Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cria Watching at Hum Sweet Hum

 The alpaca breeding business is a true lesson in patience.  You carefully research genetics and examine your female and if she has cria, what worked and what could be improved upon and then you make the big decision on which stud to use.  After that, it is approximately 11 1/2 months of waiting to see how you did in making your choice.  The first eleven months actually seems to fly by but those last couple of weeks and days before that cria is delivered come to a screeching crawl.  The anticipation mounts and I look for the most subtle signs that the blessed event is near.  Alpacas tend to deliver their babies before mid-afternoon and usually in the morning so I stay close to home checking every 20 minutes to a half hour to see if anyone is in labor.  But, alpacas like to prove that old adage, "Watched pots never boil!" 
Naomi and Dove: The Watched Pots
 My observations have gotten more vigilant the last two days.  Naomi is hanging out by herself more and laying down more too.  She is huge so she must be so uncomfortable and tired lugging that big baby around inside her.  I was watching her very closely the other day when she was standing at the poop pile for an extra long time.  That can be a sign of labor.  They feel the cramping and think they need to go potty but in this case, she stood there and nothing came out so that triggered me to observe her more closely for a bit.  After nothing happened, she took a few steps and decided she was too tired to head back to the herd so cushed right where she was.  She looked miserable.  I have a tree stump in the pasture and decided to sit down on it and offer her a little energy session.  Naomi is one of my new members to my herd.  She is still rather skittish and wary of me so I didn't want to touch her so I can intuitively "send" the energy to her.  I sat and watched her for a bit and she would shift her body to one hip and then back into a sternal position.  I could tell by watching her which areas of her body seemed to be most uncomfortable by how she laid on the ground.  I could also tell by her eyes that she just wasn't feeling great.

I focused my attention and took slow breaths to help me concentrate and let my regularly rambling brain quiet down.  I visualized nice quiet white light drifting over her and wanted it to feel gentle and soothing.  I kept picturing the energy enter into her body and helping her to relax.  I do my energy much like a guided meditation talking to the animal in my mind about the light and oxygen entering her body to move through her body to all those areas that need comfort.  I sent her this gentle energy for about 5 minutes when I saw her eyes get heavy and she laid her head down on the ground and fell sound asleep.  I was pleased that it gave her some comfort to get some rest but it also pleased me that she accepted the energy.  She has been so very wary of me so to let me sit as close as I was to her and to take in the energy being offered was a sign that she is starting to build some trust in me.  

Back to my hot tea, my binoculars and get further tested in patience.  Perhaps that should be one of the babies' names -  Patience!  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shearing Day: Harvest Day for Alpacas

Lark and Donatello Sheared Prior To Arrival At Hum Sweet Hum
Shearing day is quickly approaching.  The annual alpaca fiber harvest.  This will be the most animals sheared on the farm this year.  Thirty-two animals needing shearing so a long day ahead.  Volunteers are coming and makes the work go so smoothly and fun.  There will be a holding area where animals will be prepped and weighed, then come over for shearing where toenails are trimmed, teeth trimmed if necessary and booster shots given.  It's a full spa day for alpacas. 

I'm not known for being the most organized person around but on this day, I make an extra effort to be organized so it goes more smoothly.  This year could be even more interesting with cria due any time.  But with so many volunteers coming, there will be plenty to help no matter what added events happen.  The biggest concern for me is knowing how stressed my animals are during shearing.  The ones that have been through it before, still are not happy about it.  I was so pleased last year that they all handled it pretty well though.  There was only had one spitter!  I have some new animals since then and they haven't full adjusted yet to the ways of Hum Sweet Hum.  I use Rescue Remedy for stressed animals (and me) and this year I'm also going to try using calming essential oils.  I used Rescue Remedy on animals at a recent show I attended.  I experimented with them sniffing it instead of putting it in their mouths.  We were about to enter in the ring and the alpacas started to act up.  I didn't want to amp them up more by opening their mouths and putting Rescue Remedy drops in their mouth.  It seemed counter-productive.  So I opened the bottle and held it up so they could sniff.  It was almost immediate that they calmed down.  The scent is very strong and they would shake their heads at the strong odor but then came back and take another whiff.  It was totally on their terms if they wanted to take a whiff of it or not.  When they seemed to have enough, I put the stopper back on and observed them.  The alpaca's energy calmed down a couple of notches.  They were still alert and not happy about being in these foreign surroundings of the show ring but calm enough to be handled more easily and they showed beautifully too.

After my experience at the alpaca show, I decided to learn a bit more about Essential Oils and so this year at shearing, we will be trying a couple of different oils to see if they help calm these critters down before they get sheared.  I'm most interested in my very pregnant females.  It's always a dilemma on whether to shear or wait.  Temperatures are beginning to rise and full fleeced females that are near term can be stressed more than the stress of a quick shearing.  The daily heat is an extended and long term physiological stress whereas the shearing is a short term fear based stress.  I know how gentle my shearer is and how fast he is so this year we will proceed with shearing them all.  So this year, I'm opting to shear all my pregnant females and hope I can keep them calm with my essential oils and Rescue Remedy to keep them from going into premature labor.

Shearing day is a lot of details for me to keep straight.  With three females near term, I will be on hyper-vigilance for babies so think I will be giving a whiff of essential oils to the animals and one for me!  Or maybe two or three for me!!!!  If anyone out there has had experience with Essential Oils on their alpacas and other animals, I'd be interested in hearing what you think has worked or hasn't worked.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Alpaca Birthing Season Begins At Hum Sweet Hum

Watched pots never boil.  Alpaca gestation is about 11 1/2 months.  It's a long wait and amazingly, the first 11 months go by really pretty fast but the last couple of weeks before they are due comes to a standstill.  I like to start keeping closer tabs about 2 weeks before their estimated due dates.  Alpaca instinct is to keep it pretty stoic about any weakness.  It is imperative to their survival in the wild not to show it.  They would be first one to be taken by prey if they are seen as weaker.  So seeing signs of labor can be very subtle.  They can even put labor on hold if they feel they are being threatened.  So I try and watch from afar if I think one is in labor.  I pull out my binoculars and watch at a distance or I grab a rake and start raking poop.  They are used to seeing me do that on a daily basis so they tend to not be bothered if I'm raking.  I rake with the binoculars around my neck taking peeks regularly.

There are times when those gals run late.  They must not look at the calendar because I know when I breed them and can do a pretty good estimate but they ignore that and have it when they are darn well ready to have that baby.  I had one that was 364 days into her gestation.  I had second guessed myself into believing she had slipped the pregnancy.  I walked my pastures looking for a stillborn.  I drove myself nutty watching her and seeing any unusual movement as either she was in labor or I used it to convince myself she wasn't pregnant.  Then I would see the baby move and I would take a deep breath and make myself go back to other projects.  I was ready to name the baby Timex because it just was on its own time about being birthed.  But when the time was right, a healthy baby was born with no issues or assistance required. 

Birthing is both exciting and high order anxiety.  Until all is well and baby nursing nicely, I am on full alert mode.  It's been six months since the last birth here so it's time to dust off the neonatal kit and check that all is in order in my box and all my supplies and gear are in place and within easy reach.  I'm starting to watch the mom's tummies to see if babies are kicking and moving.  So fun to watch a leg kick or roll.  The babies start to drop and get into position.  A sign we are getting closer.  Then waiting to hear the dam humming.  Sometimes they start to hum a day or two before birth.  They talk to their babies so the babies know mom's voice.  That is a good sign to step up the watchfulness if I hear an expectant mom humming.  If I can get into position, I try and sneak a peek at the dam's udders to see if milk is coming in but some of my Huacaya's have so much fleece, it's impossible to see under there.

I have notes with the list of possible names written down and add to it.  Some names come so easily and others take time and research to get the one that fits them just right.  I try and follow a musical theme to fit with my Hum Sweet Hum farm name but sometimes a baby just wants to be named something else.

It never gets boring being an alpaca breeder.  New babies on the way, pastures going to be filled with new life and lots of cria races.  I love it!  

Monday, April 16, 2012

1000 Hellos: Alpaca Training and the Rewards of Patience

When I began clicker training and doing Energy Work on alpacas I was presented a challenge of working with Serena.  She was one of the most skittish alpacas at the farm when I was still boarding.  I had just gotten my first alpacas a few months earlier and had been experimenting with the clicker on my animals and had been having good success.  One day I came to work with my girl and I heard this horrible scream coming from the barn area.  It was ear piercing and could be heard from the far reaches of the 25 acre ranch. I ran to see if help was needed but got there to find all the humans acting quite normally.  It sure didn't match the fearful screams coming from the alpaca.  I was told Serena always behaved that way the second she was caught or even looked at.  Talking more to her owner I saw a glint in her eye as an idea took hold.  She looked at me and offered me a challenge.  If I wanted to prove my clicker training was worthwhile then I should see if it would work on Serena.  If I could get Serena to take treats and do some of the stuff I had been doing with my animals, then I would really know that it worked and she said she would be really impressed.  I said I would take on her challenge if she would keep Serena and her cria in a pen up by the barn for two weeks.  She readily agreed.

I waited a little while for Serena to calm down and went in to the pen to assess her reaction to me.  I didn't expect much especially after just being handled and going through the stress of her pregnancy test.  I was going up against a lot.  She was just confirmed pregnant which is when they are so hormonal and spitty to all.  She was extremely frightened of humans at the best of times and she had a young male cria at her side she would want to protect.  The odds of me being successful were slim.  She of course kept her distance from me but her cria was fairly calm and liked pellets and he came over to accept.  I thought perhaps he was my way "in" with Serena.

I went out every day for two weeks.  The first few days were not real successful.  Serena kept her distance but I got in some nice training with her boy.  He was a good candidate for the clicker so I worked with him all the while she observed me warily.  I had a thought of trying some Reiki on her.  I came in one day and sat down after working with her boy.  I just sat right down in the dirt with my back against the fence for my comfort and got as far away from Serena as I could in the pen.  I can "send" energy so used that distance technique.  I was amazed that after about 10 minutes, I watched Serena's eyes get heavy.  She did a few head bobs fighting off the sleep and then finally gave into it.  She cushed and dozed off with me in the pen with her!  I was thrilled.  It showed me she could calm down and that she was accepting the energy.  The next day I came back and tried again and she cushed quicker and fell sound asleep.  What was really astonishing was the fact that the vet was there again and there was so much commotion going on all around us and lots of stressed animals.  She would normally be on high alert wondering if she would be the next one to be caught but there she was sound asleep.  The owner passed by one time and did such a double take as she saw me sitting on the ground and seeing Serena sound asleep with me only a few feet away.  I saw her shaking her head as she walked into the barn.  The chances of me winning the bet and challenge were showing promise.

It came down to the last day of my two weeks with Serena and she was coming so close to eating from my hand.  She would eat pellets out of a trough with me sitting there and my hand near but she would only take it from the trough and not my hand.  After trying various things, I finally got her to take the pellets if I sprinkled them right next to my hand.  She had to touch my hand to get the pellets.  It took her a few tries and to get her courage up but she finally did it.  I let her do that a few times to get more trust in me and then upped the ante to putting the pellets in my hand.  She did it!  She took pellets from my hand.  It took all I had not to do a loud whoop!  But I didn't want to scare her so I kept my mouth shut.  She took more treats from me when I stood up and when I called the owner over, she got to witness me giving Serena pellets from my hand. 

Unfortunately, once Serena got put back into the big pasture with the others, she wasn't about to come near me again.  I was a bit sad about that but that was all I was asked to do and I moved on to other training and working on other methods.  But, every time I saw Serena in a pasture, I would say hello and offer her pellets.  She always turned me down.  Two years passed and the most I did with Serena since our time up by the barn was to say hello when I saw her and offer her pellets that were never taken.  She never came closer than 10 feet near me and if I moved anywhere near her, she bolted.  So one day when I was walking down the path to do some work with my animals, I was caught by surprise when offering treats at random this white suri named Serena took treats from me.  I did a double take to make sure I was seeing right.  Yes, it was indeed Serena.  I offered her another handful and she took it again.  I found out later she was pregnant so that her being receptive to suddenly accepting treats wasn't because I timed it right to when she wasn't pregnant.  She had just decided that after two years, it was safe to accept and she was ready.  It was those 1000 times I said hello but never asked more from her and respecting her wishes for distance.  It was on her terms.  After that day, I went into the pasture and offered her pellets and got her to even give me kisses! 

She now has a new owner that adores her and lives in a beautiful setting in Vermont where she gets tons of treats, carrots and apples.  Visitors mean more treats for her.  This once very shy animal that screamed if you looked at her now comes and gets her goodies, doesn't scream even during shearing!  It only took 1000 hellos. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Alpaca Listener

It's been very flattering when someone describes me as an alpaca whisperer but in truth, I like to think of myself as more an alpaca "listener."  One of the very cool things about the alpaca industry is all the various backgrounds of folks that wind up in the alpaca business.  We come from all walks of life.  One of my walks was as a counselor.  I got my Master's Degree in Counseling Psychology.  From that training and education, the most important skill I developed and enhanced was my listening skills.  It takes more than just listening to a story a client has to tell.  You listen to their body language and other non-verbal communication to get the entire story and clues of what is going on.  The subtleties are important and one develops an ear for it.  I liked the term, "Listening with a Third Ear."

It really isn't that big of a leap then to being an alpaca listener with that sort of training and background.  I enjoy observing these beautiful animals.  Most of the time, I'm not even aware I'm doing it but I know I'm taking in a lot of information as I gaze out and take in my animals.  Most of the time I see relaxed normal alpaca behavior.  They are grazing, napping, or once in awhile having a spat with each other.  However, every now and then, one sees something that isn't normal.  It is usually pretty subtle.  Alpaca instinct is to hide a weakness.  They are prey animals so a predator will zone in quickly on a weak animal.   Therefore, noticing any subtle change or difference can be an important clue that an animal isn't feeling well.  If you wait until they really show you they are sick, it is often too late to help them or very costly with vet visits or a trip to the veterinarian hospital.

I had a female in labor awhile back.  This dam was one that I was sure she would find a hidden area and have her cria.  I was just going to come out and find her with a baby on her side.  I just knew it.  She was that kind of animal.  Sweet and easy to handle but just didn't want to be near any sort of fuss.  I looked out my window and sure enough, I saw a head sticking out of here rear end and she was about as far away as you can get on my farm.  I grabbed my binoculars and headed out.  I kept a nice distance away but wanted to be able to observe the proceedings yet be respectful of her desire for space.  She saw me though.  But, much to my surprise, instead of trying to move further away from me, she came running TO me.  Her eyes were big and I knew immediately that she was needing help.  I normally would give more time to see if things would progress on their own but I could tell she was asking for help.  I called my neighbor for assistance and grabbed my birthing kit gear.  We caught her in the open field which was another sign that she needed help that she let us catch her so easily.  I examined her and sure enough, not only did the baby have one leg back, he had both of his front legs pinned back.  I worked and untangled his legs and out he popped.  It seemed obvious to me that she was asking for help but others that were around asked how I knew.  Maybe it was that long ago former life as a lifeguard that told me.  You can tell when someone is in trouble by the look in their eyes.  Her eyes were sending a real clear message.  HELP!  That was a cool day.  Bringing a new life into the world was rewarding in itself but when you connect with an animal, especially one that is not normally inclined to connect with a human, it is a very special day.

Special Cria Delivery.  Just a Few Hours Old

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Alpaca Clicker Training: The Halter Game

A fun way to teach alpacas about halters and make halter training easier is to play what I call the Halter Game.  I typically start training weanlings (about 6 months of age) about halters and start teaching them to walk nicely on halter and a lead rope. I can start the halter game as soon as the alpaca takes food from my hand.  I don't put the halter on them but I use the technique of "luring" to get the alpaca to stick their nose through the halter's nose piece.  What is great about this is that it gets them used to having the halter on their nose and they are choosing to stick their nose into the halter.  I typically will start with a larger halter than they would wear (The larger size is just to play the game.  It is important to have a properly fitted halter when it comes time to actually putting one on an alpaca).  I like to use the Zephyr or Sopris halters and I will use an adult size that has a larger opening to play this game initially.  It is larger for them to stick their nose in and not feel like it is tight around their nose.  In the beginning, I may have the halter up on my arm just so they can see it and get used to it dangling about.  I click and reward them for coming near the halter.  Once they get used to that, I slip the halter further down until I can hold it in the hand that I have my clicker in.  I use my other hand to hold the treats in and lure the alpaca encouraging them to stick their nose through the halter to get to the hand with the treats in it. 

The hardest part of playing this game is getting the coordination of holding the clicker on a side piece of the halter and holding the halter up, clicking at the moment the alpaca stick its nose through and feed with the other hand.  You kind of have to be like an octopus and grow more hands when doing some of these exercises but it can be done. 

By playing this game with your cria and weanlings prior to actual halter training, the alpacas get so used to seeing the halter and seeing it as something fun.  When it comes time to putting the halter on, it is no big deal to them.  They are already used to it on their nose which is typically the most frightening part for them.  If you think this game will take a long time to teach them, you're wrong.  I can usually get an alpaca to stick their nose through a halter for the first time in a matter of minutes if they are comfortable taking treats from my hand to begin with.  That is always the biggest hurdle in clicker training your alpacas.  Get them to take food from your hand and the rest is relatively easy. 

This game can be played with adult alpacas too.  Even experienced alpacas that have been trained to walk nicely on the halter can learn to enjoy the halter more by teaching them this game.  It will make life easier in catching and haltering the adults as well as the youngsters.

What is really fun and cute is I will train several alpacas this game at the same time and I will have 2 or 3 trying to stick their noses in the halter at the same time!  They have such a good time with that game that they literally will push each other out of the way to get their noses in the halter.  Teaching the halter game isn't just about having fun.  For those of us that are making a living at this alpaca breeding business, time is money and it takes less time and energy to halter train an alpaca if I take the time up front and teach them the halter game.  Try and it see if it doesn't work for you.  I'd love to hear from folks to see what they experience!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Alpaca Positive Training Methods: More Than Just Treats

The training I do is all about reinforcing the behavior I want and rewarding it.  The key is rewarding with positive reinforcement.  Most of the time that is a treat.  My alpacas like their pellets and some enjoy carrots, apples and sweet potatoes as some of their favorites.  But what if your alpaca doesn't like any of those treats or won't take a treat from the hand?  Can you still train with a positive reinforcement method?  The answer is yes.  I try and find something they like.  I have two new girls that I purchased recently and they still think I'm a two-legger that should be avoided at all costs.  It's been a long winter but now that the weather is warming up, I have discovered that these two girls love being hosed down.  I offer them the hose if I'm filling up the water buckets squirting down their bellies and legs.  One raises her front leg to request more and I am always so happy to oblige. I am showing this girl that I'm listening to her and respecting her wishes for more hose.  Such a simple act and yet it has done more to establish trust than all the treats I've offered.  One of my new girls is beginning to take carrots now!  Although she won't take from my hand yet, carrots tossed at her feet are gobbled up.  It won't be long before she starts to take those from my hand.  It can take some patience when dealing with an animal that isn't super food motivated or their mistrust in you is more than their food desires.  But finding that thing that they love and being patient, you can overcome a lot.  Once they decide you're ok, the training will increase rapidly. 

Alpaca Pool Time

I had a female that had a horrible reputation as a spitter come stay at my farm.  I admit I wasn't enthusiastic about having her but after only a few days here, I saw her behavior was based on fear.  I saw it in her eyes as I walked past her one day.  I can deal with that.  Cranky animals are one thing but ones that are coming from a place of fear, I can more easily work with.  I discovered she too loved the hose.  She wouldn't come near me to get treats but the hose, she would come right away to get a good squirt down.  She would let me touch her if I was spraying her and she would come right up close to me on her terms.  Once I started hosing her, the treats came quickly after that.  She loved to come and participate in conversations.  Her head would go back and forth as if she were listening to whomever was speaking.  Then she learned to give kisses for her carrots.  She was quite enthusiastic about giving kisses.  Within a couple of months, her owners barely recognized her because she was so friendly and enjoyed coming over to say hello.  And, it all started with the hose!  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Alpaca Clicker Training Workshop

Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bend of the genius of each - Plato

I'm hosting and teaching my Positive Reinforcement Training workshop for alpacas April 21, 2012.  This workshop teaches you how to work with your alpacas in a gentle, positive and respectful manner using proven techniques.  These methods will help you socialize your animals making them much easier to handle, less stressed and save you time.  Animals trained and handled using these positive reinforcement techniques tend to sell faster too! 

The workshop includes:
  • Introduction to Positive Reinforcement Techniques
  • Clicker Training techniques adapted specifically for alpacas
  • How to Halter Train: Using the lead rope as a two-way communication device
  • Energy work with alpacas
When: Saturday, April 21, 2012
Where: Alpacas at Hum Sweet Hum

For more information and registration go to 
Space is limited so sign up now!