John Mallon — Gentling & Training Llamas & Alpacas

Improving Your Relationship with Your Llamas or Alpacas

with John Mallon

“The well-being of the llamas and alpacas is always my primary consideration…”


Welcome to the column, and thanks for taking the interest in improving your relationship with your llamas or alpacas. I will do my best to address questions and problems I most often encounter in my travels conducting training clinics around the world, and attempt to leave you with a better understanding of the animals we have so fortunately chosen to spend our lives with. INCIDENTALLY, the exact same principles apply to horses. So, those of you who have horses, please read on…

I suppose I should get a few “ground rules” out of the way before we begin:

  • First, for the sake of simplicity, I will use “llamas and alpacas ” rather than “lamas” throughout these articles, but the same theories and techniques apply equally to alpacas, guanacos, and horses;

  • Second, realizing that many new llama and alpaca lovers join us each month, I will start at the beginning as though we were all new to llamas and alpacas, and refer back to the basics on a regular basis in order to keep us all up to speed; and

  • Third, I will venture outside the training arena from time to time to address topics which I feel are relevant to the industry as a whole.

The well-being of the llamas and alpacas is always my primary consideration, and my contributions to this column will be based upon that fact. My chosen path in life enables me to encounter thousands of llamas and alpacas, each with problems relating to their humans, and my purpose is to share the benefits of my experience with you.

There are many ways of doing things, and I’ve probably tried at least most of them in my 35+ years of training various species of animals. The ideas and techniques I’ll share with you are only those which have worked in all cases, but if you are doing something different from what I suggest, and it is working  for you, there is no reason to change it (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…”) With that out of the way, let’s talk llamas and alpacas.

What are llamas and alpacas, exactly? Why do they do the things they do? What makes them tick? What motivates them to alter their behavior? Why won’t they do what I want them to do? Why do they seem to be afraid of me? Why are they so stubborn sometimes? Don’t they know I’m not going to hurt them? The key to working successfully with llamas and alpacas is understanding, because what is often misconstrued as misbehavior is simply misunderstanding on the llamas’ and alpacas’ part, brought on by inconsistent behavior and lack of understanding on our part. Once we begin to understand the animal, the animal can begin to understand us, and learn to cooperate with us, so that we may work safely and peacefully together.


“When we wrote that check to purchase our llamas and alpacas, we signed a contract of care…”

When we wrote that check to purchase our llamas and alpacas, we signed a contract of care; we agreed to look after them, not just look at them. In order to properly care for these animals, we must be able to trim toenails, give shots, administer worming medication, groom, move from place to place for weighing, etc., and do it all as safely and stress-free as possible. This is where training comes into play — if a llama or alpaca is in serious trouble and our interference escalates his stress, raising blood pressure, heart- and respiration rates, then there is an increased chance that an animal that might otherwise have survived, will die. Stress kills.

Unfortunately, some people have the idea that training is “icing on the cake,” not really necessary if we don’t plan to show, pack, or drive the animal. Training is of the utmost importance if we are to have civilized relationships with the llama, relationships which are compatible rather than adversarial. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the llama or alpaca is, from the inside out…

“Being a prey animal controls every aspect of a llama’s life…”


The llama or alpaca is a prey animal, the exact opposite of the dogs and cats (confident predators/hunters with which we are always comparing our llamas and alpacas) that we are used to. Expecting, or hoping that our llamas and alpacas will respond to us in the same general manner in which dogs do can only lead to frustration and failure — it just isn’t going to happen.

Being a prey animal controls every aspect of the llama’s life, a life that is filled with mistrust, suspicion, and self-protective behavior. Fear is the llama’sand alpaca’s friend, his savior, for, without it, he would become prey to the predator. His ability to flee instantly from any perceived threat is what has kept him going for all these thousands of years, and his instinct to do so has served him well, and although his need to be ever-vigilant and protective has been diminished somewhat through domestication and a looked-after lifestyle, the instinct has not changed one bit.


“Only through an understanding of the psychology of the prey animal can we hope to develop a trusting relationship…”

Only through an understanding of the psychology of the prey animal can we hope to develop a trusting relationship with an animal whose job it is to be very highly suspicious of anything new or different in his life. The importance of this understanding cannot be overstated; these animals are very different, with a whole different way of looking at, and experiencing, the world.

“The llama’s and alpacas eyes are set wide in the head to provide a very wide range of vision


Let’s take a look at how the prey animal is physically different from the predator, specifically, his eye-set and vision. One of the features that seems to attract people to llamas and alpacas are their big, beautiful eyes, and there is no arguing the fact that they do have eyes that are big and beautiful, but they are not that way so that we’ll love them; they are set wide in the head (as with all prey animals) to provide a very wide range of vision, their first line of defense. Their monocular vision operates like two separate cameras, and their color and depth perception has been sacrificed in favor of highly specialized and sensitive motion detectors.

The predators, on the other hand, have eyes set in the middle of our heads for greater depth perception, enhancing our ability to make the killing strike at the right moment, (hand/claw-eye coordination.) Our ability to see around us is diminished, but we see in front of us just fine. If you ever wonder about whether an animal is prey or predator, remember this — “eyes to the front, they hunt, eyes to the side, they hide.”


“This monocular vision also explains why prey animals must be taught everything twice…”

This monocular vision also explains why prey animals must be taught everything twice — once on the left, then again on the right, as if he were two different animals. Imagine sitting in a car that had only side-view mirrors, no rearview. As someone walks behind the car, you spot them in your side view mirror, and then they disappear from view, only to appear a moment later in the other mirror. This is what the llama or alpaca experiences when we walk behind him, or reach over to position a pack or harness on him, or reach around his neck to adjust his halter. Different, isn’t it? This is the llama’s and alpaca’s perception of the world, and like it or not, there is no changing it.

Next time, we’ll look at some of the other differences between llamas and alpacas and the animals with which we are more familiar. I welcome questions, comments and suggestions. Email me at

’Til next time,

Happy Trails…

Missed an article?

Click here for the one you want!!

Due to the overwhelming demands on John’s time, he can only answer training and behavior questions for those people who have attended his clinics in the past. This assures that everyone is “on the same page,” and John is not faced with the impossible task of trying to condense a nine-hour day’s worth of foundation into a few paragraphs.

For your convenience, John offers “Private Telephone Consultations.” See Products & Services for details.

Home | About John | Products & Services | Llearning Llamas |
Dear John
| Calendar | Email John at

19502 Rancho Ballena Road • Ramona, CA 92065
Phone: 760 789 7944

Copyright © 2011, John Mallon Clinics
Web design by: Precision Computing Arts, Inc. Hosted by: Iteam Graphics