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
www.BarbarasFFAT.com
www.GoodBirdInc.com
www.BunnyTraining.com 
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) 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.
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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 (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) 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
www.BarbarasFFAT.com
www.GoodBirdInc.com
www.BunnyTraining.com 
Copyright 2014

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) 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 (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) 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.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is What You Heard True?

It was recently brought to my attention, that a few people had some misconceptions about my work and my objectives in the animal world.  I realized that those who made the statements are likely not very familiar with what I do or teach.  I thought I would take this opportunity to help clarify my position for those people, and any others on the items that were mentioned, as I am happy to address such concerns.

Misconception #1: What Barbara Teaches Doesn’t Work in “Real Life”

This statement caused me to think that perhaps I should explain how I came to work with the companion parrot community. I learned about force free training techniques doing free flight bird shows in zoological parks over 24 years ago now. I also have lived with large and small parrots for almost 30 years now. My inspiration to work with companion parrots came from seeing how what I learned in zoos helped teach any bird I was working with to be well behaved, compliant and a joy to be around, including my own pets. People would chat with me after shows and share the problems they were having with their parrots. I realized the information we were using in zoos was not out there for pet owners. I wrote my first book solely as a way to give people a comprehensive resource to help them with their parrot behavior problems. I had no intentions of turning it into a business. I had a job as a zoo animal trainer already and considered myself primarily a zoo professional.

But things snowballed. People kept asking for more and more help and more resources. I started teaching workshops and making DVDs so that I could help as many people and parrots as I could. I practiced force free training with parrots at rescues, sanctuaries, zoos, veterinary teaching hospitals, etc. Almost every parrot that came to a workshop had behavior problems. And I would demonstrate how to use force free training to address those problems in front of the audience. (I can’t even count the number of birds that feared hands or showed aggressive behavior towards hands that learned to eagerly step up during workshops!) I have now personally worked hands-on with 1000’s of parrots using force free training technology to solve behavior problems and gain compliance. Not only do I have my own experiences that show the information works, but I get countless emails from parrot owners thanking me for providing resources that helped them finally connect with their parrot. (I actually have several of those emails in my inbox now.) Real life successes have been a strong part of my motivation to keep sharing. Knowing birds are being helped by the information has been a very strong reinforcer for me. There is no point to this work for me if it isn’t helping animals. Thankfully the evidence shows that it does.

Misconception #2: Barbara Won’t Help Me!
I certainly understand and appreciate that sometimes applying the information may require more guidance. Getting direct feedback on application can make a big difference in a person’s success with a bird. This is exactly the kind of work I do in my zoo consultations. However at the moment I don’t offer private consultations to the companion parrot community. Let me explain why. As one can imagine I do get thousands of emails asking for advice. They often start with “I have a quick question…” but the answer is not a quick answer if real help is going to be provided. It is a tall order to meet those demands. Many don’t know this, but my company is just me. I am the only employee. So I don’t have staff to answer all those emails.  Most of the time, I am on the road teaching workshops or working with zoos. When on the road, time for emails is very limited due to my obligations to those who have hired me to be there, but I do want those who email to get the help they need.

To address this conundrum, several years ago I prepared a page of frequently asked questions about parrot behavior problems.  Each question has a brief answer but also a reference to a more comprehensive resource. This may be a free video or article but yes it may also be a product I have created specifically to help with that issue. I dedicated a lot of time, thought, and money to create comprehensive resources to help people. I am proud of these tools and by all means know they have the power to help people.  It makes sense that I would want to refer people to them. They are the tool they need! I also know these resources are backed by my many years of experience and study. I really have dedicated my life to this…..just ask my friends back home who would like to see me once in a while or talk about something other than animal training.

Some have expressed concern over the fact that not all of my services, information or products are provided for free, but I believe it is appropriate to expect professionals to earn a living by sharing their expertise. Whether one is a plumber, tax consultant, teacher, lawyer, musician, artist or doctor; we expect to pay for their services/products/skills. And I think people in animal related professions also deserve the same respect for their professional contribution. So while I do offer tons of free videos, free articles, an extensive free blog with lots of information, I do also believe I should be permitted to make a living from my expertise and life’s work just as any other person in this world.

The products and services I offer are limited to DVDS, live workshops, ebooks, webinars and books. As mentioned I don’t offer private consultations (email, phone or in person) to the companion parrot community at this point in time. I have made the decision that for me, spending the time to make a comprehensive resource that can help thousands is a better contribution than meeting with one person at a time. Knowing this, I have provided a list of consultants whose work I know very well on my FAQ page. I always include this in the response people get when they ask for behavior problem help.  So when asking for help people get a combo of free resources, references to comprehensive products that address their questions, and recommended behavioral consultants. They are not left without help, but they are not given a free private email consultation either, as that is not a service I offer.

Misconception #3: Barbara Says you Need to Starve Birds!
This was quite interesting to hear as in the professional community I am currently regarded as one of the biggest advocates for moving away from practices that cause animals to be overly concerned about food and have taken quite a bit of flak from some other professionals for taking that position. The ethics of creating motivation for getting behavior is of special interest to me and one that I have researched greatly. I am actually co-hosting a symposium in Sweden to help people understand how to create motivation in a responsible, welfare conscientious way for many species of animals. It is a very deep, complex topic and there is much to discuss. I realize the companion parrot community may not have knowledge of this personal mission of mine as it has been targeted to professional trainers. But even so, my materials I have put out on parrot training certainly reflect this position. In a nutshell what I teach for the parrot community is primarily to save treats for training and leave the less interesting parts of the diet in the bowl. I am also a big advocate of using many types of nonfood reinforcers and have an entire section of my workshop devoted to this. Compromising a bird to get a response to food is definitely not something I teach. And my DVDs and written materials do reflect this.  Here are a few of my free resources that have been on the internet for years that explain a bit more.
The Parrot Training Diet?
Tips to Motivate Your Parrot
Expanding Your List of Reinforcers
Training Your Parrot with Toys

 
Misconception #4: Barbara Thinks “Her” Way is the Only Way
The information I teach is based in the science of behavior analysis. A science with a lot of excellent data that demonstrates force free approaches are the way to go.  So while some people refer to “Barbara’s techniques” you will find that I actually tend to refer to the science. I see this information as something that is available to everyone, not “my” special method. What I do well is act as a good facilitator for helping people understand how to use that science to influence animal behavior focusing on the principles that are kind, gentle and have been proven to be successful, while maintaining a great relationship with the animal. When people refer to “other methods” it puzzles me, as there is no method that falls outside of the science of behavior analysis. The science helps us identify what principles are being used to influence behavior in whatever “technique” someone is using. Some principles have been shown by research to have detrimental effects on animals, and others produce cooperative animals that enjoy our company and participating.  When I do speak out about a technique it is usually because it falls into the detrimental category. This is because I believe my role is to help animals by sharing my knowledge about the drawbacks of these methods and help people learn they have kinder alternatives. I also openly support other professionals with whom I have had first-hand experience and who demonstrate integrity, are ethical in their business practices and teach a force free approach based in the science of behavior analysis. There is a growing community of force free trainers and I am proud to be one of many out there using science based training technology to do good things for animals.

I hope this answers a few questions that were brought to my attention. I understand that in this age of social media communication it is easy for misunderstandings to occur. Have you heard something that needs clarification? Don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks in advance for your critical thinking, open and honest communication, and inquisitive mind.

Copyright 2014 Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) 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.