Monday, July 8, 2013

Alpaca Spit Happens: Taking One For The Cause

Introducing Dulcie, my first alpaca

In previous blogs, I've talked about using treats as rewards and teaching the alpacas to take turns.  The main reason I want them to learn how to take turns came about because I accidentally trained a negative behavior.  It was during my earlier experimenting with clicker training alpacas and I was working with my first alpaca Dulcie.  I had come a long way with her.  It took almost three weeks just of me sitting on the ground to get Dulcie to take pellets from my hand.  Once I got her to eat from my hand, the rest of the training sped up dramatically.  I had her touching her nose to a target stick, sticking her nose through halters, and the best part was how she would run to me when she'd see me.  I could put my hand on Dulcie, hold and halter her in the middle of the pasture.  She had been notorious for being one of the hardest alpacas to catch.  It would often take several people to corral her.  So, when folks saw Dulcie running to me when I'd come out to the farm where I was boarding, their mouths would drop and they'd shake their heads as they'd see me catching her as quietly and nicely as could be in the middle of the pasture.  Clicker training was proving to be so successful.

Then an ornery alpaca was placed in the same pen as Dulcie.  She would act like she was friendly and lure you in to greet her and then as soon as you got close, she'd spit at you.  She was in constant spit fights with the other alpacas too so no one really cared for this girl.  No one wanted to get spat at including me.  When I went out to work with Dulcie, this female alpaca would follow Dulcie to see why she was running to me.  Dulcie was late term pregnancy so I wasn't working with her much but I'd go out and just give her treats.  I didn't want to stress her at this stage but simple clicking of hand touches and kisses were good practice to keep the clicker games fresh without stressing her.  This other alpaca would want treats when I was treating Dulcie but instead of taking treats nicely, she'd spit at Dulcie to back her away and spit at me.  I knew enough not to reward that bad behavior so I'd walk away.  This happened consistently and I'd try and get Dulcie away by ourselves, but this female would follow us and interfere.  A few weeks of this happening and Dulcie stopped running to me even if this other alpaca was napping or busy grazing.  Dulcie wouldn't come to get a treat from me.  At the time, I hadn't quite put all the pieces together but I was disappointed that my girl was staying away from me.  By then, I was working with other alpacas so I was starting to spend more time with them too.  I wasn't cluing into having a problem and setback with training right away which allowed the negative behavior to get trained in more solidly.

After weeks passed and no improvement in working with Dulcie, it finally dawned on me that I had become a negative to Dulcie.  Every time, I came out to give her treats, she would get bullied and spat at.  So, she had learned to associate me with this negative treatment and I wasn't worth running to if all she was going to get for it was spat at.  I requested from the farm owner if I could move Dulcie to another pasture and why.  She said of course and I moved Dulcie.  It was about time for Dulcie to get moved to the maternity pasture so I moved her there.  I was hopeful that as soon as I moved her away from this other alpaca, that things would improve but they didn't.  I wasn't sure if it was because of her instinct to protect her baby she was carrying or because of all the negative reinforcing that occurred.  I was crestfallen that I had lost all that progress I had gained with Dulcie and I wasn't sure how or if I'd get it back.

The good news is that I did get it back.  The story of how I did is in my book Alpacas Don't Do That. Yes, I'm doing a shameless tease and plug!!!  But, the reason I will take a little spit during training now and teach taking turns is because of that incident.  I will not reward the spitter with treats, but I look for behaviors I can reward them with and when I can catch the alpaca with the propensity to spit doing a positive behavior, I will feed them.  However, I feed using this method.  I place my hand with the treats at the level of their chest so their head goes downward and I move my hand towards their chest so they must take a step backwards to get to the treat.  This places the alpaca in a more submissive body language position and they tend not to spit with their head down and if they do, the spit harmlessly goes towards the ground.  I try and be very consistent in treating these alpacas this way ALL the time.  If I am consistent in feeding those alpacas with their head down and taking a step back, after awhile, they have learned that standing further away from me is better than too close and being spitty.  I turn my back on them if they spit and hopefully I'm fast enough if I hear it coming to  duck out of the way, but I try not to walk away from the others I am working with because of the one bad behaved alpaca.  That is when I take one for the cause. 

When training, we often have to put on our detective hats.  If we had a behavior we liked and it isn't happening anymore, we have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what is going on.  Is there something I'm doing differently?  Is there an environmental change?  What has changed?  When we can piece together some theories of what may have created the change in behavior, then we can work on the steps to get back the desirable behavior. 

Alpacas at Hum Sweet Hum

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