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Polish, No Spit: Learning from Llamas

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Llama leaders

Jim and Amy Logan, llama ranchers in Washington State, were among the first to adopt clicker training in the early '90s. They were pioneers in llama applications (one of their videos shows a very nice Obedience llama, including off-lead heeling and a down). The Logans have made clicker training the standard for training and handling llamas in the US, and are the authors of three delightful videos, well worth study by any clicker trainer, whatever the species.

Jim Logan is a fountain of creative teaching ideas and a master at breaking behavior down into small, clickable pieces. Teaching a llama to ring a bell, for example, is exactly the same training task as teaching a dog to ring a bell to ask to go out.

Ring that bell—step by step

Jim Logan writes: "When we are working on a new behavior like ringing the bell, we just don't put the bell in Spunky's pen and stand and wait for him to walk right up to it and ring it. We need to break down the behavior into smaller parts so that Spunky has a reasonable chance for success. First of all, Spunky is already clicker-wise. He knows that the clicker means 'Yes, that's exactly what I wanted you to do!' and that the click is always followed by a reward. We present the bell to Spunky. We watch for even a LOOK from Spunky towards the bell. Click/reward. We look for a movement towards the bell. Click/reward. We slowly build our behavior until we have Spunky near the bell. Then we work on reinforcing movements towards the bell cord. We start to click/reward any movements and contact with the cord, then we'll reinforce mouthing the cord, then we'll click/reward pulling on the cord, and so on.

We can move forward in the shaping process by reinforcing a behavior, such as mouthing the cord, then by withholding reinforcement and asking for more. For example, Spunky may mouth the cord, click/reward. Mouth the cord, click/reward. We have the behavior of mouthing the cord, but we want more. We want Spunky to get more aggressive with the cord so we withhold reinforcement. Spunky mouths the cord. No click/reward. Spunky is surprised! It worked before! Mouth the cord, no click/reward. Spunky will try something different; typically he will modify the current behavior and PULL on the cord. Click/reward. We call this burst of intensification of the behavior, an extinction burst. Extinction bursts are how we can get to the next level of the behaviors we are shaping."

(To learn more about extinction bursts, click on the video icon to the right.)

Click here for video
Click here for one
of our llama videos

"Once we have Spunky pulling the cord, we can reinforce only those pulls that result in the bell actually ringing. Then we can shape Spunky to ring the bell a certain number of times, or with a certain volume, or whatever we wish."

Don't waste the lesson!

"When teaching a behavior like this using physical equipment or props, be sure not to leave the equipment in with the animal all of the time. This can lead to the extinction of the behavior, because no one is there to reinforce it when it occurs! Lamas enjoy these types of behaviors because they require very little in the way of expenditure of energy, and they are always a big attention getter with ranch visitors."

Read more about Fun with lamas. (Playing chess?! Now that is rethinking what is possible!)

Indoor fun and games

Here are two photos of what Jim Logan calls Lama Table Games (the Logans think one L is quite sufficient). Table games, he points out, are a great way to amuse any active animal that must be confined: a horse or dog recovering from an injury, a lively cat that lives indoors, an active dog pining for exercise—mental or physical—in bad weather.

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