in the management of the boys, e g. it is far easier to halter and pannier-load a kushed llama... when he's as tall as David! Again, a llama that loads easily saves much time and hassle. A still animal is so much easier to groom and to shear..and so on.
The other off-lead behaviours which I teach, call them "tricks" if you like, are purely for fun. My fun and the llamas' fun. For this side of my work I am concentrating on just two boys, Oscar and Toby. If you do not believe it's fun for all, jump on a plane or hop into a car and come and see for yourself the sheer enthusiasm my two boys have for coming into the training area and working with me.  Watch Toby's enthusiasm as he races after a thrown toy and Oscar's delight as he chucks soft balls into a box.

The need to let llamas be llamas.

It is very easy when training just two specially-selected llamas, to overdo things, particularly timewise, out of  sheer enthusiasm, especially when an individual llama is beginning to grasp a new behaviour. I appreciate that what the llama is doing in the training ring, namely learning contra-natural behaviours from a training method devised by Man, is a far cry from what its wild counterpart is doing roaming freely in the mountains . For this reason, I try to make sure that both my boys have an average of at least 22 hours each day roaming freely. I cant supply an Andean foothill or a piece of Peru , but they seem to like their grassy acres here in Hampshire, England. 

Dillon's carrying of a beanbag is hardly what his wild guanaco counterpart is doing out there in Bolivia!
Now "Lie down"

 

Mary-ann, the "untrainable" !!

Added Dec 2007: Just how wrong can one be? ... Because now this "untrainable" animal has turned out to be a superb driving llama. Willing, mile after mile. .Superb in traffic. Obedient and ..yes....so easily catchable in the field.

Can all llamas be trained?

Oh dear! I suspect not! An awful lot of people in the animal training world would disagree with me but I suspect that there are llamas out there who are impossible! Just like there are impossible cats, dogs, horses, ... even humans. I'm being realistic. It may be because the animal was not exposed early enough to human contact, or exposed too early or has been irreversibly damaged by the latter ... or it may be something "in the soil".
My experience of llamas is recent ( at the time of writing, hardly seven years) ). Added to this, I really have had close experience of only three or four llamas. But I hasten to say that my experience of these llamas is pretty deep. In the case of four of them, some hundreds if not thousands of hours.

In May 2006 I wrote this of my only female llama, Mary-Ann:

"She came to me at the age of five. She was wild. I have spent many many hours trying to work with her. And have I moved forward? Not one iota. I am still in a situation where I cannot catch her in the field; the very beginnings to any training .Is Mary-ann's resistance to training the result of lack of early handling? Maybe. Maybe not. I simply do not know."

And yet..read what's under the photo on the right...!

From what I have read, though there are many examples of wonderfully trained female llamas. But I still suspect that on the whole it's the male that is more biddable. And is it any wonder! Over the many centuries the male has been selected for his trainability, to do the work of the beast of burden.. whilst the female has filled the role of producing offspring.

 

Dillon "Sit"