Saturday, July 6, 2013

Can A Reward Be A Touch for an Alpaca?

When I first got into alpacas, it was sometimes easier not to buy into the "learned" experience of what alpacas can or cannot do.  I didn't have any alpaca experience so I didn't know what I didn't know!  I quickly learned alpacas didn't like to be touched, but I didn't believe for one second I couldn't train them to accept touching.  I had plenty of confidence in the positive training methods to know that training new behaviors were possible.  The only limit was based on my abilities and thinking.  Fortunately for me, when people tell me things aren't possible,  I usually wonder why and then see if I can't find a way to make it possible.  My favorite quote is, "Some men see things as they are and say why?  I dream of things that never were and say why not?" 

As I was performing my routine raking duties in the one boy pasture, Mowgli came up to me.  I could tell he wanted to engage with me.  He has been doing that more often recently since I dusted of my clicker.  But I had no clicker today and no pouch with goodies.  I stopped raking and bent my head down to see if he would give me a nuzzle.  He reached over and gave me a kiss and while I was still bent down, I rubbed his chest.  He stood there for quite a long time.  I took my glove off so I could give him a really good, hard scratch and he just stood there enjoying the long rub down.  When he had enough, he walked away.  I put my glove back on and went back to my chores. 

As I raked, I got to thinking that this was the first time Mowgli initiated wanting his chest rubbed.  I have had to use my body language and ease him into experiencing having a chest scratch.  My younger alpacas have been the first ones I have experimented with having the chest scratch which I talked about in my last blog, Alpaca Clicker Training Rewards.  Seeing how much the youngsters enjoy the chest scratch, I decided to see if an adult alpaca would like it.  Mowgli is my gelding male who is one of my farm ambassadors and a good guy to try new things with.  The first time I tried to give him a scratch, Mowgli took several steps back not sure what that was about.  For males, someone bending down to touch lower like that usually means an act of aggression since males like to grab and bite each others' feet in tussles.  Mowgli will let me rub his neck sometimes but touching has never been one of his favorite things.  In other words, I wouldn't associate patting him as a positive reinforcement.  He had learned to accept and tolerate touching to a certain extent would be a better description. 

Today, however, he came over and not only did he enjoy his chest scratch, but I believe he was asking to get one.  There was something about his body language and maybe mental picture I was getting from him that this was what he wanted.  And, the fact that he stayed as long as he did for the scratch told me he really wanted it.  Each time I have tried to give him a chest scratch, he has allowed me to do so for longer periods, but it has always been initiated by me to do the chest scratch.  Today, it was initiated by Mowgli.  I got to wondering afterwards, if the chest scratch could turn into a reward and positive reinforcer.   Now that would be something to use touching as a reward for an alpaca!  Talk about Alpacas Don't Do That, which is the title of my book coming out soon.  That would be really something if instead of clicking the alpaca and giving pellets as the reward that the reward would be a scratch.  I've seen that done for other animals but they are known to enjoy pats.  Peggy Hogan has a neat video clip of her using scratches as the reward as she clicker trains a mini-horse.  Time will tell if I can get Mowgli and a couple of others that have learned to enjoy the chest scratch as a reward for clicker training. 

Today I was reminded to get out of that mentality of limited thinking and get back into wondering what might be possible and it all started with a chest scratch.  I suppose some might wonder why it is a good thing or worth the time.  My answer to that is because the more tools I have to utilize, the more effective I can be at training and getting the results I'm working towards.  It would be nice to have a reward that doesn't require food that I often don't have on me.  How wonderful to give a quick scratch when an alpaca deserves a reward and them liking it!  Also, having a mix of rewards makes training more effective.  One of the limits I have had with alpaca training has been how lacking in variety the rewards are so I'm always trying to find things alpacas really enjoy to turn that into a reward.  Stay tuned as I ponder on how to turn a learned and trained behavior of chest scratch into a reward!

Mowgli Reminding Me Of Dreaming Why Not?

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.  

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