Ruminations…from John Mallon

A guard llama with baby goats

Ruminations…from John Mallon

“Llamas are easy to train!" How often have you heard that one? It's been one of the most commonly used phrases in marketing llamas for as long as I can remember, but is very misleading. Llamas do learn quickly, but there is a big difference between that and "easy to train". (I refer to this difference as "job security...")

Llamas learn "wrong" behaviors every bit as quickly as they learn "right" behaviors, and the fact is that they are learning something every time we interact with them, although it is usually not what we want them to learn. Whether we are aware of the teaching that is going on, the llama is aware of the learning; there is no such thing as just "hanging out" with your llama - there is always learning taking place on his end. We have to become aware of this fact and be conscious of what we are doing around the llama at all times, so that he learns the “appropriate" behaviors.

The llama does not have a concept of "right" or "wrong" behavior when it comes to interacting with humans; he's just a llama, doing what his instincts tell him to do -"right" and "wrong" are our concepts applied to his life. “Stand still", “don't move", "back up", “hand me that foot", "get into this halter", “carry this pack", “pull this cart”, “don't spit", “don't kick", “get in this van/trailer, pickup”, "square up and don't fidget while the judge examines your testicles", etc., etc. Left to his own choices, it would never appear on a llama's agenda to do any of these things. We run into problems when our two worlds collide, with his extremely well-developed sense of self-protection at odds with our need to handle him and put him in situations that he perceives as very threatening, and he instinctively responds in ways that we have deemed "inappropriate" or “bad".

The llama does not dwell on his future, beyond the immediate, but lives pretty much in the present, based upon his past experiences. The things which will stand out in a llama's memory are his first experience with a particular set of circumstances, those things that were particularly traumatic, and, most vividly, the most recent. Let's look at this, and how it pertains to "teaching replacement behaviors" (we are not in the business of "breaking bad habits", but of making good ones - as in all phases of my training methods, the llama will be allowed to make the choices we want him to make).

Let's take a look at the way most llamas are haltered for the first time: he is run into a square catch pen, squeezed into a corner, grabbed around the neck with arms or ropes, yanked around into a position from which a halter can be slammed onto him, undoubtedly hitting him in the nostrils and/or eyes, then buckled down tightly, and immediately grabbed up close to his chin by the lead rope. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Let's say that this scenario was played only one time; that's all it takes to make a “hard to halter" llama. It was not only his first encounter with haltering, but it was also very traumatic for him - it represents 100% of his experience with haltering; it's all he knows, or even suspects, about it. He has learned quickly that haltering is not a good thing, and will do everything in his power to avoid it in the future. Does this make him a bad llama with bad, habits? Heck, no, he learned what he was taught, and learned it well, and will call upon his memory of this experience the next time the halter gets anywhere near him.

The fact that llamas do not attack us when they see a halter coming is testament to their gentle, peace-loving nature. I'm not so sure that I could be that complacent about it if the same thing happened to me...Somehow, we expect the next time to be better because the llama “knows what it's all about now". Sorry, but it just doesn't work that way. The second time he sees the halter coming his way, he's likely to raise his head up in the air to avoid it, and having done so successfully, if even for a moment, a new "bad" habit is born... He was afraid, that's all, not being "bad", but we treat the situation as if he were trying to "give us a hard time", as if he were actually enjoying this avoidance behavior, and the training becomes confrontational rather than cooperative. Llamas do not like confrontation or intimidation, but are gregarious animals to whom social skills are important. I know that I've talked about this sort of thing before, and it is your comments and letters which cause me to keep coming back to it. Their understanding of social order and their innate cooperative nature as a herd-living prey animal is the very thing that makes llamas so willing to work with us, so "easy to train". It is their hard-wired willingness to accept leadership and obey authority, not out of fear, but because it is best for the herd, which makes them the cooperative, willing work partners that they are, with proper training.

Let's get back to haltering difficulties: the more times we repeat the traumatic haltering "technique" described above, the more firmly entrenched the avoidance behavior becomes, and the more difficult it will be to replace that behavior with a more peaceful method in the future. We cannot possibly expect the llama's behavior to change if we do not change ours; until we can show him that things can be done differently, he only knows what he knows, no more, no less. It is up to us to go back to square one, to teach him a better way, to help him to overcome his fear of the haltering process, so that he may then choose to quietly get into the halter. Llamas are not afraid of halters, they are afraid of the process, but, once taught a quieter way of doing business, I've never known one to revert to the old ways - given the chance, the llama will always choose the quieter way of doing things.

So much of this "training" is attitude, isn't it? Are we going to “halter this #!** llama!" or help this frightened animal? Are we going to “get this halter on him" or help him into it? My feeling about haltering is that, if the llama had fingers, he wouldn't need me at all, so I'll let him put it on, and I'll snap it for him. Now he's a partner, not a victim, and we're working together on a mutual problem.

Llamas don't “take chances". They don't go back to something that's frightened them to try to overcome their fear of it - they simply stay away from it in the future, if at all possible. There are no second chances for prey animals; if they do not immediately follow their instincts to run from perceived danger, they're dead. Sure, domestication and suburban living has tempered this a bit, but the instinct hasn't changed much, if at all. This is why it is so important to try to do things "right" the first time, so that we don't have to go back and try to change “bad" habits. The llama is fairly open-minded about initial experiences, but once he has had an unpleasant experience with something, it will stay with him and make subsequent situations difficult for him (and us) to deal with. Not impossible, understand, just more difficult and time-consuming than had the first time been pleasant.

Speaking of time-consuming, let's be realistic about commitment in training. Telling folks how "easy to train" llamas are sets them up for disappointment and disillusionment when the reality finally hits home. I'm always amazed when people tell me that training llamas "takes too long". How long is “too long" anyway? Dogs are known for being quick learners and remarkably easy to train, yet it takes anywhere from 20 - 100 hrs of proper lessons to get a dog to the "civilized" stage. Nothing fancy, mind you, just “sit", “stay”, “come", “heel", “down", things like that, very basic education. And this from an animal who wants to please us in the first place!

Take the time. Tame them, then train them. Start them young if you really want to save a lot of time. Waiting until they are weaning age to start schooling is the very worst thing we can do - get to them while they are most impressionable. Their critical learning periods are very early in life, and every hour spent training at three weeks will save you five hours at six months. Make good habits early on and you won't have to worry about changing them later. Be kind, quiet, considerate, polite and understanding, and you'll see how much easier they are to train...

Happy Trails...

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