Saturday, June 29, 2013

Clicker Training Alpacas In the Herd

In my last blog, I wrote about teaching the alpacas to take turns.  I typically clicker train my alpacas two at a time and sometimes even more.  This goes against the conventional wisdom of clicker training.  I clicker train my dogs one at a time.  However, I have found that working with an alpaca alone doesn't work very well.  They are herd animals and are not happy being away from their herdmates.  When I start working with an alpaca for the first time, I have had very little success working with that individual alpaca alone.  They are too skittish and all they want is to get back to their herd.  But, if I have one or more in with them, I have more success.  I will often pick an alpaca that is not as food motivated if I'm working with a new alpaca or one that is very shy and reticent about taking food from my hand.  Selecting the buddy alpaca I want in with the one that I am focusing on depends on what I'm trying to train.  Sometimes I choose an experienced clicker trained alpaca because they do learn from each other and the more experienced alpaca can show the novice how it works and they may feel more brave and curious if they see the one working with me. 

I also like to work with more than one because one of the most important behaviors I teach my alpacas is simply proper and appropriate behavior while being fed their goodies.  I get a lot of farm visitors and the last thing I want them to experience is spit flying at them.  That does happen and we all have to deal with it but I want to minimize it if I can, so training the alpacas to take their food nicely and in a group is important.  For those experienced clicker trainers who read my last blog and may have questioned my wisdom in clicker training in a group, I do so because of experience in being successful getting a new alpaca to learn clicker training and I do it because their being fed in a group is part of our training.

There are some nifty clickers out there that make different noises to use with multiple animals so each has its own click.  I haven't tried them with the alpacas but it could be a fun experiment.  But for now, the system I'm using seems to work fine.  How does the alpacas know which one is being clicked and why aren't they confused?  From what I have observed, the alpacas learn which one I'm working with because of my body language.  I turn away from the ones I am not working with.  Body language gets a little tricky because I don't want to fully face the alpaca I do want to work with because that can be "heard" as a challenge or be seen as an act of aggression and I don't want to project that impression.  But just a slight angle is all that is needed to prevent that more aggressive stance.  It can get a little crazy at times I have to admit.  When I play the halter game, I am holding up the halter and having animals wanting to stick their noses in and sometimes two or more will be trying to stick their noses in at the same time.  But, with practice, I have gotten pretty quick about holding the halter in front of the one I want to put their nose in and click and move to the next one.  I use the one's name that I want to put their nose in the halter and I go from one to the next.  I am usually surrounded so I can get a bit dizzy!  But it is a fun game and they learn so quickly and I have not experienced them being confused by me clicking one and then the next.  They seem to get it.  One thing about farm life, is that nothing happens like in a perfect world so clicker training the alpacas is a bit like the rest of farming with figuring out how to make it work with the tools and resources at hand!

Once the alpacas get more comfortable with me and the clicker training, I can then separate and work with one alone.  But even then, sometimes they don't like being in the catch pen with me alone.  When I try to get one alone, it is because I am trying to work on a more advanced behavior and need to have their sole attention and being very tuned into their movements to get the click just right.  I can do that with Mowgli and a couple of others but most, even after being trained and doing well with the clicker, still don't like to be in the catch area alone with me.  I have found clicker training alpacas is a lot of trial and error, doing what works best for each individual alpaca and not being afraid to try new ways of doing things.  When I first started working with alpacas, it was probably a very good thing that I didn't know how they were supposed to behave or what was natural to them.  I didn't know any better so I didn't have any preconceived notion of behaviors not being possible and I was willing to try things that went against belief systems on what alpacas will or won't do.  When I trained the alpacas to do things like stick their noses in halters on command and follow me without halters and lead rope and have them running to me instead of away from me, experienced alpaca breeders were blown away.  The running joke was "Alpacas don't do that!"  My book coming out this summer is titled that and I'm excited to share my experiences of clicker training and performing energy work on alpacas and other animals I have met.    

Clicker Training This Group of Alpacas To Jump Through the Hoop

Alpacas at Hum Sweet Hum
Alpaca Sales

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