Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Answering the Question of "Why Does My Alpaca Run When I Try and Catch?"

I take pride on having my alpacas be social and fairly easy to catch, halter and work with.  I really like it when I know I am selling and passing on to the new owner, a really good quality alpaca that is also a pleasure to work with.  Nothing feels better knowing that.  I also love sharing how I create that behavior in an alpaca.  Not too long ago, I was contacted by an alpaca owner asking why their alpaca was so difficult to catch and could I fix that behavior.  I asked what was going on and to describe how they catch or try to catch their alpacas.  They told me that this alpaca runs and bucks when being caught.  I asked if they were using a catch pen.  There was silence on the other end.  I asked how they were trying to catch the alpaca if there was no catch pen.  The answer was that they catch their alpacas out in the open field.  I understood the problem immediately.

Catching in an open field is usually helping to reinforce the behavior of "I can out run the two-legger and get away!"  Or, what I call the "Woohoo!" behavior to an alpaca.  Once they know they can get away from you and they know you are trying to catch them, they run past you and kick up their heels and you can almost here them yell, "WOOHOO!" as they fly past.  If you keep trying to catch them this way, that escape and runaway behavior has been well trained and established.  We so would love our alpacas to exhibit the good and desirable behavior all the time, and do it just because we are such wonderful loving humans.  But the reality is, they aren't going to do that.  We have to set them up to behave the way we want them to.  Plus, we have to maintain that behavior.  We typically train weanlings how to wear their halters and walk nicely on their halters.  But if we think that is the end of the training story, then we quite often find undesirable behaviors popping up again.

Trying to catch in an open field is asking for trouble.  I almost always take that extra step and use my catch pens when I know I need to halter up an alpaca.  I use my catch pens to feed and use it for clicker lessons and just for fun.  That way, alpacas enjoy going in there.  The vast majority of times going into the catch pen means fun and treats.  If all they ever experience in a catch pen is being caught, they will avoid it.  You have some forgiveness in using a catch pen if it's pleasurable most of the time in using it.  So, even if it feels like an extra step or an added evolution to go use the catch pen, it usually saves you an awful lot of time and frustration.  And most importantly, it helps you avoid training in that unpleasant "Woohoo" behavior.

I don't want to teach my alpacas to run away from me either.  I want my alpacas to run TO me not AWAY from me.  So if someone keeps trying to catch them out in the open field, what they are really training that alpaca to do is run AWAY from them.  They certainly are not training them to be caught.  And the more times you try and catch in the open field and they run away, the stronger that behavior is REINFORCED.  In essence the behavior reinforced is RUN AWAY. 

Even though an alpaca is well trained to be caught easily, haltered and handled doesn't mean it will stay that way if they are consistently allowed to learn something different.  Training is life long.  You have to work with them, handle alpacas consistently and not always take what you think is the easy way out.  If I catch in the field, it is usually one shot at it and if I'm unsuccessful, I walk away and go to my catch pen method.  However, if I don't catch that one time, I often have to wait longer to use the catch pen because they are onto me that they are going to get caught and less likely to run right into the catch pen.  So there are many downsides of trying to catch in the open field. 

Once I have the alpaca I want to handle or halter in the catch pen, I don't care if it runs away from me a few times.  I actually allow it and don't even try and catch the alpaca.  I want it to know it can move away from me.  It can't run out of the catch pen so it isn't going far away.  It typically takes three times of it running away that it finally realizes that there is no escape.  I can tell in its eyes that it is about ready to give up and allow itself to be caught.  They slow down and face away from me in a corner most often.  I will actually put that on a cue and ask the alpaca to "Pick a corner."  I let them choose what corner they prefer.  I like corners because it has two walls and I can position my body so once it is giving up, I can block the escape route.  I can walk up slowly and gently and I tell the alpaca to "Stand."  I like telling the alpaca what I want them to do and what I'm about to do to it.  I will even say "Touch" when I go to touch their neck just below their ears to hold them steady.  When holding them, I touch them with enough pressure to hold them still and steady.  I try not to grab.  The softer and gentler I can touch them, the better for both of us.

I had a extra large male standing stud on my farm for a couple of years.  I loved that guy.  He was huge and strong and if he wanted to, he could toss me all over the place.  But he was one guy that so appreciated being handled in this calm, gentle fashion in the catch pen.  I followed those steps I described in the preceding paragraph and he would stand as gentle as could be as I placed my hand on his neck and halter him.  During herd health days or shearing day, I made sure I was the one to catch Big Mak.  Men he would toss all over and even two strong men would have a hard time catching him because they would try and meet him muscle and macho vs macho.  No one out macho'd Big Mak!  But, then 5'2" me would walk into the catch area and make all leave and I'd do my little quiet thing of telling him to pick a corner and stand and as gently as could be, catch and halter him.  The men would be rubbing their bruises and shaking their head. 

So many times I have heard people say, "that alpaca won't win!" when unsuccessfully trying to catch an alpaca.  Watching this ego battle of "winning,"  I shake my head and then go do my quiet little method of catching.  I prefer "winning" without muscle and brawn.  I get much fewer bruises that way and the alpacas are so much more cooperative.  Who likes to be grabbed and tossed about?  Not me!  So why should the alpaca?  They don't.  Unless you are training for an alpaca rodeo, I recommend this quieter method of catching.

To Read More About Big Mak, Check Out My Book Alpacas Don't Do That

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