Easiest Behavior Fixes Ever!

It seems sometimes that the bulk of our days is spent trying to change the behavior of other species – spouses, co-workers, children, pets, and even pests.

We struggle to get our kids to do their homework, rather than stare at screens. We want the dog to sit rather than jump up on a guest. We search for non-toxic snail control. We stress out over parrots who scream, display aggression, or pull feathers, trying one tactic and then another to get them to stop. At the same time, we can’t get them to eat vegetables, play with toys, or accept a bath.

Consequences and Punishment

When it comes to problem behavior, our first impulse is usually to try to find a consequence to make it stop. Further, that consequence often takes the shape of punishment. 

We take away screen time if the homework doesn’t get done. We lock the dog into his crate when he jumps up. When the parrot screams, we spray him with water or cover his cage. If the bird bites, we put him into his cage for a “time out.”

Why are we so focused on the use of consequences to change behavior? Perhaps because it feels so familiar.

We are all familiar with the painful consequences of failure to plan or of our own miscalculations. We learn to use a hammer correctly when we bang our fingers often enough. We fix that step after we trip. We avoid jalapenos after a sleepless night of indigestion.

For many of us, consequences in the form of punishment from others are also very familiar. If we run a red light, we pay the price of a ticket. If kids misbehave in school, they get a visit with the principal. If we break a law, we go to jail. For those of us who have taken a spin around the sun more than a few times, we can remember being spanked by our parents for wrongdoing – an accepted practice back when we were young.  

We live in a society in which consequences, especially the consequence of punishment, is the first “go to” method for changing behavior. Is it any wonder then that we focus on consequences when we need to change a parrot’s behavior?

Of course not! It feels familiar and punishment, delivered skillfully, will serve to decrease the problem behavior in the future. Moreover, it often feels good to the punisher, since it can relieve frustration and anger.

However, many problems derive from the use of punishment. Results of positive punishment may include a desire to escape, with a display of either fear or aggression. Another unforeseen result is apathy, in that other behaviors may be suppressed as well. Results of negative punishment include stress and frustration.

In general, taking action to punish a behavior often results in broken trust and increased problems of another sort. (Chance, 1999) We do not want to be in the position of punishing our parrots as our primary tactic for changing behavior.

Applied Behavior Analysis

There is, thankfully, a much better way to successfully solve many behavior issues. By changing antecedents, we can both make problem behaviors less likely and cause desired behaviors to occur more often.  

I have brought you through the backdoor into the house of applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis (the science of behavior) gives us a systematic, scientifically-proven method for changing behavior.

Please note that most of the behavior suggestions found on Facebook and other social media sites are not science-based. Most offering advice have a bad case of not knowing what they don’t know. Anyone “researching” behavior problems must question the credentials of anyone offering advice.

In contrast, the approach provided by applied behavior analysis can be trusted to work if practiced correctly.

We need focus on only three things when we need to change a specific behavior. In addition to the behavior itself, we examine the antecedents and the consequences. We are all familiar with the consequences of course. They are the events that occur immediately after a behavior that influence the rate at which that behavior will be offered in the future. (Luescher, 2006) Punishment is a consequence that reduces a particular behavior in the future.

A far better strategy whenever possible is to deftly arrange antecedents in order to support the likelihood of a desired outcome.

Antecedent-based Interventions

According to Friedman, Martin and Brinker, “Antecedents are the stimuli, events, and conditions that immediately precede a behavior.” Antecedents set the stage for the behavior to occur; the behavior will not occur without the presence of the antecedent.

Changing antecedents in order to change behavior is a more ethical, often simpler and easier way to change behavior. So easy in fact that, when I suggest such a change, clients will look at me with a bit of skepticism. I can see them thinking that things really can’t be that easy. 

Antecedent changes can be used in order to make it easy for our birds to perform the behaviors we do want and to make it hard or impossible to perform the behaviors that we don’t want to see.

Let’s review some examples of using antecedent changes both to decrease problem behaviors and to set birds up for success when performing new or unfamiliar behaviors.

Decreasing Problem Behaviors

Aggression and “Nippiness”

Antecedent changes are the “name of the game” when it comes to solving problems of aggression.

Example One: Some types of misbehavior occur when a bird is on the shoulder. Perhaps a bird, who has been sitting on your shoulder for three years without problem, suddenly begins to bite when up there. Perhaps he nips your earlobes or pulls your glasses off or rips an earring out.

Antecedent Change: In this case, the recommended antecedent change is simple – just don’t allow the bird onto your shoulder. Instead, you can teach him to station on a perch near you by offering reinforcers frequently. This will actually increase his quality of life more than sitting on your shoulder does. It both encourages independent behavior and offers him control over access to reinforcers.

Example Two: Your bird lunges at you when you are changing out food dishes.

Antecedent Change: Teach him to station up on a perch in the cage located furthest from the food dishes. When you show up with the food dishes, have with you a good-sized favorite treat that will take him a minute to eat. By moving your hand on the outside of the cage, lure him up to the designated perch and then give him the treat through the cage bars. Quickly switch out the dishes. Continue to do this every time you feed him. He will begin to scramble up to the preferred perch as soon as he sees you arrive with his food.

Example Three: Your flighted bird attacks your hands when you hold a book or tablet.

Antecedent Change: Either put him into his cage or outdoor aviary while you read or read in another room.

Example Four: Your bird bites when you ask him to step up.

Antecedent Change: You begin to reinforce stepping up by first showing and then immediately delivering a preferred food treat. At the same time, you read your bird’s body language and honor that by making use of a start button.

Screaming or Other Problem Noise

Example One: Your parrot enjoys perching where he can look out the window, but screams frequently when he sees neighborhood action taking place outside.

Antecedent Change: Purchase some sheer curtains and keep those closed when the noise will be inconvenient. You can still have the light without the noise.

Example Two: Your parrot is too loud when you have company. You might have learned to live with this, but it may upset your visitors and make it hard to enjoy yourselves. 

Antecedent Change: If you have a sleep cage, turn it into a “siesta cage.” Add a hanging perch above and a playstand beside, then place toys and foraging projects there. This way, your parrot can be relocated before your visitors arrive.

Example Three: Your parrot screams when you get on the phone.

Antecedent Change: Go into another room or outside to talk, if the call cannot be predicted. You might also try using the speaker phone function, since it is often holding the phone to your ear that acts as the stimulus for the noise.

Example Four: Your parrot screams when you and your spouse have a conversation in another room. This often results when a pair bond exists between the parrot and one of the partners. Additional measures will be necessary to resolve this social dynamic.

Antecedent Change: A simple antecedent change for the short term is to have the parrot present for the conversation. In this case, isolation is a problem.

Increasing Desirable Behaviors

Improving the Diet of Small Birds

It’s common for small parrots like budgerigars, cockatiels and lovebirds to eat a seed mix as the dietary staple. After all, that’s what the breeder or pet store sent you home with, along with that too-small cage, the cuttlebone, and the plastic toy with a bell inside.

If you have a bird like this and have learned about the dangers of such a diet, you may have struggled to get your bird converted to pellets and other foods.

Antecedent Change: Offer new foods in dishes that are right near to the bird’s favorite perches. They are more likely to accept these new foods sooner when they are right under that beak. This means that eating the new foods is easier, in terms of energy use.  

Teaching Larger Parrots to Eat Vegetables

Many parrots who have been eating a seed mix typically resist the consumption of both vegetables and pellets. In part, this is due to their neophobic nature. The other problem is their tendency to be naturally drawn to high-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods.

Antecedent Change: Measure out the amount of seed that your parrot eats in a day. This is important. You can’t decrease it if you don’t know what quantity you are offering to begin with. Before feeding, mix the seed into an equal measure of finely chopped vegetables or Chop Mix. Gradually begin to incrementally decrease the amount of seed offered daily as your parrot begins to eat the vegetable mix. By the time that you have stopped offering the seed mix at all, your parrot will have begun to eat both the pellets (if offering those also) and the vegetables.

Antecedent Change #2: Offer the pellets or vegetables in a different location, such as on top of the cage or on a play stand. This will often encourage consumption and I have no idea why. When I was working full time, my parrots ignored pellets in their cages. When I put them on play stands, they began eating them eagerly.

Playing with Toys

I hear many owners complain that their parrot doesn’t play with toys. There are certainly parrots who do not interact with any enrichment. These birds can be taught to interact with toys and foraging opportunities, but this requires consistent and focused training.

Still other birds might interact with toys, but do not do so because it is too difficult or inconvenient. For example, many wooden toys sold for certain species are actually too difficult for them to chew. Either the wood itself is too hard or the pieces are too big. Toy manufacturers have caught onto the fact that you won’t be happy if your parrot destroys in 15 minutes a toy that cost you $15.00. The problem with this is that the sorts of things that interest parrots are those that they can destroy quickly.

Antecedent Change: Make toys at home, using designs from my pamphlet Parrot Enrichment Made Easy. This includes suggestions for making quick, easy-to-chew wooden toys, in addition to those made of paper, cardboard, and fabric.

Antecedent Change #2: In addition, make sure that toys and foraging options are placed very near perches on which your bird chooses to spend time. I have seen toys attached to the inside back of the cage with no perch in sight. I have seen toys placed near perches that are so close to the back of the cage that the parrot can’t comfortably turn around on the perch and can only sit on it facing backwards. Pretend you are your parrot and ask yourself if you can easily interact with the enrichment you have in the cage. Make sure that your parrot can perch easily in a spot where he can easily reach his enrichment items and won’t bang his tail if he turns around.

Encouraging a Bath

Another common complaint concerns the larger parrot who won’t accept a bath. This bird might bathe in the water dish occasionally, but doesn’t get wet enough.

Antecedent Change: Many owners have noticed that their parrot displays bathing behavior, usually in the water dish, when the vacuum cleaner is running. In addition to marveling at this strange phenomenon, you might also choose this as a time to offer a few spritzes from a spray bottle, especially if the parrot isn’t scared by the sight of the bottle. And if he is, perhaps you can conceal the bottle with a kitchen towel or piece of cardboard so that just the nozzle is visible.

Fun with Antecedents

I’ve provided examples of very simple antecedent changes for very simple problems so that you could get the idea. The whole process can be, and usually is, more complicated, and this is where the fun comes in.

In most cases, there are several possible antecedent changes that might work. So, when you identify that you have a problem, sit down with a piece of paper and brainstorm as many as you possibly can, even if a few seem unlikely or even silly.(You may also need to teach other, new behaviors using positive reinforcement, but you can at least get a head start on a solution in this way.)

Remember not to get caught up in trying to figure out what the parrot is feeling or thinking. Instead, just focus on the behavior itself. Then, implement for a week or so the one that you think is most likely to work. Measure the results by observing closely what happens. If that tactic seems to not be working, go on to the next most likely.

I’ll give you an example from my own case files. I know a particular parrot who pulls pin feathers during the night. These are observed on the floor of the cage or the cage cover in the morning. This is a perfectly well-adjusted, flighted parrot on a good diet with an excellent environment that encourages movement and provides lots of enrichment.

Possible antecedent changes include the following: (1) Encouraging more food consumption before bed; (2) Encouraging more exercise before bed; (3) Partially, rather than completely, covering her cage; (4) Giving her some enrichment in her cage to chew on during the night; and (5) Allowing her to stay up a bit later.

This case remains a work in progress. Since the feather damage is occurring only at night, it may well be related to a disease process. However, since veterinary treatment has been completed, it still makes sense to examine antecedents.

A Last Word

Antecedent changes provide us with science-based, ethical, and effective tactics for behavior change. Many simple problems can be resolved through these alone. Using antecedent changes, we can set our birds up for success by encouraging behaviors we would like to see.

All behavior principles that are scientifically proven, like the use of positive reinforcement and antecedent changes, work for humans too. They work across all species lines.

Perhaps we reach so readily for punishment when dealing with parrots is because we as a society use punishment almost exclusively to deal with our children and others.

It’s been a long time since my own kids were young. I was lucky enough back then to discover the book “How to Discipline with Love: From Crib to College” by Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson, which was published in 1992. As Fitzhugh points out, parents all across America are teaching their children to behave badly.

They ignore them when they are behaving well, usually desperately trying to get something else done, and instead provide attention (reinforcement) when they behave badly – throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, fighting with siblings, or refusing to go to bed.

He provides clear instructions for how we can turn that dynamic around. As we all struggle now with staying in place, physical or emotional isolation, and the anxieties related to contracting COVID-19, there is no better time than the present to begin practicing both antecedent changes and the use of positive reinforcement with our parrots, our children, and other family members. “They” say that things won’t be the same once this is all over. This is one change I would like to see that would benefit us all.

Resources:

Chance, Paul. Learning and Behavior. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1999

Friedman, S. G. (2009). “Behavior fundamentals: Filling the behavior-change toolbox.” Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 3(1), 36–40. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/journals/Behavior%20Fundamentals%20JACAB.pdf

Friedman, S.G. (2008) “10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know About Behavior.” Psittacine Magazine, May 2008. Pgs 14-16. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/10%20Things%20Your%20Parrots%20Want%20You%20to%20Know.pdf

Friedman, S. G. (2001) “The ABCs of Behavior.” Original Flying Machine, Issue 9: Nov-Dec, 2001. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/ABCs%20of%20Behavior%202004.pdf

Luescher, Andrew. The Manual of Parrot Behavior. Ames: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Chapter 14: Friedman, S.G., Martin, Steve, Brinker, Bobbie. “Behavior Analysis and Parrot Learning.” Pg. 147-163.

McGuire, L. (2015) “The Parrot That Screams.” Psittacine Magazine. Pgs 10-11. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/offshoots/Parrot%20that%20Screams%20-%20WPT%20PS%20Summer%202015.pdf

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. 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!