Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Alpaca Clicker Training: Rewards vs Spoiling

My alpacas running to me after I have called them.

"Your alpacas are so spoiled."  I hear that comment more times than I can count.  The way I prefer to think about it and to be more accurate, my alpacas are well rewarded.  What is the difference?  Maybe it's semantics, but I would suggest that it has a different meaning.  My definition of spoiling someone, means there are no or few boundaries.  No matter the behavior, there is a reward.  The alpaca would get treats whether they perform correct or bad behaviors.  That is not how I use rewards.  I treat and reward an alpaca performing a correct and desirable behavior.  I do NOT reward bad behavior and I work hard to modify behaviors that are undesirable. 

It is rather interesting to use such a negative term like "spoil," to describe the type of training I do.  I use positive reinforcement methods to train.  When I first began clicker training and was asked what that meant, I would watch people, especially experienced animal trainers roll their eyes.  I'd hear similar responses and very negative opinions of the effectiveness of clicker training.  Some were down right angry about it and behaved rather rudely towards me.  It was amazing to see such negativity over using such a positive approach to training.  I am always thrilled to watch more and more experts being converted and speaking more openly of using positive reinforcement to train animals.  I was asked to help this one woman with her alpacas many years ago.  I worked with her alpacas a few times when she asked me about her dog.  She told me how her dog was "untrainable."  I asked her for some dog treats since all I had were alpaca treats on me.  While she went on to tell me how many trainers she had been through and how this dog never learns, I started to clicker train her dog and listening to her story.  Without saying a word and while she was telling me her training woes, I had her dog sitting consistently on a hand signal and eagerly waiting for another click.  She stopped talking suddenly as she realized I had her dog sitting.  Just as suddenly, she became a believer and was telling me how she knew that clicker training would be the best training.  I went on to teach her dog to do a down all in span of about 10 minutes.  

Some may say, giving out goodies even for good behavior is spoiling.  I wonder if those same folks are willing to go to work everyday and not get a paycheck?  I don't think so.  You earn that income and for the same logic, my alpacas earn their goodies.  I'm asking them to go against their basic instincts.  I'm asking them to come running to me and I'm a predator in their eyes.  I'm asking them to place their noses in a halter, be touched and handled.  None of these behaviors are ones that a typical alpaca willingly wants to do.  The alpacas would certainly be less likely to offer and modify such instinctual behaviors just to please me.  I'm more likely to get my alpacas to behave nicely because I pay them very well for consistent and really good behavior.  And, because I reward my alpacas well, I have animals that people love coming to visit time and again and I have alpacas people want to purchase because they are so easy to be with.  So, someone may call it spoiling, I call it smart business!

Alpacas at Hum Sweet Hum

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