Salsa, the Untrainable Alpaca
Alpacas at The Ranch
I have always enjoyed alpacas and appreciated their gentle nature. About 16 months ago, I heard about a nearby alpaca ranch that had more than one thousand alpacas that were going to be slaughtered for meat later that week. I went to check the place out; I had no plans to adopt any alpacas that day, but I couldn’t walk away without bringing home two. We named them Dulce and Roja. They were shy and very skittish at first, probably because their only interactions with humans had been being chased and herded from place to place and occasionally being grabbed for shearing or a medical exam. I quickly became fond of these alpacas and felt that they would be happier with a few more companions.
A month later, I went back to the alpaca ranch hoping to bring home two or three more alpacas. Choosing from a herd with hundreds in each group was not easy. I selected an all-black female that I named Bandito and a large white female that I called Blanca. It broke my heart to watch the ranch foreman chase the animals around and man-handle them to put halters on them and prepare them for transport. I couldn’t wait until I could provide them with a calmer, gentler home.
After I described my plans for the alpacas, the foreman scoffed, “Hah! These guys can’t be trained; they’re too wild. And the ones you’re taking are the dumbest; that’s why they were so easy to catch!” I didn’t consider what I had just witnessed “easy.” Twenty-five of the animals from the original herd had been separated and chased into a barn. The process of catching and haltering Bandito and Blanca took more than 45 minutes, and the animals remaining in the barn were frightened and huddled in a corner.
The foreman asked if I wanted any more before he let the remaining animals out of the barn. There was one spirited animal in the group that continued to pay close attention to everything we did, as opposed to simply fleeing. I decided that I had room for one more, and I pointed to her. The foreman said, “She seems awfully feisty; she might be too much of a handful.” I said that was all right and she was the one for me. The foreman had great difficulty catching her. When he finally did get her, she spit a foul-smelling goop all over the foreman. It had a rank and spicy odor; at that moment I started calling her Salsa.
Dulce and Roja welcomed Blanca, Bandito, and Salsa into the group, and they became a cohesive herd. I started their training by making their new home as comfortable and safe as possible: a warm shelter, plenty of pasture, non-stop access to hay and water, no more chasing and herding, no separations from the group, and easy opportunity to escape and avoid people if desired.
Salsa was comfortable with the group, and I attribute much of her later progress to social facilitation. Social facilitation refers to the impact on learning that an individual experiences in the presence of other conspecifics. During of the training, the other alpacas usually participated first, and their behavior encouraged Salsa’s cooperation. Salsa was usually the last one to join in and the last to progress on each training step.
The training plan
Here is the training plan I used with the alpacas. It is based on my experience working with shy and skittish animals in a variety of settings over the years:
1. Establish a comfortable environment
Before progressing with more obvious training, it is important to increase the animals’ comfort level and change their perceptions about people. I moved around the alpacas in smooth motions; I was never jerky or scary. I was careful never to chase or herd them. The alpacas always had a place to escape if they desired. The barn door was always open, and access to the outer pastures was always available. When anything startled the alpacas, Salsa was usually the first to run.
2. Provide pellets in a predictable way in my presence
I poured their favorite pellets (a grain-and-mineral feed designed for alpacas) into feeding troughs along the fence, then walked a great distance away to watch them eat. I reduced my distance gradually until I was able to observe them feeding while I stood only a foot or two away. Salsa was always my barometer for how close I could stand, as she remained the most cautious. It took several months of daily pellet feeding for Salsa to accept me standing right next to the fence while she ate.
3. Hand-feed browse from a distance through a barrier
A favorite treat of the alpacas is browse, long branches full of leaves, that I affixed to the fence line regularly and that they seemed to love. I saved the longest branches, eight to ten feet long, and offered them to the alpacas by hand. I stood outside the enclosure against the fence holding a branch fully extended into the alpaca enclosure. The bravest alpacas, Dulce and Blanca, were the first to start eating the leaves from the end of the branches. Within a few weeks, they were working their way down the branch toward the fence and, thus, toward me. I made sure to move as little as possible. It took Salsa almost four weeks to start eating from the long branches that I held, and by that time the others were working their way toward me easily.
4. Gradually shorten the length of branch
Over time, I used branches that were only six feet long, then four feet long, then three feet, until eventually I only used one- to two-foot branches. At that point the alpacas were standing right in front of me with only a fence separating us. Even Salsa took leaves from these short branches.
5. Offer pellets in long ladles
Next, I wanted the alpacas to take pellets from my hand. I extended my arm over the fence while I was holding a long-handled ladle containing pellets. All of the alpacas, except Salsa, ate from the ladles the first time I tried it. Dulce and Blanca remained with me and ate well. The more nervous alpacas, Bandito and Roja, ate a few mouthfuls and retreated several feet away to chew the pellets at a distance. Salsa watched from a distance, and when Bandito and Roja retreated to eat she would spit at them! It took Salsa only three sessions before she became daring enough to eat from the ladle.
6. Gradually shorten length of the handle until the cup is in my hand
I took my time with this step. I chose to shorten the handle only when Salsa was ready, because I was seeing a benefit to progressing to each step as a group. Within six weeks, the alpacas were eating from the cup in my hand—no extended handle.
7. Transition to inside the enclosure
I moved inside the enclosure with my back against the fence, in the same place we had been training except that now there was no fence between me and the animals. I regressed to using the long-handled ladle and gradually shortened the handle just as before. This was a major step that took the alpacas several sessions to accept. Salsa needed almost a full extra week. Each time I took a significant step forward, it seemed to trigger Salsa’s spitting—fortunately not at me, but almost always at Roja (Salsa and Roja tended to spend most of their time together outside of sessions). I had all five alpacas eating from the cup in my hand in under a month.
8. Transition to feeding out of hand
Once the animals were eating out of the cup with no hesitation, I transitioned to feeding directly from my hand. The alpacas definitely noticed the change, but their hesitation to eat from my hand lasted only a few minutes. At the end of the first session, all but Salsa were eating from my hand; she ate from my hand at the second session. At this point, my helper and I still carried the cups of pellets, but we were only allowing the alpacas to eat from our hands. The cups were strong cues that pellets were available.
9. Move pellets to pouch
After a few weeks of feeding from the hand, I moved the pellets to a pouch, and no longer brought the cups. This transition was relatively easy, and even Salsa did not seem to have a problem adjusting.
10. Work one-on-one when possible
Most of the work prior to this step was done by me alone or with the help of one other trainer. At this point, I started to take advantage of the presence of students enrolled in courses at The Ranch, using them as training helpers. I coached the students through the steps and assigned an individual trainer to each alpaca. Each time I introduced a new class to the alpacas, we regressed to feeding out of cups and worked up to hand feeding by the end of the week. It took 12 rounds of students before Salsa was able to eat from the hand.
11. Start touching lower jaw with fingers as alpacas eat
As the alpacas’ comfort level with feeding from my hand increased, I used the tips of the longer fingers on my feeding hand to rub the lower jaw of the alpacas. Predictably, Blanca and Dulce were the most accepting and Salsa was the least accepting.
12. Begin using hand as target, mark, then feed
I finally reached the point where I could present my hand and reinforce the alpacas for targeting. I considered using a clicker, but the sound was too loud and seemed to startle them, so I used a soft verbal “good.” I was lucky to have Michele Pouliot, free-style champion and guide-dog training pioneer, coaching one of The Ranch classes at that time, so I asked her to help me work with Salsa. The targeting breakthrough occurred while Michele was working with Salsa.
Today, Salsa is frequently the first to come to her trainer during training sessions. The alpacas are learning a variety of behaviors, including stepping on a scale, neck and head tactile, halter training, body tactile, and, eventually, foot and hoof tactile. Salsa is keeping up with the other alpacas, and in some cases has surpassed them. She still spits from time to time, but only at Roja (and accidentally at Roja’s trainer), but those times are now rare.
It is often the animals labeled shy, difficult, skittish, stubborn, problematic, aggressive, reactive, etc. that need the help of a good trainer the most. Salsa was certainly difficult at first but training a challenging animal and making a connection with her is very rewarding. When somebody tells me that an animal is “untrainable,” I simply take that to mean that training may take more effort, extra time, or a special approach.
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Ken Ramirez is the Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer at Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT). A trainer and consultant for 40+- years, Ken most recently served as the Executive Vice President, Animal Care and Training, at Chicago’s world-famous Shedd Aquarium. He is the author of several books and DVDs, including ANIMAL TRAINING: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement, which has become required reading for many trainers in the zoological field. Learn more about Ken Ramirez.