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!

 

Avoid the Pair Bond: Social Relationships with Parrots

At the heart of many behavior problems is a social relationship that has taken a wrong turn. Why? Because, despite our best intentions we often misunderstand what parrots really need from us socially. And then, we do the wrong things.

We take all that we know about living with other companion animals and attempt to apply this to life with parrots. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Parrots are too different. They are prey animals, not predators. Most are not yet domesticated, while our dogs, cats and bunnies are. A parrot’s social needs are more closely aligned with the wild life than with captive life.

Lessons from the Wild

So, what do parrots really need from us socially? Observations of their wild lives provide valuable clues. They have many different relationships on various levels. They enjoy parallel activities which serve to cement the integrity of the flock. They all forage at the same time, preen at the same time, nap at the same time.

They are also full of trickery. They engage frequently in brief, playful interactions. They steal perches and food from each other. They engage with each other in mid-air. Some species even play physically with each other.

Each parrot also has a relationship with the flock as a whole.  The flock serves as the vehicle for finding food, accessing that food, evading predators and providing a sense of safety. A single parrot away from his flock would likely meet with a swift demise. They understand this instinctively.

Pair Bonds In the Wild

It is important to note that the only time that adult parrots in the wild spend extended periods of time physically close together is when they have formed a pair bond. They are engaged in cementing that pair bond through remaining close by each other, searching for a suitable nest site, excavating that nest and then laying eggs and rearing young.

Pair Bonds in Captivity

I assert that it physical closeness with a companion parrot that serves as a physiological trigger that causes our parrot to form a pair bond with us. This conviction is based upon two decades of anecdotal experience. Petting the parrot down the back and under the wings, having the parrot on the shoulder for extended periods, cuddling at night before bed, allowing the parrot under the covers…all of these activities give the parrot the wrong message – that we are inviting a sexual relationship. But, we certainly don’t want that, right?

What DO We Want?

I know what I want. And, I know what we should all want for a companion parrot. We should want that parrot to be fully independent, well able to entertain himself most of the time…foraging for food and interacting with enrichment. We should not want a parrot who sits on our shoulder or lap all day. That’s not much quality of life for a captive parrot, given the myriad of activities in which they would engage in the wild on a daily basis.

What DO They Want (Need)?

Lessons from the wild indicate that they need a sense of safety and security that the flock provides. What does this mean for us? I hate to break it to all of you who depend upon them, but bird rooms are a really bad idea. They may be convenient for us, but are a source of stress for parrots, making it impossible for them to satisfy their social needs.

Parrot have big personalities and a well-defined sense of territory. It is stressful for larger parrots to live in close proximity to others, especially others of different species. Parrots seem most comfortable with a minimum of about five feet between cages, which is hard to accomplish in the typical bird room.

Parrots of different species, while they may enjoy having other feathered ones around, will not usually form a cohesive flock bond with them. Instead, most parrots consider the humans in the home to be their primary flock. It is with us that they want to enjoy those parallel activities. Thus, the best thing you can do to facilitate a healthy social life for your parrot is to locate his cage in the living area of the home. (A play stand is not good enough.  Sorry….)

Parallel Activities

The importance of parallel activities to a parrot should not be underestimated. While we may imagine that our birds need hours of one on one time with us, that isn’t the case at all! They don’t need much focused time with us. This may be good news to all of you thinking that you may need to give  your parrot up due to your lack of time.

They will satisfy themselves socially by eating when we eat, preening while we ready ourselves for the day, and snoozing while we nap. We don’t have to do anything other than have our parrots in our proximity to satisfy this particular need of theirs. How easy is that?

Brief, Playful Social Interactions

How about the need for brief, playful social interactions? That one is easy to satisfy too. When our parrots are located in our living areas, it comes naturally to interact with them throughout the day in this manner.

Parrots and people have a way of developing little social duets over time. For example, my African Grey, Marko, loves to hang upside down from my hand.  She started that.  Now, I can step her up and give her the cue to flip upside down. Once upright again, she is happy to take a treat and go back to her perch.

Dancing with your parrot is another example. How about playing toss the paper ball for a few minutes? What else can you think of? What does your parrot like to do? Can you turn that into a 60-second game?

Following the Flock

Parrots also need to follow the flock. That means that, when we change rooms, they want to change rooms to accompany us. A flighted parrot will do this on his own. If you live with a clipped parrot, you will need to provide the transport. Think about having a perch in every room. This way, if you are going into another room for an extended period of time, you can bring your parrot with you to perch while you go about your activities.

Other Social Needs

Aside from these very specific social needs, parrots must have a minimum of three to four hours out of the cage each day for a decent quality of life. More is better. This block of time should be divided into two periods, one in the morning and a second later in the day. It is simply too hard on a parrot to only come out of the cage once a day. Such a schedule often contributes to behavior problems. This time out of the cage allows them to make choices, change locations, and engage in those important social activities outlined above.

My Flock

For the past 15 years, I have worked full-time as a veterinary technician while pursuing my behavior consulting career on the weekends. People always ask me how I can possibly care well for eight parrots while doing all that. I have been easily able to meet the social needs of my own parrots because I follow the advice given in this blog. My parrots are happy, undemanding, and keep themselves busy without needing big chunks of my time.

Does a Pair Bond Already Exist?

What if you have already allowed your parrot to form a pair bond with you? How will you even know if a pair bond exists? I can tell you some sure signs:

  • Your parrot hates everyone but you.
  • Your parrot tries to bite your partner when he or she comes close. (Or the parrot bites you under the same circumstances…another fun variation on that theme.)
  • Your parrot tries to masturbate on you when you are holding him.
  • You can’t get the parrot off of your shoulder (and you’re not in the veterinarian’s office).
  • Your parrot frequently wants to preen your hair, eyebrows, or beard.

I can tell you that you don’t want a pair bond with your parrot. Such a bond leads to increased aggression, screaming and feather destructive behavior. For females, it can also lead to chronic egg laying, which puts the parrot at risk for egg binding. Not only is that a life-threatening condition, it generally incurs astronomical vet bills.

Evolving the Pair Bond

A pair bond can be evolved into a more appropriate relationship with consistent effort over time. First, figure out how much time your parrot currently perches on your shoulder, lap or chest. Begin to reduce that systematically by small increments each week. At the same time, immediately stop petting him anywhere but on the head. Keep him out of your bed. Stop the cuddling. (I know…this is hard. Perhaps a cat or a Yorkshire Terrier might be a good addition at this time.)

Replace that physical closeness by beginning some parrot training. Parrots in the wild are constantly problem solving. Their physical environment requires this. In captivity, most parrots are bored.  By doing some training on a daily basis, you accomplish some very important things.

Parrot Training

Learning new behaviors enriches the parrot’s experience to an extent  you can’t imagine. Learning new behaviors in an important form of enrichment. Learning new behaviors tires a parrot out mentally so he has less need to threaten your eardrums with vocalizations.

But, most importantly, training your parrot will serve over time to evolve that pair bond. By placing yourself in the role of teacher/trainer, you encourage the parrot to look to you for guidance and direction, rather than physical love.

Training doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Five minutes once or twice a day is enough. It doesn’t even matter if you skip days. Your parrot will quite easily pick up where you left off in the training.

What to Train?

It’s best to begin your training by teaching a simple behavior like targeting. Not familiar with targeting? Here is an excellent video, created by behavior consultant Stephanie Edlund, to get you started: http://understandingparrots.com/guide-to-target-training-your-parrot.

Summary

Parrots need the following for social satisfaction:

  • Cage located in the living area.
  • The ability to engage in parallel activities.
  • Brief, playful social interactions with you.
  • Three to four hours out of the cage each day.
  • Parrot training with you as the teacher.

Happy training! Happy Socializing! Sent with much love to you all!

`Pam