Chapter 28 - Getting Sheared
Yes, shearing only happens once a year. Yes, if you're good at it, you can probably shear a llama in 30 minutes. So really, how much effort do you want to put into something that happens once a year for 30 minutes?
Well, first, if your llama isn't very well trained, he could probably stretch that 30 minutes out to a sweaty, smelly, unpleasant 3 or 4 hours. Second, a lot of "being sheared" involves behaviours that are really useful in other areas of his life. Standing in a chute, for instance, or standing still while you touch his hips and belly and shoulders. When you come down to it, a well-trained llama won't have any trouble at all with being sheared. Most people think the sound of electric clippers are what the llama's going to object to most, but the actual problems are being confined and being touched.
Before you start training your llama to be sheared, consider for a moment what's happening from HIS point of view. He's got a thick, solid coat. Nothing EVER touches his skin. When you shear him, his skin is hanging out there in public. You touching his skin is pretty weird, never mind the wind touching his skin! And when he gets back in with the herd, they're all going to follow him around sniffing him and snickering at the way he's dressed.
COMEBEFORES - The more homework you've done, the easier this will be. If you've done nothing, work on haltering, giving to the lead, touching him all over, and going in the chute.
START HERE - In the barn or wherever you're going to be shearing.
AIM FOR THIS - You tie the llama up, blow the dust and straw out of his coat, put him in a chute and shear him. He stands quietly and lets you do it.
HOW TO TEACH IT - First blowing the coat out. I use my dryer quite often during the year - every time we're taking a llama somewhere, the first step is to blow him out. I like to use the dryer for early training as well, because, like the whip, I can use the air to touch the llama without having to be close to him. Most llamas don't seem to mind either the noise of the machine or the feel of the air, especially if you touch them just as you would with the whip - first on the withers, and remove it. On the withers and along the back a bit, and remove it. On the withers, along the back, down the ribs, and remove it. If you need help with this, review the touching chapter. If you have another llama that already knows how to be blown out, tie them both up and stand between them. Aim the air at one, then the other. This gives the new one a bit of a rest, and also gives him a good role model of how to behave. Do NOT let him see another llama getting hysterical about the dryer
Next, the shearing. Your llama has had a lot of work on getting him used to being touched - by the whip, by your hands, by the air. At this point, touching him on the body with the shears really shouldn't be a problem. If he has a problem with being touched by the shears when they ARE NOT TURNED ON, you need to do more homework on touching with the whip and the blower. From there, there are three possible problems: the noise of the shears when they are turned on, the cord of the shears brushing the llama's legs, and the feel of the shears actually cutting the hair and sitting on the skin.
Once you've worked with a blower, the noise of the shears will most likely be a non-event. If it is worrisome, start by moving the shears toward the llama. Stop, reward the llama. Move them closer, reward the llama. Continue until you can touch the llama all over as you did before but now you have the silent shears in your hand. Now, holding the shears away from the llama, turn them on, turn them off, reward the llama. Turn them on, move them a bit closer, turn them off, reward the llama. Work until you can reward the llama with the shears still running, and from there to the point where you can touch the llama with the running shears. Move the running shears over the llama's withers, back, hips and shoulders, but DO NOT PUT THE BLADE ON THE LLAMA. You're not trying to cut the hair, you're trying to teach the llama to relax and accept the shears.
Having trouble with the cord? I usually use a cable tie to attach the cord to the chute above the llama. This way if I happen to drop the shears for any reason, the cord will stop them before they hit the ground and break. This also keeps the cord from wrapping around the llama's legs. If he's having trouble tolerating the cord moving on his body or neck, put the shears away and do more work with the whip. When he's handling the whip again, get a lead rope. Drape it across his withers and pull it slowly off him, rewarding as you do. I'd work until I could flick it against his legs without bothering him, and then get the shears going again.
When you do start shearing, he'll handle the feel of the clippers on his skin best if you start where you've started every other touch – on his withers, working along his back. Again, clip a bit and reward with food and by stopping for a moment. Don't work on the legs until he's relaxed with you shearing his body.
There's one more thing that could be upsetting him. I shear into a plastic bag attached to a stand near the chute. If the wind is blowing, the bag is rustling, and that can worry him. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour – you can work on getting him more relaxed with the sound and sight of the bag flapping, or you can move the bag further from the llama. Or you could put the hair into a pillowcase instead of noisy plastic.
IN OTHER WORDS – there is nothing about shearing that you can't work on ahead of time when you're not holding a three hundred dollar tool in your hand! And again, any time you spend teaching the llama to be handled will be well worth your investment. Consider that being sheared, wearing a costume or driving harness or a backpack, allowing his feet to be picked up, allowing a judge to look at his testicles, allowing her udder to be washed – these are all behaviours which benefit from training for any of the others. Llama cross-training!
USING IT – So many people have told me that their llamas were energetic when they were young, but now they do nothing but lie around in the summer. Does the llama have to die of heatstroke before these people understand the cruelty of not shearing the coat of a fibre-producing animal? If you don't care to use your fleece, throw it away, but PLEASE do the humane thing and cut it off the llama! Use those expensive electric shears, or use a pair of kitchen scissors. Do a beautiful job or leave the llama looking like he got caught in the lawn mower, but please, please shear your llama!