The most helpful book in our understanding of this principle has been the 'equine language' of Monty Roberts (The Man Who ListensTo Horses) which we recommend that you read in order to understand what is going on between your trainees. Although llamas are different from horses in many ways, the positions and body postures that humans should use are much the same. (We are hoping that someone will put in the time and research to work out the species-specific language for llamas, but this is hard to do in man-made artificial herd environments that muddy the language.) Very briefly, here are a few tips on what the llamas might think you are saying with your mannerisms and postures. Moving into the animal's 'bubble' of safe space creates anxiety. this 'bubble' is of different sizes for different llamas, handlers, and situations. Facing any prey species front-on and looking into its eyes is a threatening gesture, like the position of a predator figuring the distance for a pounce. Reaching out both hands towards it while in this posture intensifies the message. Moving with the body at a 45 degree angle and looking at the llama's back is non-threatening. Turning your back on a llama is a declaration of non-interest and relieves anxiety. The oblique glance is much better than a concentrated gaze. Time spent hanging out with the herd but not doing anything with any of them is very valuable as a training tool. Bring a lawn chair and a magazine and spend some time doing nothing.
We try to start babies well by frequent interaction with the herd in the presence of these babies, observing and being observed, being aware of the signals we are sending so that they accept us without thinking of us as herd members. Important note: males grow up to be very competitive with other herd members. This is why you do not want to get grouped as a kind of herd member in a young male cria's developing 'world-view'. We are very serious about this: no cuddling the young males, you'll make them think they are dominant over humans at a very tender age, something that is almost impossible to remove when they are grown. Should you do this to your young male, it cannot be trained or gelded out of him. Worst-case scenarios (bottle-raised males) produce animals that cannot function in a herd; they die of ulcers at an early age from sheer frustration. This is almost never a problem with females, so if you must kiss and cuddle, get a girl.
Our pre-training consists of keeping the crias in with trained llamas, which hopefully includes the mother. We adjust our behavior according to the personality of the baby and its dam so that he/she will come to regard us as pleasant but authoritative, causing events that their elders consider non-threatening at worst, and the nicest part of the day at best. If we can help it, we do not do anything to get the mother worked up about any handling in her new baby's presence, although some procedures, such as annual shots and worming, are unavoidable. We do try to get a collar on the cria without frightening it, and we might do a little feeding when he is tied to a post by a lead attached to the collar, as long as he is more interested in eating than fighting the lead. Whatever we do around a nursing llama, we try to keep any traumatic associations to a minimum and capitalize on positive ones.
About one llama in twenty has a very 'freaky' personality, by which we mean that he is quicker than most llamas to 'explode' into escape mechanisms of every sort at any perceived threat. One of the special problems with this kind of personality is that the intense fear --- and the possible injury as he flings himself about trying to escape --- provide a very negative association even though nothing has yet actually been done to him. For this personality, patience and slower stages are needed. We have found TEAM training to be effective for establishing an atmosphere of trust and calming these down enough so that they can learn. These animals are not recommended for inexperienced trainers because the unconscious human body language will often undo whatever lesson they mean to present. Unfortunately, not everyone has a mentor llama, good training halters, or a catch pen. Our first ones back in the early eighties were nothing like our current herd and required a lot of creativity. This is where advanced methods come in; but in the interest of brevity, we'll go on with basic training.
At weaning, basic training begins. The youngster is removed from the pen with his dam and put into another with other beginners and a mentor llama. (It needs to be out of view of the dam if you want his full attention.) The purpose of the mentor llama is to 'translate' to the youngsters exactly what we want it to do and -- very important -- that it is nothing to get worked up about. Because an adult trained llama will naturally have a higher position in the herd than the trainees, the youngsters look to him/her for protection and herd dominance. (Note: if you have a 'problem' adult llama, this is a good time to keep it out of the way, lest the mentor effect occur in reverse!) We limit the food supply --- which the larger, more dominant mentor will eat most of anyway --- so that our presence and the training becomes associated with the pleasurable reward of the food we bring.
Lesson one is 'come to call'. I use a distinct double-whistle noise because it is easy for me to make and leaves my hands free. (This is called a 'cue signal') sometimes I use "lamalamalama" or any other call with a lot of Ls in it. I have thought of trying semaphore flags for summoning them from a distance, since they already seem to respond this way to the sight of a feed bucket. What is important is that the signal is distinctive, consistently repeated and that it is usually followed by food being available. However, the food isn't presented until the correct behavior has been demonstrated. In this case, to get the food, the llama must come to the food when called. It is not left out for him --- he has to come and get it, preferably into a catch pen or other small area. This usually doesn't even need to be taught with youngsters raised in a tame herd, but it is a vital first step for a field-raised adult or baby. For a 'wild' llama to enter an enclosure where he will be regularly restrained, the fear must be replaced with trust. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS STEP IF IT IS NEEDED! A grown llama who is quite unhandled may require a very strong hunger motivation to overcome his fear.
When the llamas do come, it will be the trainees following the mentor
llama. You want to tie up the mentor and give him a bit of food so
that the trainees will get a chance to be rewarded at once for coming with
their own food buckets without dominance battles and spit threats.
Under natural herd rules, they would come with the mentor but not get a
chance to eat until he finished, slowing down your training process by
delaying the reward. So tie the mentor up first. Do each of
the following steps at least once a day (three times will speed up the
learning curve), each time feeding enough to reward the behavior, but not
so much that they will be disinterested at the next session. Note:
during the training process, if you vary the procedure or interrupt it,
your signals will be more confusing and training will take that much longer.
the lesson is: CUE NOISE + CATCH PEN = FOOD
After the weanlings come reliably and quickly into the catch pen when they hear your signal, you want to acclimatize them to the halter. Some babies, especially those whose mothers were often haltered and led in their presence, will have no problem with the halter. Most, however, will experience some degree of reluctance. Since llamas naturally do not like hands or other objects (halters, for instance) around their eyes, ears, and lips; and since they are animals who depend on flight for defense and thus are afraid of being caught, trapped, or restrained, the act of putting on a halter must be handled carefully so that the negatives in their hard-wiring can be reprogrammed with neutral and/or positive associations.
How we begin the haltering depends on many things, starting with the
personality of the llama and the resources we have to hand. Our entire
herd is pretty well-trained, so in most cases with our own weanlings, we
use a field with a rather tight catch-pen and simply walk around the youngster
calmly, using appropriate body language, until it ducks into a posture
which indicates that it will permit handling, often standing close to the
unruffled mentor llama. Then we slip the halter on, using deliberate,
non-threatening motions, trying to make the process fairly quick.
It helps if you don't have to mess with a difficult buckle up by the baby's
ears, especially the first few times. A helper with the food bucket
is really useful --- the hungry youngster is rewarded as soon as its nose
goes through the halter loop, and while the halter is being fastened it's
busy eating. If the process is very traumatic, you can break this
into two steps, first, having the baby willing to eat with his nose in
the loop of the halter (place it in a coffee can half-full of feed), and
then buckling the back once he is used to the feel of the straps around
his face. Whether done in one step of two, as soon as the llama does
what you want, reward it. If the animal is too busy being afraid
to eat the reward, then you need to go slower and break it into smaller
steps. (Forcing the llama to go faster than it can overcome its fear
is 'untraining', and you will pay for it in spades when you have to handle
that animal later.) While the haltered trainee is getting his goodies,
we go to work on the other trainees.
The lesson is: CUE NOISE + COME + HALTER = FOOD
After haltering is going along pretty smoothly --- often the third session
for babies from a tame herd, but as long as three consistent months for
unhandled adults --- we fasten the trainee to a post by a short rubber
strap or lead and let him wait for his food while we halter up the others.
This is the beginning of the lesson that ropes and leads are to be honored;
the lead should be too short for him to wrap around his neck and have a
little 'give' in it, so that when he pulls, it pulls back. Some use
a bicycle inner tube but we find heavy truck tarp straps (not bungee balls)
to be simpler. A lead will also work if tied short with a quick-release
knot. If he is not ready for this step (that is, the whole process
of being caught and haltered still bothers him too much to eat) then wait
on it a while. A little resistance is fine, but fear and trauma becomes
'untraining'. We stay in sight the whole time, but we prefer that he work
it out without necessarily associating us with the cause of his restraint.
Without letting too much time pass, his feed bucket is filled and placed
in reach. We release the trainee at a moment when he is calm and
has accepted the restraint.
The lesson is: CUE NOISE + COME + HALTER + RESTRAINT = FOOD
After several sessions involving haltering and restraint, the youngster
has learned to come into the catch pen on signal, accept the halter, and
not fight the lead. Now he is ready for lead-training. The
best way to do this is with a mentor llama and a helper. Using the
mentor llama in the front, you go for a walk. If you have no helper,
put a saddle on the mentor and hitch baby to the back. Go for a walk.
Feed them when you get back. Do this often, exposing the trainee
to more different stimulus and remember that he is learning more from the
reaction of the mentor than he is from your demeanor. Keep an eye
on his trauma level --- you want him to deal with things he finds worrying,
but you must be careful not to push him into all-out terror, when the training
becomes untraining. Go under and around things. The more you do,
the more fun you'll have, and the more calm and trained your llama will
become. Consistency and repetition are 90% of training success.
The lesson is: CUE NOISE + COME + HALTER + WALK = interesting things to see.