Llamas are intelligent and fun to work with. When we all lived in the forest and could talk to the animals, we would have known automatically how to communicate with these fascinating creatures. Nowadays, most of us have to learn how to speak so llamas will listen, and how to listen to hear what the animals are trying to tell us. Very little of a llama’s conversation is audible. They speak with their heads, their necks, and their bodies. They speak by where they stand and by what direction they face. If we speak to them in their own language, if we speak clearly, say what we mean, and mean the same thing each time we say the same thing, the llamas may enjoy the conversation as much as we do. The best animal trainers seem to communicate almost telepathically with their charges. The best animal show handlers appear to be in the ring only because it isn’t “legal” for the llama to be in the ring alone. This gentleness, quietness, and grace in working with an animal is something we can all aim for. The good news is, it isn’t any more difficult to be a soft and coherent handler than it is to be harsh and rude.
This manual will take you from scratch through the training of a llama that will be easy to work with and enjoy on a daily basis. I’ll define “scratch” as a young llama that has little if any training, but no real bad habits or bad handling behind him (or her). If you and your llama aren’t starting from scratch, jump ahead to where you’re able to begin. Be careful though! When you come to a place where the llama doesn’t understand what the heck you’re talking about, you may have missed some basic training. Don’t be afraid to back up and retrain or review until the llama’s working comfortably with you again.
PERSONAL SPACE – Polite llamas have personal space. They don’t intrude in the space of another llama, and they object when another llama intrudes in theirs. This is a good thing – they’re born respectful of humans, and we can use our space and theirs to move them and stop them, to punish and reward behaviour – and a bad thing – they aren’t born wanting to be touched. So we use and enjoy the good parts, train to overcome the bad parts. You use your personal space all the time. If you meet a friend on the street and stop to chat, you will subtly negotiate until you are both comfortable with the distance between you. The distance you choose depends on your age, your sex, and your culture. Stand too close to someone else face to face and those around you will assume you’re in a relationship. If you have to be close to strangers, as in an elevator, a theatre or a bus, you’ll stand by choice side by side or with your back to them. This demonstrates that your personal space is much larger in front of you than it is on your sides and back. To put it another way, you have more “power” in front of you than you have on the side. We’re going to use this emotional power to ask the llama to move and to stop. Note that when I’m talking about pressure or power, I’m talking about the emotional pressure that comes from your personal space intruding on the llama’s. I’m NOT talking about about actual physical pressure or force. Watch the people around you. Watch how they use and protect their personal space. Notice in what direction the power of the space is strongest, and where it is weakest. Then watch llamas the same way. See how they approach each other. Watch dogs, sheep, cattle. They all have something to teach you about personal power. This study of space is important in the training of llamas. You’ll be using your space to speak to them throughout the training.
TUNE YOUR ATTITUDE IN – The llama will do what is right for the llama. He can’t know what you want him to do, or why he should comply, until you explain it to him. Llamas are very smart but difficult to push around. If you want the llama to listen to you, trust you, and (usually) do what you want him to do, you must learn to speak clearly with your body. Not as tough as it sounds, but it does take practise. Be calm. Breathe normally. Keep your hands down by your sides and still unless you’re using them to say something specific to the llama. Move as smoothly as you can. Speak rarely and when you do, use a calm, quiet voice and say something worth listening to (we’ll get into commands and signals later). Keep your shoulders down and relaxed. If you can relax, you can help the llama relax as well. Keep your priorities in mind. With luck, the llama will live for 20 years. If your priority is always to get his kerflushinner toenails cut TODAY, by golly, you’ll have a battle on your hands every time. On the other hand, if you approach him thinking of what he’s going to LEARN today, he’ll be a cooperative friend in no time. When he learns to trust you and respond calmly to your actions, you’ll both have a lot more fun than if you try to hurry through something and frustrate you both. If you’re getting frustrated, STOP. Think about what’s going wrong and what you could do differently. Try again tomorrow.
Always leave a llama a way out. If he’s scared and you’re in the only path to freedom, he’s liable to run right over you. If you give him a moment to think and a clear way to go, he’ll take the easy way every time. When you ask him to move, he has to have a place to move to and a way to get there. When you ask him to come into or out of a trailer, don’t stand in front of the door staring at him so he has to run into you to get where you’re asking him to go.
One of the (ten thousand) best things about llamas is that it doesn’t take the whole day to work with one. They don’t need to be groomed before or after a lesson. They don’t need to be warmed up or cooled down. Take fifteen minutes and go have a chat with a llama. In fact, I very strongly recommend you train for less than 20 minutes at a time, then let him sleep on the lesson.