ALPACANATION - The Original Online Alpaca Marketplace

The Original
Online Alpaca Marketplace
Alpaca Trainer Train Alpacas



Alpaca Training


March 18th, 2004 . The Novice Handler Syndrome


Alpaca Training
The farm where we currently board our alpacas has a gelded male approximately two years old whom I believe is showing signs of male berserk syndrome. His mother did not have sufficient milk and she "disowned" him, so he was bottlefed, and his owners overcompensated with human contact (sleeping with him in the barn round the clock, constant handling, allowed in the house, etc).

He is now kept in the pen with the other geldings, but most times he's in with the mothers & crias. He doesn't seem to bother them. When a human is around though, he's the first alpaca to greet you, he starts sniffing, bumping into you and then jumps up on you from behind trying to knock you down. He does this to his owners also. His owners say he's only playing and "rough housing." And they continue to allow it.

Now he's nipping at pant legs and shoe laces and he's literally pulling your pant leg out of your boot or undoing the shoe laces. I'm expecting biting and aggressive behavior next.

What this all leads to is my real concern which has to do with my female's 5 month old male cria. My male cria was born and has been raised like a normal cria with no problems that I know of, but since he is being boarded, I obviously can't be there to see what goes on everyday. They are both kept in the same pen/pasture with the other females & crias, but the gelded "berserk" male is also allowed in their area.

Will my male cria learn and copy this gelding's berserk behavior & habits? Should I be concerned? Should I ask to have the gelded male kept away from our male cria? Or am I just overly concerned.

Alpaca Training

It is entirely possible that your young male may begin to emulate the behavior of the near-do-well in his paddock. Young animals learn from watching other animals. Are you seeing any indications that your young male is picking up bad habits? If you aren't seeing any warning signs then you may be okay.

My other concern is that the humans boarding your animals are also influencing their behavior and they clearly do not understand the warning signals of aggression in young males. My role here is to help readers with the behavior of their animals but I am going to go out on a limb here and talk about human behavior. If you ask the owners of the farm to move animals around to suit you it is going to go over like a lead balloon. It is their farm and they have already indicated they don't think the behavior of the offending animal is a problem. This bottle raised alpaca is more like a child than an alpaca and criticizing other peoples children is a real hot button.

Regardless of what you decide to do, unless it is nothing, you may damage the relationship you have with these people but the best solution if you are seeing definite signs of inappropriate behavior in your male is probably to move your animals to a new location.

For those interested in more information on Berserk Male Syndrome, and the early warning signals for inappropriate behavior, I have an included an article I have written previously on the subject.

~ Marty McGee Bennett

The Novice Handler Syndrome

Words are important. The words we use to describe situations and events
colors our perceptions of those events. Berserk male syndrome (BMS) is
a phrase that has been around for a long time. Although the phrase was
originally coined to describe llamas, alpacas are certainly not
immune. I have met many human aggressive alpacas. Their smaller size
softens the impact a bit however being chest butted by a 100 pound
animal is no small event. These animals are unpleasant if not dangerous
to have around and are certainly a public relations problem the alpaca
community must deal with.

The term BMS was originally used in an article by Paul Taylor in late
1980 or early 1981. Paul wrote an article in the 3L Llama Newsletter in
March of 1981 clarifying what he meant by the term. Paul said, “It
seems to be the end result of a series of confusing and negative
interactions with humans, beginning with the breakdown of the normal
standoffishness that herd raised llamas show in their relationship to
humans. A male llama that has been bottle fed or constantly petted and
fondled as a baby will show no hesitation about initiating contact with
humans, as in the mild case of the pushy llama who runs up to be petted
or bumps with his chest against people in the pasture with him. Such a
llama is apt to be pushed or slapped to keep him away this conflict can
escalate over a period of time, possibly with changing owners or
eventually the use a whip or club to keep the animal at bay. The final
result seems to be a tangled combination of the normal llama behavior
for dominance assertion, breeding and defense.” 

Camelids do not have a monopoly on this particular problem, domestic
animals that become aggressive occur in all species. Dairy bulls,
bottle raised cats, puppies and foals all are prone to difficulties in
their interactions with humans. Today the phrase BMS is used to
describe llamas and alpacas that are anything from innocently pushing
the bounds of proper behavior to those animals that are completely out
of control and dangerously aggressive. It is a confusing state of
affairs. I get calls from worried llama and alpaca owners almost on a
daily basis who are worried about the potentially aggressive or already
aggressive behavior of their animals.  I would argue very little with
Paul’s description or his conclusions regarding animals that exhibit
such behaviors. The article advises llama owner/breeders to allow young
llamas to be socialized by the herd so that they develop the normal
standoffish behavior. I agree that allowing young alpacas to live in a
herd is a good idea. What if you like most alpacas owners don’t have a
herd? Many new owners have one each— male, female and new baby. What
about the young alpaca that leaves voluntarily leaves the company of
the herd to interact with humans? What about the orphan or youngster
who must be treated medically on an ongoing basis? The current advice
within the camelid community ranges from a complete hands-off policy
until young alpacas (especially males) are six months old to intense
handling as a newborn to varying approaches in between.  

I think that in order to decide how to prevent aggressive behavior it
is important to gain awareness of what causes it. Perhaps more
importantly to recognize the early warning signals and act then. Why
does it happen to some males and not to others raised in the same
circumstances? Can it happen to females? Is gelding aggressive males
the magic bullet?

Perhaps it would help if we reorient our thinking about aggressive
camelids and put the onus where it belongs— with the humans. My
suggestion is that we coin an additional term â€œThe Novice Handler
Syndrome.” It is my experience that aggressive animals happen because a
variety of factors coalesce. Alpacas are born with different
personalities and tendencies. Humans have different behavioral styles,
levels of confidence and experience. Environmental factors such as
multiple owners, age of weaning, herd composition also play a part in
the behavior of an alpaca. A precocious animal whose approach to new
situations is to control them combined with a new owner lacking in
experience= problem. The same new owner with a naturally timid animal
=no problem. A young alpaca with early medical problems (even if he is
raised in a large herd) who is later sold to a new timid
owner=problem. A young male raised alone with no alpaca babies to play
with. The owners have young children. The children encourage aggressive
play behavior directed at humans. The young male alpaca eventually out
weighs the children and reaches puberty when the games get
serious=problem. You get the picture. Sets of circumstances are
responsible not one factor. 

So how do we humans navigate these dangerous behavioral waters? The
first step I believe is to own the problem, once we accept that the
behavioral change has to happen to the humans in this particular
animals environment we can realize the limitations of a “fix” and set
about changing what we can. The easiest thing is prevention through
awareness.  One very important facet of the “Novice Handler Syndrome”
is the tendency of the human to misinterpret the beginnings of
aggressive behavior for friendliness. Allow me a short description of
how the NHS is played out leading to a real problem. Mary Novice has
her first alpaca baby. ITS A BOY! The baby lives with two adult females
in a small pasture. His instincts tell him to play, wrestle, bite, and
bump. We have a couple of immediate problems. First there is not a lot
of room to run and not much to do. Second the other animals in his
environment don’t want to play and in fact they say something like “Get
away from me kid you bother me.” Young stud is majorly bored. The high
point of the day is when Mary comes out and sits with him. This two
legged thing is nothing if not interesting and far from being rebuffed
he is the star of the show.  He starts finding out about this thing in
his environment by interacting with it. At first he is a bit timid and
walks up with his neck and nose extended for a greeting.  Fine so
far. At first the baby gets Mary’s undivided attention. Everything he
does is worthy of putting in the baby book. The reality is that there
are other things Mary must do in the barn maybe she is busy mucking out
when the baby decides he want to interact with her. he wants her
attention so he picks at her clothes, puts his nose in her face and
rubs against her while she is working. A week or so later this
youngster is now running up to Mary skidding to a stop and putting his
nose in her face. I can bet you that by the time this baby is 16 months
old—maybe a lot sooner that that—Mary will be calling me, or somebody,
to ask why her beautiful, friendly, perfect, baby boy is now rearing up
and wrapping his legs around her waist every time she turns her back on

Young alpacas babies that rub, lean stand closely, walk right up and
put their nose in your face or crotch and a fail to yield space when
you move toward them are not being friendly.  These behaviors are
really the beginnings of aggression. Your alpaca is exploring his
environment and checking out the boundaries of what is allowed. He or
she is asking you very important questions. The conventional wisdom of
ignoring youngsters who behave this way is, in my experience, not the
answer. If you do nothing to discourage this seemingly “friendly”
behavior it usually escalates. 

What is Mary to do now and when did she give the impression to young
perfect baby boy that he could practice breeding her? Should she slap
him, push him away every time he comes near her and yell NOBAD
ALPACA!? I wouldn’t recommend that course of action.  It surely would
have been better if Mary knew to discourage this young suitor earlier
on. There is certainly nothing wrong with a young alpaca soliciting a
nose greeting with neck and nose extended and then waiting politely for
Mary to lean forward to participate in the greeting. Sticking his nose
in Mary’s face any time he felt like it is crossing the line of
allowable behavior. I believe if Mary had flicked him on the nose with
her fingers (like she was flicking a piece of lint off her sweater) the
first couple of times this youngster entered her personal space without
permission the problem would have ended before it got going. I don’t
mean to suggest that Mary needs to scare him away only that she needs
to be clear about the fact that she has personal space and he is not
allowed in it. A foot and a half is my personal space. A human need
only stop an animal from entering this space; we do not need to chase
him away. In my opinion Mary would be making a big mistake to push this
young guy away when he approaches or to yell. Yelling gets everybody's
blood going, escalates the situation and indicates that you are
afraid. Speak like you mean it firmly and powerfully and tell the
alpaca what you want him to do STAY BACK not what you don’t want him to
do.  The unspoken thought after you say NO is DON'T JUMP ON ME. Better
not to even think it! 

If you are currently dealing with a young alpaca who has headed down
this road and is already at the point of rubbing pushing you may need
more than your fingers to back these little guys up. A racket ball
racket is a good tool. The large screen makes it easy to connect with
the nose and the handle is short enough (a tennis racket is too
unwieldy) that it is handy to carry with you AT ALL TIMES until the
youngster gets the idea. remember when you use it no follow through-
use a very short staccato bip on the nose along with a firm STAY
BACK. You are creating a force field around you.  It is important that
every human in your young llamas life behave consistently. If you have
children keep them away from this young alpaca until he is understands
how to behave. If you have farm visitors put this guy on a halter, if
he is halter trained, or put him away. It is not a bad idea to geld
him. Gelding uncomplicates the problem but doesn’t solve it. You must
still learn to behave differently and set limits. Female alpacas can
become disrespectful and difficult too. Clucking ear threats and
spitting are the more likely outcome but I have met females who were
physically intimidating.  My policy is to treat males and females
babies no differently. I insist on respectful behavior from both

Babies do best if they have other babies to play with. With other
babies around in many cases, the whole problem becomes a non-issue. If
you are going to have a single baby, think about forming a baby alpaca
play group. Contact other breeders that are going to have single
babies. Make arrangements to board your female and baby at their farm
for a month or two and then move both mothers and babies to your place
for two months. The hassle is well worth it and you will both benefit
from the enjoyment of watching the babies play together.   

 Overcompensation is a major facet of the “Novice Handler
Syndrome.” the old I will show this animal who is the boss attitude. I
prefer to think of myself as the teacher rather than the boss. If you
prefer the boss analogy that’s fine- how about being a boss of the 90’s
instead of the 40’s. Enlightened managers, teachers and bosses know
that coming on like Attilla the Hun creates major difficulties. Many
trainers use the word dominance to describe how to behave around an
animal. The issue of dominance is a tricky one. Humans come into an
animals life as being entirely different from them and very
powerful-omnipotent actually. We control everything about an alpacas
environment no-question. I don’t think it is a good idea to participate
in dominance contests with animals. Assume you are in charge, don’t
feel like you have to prove it and by all means don’t give away your
place of preeminence by encouraging animals to behave disrespectfully
towards you. Setting consistent limits, being respectful of the animal
and being careful about asking too much too soon are all good ways of
avoiding confrontation. Using training methods that do not rely on
force or intimidation are important when training alpacas particularly
the ones that are testing the water. Tying an alpaca and forcing him to
submit to excessive grooming, dragging him to teach him to lead,
physically holding him to put a halter on or to pick up his feet will
all provoke the young animal that has decided to be physical with

One last difficult issue... what about the alpaca who has already
gotten dangerously aggressive. What now? Sell him to someone who
doesn’t know any better? Auction? Petting zoo? Keep him behind a chain
link fence for the rest of his life? Once an animal learns that
aggression works to make him/her feel more secure it is very hard to
convince him to give it up. There are some TTEAM techniques that I
share individually with people that are determined to give these
animals another chance. Techniques that rely on force or
reciprocal aggression usually escalate the behavior. When treated this
way most alpacas will become selectively obedient to those humans that
have dominated them and of whom they are afraid. Dominance is not a
static thing. Just because you were dominant on Tuesday doesn’t mean
you get to be top dog forever, so if your approach is to dominate these
guys, it would be best not to turn your back. The irony of the
situation is that most people who have the emotional constitution to
deal with these guys don’t want to and the people who can’t stand to
see any animal euthanized and decide to “save” these animals don’t have
the inner ballast to deal with them successfully. If you have helped to
produce or maybe just ended up with an alpaca who has become
dangerously aggressive it might be best to take the responsibility and
have him put down. In many cases this is a kindness. A quick painless
end is highly preferable to a severely limited, confusing, lonely long




Our family has 8,883 breeders, with more joining every day.

Join Now!