I've been doing some research recently on "berserk alpaca syndrome" as I felt I needed to think more about why the girl I look after has become more difficult to handle. Is it a dominance thing or a defensive thing? How berserk is she? Over the last couple of years I have definitely seen an increase in dominant behaviour from her, e.g. nudging me if I'm in between her and the trough. However it's only in the last 6 months or so that she has started to spit at humans and become difficult to handle during husbandry duties. This marked change in behaviour came shortly after some dogs got into their paddock and targeted her for their attack. She came out almost unscathed but was shocked. On reflexion I think she is using dominant behaviour to defend herself, i.e. she will only spit if I corner, move or handle her. She won't stand quietly if I hold her around her neck and it takes two people to handle her before she will submit and stay still.
I've taken what I know from camelidynamics and combined it with a bit of Monty Robert's "Join-up" method for horses to come up with an action plan. I tried this out today:
- I penned the female on her own by inticing her in with food. The other girls were just outside the pen and were relaxed throughout.
- I let her eat and then stood very calmly at her side by her shoulder with my arms down and not making eye contact. She remained calm until I stretched out my arm to touch her neck, and then she started spitting. I didn't react at all to her spitting (not nice for me) except to lower my arm. I wanted to show her that her spitting would have no effect and that I wasn't going to back off, but neither was I going to harm her or grab her.
- After three times she stopped spitting! I stood next to her calmly for a couple more minutes, and then was able to reach out and give her a few TTouches on her neck with no ill effect, in fact she started chewing the cud.
- I then tried to touch down her body, but this resulted in another spit. In response I lowered my head down to the ground and, interestingly, she copied me. We both stayed like that with our heads lower than our bodies for a minute or so. Then I straightened up and, still to one side and not making eye contact, found I was able to hold her neck gently and TTouch her body. I wanted to end on a high note so I let her out of the pen after this.
She was making her anxious hums throughout this session and clearly wanted to leave the pen so even though I managed to make physical contact while keeping her relatively calm I feel I still have a long way to go. I'll continue working with her in this way as the results from this session were so positive - fingers crossed this continues.