Monday, August 3, 2015

Overcoming Fear Responses. Two Tools Every Animal Trainer Needs

When it comes to animal training you often hear people sing the praises of positive reinforcement. Me too! I love it. But there are two other tools that I can’t live without, systematic desensitization and classical conditioning. Try saying those three times fast! They sound like a mouthful, but they really are very important tools, especially when it comes to introducing your pet to new things or new situations.

Systematic desensitization is exposing your animal to something in a gradual way without evoking a fear response. For example if I want my parrot to get used to a syringe that I would like to use to deliver oral medications, instead of just presenting it in front of his beak, I will have it far enough away that he can see it but shows very little response to it. What I would like to see is mild curiosity or indifference. What I definitely don’t want to see is any body language that indicates a fear response. If I see fear responses, that means I failed at my use of systematic desensitization.  If I use this approach correctly, over time I will be able to gradually bring the syringe closer to my bird and no fear response will be presented.

This same strategy can be used to introduce many different types of objects including stethoscopes, new toys, travel crates, even people. In some of my parrot training workshops I have had participants successfully wrap a towel around a parrot using this technique. It requires very slow movements and excellent observation of parrot body language.

Systematic desensitization becomes an even more powerful tool when paired with classical conditioning. This means at the same time I am gradually getting closer with this new object or experience, I am pairing it with something I know the animal likes, usually preferred food items. In other words new things are introduced at a pace the animal can handle and good things happen at the same time. This is a powerful way to help an animal accept new things. And it can happen quite fast. Using this approach I can usually get a syringe, stethoscope or towel very close to a parrot in just a few minutes. This allows me to then transition to using positive reinforcement training strategies in which the animal makes choices to engage with the object to earn desired goodies.

These two tools are great for training behaviors that facilitate medical care and they can also be used to help get your parrot engaged with new toys, new people or just about any new object or circumstance you think might be uncomfortable for your parrot.  Next time you see your parrot or any other pet in your household hesitate around a new object or circumstance, think about pulling these two important but often overlooked tools out of the tool box.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides 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 works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.