Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Best Clicker Training Was A Failure


My first alpaca clicker training experience was an utter and complete failure.  I had never owned or been around livestock before buying Dulcinea.  I owned and trained my dogs and been to many clicker training workshops for them.  My first day trying to clicker train Dulcie, I came out with my gear I use for training my dogs and was quickly humbled when Dulcie looked at me with such suspicion and wouldn't come close to me.  Forget the target stick and training pouch.  She wasn't coming close to me to take pellets from me at all!  How can I clicker train if they won't take an award or treat?  I walked off the farm I was boarding at deflated, embarrassed and completely unsure of myself.  But I'm one to enjoy a challenge so the next time out to the farm, I left all the gear at home and checked my ego at the barn and went into Dulcie's pen with a bucket of pellets and my clicker and I sat down in the dirt. 

My first lesson was to assess and see what Dulcie was doing as I tried different ideas to get her to eat from the bucket.  I had the bucket near me and I saw her look at the bucket but she wasn't going to come near me.  I moved the bucket closer to her but the bucket was still too close to me.  I got up and moved the bucket near Dulcie and then moved as far away as I could and sat back down.  It took several minutes before she thought about going near the bucket.  She sniffed in it and saw there were pellets but she still wouldn't eat from the bucket.  She moved to the hay bin and stayed there.  I sat there wondering what else could I do?  I took some pellets and sprinkled them on her hay.  She backed to the furthest spot from me each time I made a move.  She wasn't near the hay anymore so that idea didn't work.  I sprinkled some on the ground and sat back down.  Finally, I decided to stop trying and just sit still.  No pellets taken. 

The next trip to the farm, I didn't have any new ideas so went out with the bucket.  I knew she wouldn't go near the bucket if it was near me so I placed it near the hay feeder and sat down as far away as I could from Dulcie and the bucket.  I watched and stayed quiet not moving.  Instead of moving and trying different things like the previous attempt, I just sat still.  Dulcie came over and sniffed at the bucket again.  She looked at me and back into the bucket.  I could see her trying to decide if she wanted those pellets.  She took a quick bite and ran away.  I learned a lot watching her take that first bite.  She was vulnerable with her head in the bucket.  She was so extremely wary of me.  But nothing bad happened and I held my breath and didn't move a muscle when she took that first bite.  She braved a second bite.  I clicked as she took a bite and she didn't bolt from the bucket like the first time.  She went back and had another bite and soon she was taking one bite after another and I clicked each time she put her head in the bucket and ate.  I didn't want her gorge herself so I moved to get the bucket and she jumped away.  I moved the bucket to a new location and sat back down.  After several minutes, Dulcie came back and braved eating from the bucket.  Clicker training was starting.  It was such a baby step in teaching Dulcie yet I was learning a ton about alpacas and how to work with them. 

My training goal was to get Dulcie to eat from my hand but to get to that point, I had to keep breaking down the steps into smaller and smaller ones until I found one we could be successful at.  Once she ate from the bucket, I was still at a loss of how to get from bucket to hand.  I asked a clicker training friend of mine for advise and ideas and she suggested a spoon.  It extended my reach so Dulcie would be further away from me.  That didn't work at all.  It was a good theory but Dulcie saw this foreign object that she had never seen before and was back to being as skittish as our first day.  The spoon got stowed away. 

I found a feed scoop at the feed store.  It had a wider opening and looked more like a bucket of grain which Dulcie was used to.  I came out with that and placed it on the ground and she ate from it.  Yay! One step closer.  I sat with the scoop so she had to come to me to get her pellets.  She got pretty comfortable eating from the scoop but each time I tried to get her to eat from my hand, she wouldn't go for it.  I needed another step between scoop and hand.  I finally got the idea of placing my hand under the scoop.  This allowed Dulcie to get used to my arm being in the same position as it would be if she were eating from my hand but it was from her comfort zone of eating from the scoop.  At first, Dulcie was eating directly from the scoop with my hand holding the bottom of the scoop.  She didn't see my hand at all.  But as she got more comfortable with my arm in that position, I moved the scoop so my fingertips showed.  Dulcie had to brush my fingertips with her lips and chin to get to the pellets.  The first time, she jumped back.  But she was hooked on the pellets.  She looked at the scoop and my fingertips and decided to try eating.  I didn't move those fingertips at all and she saw that she could eat just like she did before.  I let her do that several times and then moved the scoop up so more of my fingers showed and repeated those same steps.  I observed that Dulcie got more comfortable with my hand being there with each click.  I now had my palm showing and I sprinkled some pellets into my palm so she could take from the palm of my hand or go into the scoop to get her pellets.  The first try or two, she went into the scoop and then finally, she ate from my hand without realizing it was my hand!  Success!  Well, sort of success.  I still had the scoop there.  I slowly pulled the scoop away and within a few more tries, she was eating comfortably from my hand and no scoop.

It took three weeks of doing all these steps before I had my ultimate goal reached of Dulcie eating from my hand.  Because it wasn't easy getting Dulcie to get her to step one of clicker training, taking food from the hand, I had to learn patience both with her and myself.  I went from having my ego pretty much demolished after that first clicker training attempt to building my confidence as each effort and small success showed me I could do this.  It became a fun challenge as I explored how to break down each step until I got a success.  It made me a much better trainer because I had to observe and understand where the starting point was and then how to figure out the steps to get her to the final goal. 

That simple concept has been a real life lesson.  Looking back at the various life experiences I have had, it has followed that pattern of at first "failing," then picking myself up and figuring out what I needed to learn and do to get to the goal I didn't accomplish the first time out.  In the case with Dulcie, the simple task of getting an alpaca to eat from my hand has led to me becoming passionate about training alpacas and positive reinforcement training, and building a business doing it.  I shutter to think what I would have missed if I stopped at those first feelings of failure.  It turned out to be the best failure ever!

If you like to read about more of these experiences, my book Alpacas Don't Do That is coming out very soon!  Advanced sales will be announced in the coming days!


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