Parrots and Neophobic Behavior

Photo courtesy of Nyla Copp

I would be a rich woman if I had a dollar for every time that a parrot’s owner has told me that she had given away a playstand or toy that her parrot didn’t like. We’ve all had this experience, right? We bring home a perch or new toy, excited to introduce it to our bird, only to find that she won’t go anywhere near it.

Too often, when seeing this reaction, we assume that the parrot doesn’t like it. Thus, today I want to discuss yet another aspect of parrot behavior that is largely misunderstood – neophobia.

What Is Neophobia?

Neophobia can be defined as an extreme or irrational fear or dislike of anything new or unfamiliar. Parrots, generally speaking, display neophobic tendencies. This is why they so often reject new things – not because they don’t like them.

This is often blamed upon the fact that parrots are prey animals. However, this assumption is incorrect. This same behavior has been observed in virtually all species of mammals and birds,  including some raptors. (Greenberg, 2003) Many animals show an aversion to novelty.

Neophobia is usually observed in adult parrots. Young parrots tend instead to be neophilic – they eagerly explore new items in their environment. (Greenberg, 2003) When I used to breed African Grey parrots, I often thought of those babies as learning machines. They immediately and joyfully investigated anything new.

Factors Influencing Neophobic Behavior

This behavior has long been observed and studied across species lines, including fish and amphibians among others. However, investigations have been conducted by both psychologists and behavioral ecologists, each from a different perspective. Due to these different orientations, both fields have gathered conflicting results. (Greggor et al, 2015)

That said, however, one conclusion recurs in the research – the level of novelty to which a young parrot is exposed during its early developmental phases has a direct impact upon that same bird’s willingness to accept new things as an adult.

A study done with Orange-winged Amazons confirm this. Interestingly, this study found that exposure to the baby’s parents (parent-rearing vs. hand-rearing vs. co-parenting) had no impact upon later neophobic behavior. It was the level of novelty to which the birds were exposed in early life that had the biggest impact. (Fox, & Millam, 2004)

Another study found that species that typically inhabit more complex habitats, such as the edges of forests, tended to accept novel items more quickly. ( Mettke-Hofmann, 2002 ) Yet another concluded that neophobic responses tended to be lower in wild-caught birds. (Crane, 2017) These findings both underscore the impact of exposure to novelty in early development.

Ramifications of Neophobia for Companion Parrots

This is an important topic because your reaction to your parrots’ neophobic behavior has a big impact upon the quality of life that she will have in the future. If you give away a toy or playstand every time your bird reacts to it with fear, the amount of enrichment she has available will shrink and she will have fewer options for interaction. Fewer choices result in a decreased quality of life.

This can’t be allowed. Now only does it narrow a parrot’s future choices, but anecdotal experience would indicate that having this natural fear response reinforced may create more fear responses in the future. Your parrot will enter a behavioral tunnel.

Further, we have evidence that, once the initial fear response toward an item has been overcome, animals engage in just as much exploration of it as those who showed no fear initially. (University of Lincoln, 2017) This indicates how valuable it can be to a parrot if we are willing to engage in just a little bit of training.

The Necessary Approach

We know that the initial fear of a novel item tends to diminish with exposure. However, it is not acceptable to simply put a new item near to a parrot and expect him to “get over it!”  Using this approach is not ethical and is a form of flooding. As defined by Friedman, “With flooding the subject is presented with the highly feared object or situation which is not removed until the fear diminishes. The response that is prevented in this case is escape.” (Friedman, 2002)

Have you ever heard of The Five Freedoms? This concept was proposed by the UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council in order to establish guidelines that could be used to assess quality of life. It states that “animals should be free (1) from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, (2) from discomfort, (3) from pain, injury and disease, (4) to express natural behaviors, and (5) from fear and distress.” (Rodríguez-López, 2016)

This was written to be used for farm animals; a similar set of guidelines for companion parrots might be more complex. However, it is of note that freedom from fear and distress has been included along with freedom from injury, pain, and hunger.

It is a primary right of all animals to be free from fear and distress.  Thus, we must use methods other than direct continued exposure to new things without regard for the parrots reaction. Thankfully, we have more ethical, scientifically proven, methods for behavior modification that will help our parrots to overcome this aversion to new things.

The Introduction of New Things

First, I will say that the methods discussed below should be used to introduce items that will create a better quality of life for your parrot by allowing an increased number of choices for interaction – playstands, perches, foraging options, toys, travel carriers, outdoor aviaries, etc.

Other items, not necessary to quality of life, are best avoided. Just don’t bring the helium balloons home. If you must bring a ladder into the house, put the parrot into a different room first. If your friend comes in wearing a baseball cap that scares your parrot, ask him to take if off. Don’t paint your fingernails bright red if you don’t normally wear nail polish. Believe me, none of these things will matter to you in 10 years.

The methods that work best for teaching acceptance of new things are (1) a combination of systematic desensitization and counter conditioning (DS/CC) and (2) Constructional Aversion Treatment. Anyone can learn to use these techniques to successfully introduce new enrichment items, all the while allowing the bird to maintain a distress-free experience. All that is required are patience and persistence and the ability to read body language.

Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Systematic desensitization and counter conditioning (DS/CC) are usually used in combination with each other. However in some cases, such as the introduction of a new toy, desensitization may be all that is required.

Systematic desensitization is training during which your parrot is exposed to an item at a level at or below which fear is displayed.   In other words, “the bird is slowly presented with tolerable amounts or durations of the feared object or condition. The bird is never allowed to experience a high level of fear.” (Friedman, 2002) For example, the distance between the parrot and the object might be decreased as the parrot’s body language suggests that the closer proximity of the item no longer elicits fear.

Counter conditioning is used to change the parrot’s attitude toward a feared item by pairing it with something of value, such as a preferred food. In other words, through this pairing the bird learns to regard the new item as something that is desirable. The result of this training is that the previously fearful response is completely resolved and your bird will continue to interact happily with this item in the future.

Example: Introduction of a New Toy

You have a new toy that you want to hang in the cage, but as soon as your parrot sees it he leans away, obviously scared of it. You can use desensitization to introduce it successfully:

  • Hold the toy no higher than about chest height where it is visible to your parrot and move far enough away that he shows no signs of fear.
  • Slowly walk toward him, one step at a time, carefully observing his body language.
  • At the first sign of alarm, stop approaching and take one step backward.
  • Put the toy somewhere at that distance, at a level below your parrot’s typical perching height, so that he can easily see it. (A TV tray works well for this.)
  • Every day or so, move the toy a little closer to your parrot. If you ever see a sign of alarm when you do so, put the toy back at the last distance and allow your bird to look at it a little longer at that proximity.
  • When you’ve been able to move the toy right next to the cage, hang it on the outside of the cage down low.
  • Move it up to the middle of the cage, still on the outside.
  • Move it up to the height at which you would like to eventually have the toy.
  • Move the toy inside the cage.

It is vital that you observe your bird’s body language carefully during this process and that you use the information you collect to adopt a “red light, green light” approach. Any sign of distress from your bird serves as a red light – you go back to the last proximity. Comfortable body language is your green light to leave it at that distance.

This is an example in which counter conditioning may not be necessary. If your bird regularly plays with other toys, we might assume that he would accept this one for interaction once he is comfortable having it in his enclosure. At this point, interacting with the toy itself would be reinforcing.

Example: Introduction of a New Playstand

Desensitization to a new playstand can be accomplished in the same manner, if space limitations allow for this. In other words, you would move the stand closer and closer to the cage as your parrot’s body language allowed you to do so.

Photo courtesy of David Hull

If they did not, you must still begin by having the stand in the same room for a period that allows your parrot to become comfortable with its appearance.

If you were able to gradually move the stand right up next to the cage, as in the toy example, counter conditioning can be quite simple. You can place interesting toys, along with a variety of highly valued food items, on the stand and simply allow your parrot to explore it on his own. At this point, you should be able to locate the stand anywhere and have the ability to place your parrot onto it. (As an aside, travel carriers can be introduced in the same way.)

If space limitations do not allow for this type of introduction, you can quite easily counter condition your parrot to accept the new stand, as long as your parrot steps up without reserve. Try it this way:

  • First, make sure that the stand is located far enough away from your parrot that he shows no fear of it.
  • Ask your parrot to step up and offer a highly valued food item that is small in size (no bigger than about the size of ½ pine nut or smaller).
  • After he eats it, take a step closer to the playstand and watch his body language carefully.
    • If he reacts in any way that indicates distress, move back to your initial spot and spend a few more minutes at that distance, simply offering one treat after another.
    • If he shows no distress, spend a minute or two there, offering treats.
  • Take another step closer and repeat this process until you can get all the way up to the playstand. (This will likely not occur all in one training session, but that’s fine; simply pick up where you left off the next time.)
  • When you have been able to walk all the way up to the playstand, you can begin to teach him to step onto it. At this point, you may find that your progress slows a bit; this is natural – stepping up onto it requires more from your parrot than simply walking towards it!
  • Hold your treat at a point such that your parrot just has to lean over the stand in order to reach it. Do this enough times that you see no hesitation at all to perform this behavior.
  • Next, hold the treat at such a distance that your bird has to just put one foot onto the stand in order to reach it. Again, repeat this enough times that your parrot is 100% comfortable.
  • Now, move the treat just enough that your parrot can’t reach it unless he has to step onto the stand with both feet. As soon as he does, allow him to come right back to your hand – don’t expect him to spend any time there yet!
  • Now begins another phase – making sure that he’s comfortable staying there. Some parrots might immediately be quite comfortable on the new stand; others may take a bit of convincing.
  • Therefore, gradually ask your parrot to spend first one minute, then two, then three…and so on, standing on the new perch. Use your “red light, green light” approach. Feed reinforcers the whole time he stays there.
  • At some point, your parrot will happily step onto the new stand and enjoy spending time there.

Congratulations! What you have accomplished is huge! Your parrot now has one more location in which to comfortably perch, a really big improvement in his quality of life.

Constructional Aversion Treatment (CAT)

I mentioned this training technique previously, in my blog post about Dash, an extremely aggressive dog. This approach was originally called Constructional Aggression Treatment, but is equally effective for the resolution of fearful behavior.

From the few resources I find, I might conclude that it is still not widely recognized for the incredibly fast results it can produce when implemented correctly. I include it here because it is so incredibly helpful in a wide variety of contexts to fairly quickly make significant progress. I have very successfully used it to address fearful behavior toward the owner herself, fear of hands, fear of new toys and fear of new perches.

One caveat: it may be best if you seek the help of a behavior professional before attempting to use this strategy. It requires more sensitivity to and accuracy in reading body language, than the methods of DS/CC explained above. I have consulted remotely with clients in using this and found that some struggled due to difficulties reading body language. This was corrected when they provided videos for my review. Another pair of eyes was necessary for success. Thus, your best chance with this is to have a coach.   

Example: Introduction of a New Toy Using CAT

  • Hold the toy in a spot where it is clearly visible to the parrot, but lower than she is perched. Make sure that the spot you choose elicits no signs of distress in your bird toward the toy. If you do see a fearful reaction, move back until this dissipates completely.
  • Take one step toward your parrot and observe body language.
  • If she looks completely relaxed, take another step.
  • Continue in this way until you do see a reaction. The goal is to be so observant that you catch the earliest signs of alarm – perhaps she stands up a little straighter or looks a bit more intensely at the toy. (If she moves away from you, it’s likely that you missed earlier signs.)
  • When you see this reaction, stay put and don’t move but continue to observe body language.
  • Watch for any sign of increased comfort – an eye blink, turn of the head, more relaxed body posture or feather position.
  • When you see this, immediately turn and walk back to your original position.
  • Approach again, using this same technique, repeatedly during a single training session. If you are doing this correctly, you will find that you are able to approach closer with each repetition or two, while your parrot remains distress-free.
  • When you can walk with the toy right up to the parrot, you will likely be able to simply put it directly into the cage.

Example: Introduction of a New Playstand Using CAT

  • This might, on the surface, appear similar to the counter conditioning approach described above. However, the significant difference is that no food reinforcers are used.
  • With the parrot on your hand, begin at a distance from the perch at which your bird shows no signs of concern.
  • Approach slowly, one step at a time, carefully observing body language.
  • Stop at the very first sign of alarm.
  • Watch for any slight indication of reduced distress/ more relaxation and immediately walk back to your starting position.
  • Repeat using the same technique until you are able to walk all the way up to the perch.
  • At this point, you can begin to use reinforcers to teach the parrot to step onto it, as described previously.

Conclusion

Neophobia is normal behavior for any adult parrot. Therefore, we should anticipate fearful reactions to new things.

That said, however, it is not difficult to introduce new toys, perches and other items to parrots if the correct approaches are used. Best methods always minimize the parrot’s stress levels during the process.

For ethical reasons, as well as those related to quality of life, we should never (1) force a new object into a parrot’s space when signs are evident that this is causing distress, nor (2) eliminate objects from the parrot’s environment if these have the chance of creating greater quality of life once accepted.

Systematic desensitization, counter conditioning, and Constructional Aversion Treatment are all effective methods for addressing the typical neophobia so often seen in parrots.  These methods can be used by anyone, but best success may be achieved with an experienced behavior professional guiding your efforts. If you want to go it alone, your success will be dependent upon accurate assessment of your own parrot’s body language and responding appropriately.

References:

Crane, Adam L & Ferrari Maud C.O. 2017. “Patterns of predator neophobia: a meta-analytic review.” 284. Proc. R. Soc. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0583

Fox, Rebbecca A & Millam, James R. 2004. “The Effect of Early Environment on Neophobia in Orange-winged Amazon Parrots (Amazona amazonica).” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 89, 117-129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2004.05.002

Friedman, Susan G. “Alternatives to Parrot Breaking.” Behavior Works. http://www.behaviorworks.org/files/articles/Alternatives%20to%20Parrot%20Breaking%202002.pdf

Greenberg, R. 2003. “The Role of Neophobia and Neophilia in the Development of Innovative Behavior of Birds.” Chapter 8. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/8197/85f5c7eb-2e6f-4cac-9707-e49215495ca6.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Greggor, Alison L, Thornton, Alex & Clayton, Nicola S. 2015. “Neophobia is not only avoidance: improving neophobia tests by combining cognition and ecology.” Science Direct, 6, 82-89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.10.007

Mettke-Hofmann, Claudia, Winkler, Hans & Leisler, Bernd. (2002). “The Significance of Ecological Factors for Exploration and Neophobia in Parrots.” Ethology, v.108, 249-272 (2002). 108. 10.1046/j.1439-0310.2002.00773.x.

Rodríguez-López, R. (2016). “Environmental enrichment for parrot species: Are we squawking up the wrong tree?” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 180, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.04.016

University of Lincoln. (2017). “Touchscreen test reveals why some birds are quicker to explore than others.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2019 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170710103435.htm

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots and offer behavior consultations to that end. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. 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!

Teaching a Fearful Parrot to Step Up

Today I want to celebrate a success story about overcoming fear in parrots. Judith SlateI met Judith and her parrots, Arlo and Audrey, in mid-January of 2018. Judith sought my help because Arlo had become afraid of her and she wanted to be able to handle him again. She also had some concerns about Audrey. Since she lives over an hour away, I made one visit to her home and then conducted the rest of our work together by telephone. Judith had no previous experience in training parrots, but she loves her birds and knew intuitively that things could be better. She is retired and enjoys spending lots of time in her garden.

Meet Arlo

Arlo is an eight-year-old African Grey. He was unweaned and 12 weeks old at the time Judith brought him home from the pet store. While originally hand-tame, an accident caused him to lose trust in Judith. After a too-short wing trim, he fell from her shoulder, hit the floor and broke a blood feather. He appeared to be in pain, so Judith quickly swooped down to pick him up. Arlo.6.8.18Ever since that incident, Arlo has avoided ever stepping onto her hands. She can’t handle him when she needs to. Judith reported that he had also become a bit more fearful in general. Lastly, Arlo had bitten Judith badly a few times since that original incident.

Judith had been working for some time to re-establish trust by just being close to Arlo and talking to him. And, since she couldn’t handle him, she had set up a well-appointed play area for him so that he could travel from his cage to a playstand and then to a table with toys on it. He is out of his cage all day. She had also stopped clipping his wings, so he was regaining flight and choosing to use this more often. I thought he really had an excellent quality of life when I saw his environment. Kudos to Judith.

Meet Audrey

Judith has a second parrot, Audrey, who also struggles with fear, mostly of new things.  At the time I met her she preferred to remain in her cage most of the time, even when the door was open. AudreyOneAudrey is a four- year-old Goffin’s Cockatoo that Judith adopted at the age of seven months from the same pet store from which she adopted Arlo. It troubled Judith that Audrey refused to come out on top of her cage to use the play gym there.  During our work together, we also decided that Audrey needed her own play stand and so introducing this became a goal as well. Last, Audrey had a habit, when she occasionally did get up on top of her cage, of running from Judith when she asked her to step up. This too had to be remedied.

Fear and Early Beginnings

It is common for adult parrots to display neophobia – a fear of new things. And, it certainly isn’t uncommon for parrots who have an accident like Arlo’s to become afraid of hands or the caregiver herself. But I would like to point out that, in my experience, parrots who have been sold from pet stores, either weaned or unweaned, begin life at a bit of a disadvantage. They have not received the sort of socialization that allows them to be able to easily weather stressful situations that occur once they go to new homes.

This comment may seem counter-intuitive.  Isn’t starting life in a pet store a good way to get “socialized?” No, it is not. The sort of socialization that occurs in a pet store is more likely to resemble flooding, wherein the young parrot has little choice about her social interactions, but is subjected instead to a lot of unwanted handling.

I take this opportunity to comment in this way because we all should be knowledgeable about the ways in which young parrots are reared. As Dr. Brian Speer once commented, “Aviculture is the only farming industry that produces family members.”  If we want to adopt a young parrot, we had better choose wisely by finding a small breeder who allows the fledglings to learn to fly well and wean according to their own time table before going to their new homes.  Such babies wind up having a great deal more resilience as adults and tend to be more “fright-proof.” That said, there are parrot stores who do things well, so I will merely say: “Let the buyer beware!” Do your research.

Work with Behavior, Not Labels

I would also like, before we get back to the story about Arlo and Audrey, to point out that “fearful” is a label, not a behavior. The specific behaviors that Arlo displayed that we wanted to change were his avoidance of Judith’s hands and his biting her when she did try to handle him. For Audrey, we wanted to change her lack of desire to access the play area on top of her cage, her running from Judith when she tried to step her up, and her avoidance of the new playstand.

I am comfortable talking about both Arlo’s and Audrey’s behavior as fearful. However, I do so as a bit of written “shorthand.”  When developing a behavior modification plan for what is perceived as fearful behavior, you must target very specific behaviors that you want to change. You can’t change “fearful.” By changing the behavior, you change the emotion… not the other way around. This is why Judith’s standing and talking to Arlo had not achieved the results she wanted.

Identifying Reinforcers

Before we could begin any training, we had to identify reinforcers (favorite things) for which each parrot would want to work. Successful training requires that the animal receives a valued reinforcer after performing the behavior. When working with fearful behavior, it is often necessary to use a very high-value food treat. If we are asking the parrot to work past his reluctance to approach a hand, we had better have something really good to give him when he does.

This was a bit of a challenge. Judith knew that Arlo liked both scrambled eggs and nuts, since he routinely shared these with her at meals. So, that was where we started. I asked Judith not to give these to Arlo anymore just as treats. Instead, we would use them as reinforcers until we could identify others. Audrey likes pistachio nuts so the same advice was given – no pistachio nuts unless she earns them.

Increasing Motivation

As it turned out, Arlo wasn’t particularly interested in any food treats if he had to do something to earn them. So, we reviewed this diet. Both birds eat an excellent diet of organic pellets, birdie bread, and an abundance of vegetables and fruits from Judith’s garden. They also get a small piece of red palm oil every day. Arlo shares meals with Judith, three times a day. These meals consist of small amounts of animal protein and an abundance of vegetables, both raw and cooked.

In order to increase Arlo’s motivation, we had to change his diet. I asked Judith to stop sharing her lunch with him. Getting three meals a day in addition to birdie bread and pellets, was keeping Arlo pretty stuffed at all times. We also cut down on the amount of red palm oil and birdie bread that she offered, increased the vegetables, and decreased the amount of animal protein he received. This had the desired effect. Not only was he more motivated for training, but he began eating more pellets.

The Relationship “Bank Account”

Before beginning our training, we discussed the importance of the “bank account” concept of relationship. Any time we cause fear or distrust in a parrot, that amounts to a withdrawal from the bank account. Every time we have an interaction that builds trust, that constitutes a deposit. Judith’s goal was to keep that relationship bank account in the green at all times. More deposits = more motivation for Arlo.

Thus, she had to become a good student of body language so that she could avoid doing anything that created more distrust in either parrot. Parrots can unlearn a fear of something, but that isn’t the same as forgetting that fear. In addition to teaching Arlo and Audrey to overcome the behaviors that reflect fear, Judith now needed to avoid doing anything that caused either parrot to move away from her or otherwise display fear of anything she was doing.

By doing so, she would also avoid any bites, since Arlo only bit her when afraid. By honoring his body language, she was able to resolve his aggression rather easily. His biting served a function for him. When he got afraid, he would bite her to make her go away. When she began to observe his body language so that she didn’t frighten him, he didn’t need to bite her anymore.

Determining a Starting Point

After identifying reinforcers, we had to determine a starting point for each training goal. For teaching Arlo to step up, we began by having Judith offer food treats quite a distance from the hand that he would eventually step onto. She offered the treats by holding them between Arlo and the step up hand. We made sure to begin at a distance where he showed no nervousness about the presence of that other hand.

Gradually, Judith decreased, in very small approximations (tiny steps), the distance between the treat and her step up hand so that Arlo had to come a little bit closer to get the treat at each approximation. We didn’t want him to ever get nervous during this training so she spent as much time as necessary before she asked him to come a little closer, waiting until he was 100% comfortable before moving ahead to the next step.

Arlo Steps Up

Eventually, Arlo would walk right up to her step up hand to get his treat. At that point, Judith began asking him to just lean over that hand to get the treat. Finally, he stepped up on that hand for a treat. From that point onward, it was just a matter of strengthening the behavior.  Today, Arlo steps up every time he is asked and has even stood on Judith’s hand as she walked with him back to his cage after his flying off. Next, Judith will be working on getting Arlo to remain on her hand for longer periods, always making progress in very small approximations so that Arlo stays relaxed.

Getting Audrey on the Play Gym

Focusing on Audrey, we encouraged her to come out on top of her cage by putting paper and other things to chew on her play top. Audrey loves her toys so this was enough to get her up there. Judith then began to offer treats as Audrey stayed up there. Now she had two reasons to be on her play gym. Enrichment was always present and she got treats when she was up there too. Now the play gym had at least as much value to her as the inside of her cage did and she began playing up there frequently by choice.

Teaching Audrey to Step Up

Now that she wanted to be on her play gym more, Judith had to deal with the problem of Audrey’s running away from her when asked to step up from that location. New rules had to go into effect. Under no circumstances was it okay to pursue Audrey if she would not step up. It was not okay to force her for any reason. Remember that bank account!

Since Audrey would step up at times without problem, Judith had to start there. She would show Audrey the treat and ask her to get onto her hand. If Audrey refused, Judith was to walk away without a word (taking the treat with her of course!). Then she would come back just a few minutes later to give Audrey another chance. When Audrey did step up, she got the treat and then Judith put her right back down again. This reassured Audrey that she wouldn’t be asked to do any more than just get onto Judith’s hand for a brief moment.

This is important when working with parrots who resist stepping up at times. We must allow them that choice to refuse. Do not push your hand into the parrot’s abdomen. Do not scare them onto your hand by holding something in your other. Those methods are unethical because they deprive the parrot of choice. All you have to do with a parrot like that is find your starting point. When she is likely to do as you ask, have her three or four times a day step up for a treat, after which you put her right back down. Once she is stepping up willingly, you continue to give a treat for the behavior but this is concealed until the behavior has been performed. You will have a parrot who steps up nicely!

Audrey Accepts Her New Playstand

Audrey was initially frightened by the sight of her new playstand. So, Judith put it across the room where she could look at it, but wasn’t afraid of it. When she was familiar with  the stand’s look, it was time to teach her to accept it.

Judith started at enough of a distance from the stand that Audrey showed no concern. She asked Audrey to step up, which she did now without any problem, and began walking slowly toward the stand, offering a treat at every step. In the beginning it was just a step or two toward the stand and then back again to the cage. Judith made sure that Audrey was relaxed (below threshold) every time they worked on this together. Using very small approximations, Judith decreased the distance to the stand with Audrey on her hand eating treats. After a few weeks of work, Judith was able to walk all the way up to the stand with a relaxed Audrey on her hand.

At that point, Judith began asking her just to lean over the stand’s perch to get her treat. Does this sound familiar? Once Audrey happily leaned over the stand for the treat, it was time to ask her to step onto the stand. Today, Audrey loves her playstand and spends considerable amounts of time there.

Lessons Learned

I wanted to tell you about Judith and her birds for a few reasons. I think there are some important lessons for us all in the story.

First: We don’t have to be excellent animals trainers to achieve great things. Animals are forgiving. Judith was a novice and she made mistakes. (And perhaps I didn’t communicate clearly!) At one point we laughed out loud together because she had actually been rewarding Arlo for not performing the desired behavior.

Second: We can and should work to help our parrots get over their fears. We may think we are doing them a favor by allowing them to stay in their comfort zones, but we are not. This is how parrots lose their flexibility and adaptability. It’s also how they lose their quality of life. If we believe that a good quality of life depends upon having choices to make, we do our parrots no favors by allowing them to choose not to interact with that new perch or toy.

Judith was brave enough to get out of her comfort zone and learn to train her parrots. Her motivation was simply love for her birds and a desire that they have the best lives possible. Arlo willingly left his comfort zone to take risks and today his quality of life is a lot better. He now doesn’t have to fear his primary caregiver for any reason. Audrey had to leave the comfort zone of her cage to learn to play on her upper play gym and her new playstand. Her quality of life is also greatly improved.

Third: When working with fearful parrots, success depends only upon having patience, consistency, and the fortitude to keep doing the right thing for long enough. The training that Judith did with Arlo and Audrey took several months and at times was not very rewarding for her. Working with fear can take a long time when dealing with prey animals. Often it isn’t very fun, but the success is all the sweeter for it.

Fourth: If your parrot is not “food motivated” for training, examine his diet. Chances are, he is either getting too many fatty foods, too many carbohydrates, or too much food overall. If you decide the diet needs changing, please consult your avian veterinarian before doing so.

If you have a parrot who is afraid of something, please consider some training to help her get past that fear. You will all benefit. Positive reinforcement training that encompasses desensitization and counter conditioning is the path forward!