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?
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.
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.
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.
and why a clicker anyway?
So how does
all this work?
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!
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.
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.
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.