Have you ever been really scared? Perhaps it was a moment when you did not have control. For example as a passenger on a turbulent plane ride, or you realized someone was targeting you to pick your pocket, or you were stuck in a big crowd of people pushing you opposite to where you wanted to go. The adrenalin rushes associated with those scary moments can be exhausting. Your body may shake, you may squirm, run or panic or even freeze.
Try hard to remember that feeling. It will make you a better parrot trainer.
So many people think what they are doing to an animal is no big deal because they know it is not going to hurt the animal. Think of the parrot that is being restrained against its will for a nail trim. Many parrots show significant signs of stress and fear when restrained by a towel. So much so they are terrified at the sight of a towel. I have also seen this happen with parrots who have been strapped into a harness involuntarily. While the humans may know no physical harm will come to the parrot, the birds dont know that. Their panic is real. Having empathy for that fear is important.
Getting past a fear response is not about forcing an animal through the experience until the event is over. An ideal strategy is to avoid creating the fear response in the first place. This may mean taking things a bit slower. And more importantly it usually meaning pairing things you know your parrot likes with the experience.
I was recently at a friend’s house talking about desensitization and counter conditioning procedures and the different processes that can be used. We decided to explore some of the differences with a cute little terrier named Blue. First we used systematic desensitization. Blue was resting peacefully on a chair. While she lay there we gradually moved a big scary vacuum closer and closer as long as Blue remained relaxed. We made sure she could see us moving the vacuum and watched her responses. Eventually the vacuum was right next to her and she showed no need to be anywhere else and continued resting peacefully.
In the next steps we moved the vacuum cleaner to the center of the room and put treats all around it. Suddenly her body language changed. She sniffed, licked and explored every inch of the vacuum. Later when we moved it to the side she wouldn’t leave it alone, even though all the treats were long gone. Her tail was wagging and her focus was on the vacuum. By pairing something Blue liked with the vacuum we went beyond tolerance to loving the machine.
I use these same procedures with parrots all the time. I certainly don’t want my parrots fearing things like scales, towels, nail trimmers, etc. I start with systematic desensitization and then switch to classical conditioning, and then many times start incorporating operant conditioning. I use shaping with approximations to teach my parrots to actively present specific actions related to the no longer scary object, such as stepping onto the scale or taking fluids from the syringe. But first and foremost I avoid creating a fear response at all costs. Because I know fear is not always easy to overcome.
It’s true I am comforted when a pilot tells me turbulence is expected and for how long. However the truth is I am still much happier when there are no bumps at all. My flight is even better if there are movies to watch and snacks to enjoy.
Be empathic when your parrot shows a fear response. Take a little time to help him overcome what he fears. The end result is worth it.
Check out this awesome project! Artist extraordinaire Arlene Powers has made a painting based on one of my photos of Sirocco the kakapo. How cool it that?
Here is the best part. This original painting could be yours! This painting is being raffled off via the Chirping Central Conservation Fund. For just a single dollar you could potentially be showing off your own piece of fine art featuring the one and only Sirocco. (If you have not read about my adventures with him, be sure to visit my blog about training Sirocco. It was the thrill of a lifetime)
All funds raised are going directly to the Kakapo Recovery Program. This means your contribution will help save kakapo in the wild. This unusual, nocturnal, flightless parrot is down to only 127 individuals. The team is working nonstop to ensure a sustainable population is here for generations to come. Having been privileged to meet Sirocco in person I can say kakapo are simply fascinating and unlike any parrot I have ever seen. The team has had great success increasing their numbers, but there is more work to do and your entry will help. The drawing for the winner will take place at the American Federation of
Aviculture conference in August. No limit on the number of tickets you
can buy. Go for it! Get your tickets here!
Many people have an interest in working with animals as a profession. In truth there are many different types of jobs one can consider. Animal related professions include veterinarians, veterinary technicians, zoo keepers, pet store employees, wildlife educators, breeders, wildlife rehabilitation, animal rescue and welfare organizations, groomers, boarding facilities, field biologist, and of course animal trainer!
In the world of animal training there are additional categories. You may have an interest in presenting educational or entertaining shows or training zoo animals for health care. Some people train animals for TV and film. Other animals are trained for search and rescue and for assisting people. Animal training expertise is also required to work as a consultant to help solve animal behavior problems.
Every type of animal related profession requires certain skill sets and some require college degrees. The world of animal training is no exception. The science that is the foundation behind all animal training is called Behavior Analysis. Individuals interested in becoming trainers should invest time in studying this science. There is no secret to animal training, nor is there any whispering involved. Influencing animal behavior is all based on the principles of behavior analysis.
Knowing the science and applying it are two different things. Animal training is all about practical application. This means practice, practice, practice. Ideally you want this to happen with the guidance of an experienced trainer. This will help you improve your technique tremendously. You can learn about the science and how to train by attending animal training lectures and workshops. You can also get your feet wet by watching instructional DVDs.
Getting educated is an important part of being a great trainer. However hands-on experience is also critical. Find ways to spend time with animals. In the beginning it may mean volunteering or accepting the less glamorous jobs working with animals. However any professional animal trainer will tell you, those experiences are worth their weight in gold. There is always something to learn from the time spent caring for animals. Zoos, animal shelters, wildlife rehab facilities and some veterinary facilities will accept volunteers. Take advantage of these opportunities to enhance your hands-on experience. Exceptional volunteers are often the ones who land full time jobs. Treat your volunteer work as an important step towards becoming a professional in the animal world.
If you are looking to hang out with millionaires, keep in mind most animal professions don’t lead to six figure incomes. However working with animals can certainly be rewarding on a personal level. And if you are a positive reinforcement trainer you can bet your work is making a difference in the lives of the animals you train. You also get to be on the receiving end of a lot of love coming right back at you. If animal training is your dream job, go for it! The world needs more people sharing kind and gentle ways to work with animals.