Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Target Training: A Lesson in Flexibility

Exactly two weeks ago I was getting revved up and excited about bringing home my first foster bird for Florida Parrot Rescue. I only heard a little about how Jojo, a 30+ year old Moluccan Cockatoo, might adjust once he came to my home, even though the questions I asked were many. What I did get to hear was that Jojo was said to be quiet for a cockatoo, didn't know how to step up onto anything other than a stick, wasn't a total cuddle bug, and was very shy.

Before bringing in Jojo to my home I made a list of things to buy as well as things to teach Jojo so that he can become more adoptable. While my coordinator said Jojo was trained to step up onto a stick it was clear from my visit that Jojo was terrified of the idea! By brandishing a stick at Jojo to step up you could see from his body language that the stick only functioned as an aversive for him. I refuse to use aversives with my birds because of my strong ethical stance and the nasty amount of side-effects that go with training birds with aversives, Learned Helplessness being one possibility.

The list of what to teach Jojo is long and I doubt all of it can be taught over the rest of the summer, but baby steps are the best anyway! The first thing that seems obvious to train Jojo right away is to step up. Some people train birds to step up by grabbing them out of the cage, placing the bird on their hand and forcing them to step up by knocking the bird off-balance with the other hand until they comply with the step-up "command". This often leads to birds fearing hands and running away from them and/or learning to bite a person's hand. Again, this is because the person is really using their hands as an aversive and now those nasty side effects I mentioned come into play in the form of biting and running away. Again, I respect my birds and avoid using aversives.

So how can a bird learn to step up without using said aversives? By learning target training! Target training, when done right, avoids using aversives and helps build a stronger relationship based on trust. The use of aversives builds a relationship based on fear, which isn't a pleasant thought for our birds.

Because Jojo is such a large intimidating bird with a really big beak I though that a good target stick to use would be a spare parakeet dowel perch I had lying around. Well, not exactly. Remember the history Jojo has with sticks? He's scared of them, and apparently downsizing to a parakeet sized stick still gave him the heebie-jeebies! After three days of simply showing him the stick for a split second, bridging and rewarding, Jojo never really settled down when he saw the stick. So I ditched it and thought of another strategy.

I thought that having Jojo follow my closed fist would offer him a chance to start learning a target behavior. I didn't however want him to touch my hand with his beak. Again he is a really big bird with a really powerful beak with an unknown history, I wouldn't want anything to happen to my hand. Even if it was a tiny bird there is always the chance that I might accidentally teach a bird to bite my hand if I asked them to touch it as a target. So to prevent this possibility all I required of Jojo was to get close to my hand.  It worked for a little while but caused problems when I asked him to target in unusual places in the cage. I'm guessing it's because he did not have to touch my hand, just get relatively close to it. So I changed my strategy once again.

This time I was equipped with popsicle sticks! Left over bits from toys which he took to swimmingly. It wasn't hard from him to get the idea that by touching the tip of the small stick he would get a small bit of egg, walnut, or other food item. Jojo is a natural chewing monster and when I first offered him the popsicle stick he reached for it thinking it was another toy for him to shred. Easy!

Today is only the second day using the popsicle sticks and Jojo is consistently, quickly, and confidently following the target anywhere in his cage. Maybe tomorrow we can practice going in and out of the cage. That would be pretty cool.

Training requires a flexible knowledge of behavior theory and changing goals and expectations based on what our student is telling us. Yes, I could have insisted that Jojo learn to target from the parakeet dowel, but that would have set us back for a while.

Stay flexible!

Copyright 2011 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog
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