Q: What made you decide to get your llamas “Certified” for Animal-Assisted Therapy?
A: We knew almost from when we first got Rojo that he was “different” from many other llamas we have met. After being involved with 4-H a number of years, and attending many fairs, shows, and parades where llamas are brought into very close contact with large crowds of people, Rojo just stood apart in his enjoyment of this interaction. Every time we took him out, he was almost immediately surrounded by people, especially children, wanting to pet him, asking questions about llamas, and telling us that he was the most beautiful, and gentle, llama they have ever seen! In 2006, when we were at our local county fair, someone passing through our llama area suggested to Shannon that she should consider getting Rojo “certified” as a “therapy animal” through DoveLewis in Portland, OR. (We had both thought about taking Rojo into adult-care facilities, and schools before, and had actually taken him to a couple of schools with Shannon’s 4-H leader, but there were concerns about liability insurance issues should we take him off the farm by ourselves. Certification would allow us the freedom to take Rojo just about anywhere, and we would be covered by the insurance DoveLewis provided for animals in their therapy program.) The following day, while Lori was doing more PR at the fair, a woman came by the llama area, pushing her sweet little boy in his wheelchair. The boy must have been around 7 or 8 years old, but he had no hands or feet, only the rounded ends of his little arms and legs sticking out of his t-shirt and shorts, and his little bald head could be seen under his sideways baseball cap. Lori assured her that Rojo was totally safe for her son to pet, and so she pushed him right up, almost into, Rojo’s chest hair. As that little guy twirled his arms into Rojo’s fiber, his face lit up with a huge smile, and he shouted “Mama, I petted a llama! I petted a llama!” It was at that moment that God placed into Lori’s heart a “calling” to share Rojo through Animal-Assisted Therapy. We had been given a special “gift” in Rojo, and now we need to be responsible and obedient to share this special gift to bless the lives of many others. Lori and Shannon had no idea at that time, just how incredibly exciting, and rewarding, this experience would be!
A: The certification process can be quite extensive, and varies depending on the program you participate with, and those in charge of that particular program. Certification, in comparison with Pet Partners “registration” for therapy animals, involves a more thorough evaluation and training of the “handler”, as much as it does the animal that will be used in the therapy visitations. Lori and Shannon were both certified individually, with Rojo and Smokey, as “Therapy Teams”- and completed all of the various requirements which were set forth by the DoveLewis Animal-Assisted Therapy Program at that time. Our process started with an initial meeting with the head of the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program at DoveLewis, where she asked questions about Rojo and what kind of therapeutic activities we would like to do with him; she touched Rojo all over to see how he would react; we went for a walk down the busy Portland street to see if all the activity bothered him, then took him inside the building to see how calm he was indoors, how he maneuvered in close areas, and how he interacted with people around him. Most of the staff at DoveLewis had never been up close to a llama before, so it was very fun to introduce them to Rojo! The next step was an 8 hour classroom training for Shannon and myself, to learn about the general procedures for visitations, safety concerns, animal handling skills for various situations, understanding the different environments we may encounter, etc. We went through the Delta Society (Pet Partners) Training Manual, watched videos, did role-playing activities, and had several question and answer sessions- it was all very informative and helpful. The following week after we completed the classroom training, DoveLewis had almost an entire floor of their building set up for the “lab”, where we brought Rojo and took him through different rooms which provided a variety of unusual environments to test his, and our, response. There were a number of DoveLewis staff and volunteers playing the part of people we might encounter during our visitations. Some had walkers, wheelchairs, or canes; some had funny hats, spoke very loud, acted disoriented, bumped Rojo from behind, dropped things close to him, brought dogs up to Rojo, hugged him extra long, and petted him clumsily. One small room was set up like a hospital with noisy machines, and IV lines, with a person laying in bed that we had to walk Rojo in to visit, and back him back out without disturbing the equipment. There was also an area where a young child simulated the “Read to the Dogs Program” which DoveLewis use to offer to our local schools. The whole “lab” process took around 90 minutes- at the end, each station related to us their own assessment regarding how we performed in their particular area- Rojo did fantastic for experiencing such a variety of unusual people in one day! A week or so after the Lab, we completed the final step in our certification, by taking Rojo across town for our Final Team Evaluation, which took place in a “doggie daycare” facility. Evaluators for DoveLewis and the Delta Society (Pet Partners) had us take Rojo through a series of tasks and situations to see how we would both respond. Because Shannon and I both wanted to be certified with Rojo, we each had to take him through separately, which was a bit challenging because Shannon took him through first, and then I had to wait a couple of hours for some dogs to be tested before I could take him through the second time. We took some hay and treats, and took him for walks in-between. Rojo was a bit more restless the second time through, but still did very well for me. We thought the final would be almost the same as the lab, but it was quite a bit different. The Final Evaluation was more controlled, and a score sheet was used to rate our performance on each task. Shannon and I were mainly rated on whether we were “proactive” and “smooth”, or “reactive” and “stressed” during our interactions, and Rojo was rated on whether he was “relaxed” and “smooth”, or “stressed” and “fearful” in each situation. They had us walk through a group of people with walkers and wheelchairs, pass off his lead to strangers, drop the lead and walk away for a few minutes, swirled scarves over and under his head, dropped things on the floor around him, surrounded him with people petting him all over and asking us questions, had us walk up to a dog with its owner, and let people feed him treats. We all scored very well- the only time Rojo reacted when I took him through was when he was surprised by a hanging windsock behind him that he hadn’t noticed before, but he regained his composure quickly. The evaluators did a great job of being relaxed themselves around Rojo, even though they had never tested a llama before, and that really helped him do well throughout the process. After completing the evaluation, our pictures were taken with Rojo, which were made into DoveLewis badges that we attached to the yellow band that Rojo wore when we represented DoveLewis in public. After we completed the requirements to became Certified Therapy Teams through DoveLewis, Shannon and I were automatically qualified to “register” as “Pet Partners” with the Delta Society. During 2007 and 2008, we did therapy work as volunteers for DoveLewis, and in 2009, also decided to register with the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners). In 2010, DoveLewis decided to temporarily discontinue their AAT Program- this was a very difficult and defining moment for us, however, it turned out for the best, as we were forced to go independent, and became an LLC, and then our own 501(c)3 non-profit, Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas!
Q: Where have you taken your llamas to do Animal-Assisted Therapy?
A: The first year of our certification, we primarily focused on visiting senior communities and rehab facilities within the Portland/Vancouver area. The response, and need, for animal-assisted therapy among seniors has been overwhelming. All of the facilities we have visited have been wonderful, caring, environments, and have welcomed us with open arms. Every time we take our animals to visit an assisted living community or rehab center, we are blessed more than the residents, as we observe the impact our animals are making to enrich so many lives. We have seen people that haven’t verbalized or been responsive to other types of therapy treatments in months, attempting to speak, and trying to sit up and reach out to touch Rojo, Smokey, Beni, or Napoleon; other seniors that don’t usually want to leave their rooms, become eager to come out when they know our animals are there; tears of joy when we make in-room visits, bringing Rojo or Napoleon right into the “living rooms” and along the bedside, of those who are no longer able to walk to the main meeting room. The surprise and delight that our special animals bring to these wonderful seniors has been rewarding beyond words! More recently, there seems to be an even greater need for Rojo’s gifts within schools, children’s hospitals, facilities for at-risk and special-needs children, and for children with long-term medical needs. We will continue to do visits among seniors, but will be adding more therapy animals so that we can do more visitation to help bring joy and hope for these children in the days, and years, to come.
Q: What other activities do you do with your therapy llamas?
A: Our llamas and alpacas are involved in many local parades and various community events (check out our “Upcoming Events” page). Because of our relationship with DoveLewis, many doors have been opened for us to share our llamas in places we never would have dreamed possible! We regularly receive requests for birthday parties, weddings and other private and corporate events that provide more generous donations which help to offset the costs involved in our volunteer work. We enjoy doing all kinds of voluntary events throughout the year, and are thankful that we are able to give back, and bring joy to our community through sharing our llamas. The price of gas and automotive care, as well as personal time involved, forces us to limit how many volunteer requests we can reasonably fill, and it is very difficult for us to say no, so we greatly appreciate all of the special event requests our animals receive throughout the year!
Q: How do you travel with Rojo and Smokey; do you have to take them in a trailer everywhere you go?
A: Rojo, Smokey, Beni, and Napoleon are all very easy travelers- when we take out one animal, they ride with us in our minivan, which is lined with a rubber pad, and has an animal-barrier between the front seats and the back area. They have plenty of room, and ride comfortably in a “kushed” position with all their legs tucked under them. We always provide a small nylon suitcase filled with hay as their reward on the way home from visits and events, and that helps keep them very content! We also have a larger van that we can use for events that would like two of our animals in attendance, so now they can travel together more comfortably. For events and activities involving more than two animals, we use our larger van and trailer- sometimes dividing up the animals to keep the peace!
Q: How do you keep your llamas so clean?
A: During the summer months, we use a strong blower to remove the dust and larger pieces of debris, then we brush them with a wire brush designed for long-haired dogs, and shampoo them all over with Pantene Pro-V Shampoo (with conditioner). After rinsing thoroughly, we blow them again to remove as much water as possible, and let them air dry in the sun while they graze. After they are dry, we have to brush them again to remove any remaining pieces of hay, etc. I frequently use my “secret” grooming product, anti-static spray, which helps release those fine pieces of hay, makes the fiber really soft, and smells great too! My final grooming step is to scrub their toenails with a cleanser, and paint them with a black shiny horse hoof polish- then they’re all ready to go! In the winter, we still blow and brush our llamas, but are unable to totally wet them down to the skin because it is too cold and they would likely get pneumonia. Instead, we spray them down with “waterless shampoo” made just for llamas- our boys love to be shampooed and then massaged all over when we towel-dry them! In nasty weather, and at night, our therapy llamas and alpacas appreciate their large protected pen where they are kept under cover to stay dry and protected. We always allow them to graze out in the pasture as often as the weather permits, but they always come running back to the barn as soon as the rain starts!
Q: Does your llama’s hair grow that way, or do you cut it?
A: We cut all of our llama’s and alpaca’s hair (technically, called “fiber”) once each year, as soon as the weather warms up in May, so they will look their best for the Portland Grand Floral Parade. In the past, we use to use sewing shears to trim all of our llama’s mid-section in a “lion-cut” style, however, we finally decided to save up and purchase some electric shears to make life easier. Hand cutting takes about 1 1/2 hours per animal for the initial cut, and another hour or so trim later to even it out. Electric shears cut that time down to around 20-30 minutes per animal or less. Most of our llama’s longer front and leg fiber has never been shorn because everyone loves their woolliness!
Q: What do you do with your animal’s fiber that you cut each year?
A: Llamas and alpacas have wonderful fiber that can be spun into yarn, and used to make luxurious garments. Because we only shear our llama’s mid-section once each year, it takes several years to get enough fiber to make into a sweater. Although our alpacas are much smaller than our llamas, their fiber grown four times denser than the llama’s, so we can easily harvest enough each year for a sweater and more! We have a drum carder, and spinning wheel to process all our animal’s fiber ourselves (just usually not enough time!), and we have also donated some of our llama fiber to schools, to be used for craft projects. Many people also needle-felt, locker-hook, and do many other fun projects with their llama and alpaca fiber.
Q: Do your llamas and alpacas “spit”?
A: Yes- all camelids do spit! (Just as all dogs can bite, and all cats can scratch!) Our animals very rarely spit at humans though, unless they really feel threatened, or are very stressed or tired. Spitting is a llama or alpaca’s way of defending itself, or of trying to dominate another animal, or human.
Rojo is our only therapy animal that sometimes tries to spit at us when we are grooming his legs with a fine wire-toothed brush, but that is because the little teeth tend to pull on the hairs around the sensitive areas of his body. We always try to be more gentle in brushing those areas, but because they kush (sit) on the ground regularly, that is an area that gets dirtiest, and needs to be cleaned before we go out. Smokey, Beni, and Napoleon rarely ever spit at humans, but will spit at the other smaller alpacas if they are extremely upset about something. We train all of our animals to be respectful toward us by using a squirt bottle of water, if necessary, when we see signs that they are preparing to spit (ears back, neck down, grunt noise from throat). If we “spit” on them first, by spraying them with the water, and say “no”, this shows them that we are in charge. Llamas and alpacas really don’t like the smell, or taste, of their own spit, so they often give a warning, “fake spit”, before they actually bring up the nasty stuff!
Teaching a llama or alpaca to respect, and not spit at, people is one of the most important lessons that owners need to do. It is very frustrating to all of us who enjoy taking our llamas and alpacas out into public settings, when we constantly have to reassure everyone that it is safe to come up and pet them, but people are afraid because an unsocialized animal has spat on them in the past.
Therapy llamas, in particular, have a much higher tolerance of people than most therapy animals (including the smaller, more timid, alpacas), and their handlers are very aware of their llama’s limitations, (and protective of their reputation!) so don’t ever be afraid to give them lots of hugs!
Q: Aren’t you afraid that your llamas or alpacas will make a mess if they have to go potty while you are indoors?
A: Although we had been told by many llama folks that llamas and alpacas are “naturally” potty-trained (they prefer to eliminate in a “communal pile”, or specific places they feel comfortable), a friend had related a story to us about how her PR llama, that had never had gone inside before, one day decided to “surprised” everyone by going potty in front of hundreds of students during a school assembly! Upon hearing this, Lori immediately decided that before they ever got certified with Rojo, she would use her sewing skills to design a special “protective garment” for him to wear, so we would never have to worry about this issue! Now, whenever we take any of our animals “off the farm” for a therapy visit or special event, we ALWAYS have them wear their personal protective garment, as there are just too many times when we are doing special events and our van is not convenient, or we can’t take our llamas outside easily to go, or even nicer outdoor events where it would be very unprofessional to have to tell people to watch where they step, or to stop visiting to scoop poo- they are so discreet that people can’t even tell that our animals are wearing protection because it hides under their bushy tail and hairy back legs, and they are almost always decorated, or wearing a little pack, so it just blends in with the rest of their outfit.