Remember to Say “Thank You!”

This is a bit of a follow-up to my last post, Avoiding Aggression with Start Buttons, because I think there is more to be said about aggression in parrots. Prevention is truly the key and there is one other important step to avoiding this problem. I mentioned it briefly in my previous post, but it deserves more focus. That is the need to say “thank you.”

Biting problems, once they develop, can be resolved. But remember this: A behavior that an animal exhibits can only be suppressed through behavior modification efforts. It cannot be completely eradicated from the bird’s “behavior repertoire.” Thus, a bird who used to bite can always begin again if the social and environmental circumstances support the reemergence of that behavior.

Because of this, we need to center our attention on preventing aggression in the first place. Biting parrots aren’t a lot of fun to live with; I don’t know anyone who loves the thrill of never knowing when the beak might strike next. Plus, aggressive parrots often lose their homes. We need to help each other learn how to live with our parrots respectfully, so that the problem never develops in the first place.

This simple goal is easier said than done. Using start buttons to clarify communication and being mindful to pay attention to body language will both go a long way to preventing a biting problem. However, there is an even more essential ingredient to our social relationships with our birds. It is vital that we remember to say “thank you” to them when they comply with a request.

The Importance of Concepts and Language

Let’s deviate and talk for a minute about the language we use when we talk about training parrots.  When discussing behavior, I often bring in comparisons from the dog and horse training worlds and will do so here as well. I have two reasons.

First, behavior is behavior is behavior. What does that mean? It means that the same behavioral principles apply to the training (teaching) of all species. The most effective methods for training dogs aren’t any different than the most effective methods for training birds. There is a science of behavior that has been in existence for a century now. That’s a whole lot of data on how behavior works that we have at our fingertips.

Second, the training concepts and language used in dog or horse training tend to infiltrate conversations about parrot training.  A person who took their puppy to obedience school learned certain concepts from the individual conducting the classes. Many of those concepts might not be valid, depending upon the education and experience of the class leader. Many popular dog training practices are rooted neither in scientific theory, nor ethics.

They are nothing more than concepts. A concept is “an abstract idea or general notion.” It is not a proven fact or reality. Nevertheless, many of these concepts are pervasive and extremely resistant to break-down. Language reflects concepts, so let’s take a brief look at some of that. Why? Because the concepts we hold to be true and the language that lives in our heads can inform our own attitudes when we aren’t paying attention.

Is It a Command or a Request?

It is still most common for people to use the word command when it comes to describing a training cue. I would like for all of us to get this right. When we ask a parrot to do something, it is NOT a command. It is a request, a cue.

We don’t actually have the ability to command a parrot to do anything. A parrot’s beak puts him on pretty equal footing with us when it comes to that. The word command means to “give an authoritative order.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been successful in giving an authoritative order to any of my parrots. So, let’s call it what it is. Words matter. When we ask a parrot to do something, we are giving a cue…not a command. It is a request – nothing more.

Courtesy or Dominance? Your Choice.

It’s not any different than when we make a request of a family member. We usually get the best results if we preface it with “Would you please….” Most of us then make sure to remember to express gratitude for the favor done by at least saying “Thank you.” If a stranger holds a door open for us, we say “Thank you.” If the UPS driver hands us a package, we say “Thank you.” These good manners are deeply ingrained in us because we have been taught to be courteous. Why should we be any less courteous with our animals?

I think it has been different in our animal-human relationships because of that ever-lurking idea that we must have dominance over them. But it should not remain so. Our goal has to be that of building reliable, cooperative behavior. It’s hard enough living with parrots if we can’t get them to cooperate or if we get bitten every time we try. It’s time to cast aside invalid notions and focus on what works.

Crazy Thinking Gets in the Way of Effectiveness

Let’s go back to the idea of saying “thank you” to our parrots. This is also an area where language and concepts born in the dog training world infiltrate our own parrot community. Specifically, there is much confusion about the use of positive reinforcement and training “treats.”

A quick Google search brought me face to face once again with some of these invalid ideas. One website states that using food treats could foster dependence in an animal. “If you use treats, and only treats as a reward, it may happen that your pup always wants a tasty reward for a job well done or an acceptable behavior.”

What is wrong with that? Expecting a reward doesn’t mean that the dog won’t perform the behavior. It just means that he’s a bit disappointed when the treat doesn’t appear.

In reality, there is nothing wrong with an animal expecting a “thank you” in those circumstances. Moreover, just because he expects a treat doesn’t mean that we have to deliver one every time. Usually, it is best to reinforce every time, but there can be valid reasons reasons for not doing so. An example would be if you are putting the behavior on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.

This same website warns readers to always also provide positive reinforcement through the use of affection and praise. That’s fine, but only if the dog is motivated to earn praise and affection. Most parrots couldn’t care less about praise and if you have a parrot who bites, I wouldn’t recommend using affection as your primary reinforcer.

A last caution raises the issue that the trainer might not demand respect if relying solely on using training treats. I’m sorry, but that’s just silly. You can’t demand respect, even from dogs.

Teaching New Behaviors is Good

Most of my blog topics arise out of conversations that I have had recently with people. I’ve had a lot of them lately that have to do with training. Most people I talk to balk at the idea, envisioning the need to set aside a block of time each day in their already-busy schedule to teach specific behaviors.

That type of training is wonderful and there are a great many benefits. Teaching new behaviors creates greater trust between parrot and owner. It increases the bird’s quality of life. It frequently causes the owner to appreciate the bird in a whole new way. The bird becomes easier to care for. Having regular training sessions can help to resolve some problem behaviors. Training improves communication between us and the animal. Pursuing training teaches us to be more observant.

Daily Habit Training Is Better

However, an even more important type of training takes place on a daily basis, whether you are cognizant of it or not. Parrots are always learning. Every single interaction you have with your bird is a learning moment for him. This means that you are constantly teaching, whether you choose to be aware of this or not. The truth: You get the behavior you reinforce, not the behavior you want.

The need to pursue training of any sort is a relatively new idea in our “parrot world.” Some have embraced this enthusiastically, posting video after video of parrots with impressive skills. But for most, it is still not a common practice to use positive reinforcement on a daily basis throughout the flow of life with our birds.

The Gist of Positive Reinforcement

So, here we are again – talking about the use of positive reinforcement. Those words may sound like mumbo jumbo to some. So, let’s break that concept down. Here are the steps to using positive reinforcement (making a request and saying “thank you”):

  • Know your parrot and what he wants most – whether that is a food treat, head scratches, or a bottle cap to play with.
  • Ask him to perform a behavior, such as stepping up, going back into the cage, or stepping down onto a perch. (The Request.)
  • Immediately give him the item he wants, if he performs the behavior as asked (or close enough). (The Thank You.)

When you follow this pattern in your interactions with your parrots, you will find that the thank you guarantees the please. Your parrot will begin to respond willingly to your cues because he has learned that you will always say “thank you.”

This is an oversimplification of the process, but is not inaccurate. This type of training is simple – as simple as it gets. These types of interactions occur regularly throughout our days.  We are already using reinforcement with our parrots. The key is to be cognizant of what behaviors we are reinforcing and when we are doing so.

Great! One More Thing I Now Have To Do….

How many of you are now groaning, thinking, “Great…one more thing I have to remember to do!”? I sympathize. It took me the longest time just to remember to put a handful of sunflower seeds into a pocket in the morning, so that I would be prepared when those moments arose to deliver some well-timed reinforcement. Truly, the hardest part of all this is getting into the habit.

Make It a Habit

I have a pattern of living in my head, rather than being present in the moment. When I live in my head, I forget stuff. I’m working on this.

One trick I have learned is habit stacking. Habit stacking is a trick for developing new habits by linking them to existing ones.  For example, if you make coffee in the morning, you might put the jar of sunflower seeds next to the coffee maker. That will serve as a visual cue to you to put some into your pocket. Saying “thank you” effectively throughout the day means that you need reinforcers close at hand. By using this trick, I soon remembered to put sunflower seeds and/or nut pieces in my pockets in the morning.

This practice, however, did not help me to remember to actually use them to reward my parrots’ good behavior. For that, I needed punishment, which appeared in the form of my dismay when they all fell out onto the floor at night when I undressed. The experience of sweeping up sunflower seeds off my bathroom floor every evening soon helped me to be cognizant of the fact that they were in my pocket. That, in turn, led to my using them throughout the day. Granted, I can be a slow learner, but perhaps you can relate.

When you teach your bird to do things, or work to strengthen behaviors that are already in place, by using positive reinforcement, you are simply remembering to say thank you. If you use those simple steps on a daily basis, you will have an agreeable parrot who complies with your requests and never learns to bite…because he doesn’t have to.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Also, don’t forget my Q & A Sessions every Sunday at 1:00 pm PT. Sign up on the Products page. Until next time!

Dashel: A Message of Hope

I am deviating from my usual parrot-related themes for this last blog post of the year. I want to tell you about Dash, a dog from whom I have learned a lot during the past nine months.

Dash was one of a litter of feral puppies found in a field. Initially placed with a foster family, he was adopted shortly thereafter. However, his first family returned him to the shelter less than a year later. They demanded that the group either take him back or they would have him euthanized. At this point, he was underweight, dirty, and had fresh wounds and a large burn on one side.

Carla and Laurel found him online, were attracted by the look of this presumed Kelpie Mix, and drove to meet him at a PetSmart adoption fair. Dash was not handling the experience well, having evacuated his bladder and bowels upon arrival. He was timid and reluctant to be handled, even offering to bite at one point.

However, Carla and Laurel walked with him around the store for some time. By the time they got back to the rescue group, were able to gently pet him. They decided to adopt him and gained the agreement of the shelter staff. They had no idea what to expect once they had him in the car, recognizing that aggression was a very real possibility.

Dash’s early days with them were challenging. He appeared to have no prior training, was very nervous about new situations, and exhibited a prey drive that needed to be handled carefully as he got used to sharing a home with multiple cats. However, with patience and a lot of training on basic behaviors, Carla and Laurel eventually developed a trusting relationship with Dash. Before I ever met them, they had succeeded with him to the point where they could even trim his nails at home.

However, when they took Dash outside the house, he vigilantly watched for strangers and reacted violently if they got too close, barking and lunging savagely with teeth bared. When they tried to access any drive-thru window, he behaved fiercely there as well. His reactivity and aggression were strongest when physically next to either Carla or Laurel. When he nipped at one of their friends, they became very worried about what he might do if given the opportunity.

Dash’s “public outfit”

Realizing a greater need for safety measures, they used positive reinforcement to train Dash to wear a basket muzzle. When out in public, they were careful to maintain a safe distance from people, preventing any opportunity to bite. Dash also wore a bright red leash and collar, both bearing the word “CAUTION” in large black letters – a warning to other dog lovers.

When visitors were due to arrive, they made a comfortable place for him in an upstairs room and escorted Dash up there, providing a stuffed Kong for entertainment. Nevertheless, even away from the stimulus of the strange person, Dash would put his nose to the heating vent and bark non-stop. In his vigilance, he never settled down during these times.

I met Carla and Laurel due to an online posting of my own, offering services for dogs. Having just left my job as a veterinary technician, I was in the middle of deciding in which direction my career would go and was casting about a bit for income.

Their goal was to find a pet sitter. Living in the country with two dogs, four cats, and a flock of noisy ducks and geese, they knew they would need someone with animal experience.  They were especially worried about who might be able to care for Dash.

Our first meeting was at the local park, a place Dash associated with pleasant things. After a brief discussion, we decided that they didn’t just need a pet sitter – they needed a behavior specialist to guide their ongoing efforts. While Dash trusted them, he wasn’t comfortable with new people, dogs, or unfamiliar situations. After learning more about him, I really couldn’t see how I might ever enter their home safely to provide animal care without some long-term efforts at behavior modification first. It certainly wasn’t a situation of just “making friends” with Dash.   

Carla and Laurel readily agreed. They had recognized this for themselves, of course, and had already worked with one dog trainer without seeing any improvement in Dash’s behavior. I was touched and impressed by their commitment to this “misfit” dog and by how far he had come already as a result of their efforts. Thus, I began my work with Dash on March 24, 2018.

I was under no illusions. I knew working with Dash could be dangerous, but he wore a basket muzzle quite comfortably and I had worked previously with fearful and aggressive dogs. As a veterinary technician conducting behavior appointments, I had trained numerous resistant dogs to accept medical procedures in a fear-free manner.  

I began by structuring counter conditioning and desensitization sessions at the local park. While I stood quietly about 20 feet away, the distance at which Dash was below threshold, either Carla or Laurel would slowly walk Dash back and forth in a zigzag pattern parallel to my location, frequently cuing the behaviors he already knew and providing reinforcement. As they did so, they very gradually decreased the distance between Dash and my position. In this way, we paired things he values with my presence.

During these beginning sessions, I watched Dash’s body language closely for any signs of distress and was gratified to see that he appeared to be happily accepting of our work. I attributed this to using very small approximations, giving him lots of time to get used to me. He performed the cued behaviors without hesitation and eagerly accepted reinforcers. His sniffed the ground in what appeared to be a relaxed manner.

On the second session, they were able to walk him up to within 18 inches of me. At that instant, we all learned an important lesson about Dash.  Previously, this had gone unnoticed due to the careful distance they had always maintained around other people. Dash stood sniffing the ground, body relaxed, tail wagging slightly in a normal position, readily eating treats as they were offered. He went from this posture into a full-out attack on me within a split second.

We had been prepared for this possibility, of course. They immediately retreated with him, removing the opportunity to earn any more reinforcers in that moment. I had stepped back and was unharmed, although it took a few moments for my heart rate to return to normal.

A typical “ladder” of aggressive body language

Dash had apparently learned to mask early signs of aggression, as many animals do. Most dogs will display a linked chain of signals that lead up to biting, providing a clear warning before they resort to full-out aggression. Each dog is unique in his choice of signals, but for example, a dog might first lick his lips, look away, then focus intently on a stimulus, raise his hackles, shift his weight forward and growl, then crouch a bit, and finally lunge. If you punish a dog for these “warning” behaviors, he learns not to offer them. He simply saves his energy and attacks once close enough.

Would you pet this parrot?

Parrots do the same thing. If you ignore their body language that predicts a bite, they learn not to bother offering it. A lot of people claim that their parrot bit them with no warning. Sometimes this isn’t true – they simply didn’t recognize or register the warning body language. Sometimes it is true – usually due to this type of prior learning on the parrot’s part.  

Dash did offer some very subtle signs of course that I gradually learned to recognize. His eyes adopted a more intense look, although he didn’t stare. His weight shifted very slightly to his front legs. He would look away in some instances, although he did not offer this sign consistently. And he exuded a palpable physical tension that I learned to feel intuitively with my body before I saw it with my eyes.

We continued these weekly sessions, working in different outdoor locations to generalize our progress. We saw huge success. After a period of about three months, Dash would readily approach me and take treats from my hand with no signs of hesitation, nervousness or impending aggression. He was visibly happy to see me each week.

In early August, I shifted our strategy. During one session, Dash had taught me another lesson. While he was quite comfortable approaching me and taking treats, my approaching him was not something that he would tolerate.  I chose Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT), after seeing a video of Barbara Heidenreich using this with both aggressive and fearful zoo animals.

Beautifully described in the book Turning Fierce Dogs Friendly by Kellie Snider, this behavior modification strategy uses negative reinforcement to teach the animal to perform behaviors other than aggression as someone approaches. Used effectively, the ultimate result is that the animal completely reforms his original opinion of the scary stimulus. This method can cause stress for the animal, so initially I limited this work to 15 minutes at a stretch, with frequent breaks for short walks and fun behaviors in between. This worked very well.

As an aside, I would not typically choose negative reinforcement as a behavior change strategy because it can create some fall-out with the animal, causing distrust. However, in this case its use was acceptable. With a fearful animal, you often do have to start out using negative reinforcement before you are able to switch to positive reinforcement. And, the CAT approach results in success so quickly that a switch to positive reinforcement does not take long.

We worked first in different neutral outdoor locations. It took only two sessions before Dash welcomed my approach as I walked all the way up to him to offer a food treat. We then worked with Dash in the car. Previously, he had displayed violent reactivity if anyone walked toward the vehicle. In one short session, I was able to approach the car and even put my hand on it with perfect acceptance from Dash.

We then progressed to working on the gravel road right outside his home, the spot in which he had previously been most reactive. Within three sessions, I was able not only to walk up to him on the road, but could approach him on the pathway up to the front door, and then enter the house while he was in the living room. At all times, we kept Dash below threshold, so that he experienced no distress.

Pat approaching Dash on the walkway

We then worked to generalize his acceptance of any human’s approach by using different “helpers,” friends who agreed to approach him using the CAT protocol. (Many thanks to Chris Shank and Pat Anderson.) This work met with equally swift success. Within three sessions, Chris was able to walk into Dash’s home. Within one session, Pat was able to approach him on the front walkway.

This was the first time that anyone had been able to walk into the house with Dash in the same room. Not only could we come inside, he was happy to have us do so. He was even tolerant of two of us at once in the house for up to a few moments.

This was another beginning, however, rather than an end. While I could walk into the home, it was clear that Dash wasn’t comfortable with my presence there for any duration.

Taking Dash for a walk

Our efforts now shifted to conditioning him to my presence for longer periods within the home and the back yard. These sessions are ongoing and with each week, Dash grows more accepting of me. He rubs his head against my leg affectionately and recently welcomed a bit of scratching on his chest. When I sit, he will come and place his head in my lap. He allows me to hold his leash and walk him short distances away from Carla and Laurel. He happily goes into the back yard with me while they remain in the house. Last week, he and I spent time in the house together without their presence. We have progressed to taking his muzzle off for very short periods while I am in the house.

Outside the home, he has shown comparable progress. He is much less reactive in the car, and Carla and Laurel can now enter a drive-thru without high drama from Dash. He tolerates strangers who appear on the highway nearby or on their gravel road. He settles upstairs when visitors are present in the house, no longer barking insanely. He still wears his special leash and muzzle in public, of course. However, Carla and Laurel can now take him places with a great deal more ease.

Why did I choose to share Dash’s story today? Certainly not to highlight any skills I might have as a dog trainer. Any experienced canine behavior consultant will readily see that I made lots of mistakes. That I have been this successful is as much testimony to Carla’s and Laurel’s commitment and skillful training with Dash as my own.

I chose to talk about Dash today because his is a story of hope. This dog, initially deemed “hopeless” by his first family, now lives more comfortably in his world. His “accepted family” has grown and his quality of life is better. He initially presented as a difficult challenge, but with commitment and consistent effort and compassion, we have achieved what I wasn’t sure would be possible for him. And our work isn’t finished yet.

2018 has been a difficult year for many of us for many reasons. We have a madman at the helm of our country. Differences in belief and philosophy seem to divide us more severely than ever before; examples of hateful behavior assault us each day on social media and the news. Signs of climate change grow more real, while our government negates this and refuses to take action. Those of us who love the natural world are led to despair.

It is easy to feel dejected on a daily basis. However…

Feelings are not facts.

There is always hope.

Hope for Dash and other dogs like him.

Hope for me and hope for you. Hope for our country. Hope for the world. 

Happy Holidays, Everyone. I will see you in the New Year.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!