Training

The story of deaf and half-blind Traum's difficult, but ultimately rewarding, transformation from a wild and fearful youngster into a well-mannered walking companion.
Lily's Traum
Traum

Traum

After reading a classic llama training book, as well as one by Marty McGee Bennett about the TTEAM approach, I decided to tame Traum. Little did I know what a long commitment that would become. The books talk about training taking a day, a week, or a month. It took 2 whole summers of almost daily work with Traum before he would quietly allow himself to be haltered and walked on a lead. (I didn't want to wrestle with him, because he'd win and I'd get hurt.) Usually the sessions only lasted 10 or 15 minutes. Marty's advice to "chunk it down" (i.e., break a task into smaller, incremental steps) had to be taken to extremes with Traum. As Marty often says in her writing, it's all about building trust.

The only easy part about training Traum was getting him to eat llama pellets from my hand. I always rewarded the slightest progress with a small treat. Bigger accomplishments earned bigger treats. To communicate with a deaf animal, I nodded and smiled when he was good, or frowned, shook my head, and wagged my finger in front of his good eye when he was bad. Eventually he understood this form of communication.

Training sessions took place in the corral and catch pen. Feeding him in the corral each morning made it fairly easy to lure him in from the pasture. But getting him into the catch pen was trickier. He soon learned to charge right through the herding rope, (consisting of several lead ropes clipped end-to-end) and wands didn't work, either. Also, his mother stood right next to the corral fence to watch, and she got upset and acted like she would jump the fence to defend him if I pressed him too hard.

What finally worked was eye contact, body English, and extreme patience. I would stand in the middle of the corral, make eye contact, then look towards or tilt my head towards the catch pen in the corner, and the bucket of pellets therein. Over and over again, he paced back and forth, attracted by the treats but afraid of being caught. It might take 30 minutes before he would go in, and even then he could wheel and bolt out again before I could get over to close the gate. But I made sure never to show him any anger or impatience on my part.

Joining him inside the catch pen frightened me at first. I feared his kicks could cause serious injury, even break my leg, so I was careful never to stand directly behind him. The first summer was spent doing not much more than teaching him to accept my touch. At first, any touch on his back or neck would elicit a kick with a hind foot. Luckily, he didn't really try to hit me; he was just expressing his desire not to be touched. But I took great care NOT to be where his foot would go! We spent a lot of time circling and dodging each other in that 8' * 12' catchpen. I would stand to one side of him and touch his back; he would move forward and kick; I would wag my finger and frown in front of his good eye. If he didn't kick after being touched, I would smile and nod, then give him a few pellets from my hand. I tried to end each session on a high note, after he did something well several times, by giving him a big treat and then releasing him into the pasture. But if he became frustrated or bored, he was only set free after some positive behavior, no matter how slight.

Eventually, Traum automatically went into the catch pen after his breakfast and let me close the gate without trying to escape. His mother slowly began to understand that I was not hurting him, and she started to drift farther and farther away during our training sessions. Traum also calmed down, kicked less, and gradually almost seemed to enjoy having his neck petted.

Winter went by with little training, as it was too cold, wet, or dark most of the time. But now instead of being afraid of Traum, I considered him one of my favorites.

The second summer, Traum made better progress. I tried right away to put the halter on him, but he wasn't ready yet. Someone suggested placing the halter over the food in his dish. Eating around it helped him fear it less, but putting it on was still too much to ask of him. So I wondered, "How can I 'chunk it down' any more?" My solution was just to touch him with the halter neck strap. First on his neck, later on different parts of his face. When he allowed the halter to touch him without flinching or kicking, he got a treat. I practiced putting my arm behind his neck, then added the halter to my hand, held in front of him. Slowly, over many sessions, I worked the halter closer to his nose. Finally, I was able to get the halter onto his face a few times, without buckling it.

Sheared Traum with collar
Sheared Traum with collar
Meanwhile, Toni Johnson suggested I put a collar on his neck, and practice leading him that way. Luckily, we had some spare goat collars, and I used one of those, loose enough to fall to the bottom of his neck but not so loose that it fell off over his ears when he grazed. Traum wore this constantly for several weeks. It worked remarkably well. He was not as sensitive about the collar, and soon allowed me to attach the 8 foot cotton lead to it. I led him in circles inside the catch pen at first, then released him into the corral with the collar and lead only. He bucked at the end of the lead, but I held on and followed him around the corral, trying to keep the lead loose by staying close enough. He calmed down fairly quickly, and let me lead him around the corral. That earned him a BIG treat!

Not long after, I even let him out of the corral with collar and lead only, and walked him around the yard with no other camelids present, although they were still visible in the pasture. He bucked a little, but was pretty good.

Soon the day came when he actually stood still in the catch pen while I put the halter on him and buckled it. Success at last! And after only two years!

Since Traum was already used to being led by his collar (which he still wore), it was not too difficult to snap the lead onto his halter and walk him that way. We practiced going up and down our long driveway a few times, with his mother following along inside the pasture fence.

This milestone in his training was just in time for shearing. We also practiced walking onto a tarp, and he was quite good about this. I arranged for the vet to tranquilize him before being sheared, and was able to halter him for the shot of Xylazine. His shearing by a professional went very smoothly.

For Traum's first walk on the street, we haltered his mother as well, and took them out together, Lily first, so he could see her ahead. Traum was very good and took cues from the lead even better than all the other animals had. He trusted me enough by this time to keep his blind eye towards me, with his good eye on the outside. He bucked pretty hard when the first car went by. After all, he couldn't hear the cars, and with only one eye wasn't likely to see them, either. They would just suddenly swish by right next to him, which of course startled and frightened him. But he quickly learned that when I took him off to the side of the road, stopped, and pointed both him and my outstretched arm towards the approaching car, I was warning him and guarding him against danger. He understood I would protect him, and so he was not afraid. Smart boy!

What a tremendous feeling of accomplishment I had, after so much time spent taming and training Traum! He seemed proud of himself, too, and happy to see a little more of the world than just the inside of our pasture.

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