Monday, May 4, 2015

Yeah, But………

"Yeah, but...." puts the brakes on receiving help

Have you ever found yourself saying these words when someone gives you advice?  You probably have. We all have! Haven’t we? I am guilty of it too. But now I try really hard to catch myself if I feel those words creeping out. Here is why. When we respond with “Yeah, but….” it pretty much puts the brakes on receiving assistance from the person trying to help.

Here is an example:

Question: My parrot screams when I leave the room. How can I get him to stop?

My Response: It is really important to not reinforce the screaming and heavily reinforce another sound that will work to get your attention.

Owner’s Response: Yeah, we have tried that, but it doesn’t work. He just keeps screaming.

My Response: Well, there are a few things that could be going on. You could still be inadvertently reinforcing screaming. Birds are very perceptive to little responses.

Owner’s Response: Yeah, but we are definitely ignoring the screaming. We turn up the TV louder or go over and cover the cage.

My Response: Actually going over to the cage or making any sounds that the bird perceives reinforces the behavior. Everyone in the family needs to be on board and act like they have vanished into thin air the moment the bird screams in order for him to understand screaming doesn’t work to get attention.

Owner’s Response: Yeah, but that is not possible in my house

Many times every solution I offer is countered with a “Yeah, but...” and eventually I am so beaten down I just end up saying “Yup, you are right! It can’t be fixed in your case.”  It is very disheartening especially when you know the problem is fixable and there is pet and household that could really use your assistance. But every time you try to help you are being told no your advice won’t work or doesn’t work or has already been tried.  

Those who do provide professional science based services and information on addressing behavior problems with animals can tell you that the methodologies do work. If they are failing there is usually a problem in the application. Professional consultants are usually excellent detectives at helping uncover where the application is failing. They are going to ask detailed questions about your process. This is where it can be tempting to say “Yeah, but…” This is because most believe they have followed instructions to the letter. But in reality what was described by the consultant, what was heard and what was actually done probably were all somewhat different.  Sometimes it can be difficult to have clear communication. But the good news is we can keep the lines of communication open and continue discussions about important details that will be helpful to both owner and consultant trying to come to the solution to a behavior problem together.

I recently had a phone call with someone having a hard time getting a bird to go back into his enclosure. I asked the person to describe to me how she asked the bird to step up and go back to the cage. The person suddenly got defensive and said “Just the way you told me!” I had to reassure her I was just collecting information so I could help her and that I had only seen her with the bird once and needed more details. Part of her defensiveness was that she was frustrated by the problem she was having with the bird and angry in that moment. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves it really is about getting the problem solved and putting our emotions to the side for a moment.

People who provide information on addressing behavior problems really do want to help. So the next time you find yourself tempted to say “Yeah, but…” ask yourself if maybe some other phrases might be more helpful such as “I think so, but maybe I didn’t apply it correctly” or “I am not sure, can you give me more information?” or “Can you help me understand how I can do that in my situation” You will find the person trying to help you will be even more eager to give you guidance towards a solution. And best of all you will get resolution for that troubling pet behavior problem.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Is Animal Training Really All About Relationships?

I often hear trainers say animal training is all about “relationships.” I must admit I often say the reason I got into animal training is I love the relationship you can develop with an animal. But talk about vague! Let's be honest here,  there's is almost always a relationship going on regardless of the kind of training being done and there's always training happening regardless of the relationship you have with the animal. A little clarification is most definitely needed.

First we need to define what we mean by “relationship.” I would venture to say most force free trainers are meaning a relationship that is based on trust, results in desired consequences for both parties involved, is free of aversive experiences, etc.  We have all seen animals trained with aversives that work extremely well. I would venture to say these animals also have a relationship with their trainer. However that relationship may include things like avoidance behaviors. It may also cause the animal to resist presenting behavior for fear of punishment. It is still a relationship, but one that exists with very different criteria in place.

Some trainers state that animals behave because of their “good” relationship with the trainer. This is another interesting statement. “Good,” of course, is another word that needs some defining.  Good may mean that the animal views the trainer as a deliverer of desired things such as treats, attention, toys, etc. To others, “good” could mean that aversives have been used with such accuracy that the animal wouldn’t dare present unacceptable behavior in the presence of the person that can deliver punishers. In other words the animal “obeys” so well!

Some might say a good relationship is one in which the animal seeks out the companionship of the trainer. Certainly this does happen when a trainer dispenses desired things. However we also see some animals that pick individuals as their preferred human for no obvious reason. Parrots are excellent examples of this. We often see a parrot completely drop the human who has been the perfect positive reinforcement based trainer for a complete stranger.  On the not so pleasant side, many have also seen horses give in and “join up” with a trainer when the pressure of being forced to run around a ring has been lifted. Each of these pairings happened due to different motivations.

On the flip side of this, you can be an excellent force free trainer and have no relationship what so ever with the animal. This is often the objective in conservation projects. The intent is not to create a relationship between humans and wild, or soon to be released animals. The goal is to get behavior but find ways to reinforce remotely. We typically do not want to pair desired consequences with people to avoid the other fallout that can happen when humans and nature collide.  In this example a relationship is not required at all to be a successful trainer.

Here is another example. Chris Shank is a trainer who free flies cockatoos on her property. This is a behavior that takes some study, skills and cojones! There is always risk involved and not something I recommend people attempt without an experienced mentor holding your hand every step of the way. Someone once stated her birds don’t fly away because of her relationship with her birds. This person had assumed these were hand raised babies with a pet like attachment to Chris. What this person didn’t know was that the birds were parent raised and didn’t have any formal recall training to the hand at the time. But this didn’t mean they weren’t learning and that other training wasn’t happening. Or that they couldn’t successfully learn to free fly.

The point is a relationship is a by-product of training. It is not what makes learning happen. What that relationship will look like is a result of what tools you choose to use as a trainer.  If you choose things like positive reinforcement, pairing of desired consequences, systematic desensitization, being sensitive to not create fear responses and aggressive behavior, you might be lucky enough to enjoy a relationship with an animal that is very fulfilling, which is one of the wonderful added bonuses of being a force free animal trainer.

So while it may sound profound to say animal training is “all about relationships.” In reality it’s more about application of the tools of the trade that determines if and what type of relationship you will have with the animals in your life.  So rather than focus on your relationship, focus on the choices you make to influence behavior. Choose wisely and you get to have a wonderful relationship with an animal based on trust.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Do Animals Bluff?

Have you ever thought about the word bluffing? Some synonyms are conning, tricking, faking. When people use the word bluffing in regard to animals it is usually associated with aggressive behavior such biting or lunging. In other words they are suggesting animals are faking it or don’t really mean it when they try to bite.

When an animal shows fear or appears content, it is pretty unlikely someone would label that as bluffing. It is a curious thing that people accept animals might be afraid, but not willing to believe an animal’s body language that is saying “Stop it! Or I am going to bite! 

Force free animals trainers understand it is a very rare animal that is deceptive in its body language. In fact few species have truly been shown to use deception intentionally.  And usually it used to control access to resources.  For example a raven may “pretend” he doesn’t know where a stash of food is hidden to avoid alerting others to the location of the goodie.

In my experience an animal that is showing aggressive behavior or precursors to aggressive behavior is being about as open and honest as he or she can be. Rather than thinking the animal is trying to trick me and doesn’t really mean the aggressive behavior, I take such body language as clear communication and time for me to rethink what I am doing. Even more important is to pay attention to the tiniest body language and respond in a way that says I got the message. I don’t want the animal to have to escalate its aggressive behavior to get me to stop. I also don’t want the animal to learn I only pay attention to big body language…like biting. This can teach the animal to skip all the subtle signals and go right to very aggressive behavior.

In the parrot world, some folks believe that bluffing is a stage of parrot development that will pass.  Knowing a bit more about parrot development and how behavior is influenced will help explain what is really happening.

Parrots like other animals have critical periods of development. This time period starts in the nestling stage and continues for a short time past fledging. During this time period, parrots are very open and receptive to new experiences and also will allow quite bit of handling. This openness is what motivates young animals to want to explore their world and learn. Force free trainers take advantage of this time period to pair good things such as treats and attention with things animals will need to encounter throughout their lifetime such as nail clippers, scales, towels, etc.  This can have a nice long lasting affect into the future.
Harness training is easier when started during the critical period of development

However this openness also means young parrots will tolerate a lot, including coercive handling. As they mature past this stage the willingness to tolerate such handling disappears. And parrots start responding to forceful handling with aggressive behavior to express their objection.  This can be confusing to a parrot owner. For months the birds was so easy to handle and now it is becoming quite difficult. This is why it is so important to use positive reinforcement and empowering the bird to choose to participate even when it might allow a heavy handed approach. 

If the critical period of development has passed and the parrot is being forced to step up or otherwise comply, this is when much more aggressive behavior is exhibited. This is when people start suggesting the bird is bluffing…because in the past compliance was easy. This thought process then causes people to be more heavy-handed in trying to get compliance. A bird can learn in these moments that no matter how much they object, they will be forced to cooperate. This approach can get compliance, but has tremendous fallout and is detrimental to the relationship between caregiver and parrot. 

This ability to get compliance through force has also caused some to think it is just a phase, when in fact the parrot has learned to cooperate via negative reinforcement and in some cases flooding.  Instead of being a stage, it is a parrot learning that nothing it does causes the coercion to stop, and gives up. Needless to say this is not a fun way to learn and in reality not necessary.

Instead, caregivers will want to focus on being incredibly sensitive to the tiniest body language that says the bird is uncomfortable. When such body language is observed caregivers should stop what they are doing and give the bird the choice to participate. Cooperation and participation should result in good consequences such as treats and attention. This approach will create a super eager participant without any need to use aggressive behavior. Instead you get to enjoy a wonderful relationship based on trust with your parrot.

Next time an animal in your life tells you “no” through his or her body language, think of it as useful information. Your animal is just trying very hard to communicate and your relationship will benefit if you choose to listen.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year's Resolution Ideas for Animal Trainers

 Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody does the health and fitness resolution for the New Year. But animal people are different, aren’t we? Why break tradition now? How about some New Year’s resolution ideas that will benefit you and the animals in your life? Here are 10 ideas that will help animal trainers start the New Year just right.

1.    Train a behavior that will make veterinary care easier for an animal in your life. Simple things like loading into a carrier, being comfortable with touch and training for restraint can make a big difference in reducing stress for veterinary care. Here is a video clip to get you inspired to train your parrots.

2.    Read a book that is related to the field but not specifically about animal training. I really enjoyed reading the Science of Consequences by Susan Schneider this year. Another good one is Coercion and its Fallout by Murray Sidman. Not a book but another interesting resource is the Brain Science Podcast.

3.    Try shaking up your training practices. If you always use a bridging stimulus, try to become a faster treat deliverer and see if you can train some behaviors without a bridge. (Trust me, you can) If you never bridge, try training a behavior that requires one, such as working with an animal at a distance.

4.    Train a species you have never worked with before. This is a great way to really learn how important natural history and ethology are when it comes to behavior modification. Sure the behavior analysis principles are the same. But real behavior change comes with practical application. This means also learning about what matters to that species.

5.    Train a solid recall on an animal in your life. It is a pleasure when an animal comes running/flying towards you the moment a recall cue is given. Practice recalling at short distances when you are 99.9% sure your animal will come. Gradually increase the distance and make sure quick response to the cue is part of your criteria.

6.    Train a behavior you have never done before. I had a blast training my rabbit to do a scent discrimination this year.

7.    Attend an animal training conference, workshop or lecture live and in person. In addition to learning you also get to meet like-minded animal training enthusiasts. Often the best part of attending an event is the wonderful friendships that are forged. Check the calendar here for upcoming events in 2015.

8.    Share something you have learned about force free animal training with at least one other person. Remember this movement to get people to understand you can be nice to animals and still have them be well behaved is a wonderful virus we want to spread. Pretty soon, being kind in animal training will be the norm and traditionally heavy handed approaches will be a thing of the past.

9.    Do a before and after story. If you work with animals with behavior problems or have one in your home with issues you would like to address, start documenting! Nothing shows how beneficial force free animal training is than a transformation story. Take video footage or notes on the behavior problem before intervention. Develop an intervention plan, implement it and document your process. Once you have resolution (and you will) take your “after” video and share with the world! Real life success stories are great motivation for others and show people that behavior problems can be fixed.
10.    Question a practice you have always done. Decide if it still has a place in your training tool kit. If it doesn’t maybe it’s time for out with the old and in with the new.  When I reflect on my own growth as a trainer, I see there are many things I used to do, that I would no longer consider. Some dropped off naturally but others were conscious decisions. Every trainer that improves their practices contributes to an even stronger and better training community.

There you go! Ten ideas to jump start the New Year for animal trainers. Feel free to share with other animal lovers looking to kick off 2015 with some animal training adventures.

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides pet training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in eighteen countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Memorable Moments with and for Animals in 2014

The year is not quite over yet, but it is hard to resist taking a trip down memory lane.  I usually like to reflect on my top three animal training related moments. This year, conservation initiatives took the top spots.

1. Working with Kakapo Chicks
Coming in it at number one has to be the opportunity to work with the Kakapo Recovery Program and this year’s chicks. Certainly training these youngsters was a thrill, but the real reward is being able to help merge science based training technology with conservation. These two fields are rarely intentionally overlapped, but the truth is there is a growing need for what trainers can contribute to conservation. One of our main goals is to reduce stress related to capture and restraint for kakapo health care. With today’s technology there are a number of ways we can accomplish this goal without impacting natural behavior adversely. Not only did we get started on this type of training with the hand raised chicks, we also developed a plan for parent raised chicks in the future.  I love that this dedicated team thinks about and explores such options. Check out these blogs to read more about the training we did with these amazing rare parrots.Why Train Kakapo?  and Powerful Parrot Training 

2. Blue Hair for Blue Throated Macaws
You gotta love viral internet campaigns. That ALS ice bucket challenge was my inspiration for the Go Blue for Blue Throated Macaws idea. Yes, I was challenged to dump ice on my head. And while I thought it was a worthy campaign, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. As I pondered what to do I found myself thinking about the charities I love and support. Of course my blue throated macaw Blu Lu and the Bird Endowment immediately came to mind. In jest, I texted a friend I should dye my hair blue and start a viral campaign to raise money and awareness for blue throated macaw conservation. As I was writing the text I thought “Hmmmm, I could be on to something here”. Next thing you know we have people all over the world dying their hair blue and donating to the Bird Endowment.  I never did actually find out how many people dyed their hair. But it was A LOT! And it was a blast watching people video challenge each other on social media. Some people really ended up with some amazing hair. The best news was that enough money was raised to support a bunch more nest boxes for blue throated macaws in the wild in Bolivia. The nest boxes have proven to be the most successful method of increasing the wild population to date.

3. Shaking Things Up in the Bird Training World
After 24 years as a professional bird trainer (plus another 8 years in animal care prior to that) you would hope one would learn a few things along the way. And I guess I did. I realized my current training practices were vastly different from what I had been doing for a good chunk of my career. This led me to explore the reasons why my training had changed.  Conversations with other trainers also made me realize those old practices I had left behind were a still a problem out there and they needed to be addressed.  Inspired by others I decided it was time to challenge some of the commonly accepted practices in bird training and asked the professional community to do the same.  In particular my concerns were about methods people have used for many years to create motivation for food.  I definitely ruffled a few feathers. I may have even lost a few friends over it. But I also gained new ones. Questioning some old practices started bringing amazing new people into my life. Ones who expanded my thinking about animal welfare and taught me there is so much more to learn. Some people openly attacked me in a professional setting and some hugged me with tears in their eyes, thanking me for saying what needed to be said. While it has been a bittersweet journey, (and an ongoing one) it counts as a very memorable moment for me in 2014. I am looking forward to a symposium some colleagues and I have put together on the ethics of creating motivation in animal training to further advance people’s knowledge on this important topic.

Bonus: Spending Time with Amazing People and Animals
2014 was the year of extensive travel. This meant meeting amazing animals and people from all around the world. They all have been the best teachers, mentors and inspiration. This year I had a walrus suck my thumb, a goat decide I was the object of his affection, a kakapo sit on my lap, and a giraffe give birth an hour after feeding her a biscuit to name a few fun animal moments. From people I learned about the evolution of animal emotions, had deep discussions about the use of time outs, LRS and no reward markers, discovered there are things trainers do that don’t exactly fit neatly into a category defined by behavior analysis and realized some kindred spirits live 1000’s of miles away in other countries, but are kindred spirits none the less.

I get to spend the rest of 2014 home with my animal family and friends.  I am enjoying spending my mornings training and caring for my companion animals and spending my afternoons developing new resources for those interested in training.  2015 is already shaping up to be an interesting year as well. Can it beat 2014? I can’t wait to find out. 

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2014

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lessons Learned from the Loss of a Trained Companion Animal

Are you one of those people deeply affected by another's suffering, especially if it is an animal?  Now imagine it is your companion animal. Add on to that, an animal that you have spent hours and hours building trust and training with positive reinforcement.  An animal with whom you have made such a deep connection and bond you feel there is a special understanding and communication between the two of you. Imagine if you couldn’t relieve that animal’s suffering? How deep is that pain?

This is the beauty and the tragedy of force free animal training.  On the one hand you create such a deep bond of trust, even friendship, that your emotional connection is almost indescribable. On the other hand when that animal is suffering or breathes his or her last breath the pain is that much deeper.

Not too long ago I lost one of my trained guinea pigs, Caledonia, to a tumor behind her heart. When I mentioned to someone that I cried for two days, it was clear they thought it was astonishing that anyone would feel such emotion for a rodent.

Caledonia (and Lucille) were only supposed to be temporary visitors at my house. I was going to film their training process and they were then supposed to become a part of an education program.  But after a few months of training them to do a number of behaviors, I found myself dreading the day I would have to give them up. Fortunately the new “owners to be” were understanding and accepted my offer to train two other girls for them. I promised not to get so attached. 

My two girls went on to learn a number of fun behaviors that I shared on YouTube. Their big hit was the clip of them playing basketball. I was quite proud when they were mentioned in Dr Marc Bekoff’s blog on the PsychologyToday website.  But mostly I hoped showing how intelligent these creatures are would inspire people to take a second look at their guinea pigs. Maybe they would be more inclined to provide enrichment and activities to keep them stimulated, maybe they would be a little more apt to invest in a nice habitat, and maybe they would even get their feet wet with some training.

When Cale didn’t run out for breakfast one morning I knew something was wrong. Based on her symptoms the vet thought the best course of action was to treat for a respitory infection. (We didn;t find out about the tumor until after she passed) This meant giving her oral medication with a syringe. This part was fairly easy. The hard part was that she wasn’t eating and had no appetite. This meant trying to get nourishment into her in the form of thick liquidy concoction designed for sick guinea pigs. This is what hurt the most for me. Several times a day I had to try to get her to eat the goo from a syringe. She wasn’t feeling well, and she didn’t want it.

I found a way to make handling low stress. I placed a soft fleece in front of her and covered it with a hiding place. She voluntarily moved to the fleece. (A sick guinea pig knows it is important to stay hidden.) I lifted the hiding place and replaced it with the flaps of the fleece. Tucked in cozy, it was easy to gently pick her up.

Offering the food proved to be harder. This is the part that broke my heart. While she needed the food to survive, delivering it was not pleasant to her. This meant my last interactions with her were the opposite of what she had known from me all her life. I always meant good things were about to happen. And now I was being associated with something she found unpleasant. I felt as if I betrayed her and her trust. And sadly she didn’t recover. I didn’t get the chance to make up for those last few days. Although my vet assured me it would have also lead to death had she not had the feedings, the experience still stings.

Like many of us who care deeply for animals, I am trying to mostly recall all the wonderful interactions I had with Caledonia. But this experience once again reminded how very important it is for us to train our companion animals to be comfortable with some very basic medical care. Fortunately Cale was a champ at getting on a scale, loading into a crate, being wrapped in a soft towel, and taking oral meds. Taking the food supplement was something we had never practiced, and maybe something to add to my list of behaviors to train. To make the vet visit less stressful, I brought familiar items from home, like the yoga mat upon which the girls practiced their trained behaviors. This was a familiar scent, texture and always had been associated with favorite foods and activities.  I also brought Cale’s guinea pig companion Lucille. Thankfully these things seemed to keep her relatively relaxed while at the veterinary hospital, despite not feeling well.

There is a new movement to help make vet exams fear free. I am proud to be a part of a group of professionals asked to facilitate this initiative.  Losing a companion animal is painful, knowing you could have done more to reduce stress to care for them when they were sick, can be even more heartbreaking.  I hope Caledonia’s story will inspire you to work on training behaviors that will make veterinary care for your animals stress free.  There is an animal you love that will one day appreciate it.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.