“Kush” is a word used with camels to tell them to lie down. I’m sure it comes from the French “couche”, but it rhymes with “push”. Llamas kush when they’re travelling in trailers. They frequently kush when going up or down in elevators. They kush when they’re overloaded, mentally or physically, and females kush when they’re willing to be bred. If your llama knows how to kush on command, you can tell him to kush when he’s starting to get upset about something. Lying down will usually help convince him that everything’s OK and help him settle. It’s also a super trick. I don’t know why it seems so difficult, but if your llama kushes when you tell him to, people will think you’re an amazing trainer! Some people object to teaching a llama to kush on command, saying that forcing the animal to lie down is forcing a submission – well, yes, if you look at it like that. I don’t ask a female to kush near an intact male, and I don’t ask an intact male to kush near another one, that’s just mean. Other than that, hey, it’s a trick just like any other, and we teach it with rewards like any other behaviour.
COMEBEFORES – Don’t even think about teaching your llama to kush until he’s comfortable with everything in Chapter 11, including giving to the leash, lowering his head, and being tied. You’ll also want him understanding about being touched all over, especially on the legs, and eating treats out of your hand. And being haltered, of course.
START HERE – Find a fence or wall with a solid place to tie the lead about a foot off the ground. The fence should be surrounded by grass, straw, or soft dirt, NOT a bare cement floor or other hard surface. The llama is wearing a well-fitting sturdy halter with a sturdy lead attached.
AIM FOR THIS – You gesture toward the ground and say “Kush!” and your llama sedately folds up his legs, lies down, and stays down until you ask him to get up.
HOW TO TEACH IT – Remind him about how to lower his head with very slight pressure from the lead. Reward with treats when his head is down, and also reward by allowing him to raise his head. Ask again and start increasing the duration ask for a slightly longer time before rewarding. And slightly longer, and slightly longer. Work until you can ask him to lower his head and keep it down without fussing for up to, say, 15 seconds. Also remind him that he can stand quietly while tied to something on a short lead at his natural head height. Comebefores are extremely important. You want to TEACH the llama to lie down on command, not get into a wrestling match and hope you win. Stand near the fence and ask the llama to lower his head. Reward with treats and let him raise his head. Work to the point where he’s comfortable giving you his head for 15 seconds without fussing.
Now ask him again to lower his head. When it’s down, tie it to the bottom of the fence. Tie it down with a very short lead, but so he’s in the same position that he was offering you before you tied the lead. Tie the lead with a quick-release knot. REWARD with treats. Let him stand there.
He has a dilemma now. He can’t raise his head. He’s being rewarded often for having his head down, but it’s not a position he particularly appreciates. He’ll try to pull up a bit. Reward when he’s standing calmly with the lead loose.
Rather than tie the lead low, Taylor has tied it high but fed it past the lowest part of the gate. The lead could be tighter, but it’s doing the job. Taylor has reached in and tickled Duck’s foot.
Kneeling is easier than trying to stand up. The oats are redundant – it’s early spring and Duck is thrilled to be “forced” to have his head so close to new grass. In fact we frequently reward a good obstacle course by kushing the llama and letting him browse.
Oh well, as long as he has to stand in this ridiculous position, Duck decides he’ll have some oats as well.
And finally he realizes that lying down would be more comfortable than kneeling. This is the second stage of kush. Next he’ll move his front legs slightly forward. As soon as his elbows are down, Taylor will untie the knot holding his leash. In this case it won’t make any difference – he’ll keep eating the grass.
Some llamas, particularly youngsters, will think of lying down almost immediately. Breeding males will frequently take quite a while to think of it. By the way, you’re teaching this in PRIVACY – no other llamas around, no other llamas in sight.
If he doesn’t think of lying down, lightly touch one front leg. Or THIS front leg and then THAT front leg. You did your homework on the Comebefores, right? So by tying his head down and touching his front legs, you’re mildly annoying him, NOT panicking him, NOT trying to upset him so much that he lies down in desperation. I’ll frequently pick up one front leg and hold it up for a minute or two, then put it down and hold the other one up. Continue to reward him when he’s relaxed.
Reward ANY indication that he’s thinking about kushing. As you know, llamas go down first in the front, then in the rear, and then rearrange the front, so you’ll be rewarding any voluntary bending of his front knees, and any picking up of his front feet indicating that he might be about to start going down.
When he finally lowers his front end, give him a treat and release the knot so he can raise his head. You want to tell him that the way out of his difficulty is simply to lie down. If he stands up again as soon as you release his head, that’s OK, he gave you a good try. Start again, and this time leave his head tied just a bit longer until his rear goes down as well, then reward and release the knot. And again this time when you release the knot, leave the lead going under the fence so you can tighten it again if he starts to get up to let him know that STAYING down is part of the deal.
IN OTHER WORDS – When he responds to your “Kush” cue and the lead by lying down immediately, move to another location with a similar fence and teach him FROM SCRATCH to lie down there as well.
When he responds just as well in the second location, move to a spot several feet away from the fence, so he feels that he’s in a place where he learned to kush on command, but he’s slightly too far away from the fence for you to use it for help with the lead.
If he kushes, great. If he doesn’t, go back to the fence and remind him of what you want, then try again.
When he’s got it there, move to another location further from the fence, and another, and another and before you know it, you’ll be winning a Musical Kush contest! Congratulations!
USING IT – As I said before, you can use it to calm him when he’s trying to work himself up into a panic. It’s a very impressive trick to show people. Kushing on a platform is one of the Level Three Obstacle exercises in shows. And when you’ve taught him to kush and asked him to do it in 50 different places, that also means you’ve asked him to get UP in 50 different places, and that probably means he’ll get up when you ask him to when he lies down and you don’t want him to, like in the middle of a parade, or in the elevator in a nursing home!