Considering Taking Your Llamas for a Holiday Visit?
By Marty McGee Bennett
Christmas is a time when we go visiting. It is a time of giving to our fellow man, reconnecting to things spiritual. Once llamas are a part of your life you want to share their beauty and whimsical spirit with your friends, family and with the world. Spreading CamelidCheer to assisted care facilities, nursing homes or maybe even your own grandma's house can be one of the best gifts you can give your fellow humans. Taking a comfortable, happy, calm, willing llama with out and about is much more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas than stuffing a frightened animal dressed in a strange get up into the back of a pick-up truck. How do you go over the river and through the woods with your llama with his interests and well being in mind as well as those with whom you visit?
Untrained animals that are taken away from everything that they are familiar with might be temporarily cooperative but you could be trading an expedient short-term goal for a long-term problem. Trial by fire is no way to properly train or treat an animal. In my opinion before your camelid goes visiting he should:
- Have a comfortably fitting halter
- Know how to lead, be familiar with different footing including linoleum and carpet
- Know how to load and unload
- Tolerate supervised touching
- Accept and be familiarized with any items to be worn on his or her body.
What follows are a few general Camelidynamics tips about each of the aspects of "going public." More information about all of these topics is available in "Camelid Companion" and on my website www.camelidyamics.com.
Haltering: Make sure that your halter fits well. Most people allow the noseband of the halter to slide down too far and off of the nose bone. A safe and well fitting halter is one that fits up high on the nose bone right in front of the eye and will stay there NO MATTER WHAT. If you can take hold of the noseband of the halter and pull it forward and off the nose bone... then it can happen when you are leading. Your crown piece should be tight enough to keep the halter in place. Most people are more concerned with the halter getting too close to the eye rather than it sliding forward off the bone. One look at a skull will alert you to the fact that your concern is misplaced. The eye is completely surrounded by bone. The nose bone on the other hand doesn't fully protect the airway. Camelids can only breathe through their noses making a slippy noseband a potentially lethal weapon.
Most halter manufacturers, like most owners and breeders are also more concerned with keeping the noseband away from the eye and have designed halters that are not proportioned correctly. The circumference of noseband compared with the take up in the crown piece is often incorrect. No matter how you adjust these halter they won't fit. These halters offer only two possibilities: 1. The halter can be comfortable and will be unsafe if you try to use it to control the animal or 2. The halter will not slip off the nose bone but is so tight around the nose that the animal cannot open his mouth to chew, ruminate, eat or even drink without discomfort and effort. A well fitting halter fits high up on the nose bone right in front of the eye and stays there no matter what happens and still allows for easy chewing, yawning and ruminating. A wide range of adjustments in the noseband, a short cheek piece and lots of holes in the crown piece are essential. Remember it is the crownpiece NOT the noseband itself that keeps the noseband from slipping forward!
Leading: A training program designed to cultivate trust will proceed at a different pace than one designed around habituation, conditioning or de-sensitization. If your aim is to create a trusting relationship built around understanding, expect to spend more time on smaller things in the beginning. When your llama begins to trust you he will accept each new skill or request much more quickly. In other words it may take you a half an hour to teach your llama to walk over the first easy obstacle you tackle together, the next more difficult obstacle may take only five minutes. After a couple of lessons of confidence building you will have an animal that will follow you over anything.
Forcing an animal over an obstacle means that after three or four repetitions the animal learns to trust the obstacle... "That specific thing didn't hurt me so therefore I can touch it with my feet" The problem with this approach is that even though you may get yourself over the first obstacle more quickly at the same time the animal learns to distrust the handler "it doesn't matter to this guy that I am scared!" Drag the same animal over each new obstacle you encounter and you will be dragging them over new obstacles all their lives
It would not be a great idea to decide on Monday that you are taking "Fluffy" to the nursing home on Wednesday and embark on a crash and drag course of training all day on Monday and Tuesday. Follow these two stressful days of "training" with an all day outing on Wednesday and Fluffy will learn to hate you, the trailer and anything that smells like a nursing home.
We all find ourselves behind the power curve- it happens. A better approach it my experience would be to have a few short lessons during the day on Monday and skip Tuesday as a training day and do the best you can on Wednesday. Camelids think about things and process events. A day off to think and relax is usually better than intense training for days in a row. A little bit of obstacle training at home is well worth the effort before you go visiting.
A wonderful confidence exercise involves nothing more than two pieces 3' x 6' of clear plastic drop cloth. Put the two pieces of plastic on the ground in a v-shape with an aisle way between them. Walk your llama from the wide (easy) part of the V through to the narrow (harder) end. Keep moving the plastic closer and closer together until your animal walks on the plastic. This allows you to be successful together without forcing the animal over something scary.
** The photos in this article are examples of my Camelid cavern of Confidence. You can read more about the "CCC" and download plans for it on my website.
Even with lots of practice at home you are still likely to face some obstacles that your camelid may find scary when you are out and about. We often think that if we get closer to our frightened animal and hug them around the neck it will help them tackle a new obstacle. In my experience humans are often part of the "fright picture." If you use a longer lead rope 7-8 feet and get farther away at the end of the lead rope you may find that Fluffy will be more comfortable trying new things like strange surfaces and obstacles. Insist that Fluffy look at the obstacle but don't pull on the lead or put any pressure on the lead unless he tries to avoid looking at the obstacle. It is a good idea for you to breathe audibly to help encourage your animal to breathe, however a lot of active chatter and verbal encouragement is often more distracting than helpful.
Try the Marty McGee Bennett potato rule: Step way back as far as your lead will allow, be quiet, count very slowly to thirty potatoes and let your animal think about what it is you are asking him to walk on, over under or through. You will be amazed at your success.
Loading: Ideally your llama will load willingly before you have to take him somewhere. There are two issues for a camelid when it comes to loading. The first issue is safety. Is it safe for me to get into whatever this is? Make sure your vehicle doesn't bounce or roll as your animal attempts to get in and that there is enough room. Make sure that the footing is safe. Another factor regarding safety is a bit more subtle and harder for owners to accept. That is- is it safe for me to get in this confined area with a human? Most of the resistance llamas exhibit about loading has much more to do with the issue of getting into the conveyance with a human than the conveyance itself. You can solve this one by herding your camelid into the vehicle rather than leading him in the first few times. Park your vehicle next to a wall or at the entrance to the barn. Get your animal centered on the entrance and put herding pressure on him from the rear. Panels to block escape makes the process go even faster. Once your llama is comfortable in the vehicle it will be easier for him to be led in by you.
Secondly, your llama must also learn to organize his body to actually jump/ duck/ step into the conveyance. It may look easy to you it is not always that easy for your four legged camelid who can't see where his back foot is when he goes to move his front foot. Try a little rock climbing and you will know a bit more what it is like to organize four limbs that you can't see on an unknown scary surface. The best thing you can do is to recognize that your animal needs to have time, room and opportunity to think about how to do this. Be quiet, and don't ruin their train of thought and balance by pulling on the lead. Remember the potato rule!
If you find that you must resort to putting your animal into the vehicle let him have a minute or so to look inside before you just hoist him in-it is more respectful and secondly it will mean that your animal will remember getting in. That will save you time when you load the next time.
Tolerate Supervised Touching: This one is a matter of educating the public (a much harder process than camelid training!) You are your animal's protector when you take them out into the public. Allow only what is reasonable in terms of time and touching. Teach the humans what would be reasonable and pleasant and don't allow them do otherwise. If you are taking your llamas to a fair or will have them in a pen of some sort allow humans only on two sides. Make sure the pen is big enough that your animals don't have to put up with touching they don't want. Taking more than one animal is a big favor to them.
Accept articles to be worn on the body: If you just plop, tie, hold and put the Christmas hat on your llama he may or may not get used to it BUT how will he or she feel about you? Think about understanding rather than toleration. If you are going to ask your camelid to wear a hat, make sure that you have handled his head with your hands in a respectful manner first. Putting your animal in a headlock and stroking his ears is not going to make a lot of difference. Allow your llama to move about freely in a catch pen, ask him to stand in balance with you at arms length. Support the head using a lead rope on the halter and stroke the ears with your free hand. Concentrate more on keeping the animal in balance on all four feet than trying to hold the head still. Use circular touches rather than patting or stroking when you work the mouth, forehead cheeks and jaw. If you are going to put a hat on your animal begin with the smallest simplest hat or perhaps a folded handkerchief. A wide brimmed hat with holes for the ears and bells is a lesson or two later. Make it is as simple as you can in the beginning. The same logic applies to wearing a coat or pack- begin with something very small and simple. Don't tie the animal; work in a catch pen that is no bigger than 10 by 10 feet. Rely on the catch pen to limit the movement of your student rather than trying to hold him still. Allow the animal to see and if possible eat a bite of grain off of what ever you are going to attach to them. Let them see the item on the ground and have a sniff. Drop whatever it is on purpose and shake it. Set up what may happen out in the world at home first and let Fluffy deal with it when you are prepared to help rather than taken by surprise. Make sure your animal walks with the new item on. Many times camelids will freeze in fear and appear to be accepting of a costume or pack and as soon as they take a step forward all hell breaks loose.
Christmas is a time for kindness. It is the season to remember the Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. Better words for training your llama have never been spoken.
Marty McGee Bennett
18380 Pinehurst Road
Bend, OR 97701
office: (541) 318-5026 cell: (541) 788-2277 fax: (541) 322-6948
Training alpacas and llamas with respect and results since 1981