Friday, December 7, 2012
Respecting the Bite
Sometimes humans have an inclination to suggest that whatever activity they are doing is “no big deal” or should not be bothersome to their parrot and forge ahead, regardless of what their bird’s body language is saying. There are countless times I have heard someone say “Oh, he doesn’t really mind. Go ahead.” or “He is just being stubborn. Make him step up.” or “It’s just a bluff. He isn’t really aggressive.” Ouch. Those are painful words to a positive reinforcement trainers ears. There is an implication in those statements that I should ignore what the bird’s body language is telling me. Even if that body language is saying “No! Stop it. I don’t like what you are doing.”
Why should a parrot owner care about respecting their bird’s body language? Because it is a critical element in successfully addressing biting behavior. I would surmise that most people do not want to get bit by a parrot. I am certainly one who falls into that category. This is when being a wimp works to my advantage. I am not willing to get too close to a bird until it gives me body language that indicates comfort. Certainly this is step one in avoiding a bite. My next goal is usually to associate something of value with my presence. This may mean offering food treats from my hand, a spoon or a bowl. It may also include offering toys or enrichment, head scratches or praise. It all depends on what the parrot shows a preference for. By pairing a preferred item or experience with my presence, hopefully I will gain some value to the parrot. If I am successful I usually start to see a parrot whose body language indicates he is anticipating more “good stuff” coming from me. Woohoo! At this point not only does the parrot seem to be engaged, but I am usually also beginning to feel more confident and trusting of the bird.
The process described above usually happens before a request for the behavior of “step up” is even considered. This is mainly because I am not comfortable placing my hand in front of a bird with whom I have not had the chance to build up some trust. (See the article “Training your New Parrot. Where to Begin?” in Good Bird Magazine Vol 2 Issue 4 for more suggestions on interacting with a parrot for the first time)
Sadly in the companion parrot community I see so many parrots that show fear responses or aggressive behavior towards hands. Because of this when I do bring my hand to a bird for the step up behavior it is done slowly and carefully. All the while I am paying close attention to the bird’s body language and looking for a bird who is at ease before proceeding. All these intricacies help me avoid creating a situation in which a parrot may want to bite.
When Birds Bite
Shoot. I messed up. Either I misread the bird’s body language or I asked for too much, or maybe I simply don’t know what happened just yet. But I got bit. Now what? This is a question that is often posed to me. “What do you do when the bird bites?” If unfortunately a caregiver does get bit, the first immediate response in my opinion is to detach the bird from the person. If the bird is holding on, usually a thumb and forefinger can be placed on the top part of the beak to pry the parrot off of whatever is in their mouth. Other strategies can include redirecting the parrots attention, and simply putting the bird down in the nearest available safe location (perch, cage, couch, table, playstand, etc.)
A bite can be very painful and by all means I do not recommend holding steady while a bird chomps away. This is the erroneous idea that by taking the bite the caregiver will teach the bird that biting has no effect. In truth there can be other reinforcers that maintain that behavior over which we have no control. For example grinding away on flesh may provide a stimulating tactile sensation to the bird. The only way to remove that reinforcer is for the bird to not have human flesh in its beak.
Another question often presented to me is “How do you let the parrot know what he did was wrong?” I must admit this question makes me cringe a bit. This is because I see it as a request for approval to use aversives to punish a bird for biting. In reality in most cases aversive punishment would not be the strategy of choice to address biting. The primary goal would have been to avoid creating the situation in which the parrot would be inclined to bite in the first place. This may mean teaching the bird what to do instead of what not to do. It may also mean making antecedent changes to facilitate success for the parrot. There are many pathways that can lead to a non biting outcome had they been considered. All of which do not involve an unpleasant experience to teach the bird to do something other than bite.
For me if a parrot bites I do nothing than more than make sure the bird is no longer on me. This gives me time to pause and think about what I could have done differently to avoid the situation. It also forces me to make a mental note of what circumstances created the aggressive response. It also gives me time to deal with any emotional fall out I may experience from being bit. Sometimes our feelings are hurt when an animal we love responds with aggressive behavior. If I am to focus on building trust with a parrot, the last thing I want to do is to react in a manner that the bird would find unpleasant. This means I do not try to punish the parrot by shaking or dropping my hand, yelling “no”, waving a finger in his face, or flicking his beak. All of these would very likely damage my efforts to build a successful relationship with the parrot.
At a recent conference I overheard a conversation in which it was whispered “I bet she never gets bit.” In truth I can’t say it never happens, but it is extremely rare. It is certainly not from a lack of interacting with parrots. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to meet 100’s of new animals each year. However with each animal I am careful to read body language and to do my best to build a relationship based on trust. I take advantage of any positive reinforcers the animal likes and use these to help increase my worth to my training subject. I am happy to report it is not magic, nor does it take any super powers, or “whispering” techniques. Anyone can have a successful bite free relationship with a parrot when they give their parrot the same respect they would give a lion.
Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc. First appeared in Good Bird Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
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