Siljan and Dorris

Occasionally, I am gifted with an experience that is mind-blowingly remarkable.

Siljan Anna Jørnsdatter Nikolaisen contacted me on December 1, 2018 with a request that read as follows:

“Hi! I was sent here to you by Barbara Heidenreich, and I really hope you can help me with the issues I have with my parrot. I am from Norway, so my English isn’t so very good, but I hope you will understand. I have seen several training videos by Heidenreich about positive reinforcement and clicker training, and I have also read some in my own language, but i feel still cant start doing this in practise with my own bird. Her name is Dorris, and she is a 9 year old Indian Ringneck. The problem is, she wont even give me a chance to start training her. She is flying all over the place, and wont stay still a second. (She is NOT wing clipped, and i absolutely won’t do it) so I feel I cant start with anything. She is a fast flyer, and i’m pretty afraid that there is no hope for Dorris, my crazy bird at all, before I have even tried. Anyway, I have problems with understanding english when people speak to me, so if we could only write, I would be very happy about it.  I really hope you have the opportunity to help me with some tricks, one way or the other. Best regards Siljan and Dorris!”

Challenge Gladly Accepted

And so began the journey of helping Siljan to train “crazy” Dorris through email correspondence from over 4,000 miles away.

Siljan is 36 years old and lives in the small town of ​Bodø in northern Norway. She adopted Dorris 6 years ago. Before that, she had a Jenday Conure who passed away at the age of 31. She had never trained before.

At the time that Siljan wrote to me, Dorris would not consistently step up. When she did, wouldn’t stay on Siljan’s hand for long. Thus there were times, such as when visitors arrived, when Siljan needed to use coercion to get Dorris into her bedroom or back into her cage. This had broken trust and explained some of Dorris’ behavior. As Siljan wrote: “Then I sadly sometimes need to pick her up and put her inside the cage against her will, and that is awful.”

Finding Reinforcers

During initial sessions, Dorris was not particularly motivated to earn food reinforcers. We needed to clean up her diet. She was already eating pellets, but also got nuts and some types of table food. Raspberry jam was a favorite. Dorris, like most parrots, prefers foods that are high in fats and carbohydrates. And Siljan, like most bird owners, loved to treat her to these to make her happy.

We eliminated these treat foods, refining her staple diet down over time to just pellets and vegetables. Dorris could still have her treats, but she was going to have to earn them. This change produced the motivation we needed. We simply took the treats she used to enjoy for no reason and used them in our training.

Initial Concepts

As we began our work together, I offered an analogy: “Building behavior is like building a brick wall. You have to lay down the first course of bricks, put the mortar between them so that all cracks are filled, then let it dry before you lay down the next course. You have to teach the simple things before you can teach more complex ones.  And, you absolutely must first have a trusting handling relationship.” Thus, our first step was to teach Dorris to step up reliably and then to stay on Siljan’s hand instead of flying off.

We got a strong start, but then our efforts had to be put on hold when Siljan went to visit her mother over the Christmas holiday.  She took Dorris with her, but she had to be confined to her cage during this time. This hampered our ability to make progress on what we had begun, but we simply shifted our focus.

Targeting Through Protected Contact

Siljan purchased a GoPro video camera for recording training sessions. I suggested that she begin to work with Dorris on targeting. She could work with Dorris from outside the cage while Dorris remained inside.  

Very early sessions

This is called working “through protected contact” and is a great way to begin training fearful or aggressive parrots, as well as those who will not step up at all. None of these issues applied to Dorris, but this was a type of training that was possible during this period of physical restriction. Further, targeting is a behavior that assists in the training of other behaviors so we could use this skill later once learned.

Our Real Work Began

By January 9, 2019 Siljan was back in her own home again and our real work began.

Since Dorris often flew away when Siljan approached her, we began with some CAT training. This too is a training strategy that works extraordinarily well with fearful and aggressive parrots. While typically referred to as Constructional Aggression Treatment, in this case it might be more correctly called Constructional Aversion Treatment.  My instructions were:

  • Stand as far back from Dorris as you can, given the physical arrangement of your house. 
  • Begin to slowly walk toward her, one step at a time. Don’t talk to her.
  • As you do, watch her body language for any sign of movement. Go slowly and take your time.
  • At the very first sign of discomfort on Dorris’ part, stop where you are and stand still. (Signs of discomfort might include standing up straighter, eyes wider, feathers held tight against the body, leaning or moving away from you.)
  • After you have stopped, watch for signs of another (hopefully more relaxed) behavior. For example, she relaxes her position a bit, her feathers puff up or she turns her head – anything that looks less tense than before you stopped.
  • As soon as you see any behavior indicative of less stress, turn around and immediately walk away, back to where you started. (Try to find a behavior that will allow you to retreat within just a minute or less.)
  • Approach again and continue to repeat the process for up to 15 minutes at a time. 

Once Siljan could walk all the way up to Dorris without her flying off, we began to work on teaching her to step up with greater compliance. It was only a few days before Dorris was stepping up readily. By the time another few days had elapsed, she would remain on Siljan’s hand for extended periods since she knew that was the place where the goodies appeared. Soon after, Siljan was able to walk with her slowly around the apartment, offering reinforcers frequently for continuing to stay on the hand.

Our work together began to take on a rhythm that continues today. Siljan films her training sessions and sends the videos to me through a file sharing service. I respond with tips on how to improve her technique and suggestions on when to move to the next approximations. This system has been remarkably successful and demonstrates just how much can be accomplished at long distance, even with a bit of a language barrier.

The Human Side of Training

Siljan has frequently expressed anxiety and doubt over her own ability to perform the training correctly, even in the face of obvious success, and this has become an underlying theme of our work. As she voiced one day: “This is a little bit exciting, i’ll try not to be too disapointed if it doesn’t work at first try. I am actually a little bit nervous to fail and not make it work at all, but I would never give up trying, because I know Dorris can do it!

Her expressions of self-doubt always surprised me. I saw no reason for it. She made amazing progress with everything I asked her to do. Our exchange often reminded me of James Clear’s words: “Successful people start before they feel ready.” Consider the timeline below:

  • By January 24th, Siljan had taught Dorris to willingly get on a scale to be weighed.
  • By January 28th, Dorris was flying back and forth between two perches when cued to do so with the target.
  • By February 3rd, Siljan was teaching Dorris to fly to her hand using the target stick. Within only a day or two, we were able to fade out the use of the target so that Dorris was flying to Siljan’s hand on cue.
  • By February 4th, Siljan could transport Dorris into her bedroom when people came to visit and to get her back into the cage without any use of force.
  • By February 8th, Dorris was flying a good distance to Siljan’s hand and was learning to fly back to the perch instead of being carried back.
  • By February 20th, Siljan had taught Dorris to turn around on cue and was preparing to phase out the use of the target as a lure.
The beginning stages of teaching Dorris to fly back to the perch
  • By February 8th, Dorris was flying a good distance to Siljan’s hand and was learning to fly back to the perch instead of being carried back.
  • By February 20th, Siljan had taught Dorris to turn around on cue and was preparing to phase out the use of the target as a lure.

Nevertheless, I continued to receive Siljan’s input about her own emotional experience. No matter how much she achieved, she continued to experience anxiety. She would send me a video, believing that she had done a terrible job and I would watch it, thinking that she had done extraordinarily well.

The funny thing about training is that it creates a new world of intimacy between the animal and the trainer. It also creates greater intimacy between trainer and coach.

When I questioned her self-doubt, Siljan quite openly explained that she suffers from mental illness and severe self-injurious behavior to the degree that she once spent 16 years in a mental hospital, 9 of them in a high-security ward. She has never been to school or held a job. She has improved now to the extent that she can live independently, in a building with others who also have behavioral challenges, with staff on-site who can look in on them to make sure that all is well. She has important goals for the future.

In Siljan’s words: “I have a mental ilness, and my days can be rough and long, but Dorris is the one to get me trough it. After I met you, I have now become so much closer to Dorris, and for me, it opened a whole new world when I started to train her. With hard work, everything is possible!” 

A Graceful Gift

Every once in a while, we have the rare gift of stumbling upon greatness. Often, it shows up in the most unexpected of places. I wrote to her not too long ago: “What makes greatness is attitude, compassion, acceptance. You have them all, Siljan. I’m happy to know you.”

Her response: “And, who would believe that I should be an inspiration to others? That. That is amazing…”

Written with full permission from Siljan and Dorris.

(We did, however, have to bribe Dorris with a pomegranate.)

Credit for all photos and videos goes to Siljan Nicholaisen.


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 (which is a different publication from this blog), 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!

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!