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Guidelines for spending time
with young llamas
Rules for llamas
First, some guidelines that tell crias and weanlings, in clear llama language, that humans are dominant to llamas and thus are to be respected:
1. NO UNINVITED PHYSICAL CONTACT and NO PHYSICAL CONTACT THAT MIMICS FIGHTING MANEUVERS. That includes bumping, touching, rubbing up against you, pushing into you, and wrapping necks around human anatomy. There are many different ways to reinforce this social rule. Watch the adult llamas and they will teach you.
This also includes running up to you without stopping at the edge of your space. A llama should consider about six feet around your body to be strictly "by invitation only," just as he or she does for other respected adult llamas.
2. NO MOUTHING (past one or two weeks old). During the first two weeks, all a cria is doing is following an instinct to discover what places milk might come from. They know that certain types of places are worth targeting, but they don't yet know that there's only ONE milk bar. We've found that not getting any milk is a much stronger deterrent than being pushed away or slapped — so we don't discipline them unless they bite down hard, and we don't foolishly offer our noses for sacrifice during this exploratory period.
After the second week, however, we react to all mouthing just as another adult llama would — with NO tolerance.
3. ALL LLAMAS ARE TO MOVE OUT OF THE WAY when humans need to pass through their space. A companion rule for us is that we don't walk around llamas, and we even deliberately walk through where young llamas are standing. They don't get the idea that they can do it to us, but rather the opposite: Their place is to move away; ours is to go where we please.
Within a herd of grazing animals, dominance is reinforced daily without obvious fighting in just this way. A fight breaks out only if a formerly subordinate animal decides he or she is no longer interested in moving to accommodate a dominant animal. Your interaction within a llama herd is constantly shaping the llamas' concept of your position in relationship to them whether you are aware of it or not.
Young llamas (often yearling and two-year-old males) in a "testing phase" will often block a human's path (or that of another llama). This can happen just as often with llamas who were previously nervous enough of humans that they stayed away and never learning the lesson of who-gets-to-chose-where-they-go. This is a good example of how a llama can develop behavioral problems without having been handled as a youngster, and the humans' response to this will quickly shape the llama's future beliefs about whether humans can and/or should be kept out of his territory.
If the human (or llama) who was blocked goes around, the next step for the tester will be to move at the now-subordinate-being when that being is not moving (similar to what we do with the youngsters to establish our role, above). Whether that is successful or not, the final step for the male tester to establish his territory is to charge the really dense being when it is stupid enough to wander into the testing llama's real estate — the "testing llama" has just become a territorial adult.
4. NO FIDDLING WITH HUMANS' BODIES. That definitely includes playing with shoes and boots — an action that is a prelude to fighting behavior.
There are acceptable and unacceptable ways to get a human's attention. This kind of behavior occurs more frequently when young llamas expect you to feed them and thus are hanging around with you, but can happen at other times, or can stem just as much from boredom as from the expectation that you are smart and can provide access to food they can't get on their own.
Bored young llamas (overwhelmingly males) often pass time fiddling with another animate being. Normally this is a male age-mate, and the ear or neck mouthing, head-ducking, neck-pushing, and such leads to what is commonly recognized as an adolescent wresting match. The problem comes when the llama is bored (or wants your attention, or for something like feeding time to HURRY UP AND GET HERE) and YOU, the human, become the focus of his fiddling.
Our experience is that people who do NOT have any particularly friendly or touchable llamas find it really exciting when a bold young male comes up and "spends time with them just out in the field." However, unstructured time is precisely what should NOT be spent with those llamas. When a yearling starts "fiddling," he is soundly corrected and we leave (on our own terms) to remove temptation. If we MUST stay in that pasture for some reason, we stay alert for a possible second transgression, which usually merits a bit of stall time (a "time out" for the llama).
For bored adolescent llamas, structured interaction is more productive. Deliberately approaching a llama that likes to fiddle and scratching him (without mimicking any llama fiddling or fighting behavior) works well for casual interactions. Advancing lessons such as walks are also good. This may not, however, be a good opportunity for "foot" lessons, unless the llama is short-tied. Picking up an adolescent male llama's feet can seem very much like you are toying with him and want to wrestle. Having him short-tied keeps you safe and short-circuits his instincts.
Another technique to address and short-circuit "fiddling" is to do some fiddling of your own. Don't use any actions that mimic fighting (such as foot handling) or do anything that results in the llama adopting any postures that are part of fighting (such as head down and neck across you). When your bored young llama comes up, invade the llama's space by stepping towards him, and do something that IS attention but won't lead to problem behaviors and postures (see above for examples). Rubbing cheeks or muzzles with both hands or rubbing/scratching the llama vigorously under the chin can all work well. The end result should be that the llama tires of being fiddled with (without progression to wrestling) and walks away — not afraid of you, but understanding that you are not the answer to his boredom.
5. NO THREATENING HUMANS. Crias don't usually threaten humans, and when they do, we have found a clear familial pattern (including father-to-cria links, eliminating environmental influence as the cause in those cases). This points to a primarily genetic cause (and a fine reason for timely neutering).
We usually see threats emerging from yearlings and two-year-olds (although a few precocious weanlings get started early). It is important, though, to understand that some llamas cluck and posture out of fear. Clucking is a good clue that this llama is feeling defensive, not aggressive. Incorrect diagnosis (that the llama is being aggressive) can escalate that fear and may lead to an attack.
Usually threatening starts around feeding time — particularly if "feeding time" means "special food." Llamas who threaten in order to get something do it precisely because they got what they wanted that way in the past. Llamas don't get anywhere making forceful displays at a bale wagon, because it just sits there instead of moving in a way that suggests it might fork over the grub, and so they don't threaten the bale wagon — or the barn door — if that's what's standing between them and getting the chow. But they do threaten other llamas to get them to leave a disputed portion of food, and they quickly transfer this successful behavior to those SLOW humans who just can't feed super-impatient adolescents fast enough to suit them.
Realize that a young llama may adopt a subtle spit-threat posture as he or she waits for the food. There may be a passing thought of spitting out of impatience. If your back is turned, this can occur without you being aware of what is going on, and when you hand out the chow as you normally would, the llama gradually begins to think that his or her mini-threat had something to do with that. It is the subtle ways humans often reinforce the llamas' behavior and the llamas' resulting view that humans can be controlled to their personal benefit that causes aggression to finally erupt.
If you are feeding in such a way that you CAN correct bad behavior and reinforce good behavior, and if you are structuring feeding in a way that makes competition between llamas impossible, threats rarely occur. When they do, you will know that the llama in question is out of line and the threat can be dealt with very clearly. As an example, two different yearling males have spat (out of impatience) at Gwen so far. They were both promptly removed from their feeding area by the wool and went without their pellets that night. Neither llama has so much as given any sign that they would consider trying THAT (or any other misconduct) again — it didn't work at all, and the clear negative consequences were understood by the llamas very well.