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!

Managing Behavior through Environmental Change

By making simple changes to the environment, you can often accomplish amazing improvements in problem behaviors. When referring to environment, social exchanges are included in the discussion, as well as the physical habitat and diet. You are part of your birds’ environment. The term includes anything and everything present in the environment that can impact the parrot’s behavior.

Environment Changes = Antecedent Changes

The natural science of learning and behavior is over a century old. By studying how behavior “works,” we have discovered very positive and humane ways in which to change it. One of the best relies upon making changes to the bird’s environment. In the science of applied behavior analysis, these types of changes are referred to as antecedent changes.animals-3618625__340

Such changes enable us to make undesirable behavior less likely and to make desirable behavior more likely. They are essential to “setting the parrot up for success,” when teaching new behaviors or strengthening existing ones. Antecedent arrangements determine which behavior the animal is most likely to perform. Essentially, they can be thought of as simply the management of behavior.

The huge value of positive reinforcement training (which includes clicker training) is now more commonly recognized and understood as one of the best ways to improve an animal’s behavior, as well as to teach new ones. However, antecedent changes are equally useful and can serve as stand-alone interventions. When you couple skillful arrangement of antecedents with the use of positive reinforcement, there are few limits to what you can achieve.

Ethics of Behavior Change

Antecedent changes are one of the most positive, least intrusive ways to change behavior. They often increase quality of life for the bird, in addition to making the owner’s life easier. They help to build a more trusting owner-parrot relationship.

This is important. When dealing with our parrots’ behavior, we must do so in an ethical manner. There is no room for forceful intervention, such as the frequently recommended advice to restrain a parrot until he stops resisting. For any who would like to delve further into the ethics of behavior change, please read the article by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. titled What’s Wrong with this Picture? Effectiveness is not Enough.

What Behaviors Can Be Managed?

The first key to using this behavior management strategy is to begin answering for yourself these questions:

  • What might make it easier (or more likely) for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?
  • What might make it less likely that my bird will perform the problem behavior?
  • Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

When we choose to live with very intelligent, sentient animals like parrots, we must be problem-solvers. parrot-55293__340Making use of antecedent (environment) changes helps greatly. This type of behavior modification also makes life easier for us. We don’t have to get caught up in telling ourselves stories about how the parrot feels or what he wants. We just make simple changes, then evaluate the resulting behavior. If not effective, we try another possible change.

The following are some real life examples of how well this type of strategy can work. I’ve used common problems voiced frequently by clients, as well as those from my own life with birds. These are organized according to the suggested questions above.

What might make it easier for my bird to perform the behavior I want to see?

Example #1: A Meyer’s parrot sustained an injury, received medical treatment and pain medication and was back at home, but losing weight. download (14)His owner, when home, observed him readily climbing down lower in his cage to access his food dish. Thus, pain (causing a reluctance to move) did not at first appear to account for the weight loss.

I suggested the possibility that he might not be as motivated to climb downward in her absence (a different environment). He would not have the stimulation of her presence to energize him, nor the distraction of her presence that might allow him to disregard his discomfort.

Antecedent Change: We moved the food dishes up right by his favorite perch and he regained the weight he had lost. We have no way of knowing whether this particular change, some other factor, or all changes combined, caused him to gain weight again. However, I offer this example to make you think. Parrots often behave differently when you are not at home.

Example #2: A similar example concerns the challenge many small birds pose when we try to improve their diet from a seed mix to formulated foods. Cages sold for these species always have the food dishes located down near the bottom of the cage. This means that getting to the food requires effort for the bird.

Antecedent Change: Place the new foods into additional dishes right up by the perch the bird uses most, leaving the seed mix in the dish down low. This is an example of decreasing the response effort. We make it easier for the bird to eat the new food because doing so requires less effort than does climbing down to the bottom of the cage.

Example #3: Many parrots do not readily interact with enrichment or consume fresh vegetables or fruit. bird-1941481__340These activities can be encouraged through their skillful placement. As the photo shows, placing a chuck of fresh food in a novel place often encourages consumption more quickly than simply leaving it in the food dish. I increased my own parrots’ consumption of pellets by offering them on play stands, in addition to their cages.

When placing enrichment, stand back and evaluate how the parrot uses his cage. I see cages with toys on the floor or in the lower third of the cage (where parrots usually don’t spend much time). I see toys in spots where it would take a great deal of effort for the bird to use them. I see toys that are completely inappropriate to the bird’s size, rendering interaction impossible.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Place the toy at a spot in the cage where the bird spends most of his time. Make sure that he can access it easily from that perch. (2) Hang it from the ceiling of the cage at beak level. It takes more effort for a parrot to bend over to interact with enrichment. (3) Place it where it’s not likely to bang into any part of his body when he turns around. (4) If it’s wood to chew, make sure that it isn’t too hard or too thick for him. (5) Use the information you have from previous behavior to inform your choice about what you provide. For example, if he chews up your junk mail when you leave it around, try a first toy made out of paper.

Example #4: Many clients complain that their parrot isn’t motivated to earn treats (preferred foods) when they attempt training.

Antecedent Changes: (1) Increase the value of the food treats you are using by only offering them when training and at no other time. (2) Try training right before a meal when motivation might be higher. (3) Eliminate any distractions, like other people or animals, in the training environment that might make your parrot less likely to focus.

What might make it less likely that my bird will perform a problem behavior in a particular set of circumstances?

Example #1: I once had a quaker parakeet who was fiercely “territorial” around his cagedownload (16) – meaning that I had a hard time interacting with him or changing out food dishes when he was near his cage because he would bite with ferocity. Luckily, he had a good recall and would fly to my hand whenever called.

Antecedent Change: Rather than trying to service his cage or asking him to step up when he was there, I instead would open his cage door, step back, cue him to fly to me, and put him on a play stand, which allowed me to interact with him easily or to service his cage while he was on the stand.

Example #2050One of my greys takes great pleasure in testing gravity by throwing my pots and pans down from my pot rack. She is also a genius when it comes to finding her way into my kitchen cupboards when I am not looking. A normally patient person, these behaviors turns me into a crazy woman. (I came inside recently, after taking my dog for a brief walk, to find my kitchen counter and floor covered with a mixture of baking soda, cocoa powder, ramen noodles and soy sauce.)

Antecedent Change: The most obvious and simplest change would be just to store my cook pots in a cupboard, preventing that problem entirely. However, I live in a teeny, tiny house with little storage space. So, I recently found a way to use different hooks that make it harder for her to enjoy that type of fun. To resolve the second issue, I installed child proof locks on my cupboards. Scolding her for either behavior would have only rewarded her by giving her social attention.  Often, preventing problem behavior is the very best solution.

Example #3: A frequently voiced problem is that of the parrot who bites when you try to change out food bowls. I used to live with a Blue and Gold macaw who was like a rocket, charging through his food dish openings in an attempt to get to me, when I tried to feed him from the outside of his cage.

Antecedent Change: I solved that problem by offering a large treat very near a high perch on the opposite side of the cage. Anyone can do this. Place a second bowl up higher in the cage. When you are ready to change out dishes, place a valued food (that will take a minute or two to eat) in there. This will lure the parrot up to that dish, leaving you safe to accomplish your task. By repeating this every time you feed, you will soon have a parrot who stations while you feed.

Example #4: A client complained that her parrot would snatch her stud earrings out of her ears when she was holding him.

Antecedent Change: Take off the earrings before you hold your bird.

Does my parrot react to me differently when in different locations around the house, when perching at different elevations, or when others are present?

Example #1: Many parrots step up readily when perched at chest height, but are more reluctant when perched over the owner’s head. imagesCAUSHIDZOne cause can be that parrots, by nature, are much more comfortable stepping upward and forward, rather than downward.

Antecedent Change: Slowly get up on a step stool in a manner that doesn’t frighten the parrot and then ask him to step upward onto your hand. He will be much more likely to do so.

Example #2: Another of my greys occasionally chooses to perch around the house at spots down a bit lower, like the top of my step stool or the door to the dog crate. He often solicits head scratches from me while there, but I have learned he is a lot more likely to deliver the  “Congo Grey Sucker Bite” when I am taken in by this “false” invitation. He never does that when he is perched up higher. Note: I don’t have to figure out why he displays this odd difference in behavior in certain spots in order to solve the problem.

Antecedent Change: I ignore his solicitations to pet his head when he is perched lower on one of these spots. (I don’t want him there anyway so should not reward that behavior.) Instead, I readily provide head pets when he is on his cage or a play stand and more likely to be a gentleman.

Example #3: A client complained recently that her parrot would vocalize obnoxiously non-stop when she worked in the kitchen, even though he could easily see her from his cage.

Antecedent Change: Put a table top perch in the kitchen and bring him in to supervise. They can socialize a bit and she can take that opportunity also to offer fresh vegetables as a snack. This simple change caused her to pronounce me “a genius.” We can all be geniuses if we learn to think in this manner.

Example #4: A cockatoo, pair-bonded to the woman in the home, bites anyone who tries to sit on the couch with her when he is near.

Antecedent Change:  Keep the bird in his cage or on a nearby perch when you are sitting on the sofa.

The Process

Managing behavior by making antecedent changes is really just a matter of using common sense and brainstorming. First, identify and describe in detail the behavior you want to change (increase or decrease). Then, brainstorm as many environmental modifications (antecedent changes) as you can think of that might create the change you desire, even if some seem pretty silly or unlikely to work.

Next, try first using the one you think most likely to work. After a few days, step back and evaluate. Have you solved the problem? If not, go on to try the next most likely.

Some solutions are so effective and simple, they might appear suspect. For example, if a parrot bites or chews on your clothes when on your shoulder, simply deny him this privilege. One small change solves the problem with little effort.

In other situations, finding a solution can take many attempts.  I have a client in Jordan with a mechanically inclined cockatoo who delights in leaving his cage to take the top panel off of the radiator. We have worked hard to teach stationing, but the radiator fun apparently is very reinforcing to him and resistant to change. Obviously, that training needs to be continued, but due to the possible danger, we also tried some antecedent changes.

We put a blanket over it when not in use. He moved the blanket. We tried putting an object on top that he hadn’t seen before, thinking that might make him less likely to go over to that side of the room. He didn’t care. We are left with the only option possible – to use additional hardware to screw the top in place and prevent the behavior completely.

Summary

Parrots are a joy and a challenge. Managing their behavior can press us to our limits. However, doing so can be a lot easier than you imagine. digital-art-95075__340You can learn to do this!

Make first and frequent use of antecedent changes. Once you have the knack of arranging the environment to get the behavior you want, go on and learn how to use positive reinforcement to  maintain desirable behaviors and teach new ones.

Don’t blame your parrots for being “difficult!” Instead, have some fun trying to create behavior changes. When you do, always remember to be kind. You can use what you learn on partners and children too!

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!

Resource and Suggested Reading List (these are not parrot-specific because the same rules for behavior change are the same for all species):

Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor (revised edition, 2006)

Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavioral Problems in Companion Parrots by Barbara Heidenreich (2012)

How Parrots Learn to Behave by Susan Friedman, Ph.D. and Phoebe Greene Linden (2003)

10 Things Your Parrot Wants You to Know about Behavior by Susan Friedman, Ph.D.

Blog post by Eileen Anderson on her site eileenanddogs  – What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? .