Monday, June 6, 2011

Top 10 Ways to Build Relationships with Parrots

Have a Feisty Freida on your hands? Or a Bossy Bubba? Put yourself close to their hearts by taking these ten steps to a successful relationship with your parrot.

1. Don't ask for too much
I remember the day when I discovered harnesses for birds, how exciting! Now I could take my Budgie and Alexandrine Parakeet out with me wherever I went without having to fear flyoffs or crashes to the ground. I could walk my bird down the street every day just like a dog, wow! The day I purchased the harness for my budgie I followed the instructions -to just introduce the harness- but only for the first two days. I was impatient...

This however was not good enough to have my bouncing blue budgerigar willingly hop into her harness to go out for a brisk walk in the neighborhood. I was so excited to put the harness on her that I didn't check to see what she had to say about wearing the harness and as a result she learned to run away from it. She stayed to have the scary, monstrosity of a leash fixed to her only if I coerced her with my hands to stay where I wanted. Once it was on did she relax? No, she fought that harness with everything she had in her, and millet rarely distracted her from trying to rip it off her body.

In the case of my bouncy blue bird, I asked her to accept too much too soon. How was I suppose to know she would throw a hissy-fit from putting on a harness or not? The only way to tell, I would later find out, was to understand how to use her body language to my advantage. This idea is what I am now using to train my cockatiel how to wear her harness, and the results could not be more dramatic! She LOVES her harness, and you can watch a series of videos on her progress too!

2. Read and Follow Body Language
What does this bird's body language mean to you? I see many hints given from this bird's forehead, crest, cheek, and body feathers, and also his beak, eye, wing and posture. This is a bird that is comfortable enough to take a nap, and this is the level of comfort that I need to see when training my Cockatiel how to wear a harness. She doesn't need to be falling asleep when we are training, but she does need to be comfortable.

Case in point: She can be perfectly, blissfully perched on my shoulder -looking just like this bird- when I ask if I can put her harness around her while I give her scritches. If Achilles even slightly starts to show signs of discomfort while harness training then it means that I have pushed her beyond her comfort zone and that I now need to quickly make up for it by lowering my criteria. I start off one step back in my training goal and practice that step for a while to help build up that behavior, and then I try the harder step once more. Reading and following body language ties nicely together with not asking your parrot for too much. If the bird shows signs of discomfort, you have asked for too much.

3. Expect nothing
If animal caretakers expect their birds to happily jump right into a new harness, or to instantly love everyone or even to just come out of the cage when asked to, you could be setting the bird up for failure. Just because "he's done it a million times" doesn't mean he'll do it now. If you really expect that he'll do whatever it is that we want, you'll be let down and might try to force him to do what you want instead. You'll put the harness on anyway even if it means getting bit, or you'll tell someone to pick the bird up even if he doesn't want to, or you'll just chase the bird around the cage until you grab his foot and yank him out. This is what happens when expectations fail; people play dirty. If a bird does not do something willingly then he's not trained to like it but is instead coerced into it. Now we have crossed the line from a relationship into a dictatorship and this is not our goal.

4. Relationships are about trust
Being a trustworthy person involves being clear, honest and precise. No teasing, no double standards and absolutely no lies.

Trying to have a bird come close to you, and bribing with an almond? Don't move your hand farther away when he walks towards your hand just to get him closer, that's dishonest! (unless he knows he is supposed to follow a target, that's another lesson.) Instead, give the almond to him, but next time it might help to break that almond into very small pieces and offer one piece at a time. This way it will not take two minutes for him to eat his reward, but two seconds. This way you can have him move closer to you without having to resort to dishonesty.

5. Trust must be built
Meet Oakly, a fairly young hybrid macaw who doesn't want to step up and certainly does not want your hand in the cage to feed him. This was the bird that I chose during a workshop to train new behaviors to. Not knowing the complete history of my new training partner there was the unsettling possibility that I would get bit while attempting to train him.

But not to fear, small approximations are here! My go-to plan was to build up a very strong history of trust with this bird through rewarding small units of behavior (approximations). I started out by introducing myself with itty bitty bits of nuts and pairing those with a bridging stimulus. When Oakly started expecting treats when I said "good!" we were ready to move on. I trained him to follow my hand as a target, then we started  training to station on a perch (he liked to hang on the cage bars instead of perching) using small approximations: 

"Hey Oakly, can you follow my hand?" was my first request. "Good!" I said when his attention focused on me. "Hey Oakly, can you follow my hand to the perch?" I asked politely. "Good!" And when he crawled one birdie foot closer "Hey Oakly, how much closer can you get?" and on this went until he put one foot and then later, two onto the perch. Then I asked to see how long he could stay, can you stay longer? Longer? What happens if I walk away? "Good bird!"

When building up trust in an animal small approximations certainly help. But they become useless if the bird shows behavior of becoming too stressed, it is important to not move ahead to the next training step if this happens. Which certainly happened with Oakly and I, but that's okay because all we did was to practice the easy step multiple times before we tried that hard step again. And without a doubt Oakly did great!

6. Never take big leaps. The best big leaps happen on their own.
Take a lesson from my training with Oakly, I never expected for him to come out of his cage and start interacting with people. After a couple of training sessions I had trouble gaining his attention with food rewards, instead he was too focused on seeing what a group of workshop participants were chattering about on the other side of the room. Once the chatting cooled down we started back up with food reinforcements. I daringly opened the cage (I knew nothing of his behavior history, so it is important to be careful) and rewarded him for letting my hand approach his feet in small approximations. It didn't take long to have him coming out of his cage, but I had to be careful. I made sure he could easily step on and off my hand with ease before I even attempted to let Oakly out of the cage. Here are our results.

7. Avoid conflicts
I know a bird that hates towels. He runs when you pick a towel up and bites when you wrap him in it, so I avoid wrapping him in a towel. Now wait, isn't that counter-productive? Whether or not he likes the towel should I not wrap him in it anyway so that he "gets used to it"?  He'll learn to like it anyway won't he? Psychologists say "Not quite".

Forcing a bird, or a person for that matter, into a high-stress situation (liken the bird's biting to a man punching people out of fear) and simply waiting for them to "get over it" induces a state known as Learned Helplessness which you may learn more about here. Essentially what you are getting across is "You can do nothing to change the situation, so why try?". If I forced the bird to stay in the towel he will stop biting it eventually. He does this out of the lack of a choice, if he had a choice he would run away. "Liking" the towel requires something different. 

Instead lets do exactly what Oakly and I did, use approximations! Let's use itty bitty comfortable approximations until the bird chooses to walk into the towel. Not a bad idea!

8. Never say no
Doesn't "No." have a bad feel to it? It sets limits, builds boundaries and even crushes dreams. But even so behind every "no" is a hard to see "Yes!". Our goal as good caretakers is to find all the yeses in every situation. Saying "Yes you can have a cookie" gives focus on having the cookie, this is true visa versa "No, you may not have a cookie" still gives focus on the cookie. But if a cookie is the one thing in the world that you may not have it is better to focus on something other than the cookie. The word "No." causes a sort of hidden oxymoron: "Focus on not focusing on the cookie" how silly!
Re-direct the attention by saying "Yes" to anything but the cookie. That's what good trainers do.

9. Say hello to a world of yes!
Number four pretty much sums this up. Yes means: "Focus on this!", it is fun and uncomplicated to follow.

10. Be consistent
Have training lessons regularly, you can skip a week, or in my case when school comes along I can skip a couple of months. When you make a habit of saying "Yes!" with Positive Reinforcement it's easy to pick right back up from where you left off. But overall try to have regular teaching opportunities, whether or not it is a structured training session.

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog
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