Thursday, November 7, 2013

Teaching Alpacas Patience Part II

In my last blog, I talked about how I was teaching my alpaca boys patience while they took turns getting their chest scratches.  There were a number of cool things that happened during that spontaneous trainable moment.

1) I didn't have any goodies on me.  The chest scratches were the reward.  If you ask an alpaca farmers if on their list of things they'd offer an alpaca as a reward, touching would probably not be on their list.  In this case, it wasn't just a good reward, it was a fantastic reward.  It worked as well or perhaps even better than offering them a food reward.  Having something that I can offer in one of these spontaneous moments is huge.  Positive behavior training means catching them in that moment doing what you want them to do.  If you have to go to the barn to get some treats, you missed the moment.  In training jargon, the training technique I was doing was called "capturing."  I wasn't luring or shaping the behavior.  I caught the alpacas in the moment doing something I want to encourage and have become a stronger behavior.  Either you need to carry treats and a clicker at all times which some days I'm better at doing than others I must admit, or you need to have another reward system that is like chest scratches and is available where ever you and your alpaca is!

2) During this spontaneous trainable moment, I was actually getting two behaviors trained at the same time.  The chest scratch was the reward but it is also a behavior that I want to encourage and become a stronger influence.  I was also teaching the boys to take turns and be patient.  This helps with them being less spitty, their names are more solidly understood (yes alpacas can learn their names), and it teaches them that they can be patient and get much more goodies than if they get pushy and obnoxious over getting their share of the prize.  These guys are smart and at some point, being piggish has been rewarded by either being more dominant to get their feed at supper time or at the hay bin, the hose or treat time.  I probably have inadvertantly helped create that behavior too as I hand out goodies.  The braver or more aggressive one does seem to win more prizes.  It is very normal to see the dominant alpaca get more.  It fits that metaphor of the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  However, it doesn't always make for a pleasant experience for any of us if it becomes a spit fest and I want the more passive ones to have a turn without me always having to create a special space for us to work.  It is much nicer to have them learn to take turns.

Teaching the alpacas to take turns so that all can get some treats has to overcome a lot of  old reinforcement that was established in their pecking order dynamics.  To change that dynamic, I need a real strong motivator.  Pellets are good motivators but since that is often the reward that creates the negative behavior in this instance, finding a different reward not associated with the the piggy behavior was not easy to find, but the chest scratches gave me that new reward.  I could have done it with pellets but it is a bigger challenge as the trainer to create a successful situation to provide the consistent reward to establish the new behavior.  It is doable and I have been working on it with the pellets, but it definitely is much harder and longer to change the old behavior.  Chest scratches are a relatively new experience to them so how and when they receive them can be started fresh.  I don't have to undo any old ways.   Because of that, I must be very mindful for future training opportunities where chest scratches are concerned to make sure the behavior I don't want is not allowed to take hold.  Sometimes these spontaneous training moments provide real gems.  Here I thought I was just having an enjoyable moment and it became a very powerful training experience!

Learning to take turns.

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