Sue Ailsby's

Chapter 32 - Retrieving

Ah, the elusive llama retrieve! Don't be ridiculous, you can't get a LLAMA to RETRIEVE!

Actually, you can. The good news is that it really isn't that difficult. The better news is that you're well on your way already if you've done your ComeBefores!

What can a llama retrieve? Anything that will fit in their mouths. My llamas have retrieved mitts, hats, shoes, whips, sticks, small dog dumbells, Kleenex, doggy rope toys, halters, lead ropes. The list is limited only by the size of the mouth, and your imagination.

COMEBEFORES - Your llama understands the use of the clicker or a word that serves the same purpose. He eagerly eats treats from your hand. He understands Zen, and knows how to target both your hand and an object.

START HERE - You can teach retrieving anywhere you and the llama have time to work and are able to concentrate. I most often work on this in a pen in the barn with no other llamas present, but I've also done a lot of work on it in quieter times in the pens at farm fairs and shows, usually sitting on my walker. In a private space, you can work off-lead, but working with the llama haltered isn't a problem.

AIM FOR THIS - You drop your glove on the ground and the llama picks it up and hands it back to you.

WHAT YOU NEED - Something to retrieve. Something light, strong, small enough to fit in the llama's mouth, and not icky - that is, not plain metal, especially if you're working on a cold day. A light twig comes to mind. A plain stick-type ballpoint pen. A light glove. A sock.

HOW TO TEACH IT - Well, first, in order to reward the llama, you need to get a behaviour, and not the WHOLE behaviour. That's asking too much. Start with a little bit of the behaviour and build it up as you go.

Start by getting the llama to reliably and cheerfully touch your object. Then, whether it's a pen, a dumbell, or whatever, you'll need to shape him to touch it where you want him to - touching a dumbell on the end won't lead to retrieving! Be sure to remember that you can't fling an object up in front of a llama's nose. He can't focus his eyes on it in that position. If you want to show it to him before you ask him to touch it or take it (and it's a good idea to show it to him first), bring it up on the SIDE of his face so he can see it clearly with one eye.

When he's touching it regularly (touch, click, reward; touch, click, reward), after maybe five repetitions, do nothing. Simply stand when he touches it and pretend he didn't. He has two choices now. He can think "Well, I guess we're not playing 'touch' anymore" and quit If he does this, you need to work your targets more. He needs to have absolutely faith that touching that thing will make the click happen and get him his treat. His second choice is to think "HEY! STUPID! I TOUCHED IT! Weren't you paying attention? Where's my treat?". If you get this "hey stupid" reaction, he's going to touch it again, a bit harder to make sure you see it this time. That's exactly what you want - a harder touch. From here you just have to play around with the behaviour until you see a lip twitch over the edge of the object. Be SURE to reward that!

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In these photos, Madrid is learning to retrieve. He sniffs the dumbell, targets it, pokes it thoroughly, then starts exploring it with his upper lips. Where a dog would tentatively move her incisors over the bar, Madrid tests the bar with his prehensile lips.

Finally, having been rewarded at each stage of exploration, he realizes that he's going to be rewarded from now on for haing it between his upper gums and lower incisors.
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Work until he's very, very good at taking the dumbell out of your hand, and then start making it better.

The llama takes the dumbell in his mouth. Click, he spits out the dumbell, you give him a treat. He takes the dumbell, you count to one (silently). Click, he spits out the dumbell, you give him a treat. Take, count two, click, spit, treat. Take, count three, click, spit, treat. And so on.

Keep increasing your count one second at a time until he makes a mistake. When he drops the dumbell (it doesn't drop, because you're still holding on to it, but you are NOT holding it in his mouth, that's his job), just start your count over again FROM THE BEGINNING. Take, count one, click, spit, treat. Take, count two, click, spit, treat. And so on. By working this way, you allow him to define his own threshold of performance, and you reward him a LOT below his threshold, so there's a lot more explanation of what happens when he gets the job right (he gets a click and a treat) and very little explanation of what happens when he gets the job wrong (he doesn't get the treat).

Once he'll approach the object, take it in his mouth, and hold it while you're holding it as well, you can start getting him to move with it. You've explained incidentally to him that you need to have your hand on it in order for him to get the click, and you're going to need that in a minute.

Hold the dumbell a little further from him, so he has to stretch his neck to get it. When he's comfortable with that, hold it further away yet so he has to take a step to reach it. When he's good at that, and still holding it securely once he's grabbed it, you're ready to give him a little responsibility for it.

Hand him the dumbell. He takes it, you hold it for a moment, then let go of it. DON'T CLICK. Put you hand back on it right away. Hold it another moment, then click.

Build up the amount of time you can have your hand off the dumbell until you're up to about 10 seconds. Now for the next step.

Llama on your left facing the same direction you are, dumbell in your right. Show it to him, and step forward, bringing the dumbell up in front of him so he has to take a step to reach it. He takes it in his mouth, you let go of it, and step back slightly. Hold your hands up to take it just as you've done before, but this time you're just out of reach. If he drops it, go back several paragraphs and work it up again. If he doesn't drop it, he's got a decision to make. You need to have the dumbell in your hand before he gets a click. He wants a click. What to do? What to do? If you built it up correctly, explained it in enough detail, and he's comfortable with the whole idea, he'll swing his head toward your hand. Don't scream EE HAH, even though you want to. Put your hand quietly on the dumbell, hold for a moment, click, and reward.

From there, it's simply a matter of lowering the object gradually to the ground. You can lower it to a table, then to a chair, and finally to the ground, or you can just go slowly toward the ground. Having him interacting with chessmen or other objects on a table makes a good trick, as does having him pull a rope attached to a bell or to unfurl a banner.

Once he is comfortable picking it up off the ground, you can start tossing it around, here, there, way over THERE.

You can also start working other objects, but please remember that every new object is a new behaviour to him, so start right back at the beginning and explain it to him slowly and clearly again.

There's really no difference between teaching a llama to retrieve and teaching a dog - save that the llama's neck is a lot more mobile and the dog can see better in front of her nose.