Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Alpaca Clicker Training Rewards

A guest clicker training an alpaca to go through the hoop.
Another most often asked question I get is, "Do I have to reward?"  My answer is, "When you go to work, do you like to get paid?" Do I click and reward all the time?  Every time I click, I reward.  If I do an inadvertent click, they get a treat.  Click means I owe them payment.  If you don't reward, you lessen the effectiveness and meaning of the click.  I find it interesting that some folks have a hard time wanting to reward.  If I were back working as a counselor, it would be great fodder for a therapy session!  However, I don't do that anymore so I tell folks, reward when you click. 

I'm not in constant training mode.  I only use the clicker when I'm doing a formal training session.  But I still use treats and rewards when I'm not in formal clicker mode.  I use rewards for socializing.
I want my alpacas to come running and hang out with me especially when I have farm visitors.  Mine LOVE visitors and they got that way because they know there is usually carrots or apples coming their way.  They see a car pull up to my farm and they watch the gate to see which way visitors come.  If they start heading to the big green gate that leads to their pastures, the alpacas often come running to greet.  It is fun to see how the alpacas get as excited at seeing guests as the guests are seeing the alpacas.  If the alpacas don't see the guests arrive, I can walk them out, call one of the alpacas by name that I am fairly confident that they will come to me, and they typically bring the rest of the herd and once the one starts running to me, it becomes a race to see who can get to us first.  It is a hoot. 

Do I only use food as a reward?  Nope.  I look for other things that the alpacas like and enjoy as a reward.  On a hot day, it is the hose.  They love the hose to cool off.  I water their feet and bellies and they dance as the water tickles their toes.  I have also discovered with this last crop of cria that some like their chests scratched.  They can't reach their chest to scratch with their feet or by rolling or rubbing up against trees and fences.  It is that spot they can't reach.  The first time, I tried it with Calvin, he pulled away and then he stopped and thought about it a second and realized that it felt good.  So he came back over and I scratched it again and he let me scratch longer.  He made the funniest face as I hit the perfect spot.  He pursed his lips and made a smooching noise with his lips. Calvin will come over to me asking for a chest scratch now.  He has taken his head and neck to my hand and pushed it towards his chest!  Several of the other babies have learned to like it as well.  Mowgli, my 4 year old gelding, has recently learned that about chest scratches and he will stand still as I give his chest a good rub. 

One caution about males especially, you must have appropriate behavior in males.  When I'm socializing young males in particular, they MUST behave with respect.  There is what is called Berserk Male Syndrome that might be started by over socializing and allowing bad behavior in a male.  So I must caution folks to be careful.  I have very good boundaries with my alpacas and even though folks say I spoil them (I do), I also expect and require good behavior in return.  A male is not allowed to jump on me, bump into me, bite at my feet or any other behavior that is undesirable.  It maybe cute as a baby but when they become adult 150+ pound males, they can become dangerous behaviors.  I nip those behaviors in the bud if I see them as youngsters.  By having good manners and appropriate boundaries, I have adult males I can enjoy as well.  

Do I give treats every time I go out to see my alpacas?  Not anymore.  What I do is the Vegas method.  Why do people play slot machines?  Because once in awhile, you hear ding, ding, ding and you win (in my case pennies since I am only brave enough to play penny slots!).  Using that similar psychology of Vegas, the alpacas never quite know when I will have treats so they come running to me almost every time because this maybe the time I have the goodies.  Going out every time with goodies is actually less effective than mixing it up.  In the beginning, it was way more often that I had goodies and now it is sometimes twice in one day, some days they don't get any extra goodies at all.  Some days the goodies come from visitors and not me.  They never know when the goodies will come or from what two-legger so they come each time. 

When I am in clicker training mode and treating each time I click, I will often mix up how much treats they get for a click.  I typically use rice bran or their normal pellets for rewards.  Carrots and apples take too long to chew and I click pretty fast when I am in training mode.  When I am teaching a new behavior especially, it is important to keep them focused and too much time between clicks will take longer to get them to recognize what they are being clicked for.  If I do use carrots or apples, I use very small pieces.  They are really just getting a taste of a treat.  A handful of rice bran or pellets will last at least 5 or 6 clicks.  They just get a small bite or taste.  I don't feed the entire handful for a click.  However, if they are not as focused or losing attention or I see that they finally are getting what I'm training, I will vary how much I reward.  How I do this is to give them two-three or more trips to the hand for a nibble with just the one click.  For example, I'm teaching Mowgli to take a step backwards on command.  The first time he stepped backward without me luring him, I clicked and let him take a small bite from my hand once, then again and then again.  I only clicked the one time as he took the step back but he was allowed to come back to the hand three times.  That is more powerful than letting him eat the entire handful in one setting.  I closed my hand between bites and offered him treats three times.  It was like getting paid three times instead of once.  It really isn't the quantity of food, it is the quantity of rewarding.  

Some folks say I spoil my alpacas.  I call it good business.  When visitors tell me that they have been to other farms but my alpacas are way more friendlier and social, that tells me that what I'm doing is working.  Those guests that might be interested in buying will be more likely to want an alpaca that is high quality AND one that they can engage with and enjoy.  Plus, I have better confidence that the alpacas will go to new farms where they will be enjoyed and cared for.  And the best part is that I get to enjoy them until I do sell them.  I wanted my own farm not just to work my fanny off but because I wanted to enjoy my alpacas.  Raking beans is not an exciting job but one that has to be done every day.  No one probably enjoys raking more than me because I have alpacas come over bowing and giving kisses.  So when folks say my alpacas are spoiled, I think I'm the one that is spoiled!  I am rewarded each and every day with alpacas that are enjoyable to be around.  To get to that place of enjoying alpacas the way I do is only a click and reward away!

In summary, I use rewards in two different ways.
1) When I am using my clicker, they get a reward 100% of the time.
2) I will vary how many times they get to take from the treat hand but they will get a reward.
3) I use other rewards besides food like the hose or a chest scratch.  I look for things the alpacas enjoy and use those as rewards.
4) When I am not using the clicker, I will reward to reinforce a behavior already learned.  I mix up when I have a treat and when they will get it and how much they get.  The alpaca never knows when they are going to hit a jackpot and will be more consistent about offering the behavior because they never know when the jackpot is going to happen.  But, unlike Vegas, their opportunities to win a treat is higher than us two-leggers winning!!!!!

Teaching Guests Clicker Training Fun With Alpacas

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