Reprinted From the John Mallon Web Site

A MUST for the New Llama Owner

Llearning Llamas 
with John Mallon

Welcome to the column, and thanks for taking the interest in improving your relationship with your  llamas. I will do my best to address questions and problems I most often encounter in my travels  conducting training clinics  around the world, and attempt to leave you with a better understanding of the  animals we have so fortunately chosen to spend our lives with. INCIDENTALLY, the exact same principles apply to horses. So, those of you who have horses, please read on. . .

I suppose I should get a few "ground rules" out of the way before we begin: 

The well-being of the llamas is always my primary consideration, and my contributions to this column will be based upon that fact. My chosen path in life enables me to encounter thousands of llamas, each with problems relating to their humans, and my purpose is to share the benefits of my experience with you.

There are many ways of doing things, and I've probably tried at least most of them in my 35+ years of training various species of animals. The ideas and techniques I'll share with you are only those which have worked in all cases, but if you are doing something different from what I suggest, and it is working  for you, there is no reason to change it ("if it ain't broke, don't fix it. . .") With that out of the way, let's talk llamas.

What are llamas, exactly? Why do they do the things they do? What makes them tick? What motivates them to alter their behavior? Why won't they do what I want them to do? Why do they seem to be afraid of me? Why are they so stubborn sometimes? Don't they know I'm not going to hurt them? The key to working successfully with llamas is understanding, because what is often misconstrued as misbehavior is simply misunderstanding on the llamas's part, brought on by inconsistent behavior and lack of understanding on our part. Once we begin to understand the animal, the animal can begin to understand us, and learn to cooperate with us, so that we may work safely and peacefully together.

When we wrote that check to purchase our llamas, we signed a contract of care; we agreed to look after them, not just look at them. In order to properly care for these animals, we must be able to trim toenails, give shots, administer worming medication, groom, move from place to place for weighing, etc., and do it all as safely and stress-free as possible. This is where training comes into play - if a llama is in serious trouble and our interference escalates his stress, raising blood pressure, heart- and respiration rates, then there is an increased chance that an animal that might otherwise have survived, will die. Stress kills.

Unfortunately, some people have the idea that training is "icing on the cake", not really necessary if we don't plan to show, pack, or drive the animal. Training is of the utmost importance if we are to have civilized relationships with the llama, relationships which are compatible rather than adversarial. With that in mind, let's take a look at what the llama is, from the inside out. . .

The llama is a prey animal, the exact opposite of the dogs and cats (confident predator/hunters with which we are always comparing our llamas) that we are used to. Expecting, or hoping that our llamas will respond to us in the same general manner in which dogs do can only lead to frustration and failure - it just isn't going to happen. Being a prey animal controls every aspect of the llama's life, a life that is filled with mistrust, suspicion, and self-protective behavior. Fear is the llamas' friend, his savior, for, without it, he would become prey to the predator. His ability to flee instantly from any perceived threat is what has  kept him going for all these thousands of years, and his instinct to do so has served him well, and  although his need to be ever-vigilant and protective has been diminished somewhat through domestication and a looked-after lifestyle, the instinct has not changed one bit. Only through an  understanding of the psychology of the prey animal can we hope to develop a trusting relationship with an  animal whose job it is to be very highly suspicious of anything new or different in his life. The importance  of this understanding cannot be overstated; these animals are very different, with a whole different way of  looking at, and experiencing, the world.

Let's take a look at how the prey animal is physically different from the predator, specifically, his eye-set and vision. One of the features that seems to attract people to llamas are their big, beautiful eyes, and  there is no arguing the fact that they do have eyes that are big and beautiful, but they are not that way so  that we'll love them; they are set wide in the head (as with all prey animals) to provide a very wide range  of vision, their first line of defense. Their monocular vision operates like two separate cameras, and their  color and depth perception has been sacrificed in favor of highly specialized and sensitive motion  detectors. 

The predators, on the other hand, have eyes set in the middle of our heads for greater depth perception, enhancing our ability to make the killing strike at the right moment, (hand/claw-eye coordination.) Our ability to see around us is diminished, but we see in front of us just fine. If you ever wonder about whether an animal is prey or predator, remember this - "eyes to the front, they hunt, eyes to the side, they hide." This monocular vision also explains why prey animals must be taught everything twice - once on the left, then again on the right, as if he were two different animals. Imagine sitting in a car that had only side-view mirrors, no rear-view. As someone walks behind the car, you spot them in your side view mirror, and then they disappear from view, only to appear a moment later in the other mirror. This is what the llama experiences when we walk behind him, or reach over to position a pack or harness on him, or reach around his neck to adjust his halter. Different, isn't it? This is the llamas' perception of the world, and like it or not, there is no changing it.

Let's visit a bit more about the differences between prey animals (llamas, alpacas,) and predators (dogs, cats,). We can't dance around this issue - I hear people sometimes say "I don't like to think of myself as a predator; "I don't want to think of this as a predator-prey interaction". Fine, then, don't; but realize that that is how the llama views it, whether we like it or not, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to change that simple fact. We are meat-eaters  (whether individually vegetarian or otherwise), lamas are meat, to put it in its most basic light. This doesn't mean that  we have to approach the llama in a predatory fashion, stalking and "attacking"/ it means that we have to try to  understand another creature's point of view, a point of view which is far outside of our experience.

Unless you've ridden a New York City subway or attended a llama association's annual fund-raiser, you probably have  never truly felt like a prey animal, subject to attack at any moment, in fear for your life, all senses turned up to  "high", alarm systems "hot". Forgive me an attempt at humor there, but this is the crux of the matter - llamas are  different from anything we've been around before, and we can never change what they are, only how they respond to  outside stimuli in their world, as they see it. Their perception is every bit as valid as mine, and their perception is  their reality, simple as that.

Let's say I show up in, oh, Oregon, for a clinic weekend. The temperature at 8:00 a.m. is 50 F., and I, being from  Southern California, am thinking it's a bit chilly this morning, and an attendee, who happens to be from Montana,  feels a bit on the warm side - well, who's right? Where is the line that separates warm from chilly, hot from cold? If  my perception of this morning is that it is chilly, there is no way on earth that you're going to talk me out of it or  convince me otherwise, any more than I'm going to talk the Montana person out of feeling warm. We are both 100%  correct in our assessment of the weather. So, rather than fight the facts, let's try to come to some workable  arrangement, say he loans me his sweater. . . .

In our last visit, we talked about the llama's innate fear of novelty, his highly-developed sense of self-protection, and  his unique (to prey animals) vision. Another major difference is in regards to touch - have you ever noticed how much  dogs and cats love to be petted and stroked, whereas llamas seem to prefer that you never lay a hand on them?

"What's the matter with this animal?", we wonder. There's absolutely nothing wrong with him; llamas do not  inherently like to be touched. Call them touch-aversive, if you will. Llama mamas do not lick their babies in the  manner of cats and dogs (and wolves and tigers..), so touch is not imprinted as a pleasurable sensation on the cria,  and tolerating and accepting touch later on must be learned. Do not expect your llama to react to our petting and  stroking as your predators do. The only thing that touches llamas out in the wild are predators about to kill them.

They are especially sensitive about the face and eyes (first line of defenses - spotting trouble), and the legs (escape  from trouble). Understand this, accept it, and help the llama to overcome his fear of touch so that you may work safely  with him in any and all situations.

Another aspect of the physical llama is that he has virtually no offensive weaponry, no "artillery" to speak of. He hasn't antlers or hooves or fangs or horns; he has speed, instinct, and a fearful nature to see him through danger. I'm  not saying that he lives his life a nervous wreck, but that he is ready at the slightest provocation to run quickly from  any perceived threat, and in order for something to be perceived as threatening, it has only to be new. Novelty is  threatening to a prey animal, and for him to willingly give up his foot to us, making himself totally vulnerable, takes a  tremendous amount of courage and trust.

Movement is the predatory trigger. Movement toward a prey animal triggers him to move away from it, to put distance between himself and whatever is "stalking" or "attacking" him. Don't take it so personally when a llama  oves away from you as you approach or reach out to him - it is an automatic response, requiring no thought process  on the part of the llama. To stand, though, and let us approach and touch him - takes some thinking about - it goes  against his grain; his natural instincts have to be overridden in order for him to be able to stand for it. It is just the  opposite with predators; the worst thing you can do if you encounter a mountain lion along the trail is to turn and run  away from it - it will almost certainly attack; that is the nature of the predator; movement attracts the animal towards  it. Interestingly, movement away from a prey animal will also cause him to follow, once he has established that there  is no danger, because of his highly sociable nature (safety in numbers) and herd mentality. Using this irony to our  advantage is what makes the round pen work so very effective.

The llama, as a sociable, herd-oriented prey species, has an innate cooperative nature. This inclination to accept and  respect authority unquestioningly is what prevents chaos and mayhem within the herd. Call it social order, dominance  hierarchy, pecking order or whatever feels best to you, but recognize the fact that it exists, and for good reasons, as  stated, and learn to use it to your advantage. There is no such concept as equality in a herd of prey animals -  everyone is either above or below their herdmates. Each animal knows and accepts his position, and acts accordingly.

Over our past two visits we've talked about some of the differences, both physical and psychological, between prey animal and predators. I hope that these conversations have helped you to understand some of he seemingly "unusual" behavior shown by our llamas, and helped you to realize that we cannot  expect to get any kind of satisfactory responses from them unless we do a little homework first. Without  a pretty good understanding of the psychology of the prey animal, his instincts and motivations, we'll be stuck in the rut of dissatisfaction, frustration and disappointment, a rut we will share with our llamas. 

Last month, I touched briefly upon the concept of equality, a concept which is unfathomable to a llama, and we'll go into this a bit more in a moment, but first, I'd like to say something about us, the humans. We all love these animals and, in our hearts, want to do the very best for them. I truly believe this, and it is one of the main reasons I travel so much, trying to help people and llamas with their relationships with each other. Loving these wonderful animals is a great place to start, but it is only a start. Love is not enough to make them safe and enjoyable, or even understandable. We have to learn the rules of this "alien" culture if we're to have success in training (I prefer "teaching") them. 

One of the most misunderstood words among aspiring trainers is "dominance". In our society, it has many negative connotations, and rightfully so. For herd and pack animals, though, it is the glue that holds them together. Dominance has absolutely nothing to do with "beating an animal into submission" or being heavy-handed in any way, rather, it is simply a matter of responsible leadership. The "subdominant" animals look to the dominant one for leadership and security. There are many terms used to convey this simple concept - "social order", "dominance hierarchy", "pecking order", but they all mean the same thing. I try to stay away from technical or academic terms as much as possible (do you really care if we're using "classic conditioning", "shaping", "applied operant conditioning", etc. or would you rather concentrate on helping your llama learn to stand still for brushing?), so use whatever feels best to you. Most people are very comfortable with "social order", but balk at "dominance hierarchy" due to the aforementioned cultural bias against "dominance". I say all this to drive home a point - that we cannot work our llamas on an n "equals" basis and hope to have any success. The concept of equality does not exist for a llama.

Within the social order of a herd, every animal is either above or below every other animal. It is a mistake on our part to think that our llamas are trying to "be the boss", or, as I often hear, "he's wants to be #1 in our relationship". The truth is that he only wants to know what his number is, so that he will know how to conduct himself. The llama does not need an equal or a playmate - he needs a boss. Not a tyrant, not a dictator, but a benevolent leader who is willing to assume the responsibilities of leadership and look after the whole society (herd). This is what gives the herd animal a feeling of security and safety. Understanding this basic need of llamas, their knowing where they fit in to the general scheme of things is of utmost importance to anyone hoping to successfully work with them safely and peacefully.

Think about the last time you saw your dominant female (or male) kick one of its subordinates into "submission". Still thinking….? All it takes is a twitch of the ears or way of the tail to get the attention of the others - actual physical altercation is the exception, not the rule. Leadership is understood and respected. Those animals that are lower on the rung are not miserable, unhappy "punching bags", but content and well-adjusted members of their society - because they have a leader. Okay, have you had enough of that? Are you ready to take on the job of leader? Will knowing that the llama needs you in this role help you overcome your natural reluctance to be "dominant"? Good, I was hoping you'd say that!

Now, what does it take? Simplicity and consistency - repeat after me…simplicity and consistency. These are the two most important words in training (teaching). Let's talk about consistency, and why it is so important. Within the herd, there are certain rules which must be obeyed ("don't steal my food", don't nurse me, I'm not your mother", "don't breed me, I'm spoken for", etc.). These rules must be obeyed, unquestioningly, 100% of the time; llamas understand this concept and willingly comply with the rules. We have to expect and demand the same. "You will never spit at me or even threaten to spit at me" is very easily understood and accepted by a llama. "You may spit at, or threaten to spit at me, once in a while, if I'm doing something you don't like, or if you're pregnant, or if…" will only leave the inconsistency. Imagine the following conversation:

"Okay, Mr./Ms. llama, here's how it is from now on, you are never to spit at me, or threaten to spit at
me, under any circumstances, understood?" 

"What if I'm having a bad day - may I spit at you then?"


"What if I'm feeling my progesterone one day - I can let you have one then, can't I?"


"How about if my testosterone levels are up and I've just been fighting with another male; certainly that
would be an exeption, wouldn't it?"


"But if you were fooling with my tail and I didn't like it, surely you'd understand my needing to spit then,


"Let me see if I've got this straight - you're saying that I may NEVER spit at, or even threaten to spit at
you, under ANY circumstances, no matter WHAT?"


"WOW, THANKS! That's EASY! No problem! I sure appreciate you're clearing that up for me - I just
never knew what to do before, Thanks, Boss!

"You're welcome".

More about this next time. 'Til then…

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Reprinted From the John Mallon Web Site