Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learning the Language of Alpaca

I know we all think we are better listeners than what we truly are.  I admit to that.  I get into my routine and walk past things a dozen times or more without seeing it.  I can be very unobservant at times.  However, I have trained myself to be more observant with my alpacas.  I've done so because it has created a better relationship between us.  How true would that be for the rest of our relationships!  In the beginning, I had to be very focused and concentrate on what I was seeing in my alpacas.  They communicate mostly through their body language and so I had to learn some of their subtle signs of what was going on.  I'm still learning that language!  If I went to a foreign country where I didn't speak the language and it's root language was so different than the English language, I'd be clueless what was being said.  I'd have to use body language to communicate.  Think of the effort and focus that would be required to step into a situation like that.  When we communicate with animals in the beginning, that is a good example to keep in mind. 

Alpacas being prey animals, the signs of fear they demonstrate are important signals to learn.  There isn't just one sign that shows they are afraid.  They have a multitude of them and they can show one or more at any given time and depending on how fearful they are. 

1) The alpacas ears can be pinned way back on its head.  Or the ears can also be very erect and pointing towards the area they see danger coming from.  A friend brought her puppy over for a visit recently and all the alpacas came running to see what this new "wolf-like" creature was.  Their ears were very erect and pointed towards the puppy. 

2) Their eyes can be real indicators of fear.  They get larger and dilated and when in extreme fear, the whites of the eye can be seen. 

3)  The alpacas can flare their nostrils as their respiration rate increases and even have open mouth breathing.  I see this once in awhile the first time I halter a weanling.  I'm very mindful when I see that and work hard to breath deeply and slowly to help calm them.  I also do some TTouch or other calming techniques and if at all possible, keep the training session very short to show them that having the halter on isn't going to kill them (literally!). 

4) Alpacas also have the vocalization of alarm sounds and/or humming.  But I usually see the other signs above before I hear the trumpeting alarm sound.  During shearing especially, I often will see signs of large dilated eyes, flaring nostrils and rapid respiration rate. 

5) And of course, one of the more noted signs of fear is spitting. 

6) For my social alpacas that enjoy their treats, another sign they are in a feared state is that they won't take food.  If you were afraid something is about to eat you, you probably aren't going to stop and have a bite to eat yourself.  When the fight or flight system is triggered, the digestive system shuts down so the blood flow and energy can go to the vital organs needed to keep oneself alive.  So if an alpaca is afraid, they probably won't eat.  I was loading several alpacas this weekend to head to their new home.  They were extremely anxious and afraid going into this odd vehicle and leaving their normal pastures.  Their new owner kept wanting to offer them food to load but I knew they wouldn't take it because they were too afraid.  If we had more time to lure them in slowly and had a trailer on the property for days or weeks, then yes, using food to help train and motivate them to load and unload is a great method but when they are as frightened as they were, then we are better using TTouch, breathing, aromatherapy, to help take the edge off of their frightening experience. 

7) How alpaca run can often show if they are afraid.  When they run with their head low to the ground, that is telling the rest of the herd, they aren't running away from a predator but just want to get someplace quickly. 

There are probably a lot more signs we can share that describe fear to the alpaca.  But these are the more obvious signals and alpaca language that describe fear. 

These show kids were pretty anxious as we walked to the trailer.  Notice how erect the ears are.

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