Let’s face it, llamas don’t like to be touched. They don’t sleep in a pile like dogs. They don’t pet themselves on people like cats. They don’t groom each other like horses. Their personal space is important to them and they’re not going to enjoy you touching them just because you enjoy touching them. They can learn to enjoy it, but you’ll have to teach them first to allow, then to accept it, then to not mind it, and on through to looking forward to it.
COMEBEFORES – You can teach the llama to be touched all over once he understands Go, Stop, and Stay Stopped, and once he’ll let you approach and touch him, but it’s usually easier to work with him tied up, so you might as well teach him that as well.
START HERE – In the round pen, or tied at nose height to something safe. You’ll need the whip. If you’re starting with him tied, for these behaviours, let the lead help you. Tie up him with a foot of lead between him and the wall, thus preventing a lot of fussing before you even get started.
AIM FOR THIS – You approach the llama, brush him out, check his ears, lift his tail, and pick up his feet. He cooperates.
HOW TO TEACH IT – The easiest way to start is in your round pen with your whip. Ask the llama to walk forward and stop a few times to warm up. Then reach toward his balance point with the whip. Don’t touch him yet, just reach toward him, then reward him by moving it away. When he’s comfortable with this, reach out and touch him on the withers (on his back just behind his neck). This is his least touchy spot, and it’s very close to his balance point, so he’s got a good chance of remaining still. If he does, take the whip off him immediately, and keep it off for maybe 20 seconds before trying again. If he moves, let him go, but keep the whip on his withers until he stops. This is why I like to start with the whip – if he decides to go running around the pen, I can stand in the middle and keep the whip on him without effort and without racing madly around the pen trying to keep my hand on his withers, convincing him that I’m a tiger trying to bring him down and eat him! As soon as he stops, take it off. This is the explanation you’re working on: you’re going to touch him, and if he stands still, you’ll stop touching him. When he understands this, he’ll understand that HE is in control of how much touching happens, and that knowledge will really help him relax and stay calm when you’re doing all kinds of scary things later on. Gradually increase the amount of time he needs to stay standing before the whip is removed. When you’re sure he understands your explanation, start touching him in other places. Don’t just jump to his feet, though. Set him up to succeed by moving the whip down his back a bit, up his neck a bit, onto his shoulder. The further you get from his withers, the tougher his job will be. Llamas really don’t want you to handle their ears, their feet, or their tails. When he can stand for 20 seconds with the whip on his withers, you’ll just be starting to brush his hocks. Keep your explanation clear – he must be standing STILL to get rid of the whip. If his head is tossing or he’s tap-dancing, it stays where it is until he stops. Work until you can put the whip, and then your hands pretty much anywhere on him. Particularly useful things to work on are a) being able to handle his ears and mouth. Treating an ear infection or getting a stuck twig out of a mouth is lot more pleasant when the llama is used to being handled. b) lifting his tail. Good for checking a pregnancy, and judges have to be able to see a male’s testicles in the ring. c) feeling the udder and penis. Right after birth, I like to wash the udder with a warm, wet cloth, remove the wax plugs, and check on the milk flow. I also spread a little fresh milk on the cria’s nose, and wipe it around the udder to help the cria find it. Later you’ll want to check to make sure she’s not developing mastitis. This is not the time to be trying to convince a female to let you handle her udder! With the males and geldings, you’ll occasionally need to check the penis and sheath.
POSSIBLE PROBLEM – What if he spits while you’re touching him? Consider why he spits – to tell you that you’re invading his space. Yes, you are, but he needs to get over it. A pregnant female may spit to tell you she doesn’t need to be bred again, thanks, and just get away from her tail! Again, yeah, thanks, get over it. A llama that has previously been poorly handled may spit because he’s afraid of what you’re going to do next. One more time, get over it. Spit isn’t dangerous. It isn’t even particularly gross unless you get hit. If you have a confirmed spitter, tie him to the wall before you start touching him. That way you can stay out of the line of fire. If he’s getting hysterical and spitting, you’ve moved too far too fast. Ask for less and work up more slowly next time. That’s as much attention as you give spitting. The llama WANTS a reaction from you, that’s why he’s doing it. If he’s just spitting to see if he can get rid of you, the answer is no. Concentrate on what you want – you want him to stand still. You get what you want, then he gets what he wants.
ADD A CUE – I don’t really use a cue for general touching other than “Whoa”. I do make sure he saw me coming, so he doesn’t think I’m a jaguar attacking him!
MAKE IT BETTER – Being able to touch him is probably good enough for a “herd” llama, but if he’s going to be a pet, show or working animal, or go to nursing homes and schools, you’ll need to work this behaviour until he’ll not only LET you touch him, but he’s relaxed and comfortable with it.
USING IT – You’ll use this almost every time you have contact with the llama. Lift his foot to untangle a bale string or cut his toenails. Take a bit of straw off his hip. Put a pack on and check it to see if it’s on properly. Let a child sit on him. Shear him in the spring.
BRUSHING – We never brush llamas unless we’re taking them out somewhere – to a nursing home, a hospital, in a parade, or to a show. Even then, blowing out with a farm-size blow-dryer is faster and frequently just as effective.
Brushing out a llama is basically touching him with a tool other than the whip. Start with a stick or wire beater, just because these will give him the feel of you working on his coat without any possibility of snagging the hair. Start at his withers and work outwards as you did with the whip. When he’s comfortable with the beater, start using a brush, either a slicker or pin brush. Don’t try to get all the tangles out in one day, it’ll be more pleasant for both of you if you work for a few minutes a day. Mats and tangles should be worked from the edges in. Hold the tangle in one hand while you brush with the other. Nobody likes having his hair pulled! Spray-in detanglers and silicone sprays are a lifesaver for matted coats.
TRAINING TIP – If you started with the llama tied up, progress to being able to touch him, lift a foot or tail or check his ears with him untied in a pen, and with him haltered on a walk. If you started with him untied, be sure to let him know that you’ll want to do these things with him tied as well.
GROOMING TIP – The wire beater is made to beat the HAIR, not the llama! Whip it down the sides of the coat so it flips the hair to let junk fall out of the coat. If you can feel it touch the llama, you’re doing it wrong!