Llamas are very intelligent animals who can learn many things, and it is easy to train them. Every llama should know some basics:
1. To allow you to halter him quickly and easily.
2. To walk along with you when on a leash, keeping the leash loose.
3. To jump into a van, pickup, or trailer for transporting.
4. To let you handle their body, so you can do grooming or check injuries.
Beyond that, what a llama will be doing will determine what you train it to do. If a llama is destined to be a pack animal going into the mountains with you, then a series of lessons in carrying a pack will be called for. Llamas can be trained to drive to cart, to sit down and get up on command, and much more.
“Llamas are very fast learners,” says Bobra Goldsmith, a well-known llama trainer. “When you are teaching a llama something, don’t be surprised if he gets it after just a few trials.”
After I heard Bobra say that once, I thought I would test out her assertion by counting how many repetitions it did take before my llama Whiskers would willingly enter my VW van through the side door. I didn’t have to count very far, just to five! Afterwards, he would always jump right in the van when we wanted to take him somewhere. Sometimes it was many months between outings, but he never forgot. In contrast, I have never succeeded in teaching any of my dogs something in only five trials.
Comparing llamas and dogs in another way is interesting. Llamas will learn more rapidly than dogs that walking with the leash loose is really the way to do it! This makes it a lot of fun to take a llama out hiking along backcountry trails. However, if horses come along, do be quick to yield the right of way. Move your llama a ways away from the trail so the horses will be less likely to spook. If they haven’t encountered llamas before, they may be a bit afraid.
Bobra has had many llamas herself and out of her experience she has developed many ways to train them. For instance, she teaches llamas to allow themselves to be haltered by using a slow movement in approaching their faces with the halter. The animals seem to appreciate the calmness, and it’s really quite easy for anyone to learn to halter llamas this way. Her methods are also widely used with alpacas.
She trains llamas of all ages, and you can learn to do it too. While you might wish that all your llamas would be already trained when you get them, you are likely to find some that need more work. This is because people often don’t know how to train or they just don’t bother. But you can get a DVD online which shows Bobra Goldsmith’s methods. It’s useful for learning to train llamas, naturally — that’s what it was made for — but it also turns out that quite a few people get the DVD before they get llamas, to get a sense of what is involved in llama training.
Llama training is surprisingly easy to learn. That’s fortunate, because it’s important. Llamas are large enough and strong enough that you don’t want to be using brute force to get a llama into his halter, for example, or to load him in a van. There are a variety of ways to train llamas. We learned from Bobra Goldsmith and then produced Llama Training with Bobra Goldsmith: What Every Llama Should Know, a two-hour DVD. You can see a couple of minutes of that DVD here:
Llama Training Is Easy to Learn
It’s easy in two ways:
- It is quite simple for people to learn how to train llamas, even if they haven’t trained any animal before.
- Llamas learn quickly and generally are interested in doing new things with you.
The second point is actually the reason for the first one! Because llamas tend to learn quickly, you can learn to train them relatively easily.
For example, if you have ever trained a dog or watched someone else do so, you know that it can take quite a number of repetitions before the dog really understands what you want and does it reliably upon request. Even with newer methods like clicker training dogs, they are generally slower to grasp what you want than llamas are.
I’ve had llamas be reliable about loading into a vehicle after doing it with them five or six times. The first few times, it can take some patience as the llamas are often reluctant to enter the unfamiliar confined space. But once they decide (with your gentle coaxing) to give it a try, each repetition increases their confidence. Nothing surprising about that — but it’s certainly rare for a dog to learn something with just five or six practices!
It’s also easy for us humans because it doesn’t usually require much strength. You aren’t pulling with all the force you can muster on the lead rope; you are encouraging the llama by showing it what you want. My mentor in llama training, Bobra Goldsmith, talks a lot about developing trust and willingness, and this is evident in her DVD.
Of course, llamas vary in their willingness to trust humans — just as we humans do ourselves. A llama who has been mishandled may be much less willing to trust people than one who has only know kindness. Llama personalities vary too — some are more placid and easy-going, some are more skittish.
It’s Important to Train Your Llamas
If you have llamas, or the responsibility for some, you want to be able to move them from one pasture to another. You want to be able to groom them, to transport them to a veterinarian if necessary or to a new home. You may want to take them on hikes. These are just a few of the countless occasions which could make you much happier to have trained llamas than untrained. Believe me, I’ve had both kinds.
In a perfect world, every llama would be trained to do at least a few basic things: to accept a halter, to walk easily on a loose lead rope, to go into a vehicle or trailer. Every llama would develop a basic trust in the humans that handle it.
Well, between too much to do and not knowing quite how to train a llama, over the years, a lot of llama owners have not come very close to that perfect world. But you can.
There Are a Variety of Ways to Train Llamas
Because llamas learn so easily, and because working with them is so enjoyable, a lot of creativity and effort has gone into llama training in recent decades. As I see it, there is no one right method to train. There are some basic guidelines that all the best trainers would agree on: You don’t need a heavy hand. Patience is a virtue. Llamas can learn by watching another llama being taught something.
his is where most people THINK we're getting down to the business of training llamas, but don't be fooled! If you and your llama aren't solid on Go, Stop, and Stay Stopped, you're going to have problems you didn't need to have!
COMEBEFORES - Go, Stop, and Stay Stopped. When the llama is responding well to your cue to stop, and remaining balanced while you walk up and touch him, it's time to think about haltering.
START HERE - Still in the round pen.
AIM FOR THIS - You'll enter the pen, ask the llama to stop, walk up to him, put an arm around his neck, slip the halter on his willing nose and calmly do it up. So far the record in llama shows for entering a 10' square pen, catching a naked llama, haltering him, and leading him out of the pen is our own Windfield's Rolling Thunder in 17 seconds.
TINY STEPS - A huge part of the art of training any animal is learning to break a "large" behaviour, such as "Being Haltered" into very small pieces. You've got a much better chance of explaining what you want to the llama if you only have to explain little bits at a time. Breaking things down (called "Splitting" in the training world, as opposed to the sin of "Lumping", which is trying to teach the animal a very complicated behaviour all at once) is an art, and it's incredibly difficult in the beginning. All I can tell you is that it's really important, discussing your training plans with a friend will help a lot, and you'll get better at it the more you practise! To get you started, here's an example of splitting "He stands still while you halter him": He stands still while you approach him. He stands still while you approach him with the halter. He stands still while you put your right arm around his neck. He stands still while you put your arm around his neck with the halter in your right hand. He stands still while you show the halter to his right eye. He stands still while you hold the halter in both hands in front of his nose. He stands still while you slip the halter over his nose. He stands still while you put the strap around his neck. He stands still while you do up the halter.
HOW TO TEACH IT - I feel that I have better control of the situation if I have one arm around the back of the llama's neck as I halter him. I don't know why this is if the llama wants to leave, I certainly can't hold him (and wouldn't try), but that's the way I feel, so that's the position I'm going to talk about. If you prefer to halter with both hands in front of his face, simply put your right arm in front of his neck rather than around it.
So, with the llama on your right side, work to the point where you can put your right arm around the back of his neck and hold one hand on each side of his muzzle. Obviously at this point, you're out of his balance point, but if you move slowly and continue to reward him by leaving him alone, you can work it out. When he's OK with this, start again FROM THE BEGINNING while holding the halter. That is, move him around the pen, stop and start him, move toward him, touch him, get into haltering position. Take some time with this. If he's untrained, it won't make much of a difference, but if he's had some bad training, he's liable to be worse than he was in the beginning. You need to give him time to relax and understand that you're saying the same things with the halter in your hand as you were saying before. At this point, you don't need a lead attached to the halter.
When you're back where you were, with your right arm around his neck, bring the halter up near his right eye so he can see it (he won't be able to focus on it if you make it magically appear in front of his nose), then move it slowly in front of his nose and hold it open with both hands. We put the halter on the right side so when he turns away from it, he'll be turning towards you. That will sort of balance him between your face and the halter. If he's learned to raise his nose out of range of the halter, you can counter this by bringing the halter down toward his nose instead of up. If he's a big llama and you're short, I'm afraid you're just going to have to outlast him. Hold the halter as high as you can, then wait for and reward any relaxation of the neck or dropping of his nose. I know it isn't easy to stand with your arms up, but it isn't easy for him to stand with his neck stiff and his nose up either. If he needs to escape at this moment, that's OK, don't try to hold him. Push him several times around the pen and then start again. The moment he stands with the halter in front of his face, held in both your hands, be SURE to reward him by giving him his space for a moment.
Thinking of the situation from his point of view, he has allowed you to get close to him and trap him, and now you're trying to put some strange scary thing on his face. When you get to the point of putting the halter on his nose, your explanations need to be very clear, your rewards obvious, and your plans less important than what's happening. If you jam the halter on his face, you're confirming his worst fears and wiping out all the good you've done so far. Open the halter so he can put his nose into it, and hold it calmly between your two hands near his nose. Don't jerk it around but slowly follow his nose as he moves it here and there to avoid the halter. When his nose points toward the halter, take the halter away. That's right, reward him for having his nose in the right position. There's nothing more frustrating than spending 15 years with a llama that needs to be wrestled into a halter! It may not be quite that simple, of course, especially if you're retraining. Your brain is bigger than his, though, and you can wait for the behaviour you want. Maybe he won't casually move his nose into the right position. Maybe his neck and shoulders will go tight, his eyes will be squeezed shut, and his head will be jammed into the wall so hard you can barely get your right arm around his neck. Poor frightened baby! You need to be the relaxed one, unfrustrated one. Simply stand with the halter near his nose, and wait, wait, wait for that instant of relaxation where the nose turns a quarter inch toward the halter. Wow! Take the halter away to reward him. Imagine his surprise that you didn't wrestle with him! He's taking another huge step toward trusting you. Start again. When he's relaxed enough to stand with his nose pointed at the opening in the halter, you can start moving the halter toward his nose and away from it, and finally slipping it on.
The temptation is great at this point to quickly try to get the halter done up, but control yourself. Reward him for letting you get it over his nose. That's right, take it off, and leave him alone. When he's comfortable with the halter sitting over his nose, you can start moving your hands and the neck strap toward the back of his neck. Backwards, forwards, take it off, on the nose, backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards, take it off. Play with it until he's comfortable. When it really isn't any big deal, do it up. Loosely at first, then tighter. In the beginning, every time I get it done up, I give him a little pan of oats and leave him alone to eat it with the halter on. When he's done, I take it off.
POSSIBLE PROBLEM - I've met llamas that were so frightened by the halter that they'd jam their noses into it. Great, right? Sure, except when they're doing it out of fear, they punch their noses through the halter so hard they knock it out of your hand or cut their lips hitting the wall on the other side of the halter. What to do about this situation? Remember that he started this because it seemed the only way for him to escape from being grabbed and threatened with the halter. Work calmly and gradually up to holding the halter in both hands with your right arm around the llama's neck. Reward the behaviour you want - in this case, standing still withOUT diving at the halter. When the llama dives at the halter, drop it with one hand and hold it on the side of his neck where he can't get at it, then put it back up in front of his nose. Don't let him get it on until he can stand calmly and YOU slip it slowly over his nose.
IN OTHER WORDS - Haltering is a great behaviour to shape with the clicker. Hold the halter in your hand, click and reward when he turns his head toward the halter, moves toward it, touches it, puts his nose in it, and stands to let you buckle it. Sometimes I start my crias by laying an open halter in their oat pan and then letting them eat through it. It's very cool to be able to hold up a halter and have your llama come over and put it on!
GETTING BETTER - Llamas have a bad reputation for haltering. It's nice to have llamas that you know are calm and reasonable about this absolutely necessary behaviour. Working with treats will get your llama easily to the point where you can balance him in a pasture, walk right up and put his halter on.
TRAINING TIP - Haltering is easier to teach when the noseband of your halter stays open. If you have a light, floppy halter, you might want to soak it in some starch before you start working on this.