Chapter 6 - Zen and the Art of Self-Control

Well, super. Now you've got a llama who eats treats from your hand. And tries to knock the treat pan out of your hands. And mugs your apron pockets when he thinks you've got something good in them. Time to teach him a little self-control! Animal trainers use the word "Zen" to describe a situation where the animal understands he has to control himself in order to get what he wants.

COMEBEFORES - It isn't necessary to have a rude llama before you teach Zen. In fact, it's a very good idea to teach it before he ever thinks about being rude. If he IS rude already, Zen will help a lot. When you're teaching him to walk on a loose lead, think of it as "Lead Zen". You can practise "Gate Zen" and "Hay Zen", "Treat Zen", "Other Llama Zen" - anything he really wants, you can use to remind him that self-control is the foundation of civilization!

START HERE - Put some treats in a pan THAT YOU CAN PROTECT. Horse trainers use plastic spaghetti keepers. They're deep enough to hold lots of treats, but narrow enough that you can protect the contents from a mugging llama. I use a flat treat pan, but I have big hands and can protect a big space. Stand in your round pen with a llama that wants treats (unless he's rude enough to actually push you around, or unless you don't feel confident being around him, then stand outside the pen and work over the fence. Being safe isn't the same as being chicken!).

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At right, Isatu has oats in a spaghetti keeper that we've fixed up with a shoulder strap. Here Perdrix's doing a nice sidepass to earn her oats.

AIM FOR THIS - Your llama knows you have treats, he's ready to work with you, but he's politely staying out of your personal space waiting for you to offer him something.

HOW TO TEACH IT - Stand quietly protecting the treats. Let him push at the pan. Let him push at your hand. Let him wonder and worry and fuss about how to get those treats. Stand quietly. Sooner or later he'll give up, and when he gives up, he'll move his nose away from your treat pan. AHA! That's what you've been waiting for. If you're using a clicker, click now. Whip a handful of treat or the pan out to him. Whip it OUT, away from your body. When he's finished eating it, move your pan back in toward your body where you can protect it, and stand quietly again. He'll probably come back and try mugging you again. Wait serenely until he gives up again, click, then offer him the pan or another handful of treats away from your body. Keep explaining this to him - in my space gets nothing, staying out of my space gets treats - until you notice him standing back looking at you expectantly. Bingo! Don't forget to reward this behaviour - he doesn't have to be BAD in order to be rewarded for being GOOD!

MAKE IT BETTER - Play the same game with a gate or door. Start to open the gate. If he crowds you or starts to push through, close it again. Start to open it, close it if he moves forward. The gate will only stay open if he gives you reasonable space and time to open it and offer him a clear path through it. (This works for dogs, too!)

ADD A CUE - I don't have a voice cue for Zen - it's what I call a "default" behaviour. It's just the way life is. It isn't MY responsibility to keep him out of my space, it's HIS job to stay out of my space. I DO have a body language cue, though. A treat, whether it's in my hand or in a pan, is available to the llama when it's held out away from my body. If I'm carrying the pan close to my body, the only way to get treats out of it is to stay away from it and hope I notice how good he's being.

USING IT - A common complaint of people trying to feed llamas is that the llamas spit at them. Of course, the llamas aren't really spitting at the people, but squabbling with the llamas beside them over possession of the food they don't even have yet. Unfortunately, they're WATCHING the food coming, which means their "spitters" are pointed right at the people bringing the food. Once you've taught a llama Treat Zen, though, he's going to be too busy concentrating on staying out of your space to bother fussing about another llama. A common myth about animals that are trained with food is that they're pushy about food, in your face, impolite about your space. This isn't actually a myth, but it leaves out the part where you used Zen to remind them of the manners they learned from their mothers and herdmates. Animals will always do what gets them what they want. If mugging you gets treats, they'll mug you. If being polite gets treats, well, they'll be polite.

TRAINING TIP - Don't carry treats into a llama pen when you're too busy to notice his behaviour. One of the biggest problems of training is all the ugly stuff we teach them when we didn't notice what they were learning!