Thursday, April 24, 2008

Get Your Parrot to Play with Toys

I have been inspired by a question posted to my yahoo group. The question was asked how do you get a parrot used to a new toy? I think that is a marvelous question. All too often we assume because it is a toy, our parrots should automatically be eagerly interacting with it. In general parrots tend to show hesitancy around new items or situations. As positive reinforcement enthusiasts, most of us know that we can train our birds to be calm and confident with change. But it does take some investment on our part. Not a financial investment, but a commitment to teaching your bird via positive reinforcement training strategies. But if in this moment your bird has clearly demonstrated new toys create a fear response, what can you do?

I usually start with systematic desensitization. This means I place the toy a distance away from the parrot. I also make sure the bird is presenting calm relaxed body language. I then leave the toy there for a period of time, maybe even days. Over time I gradually place the toy closer and closer to the cage. Again making sure the parrot is relaxed and comfortable. Eventually I may hang the toy on the outside of the cage, but near the bottom of the cage. I can gradually move it higher. When the parrot is ready, I can try moving the toy to inside the cage. I usually put it away from food and water bowls and preferred perches. This is because if the bird has any concerns with the toy that I failed to notice, it will not be a hindrance to his physical needs and comfort.

Once the parrot is comfortable with the toy in his cage, now I can consider some of my other positive reinforcement tools of the trade. I can use a target to help encourage the parrot to move closer to the toy. I could pair positive reinforcers with the toy, by placing them near or on the toy. I could also “free shape” the behavior.

To free shape, rather than use a target or a food prompt, I would just wait until the bird presents an approximation I can reinforce. For example if the bird looks at the toy I can reinforce that. After several repetitions the bird may move in the direction he has been looking. I can reinforce that. Eventually the parrot may move closer, and over time try to touch the toy. This is all shaped by looking for the slightest approximation towards the desired goal behavior of interacting with the toy.

I recently used this strategy to help my puppy get past a fear response he had with a new vacuum cleaner. First I reinforced him for looking at the vacuum from far away and then reinforced him for approximations he took moving closer to the thing. He then sniffed it and eventually touched it with his nose and paws, and even moved it. The entire process took about twenty minutes. I have promised my yahoo group I would get the video clip on my You Tube site. I will notify everyone once it is up!

Hope this gives readers some ideas for ways to get your parrots playing!

Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Parrot Training Marketing Secrets Revealed

Today I must admit, I find myself very saddened by some of the things I am seeing on the internet. My colleague Sid Price expressed the same concerns in his recent blog. There is a current trend in email marketing that while apparently not illegal sure seems to border on the unethical side.

I found a site that featured a super cool you tube video clip on a web page of a talking parrot. Under the video the people who own the site listed all the things the bird could do, which are really very, very impressive. However below that were instructions for the reader to buy their training product if you want your bird to learn to do the things showed in the video. Well, I am cool with people selling their product. There are plenty of us with something to offer.

But one thing was a little difficult for me to overlook. The video clip is one of a colleague of mine who works at a zoo. The bird she was training belongs to the zoo. So I asked my colleague…..did you know you and the zoo’s bird were being used to sell this person’s product? I wasn’t surprised to hear she had no idea. Like me it sure rubbed her the wrong way….. and the news was sent to the zoo director. Here is a fabulous very experienced trainer and a bird that has been doing shows for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years or more for a very prominent zoo being used without their consent to sell someone else’s product. Bummer. And in this trainer’s opinion…unethical.

I admit I too share videos of other trainers, but as someone who wants my copyrights respected, I am painstakingly careful to make sure those who have generously shared video with me are credited each and every time I present their videos. Those of you who have been to my parrot behavior and training workshops can attest to that.

Of course more emails featuring zoo professionals unwittingly being used to sell someone else’s product followed.

All this makes me wonder …if this training system is so wonderful, why doesn’t it feature birds trained by the seller or clients of the seller? Are these self proclaimed experts not really what they claim to be? If the product is so wonderful I would think providing plenty of examples of the real results of people using the product would be the ideal way to sell the item.

To add insult to injury, on the very same day I read a very old article from Winged Wisdom’s online magazine on reading bird body language. Shortly after that I received a marketing email sharing the “secrets of bird training” that also featured the subject of body language. “I’m game, I’ll read that one.” I thought. Yowza. The email was almost word for word the 10 year old article by the author I had just read. Of course that person could have given permission for the use of her article, but sadly it was presented as new, original teachings of the person selling again secrets to bird training. Again in my opinion very misleading to the public. If someone is professing to be an expert, but in fact is using other’s people writings (with permission or not) and putting them as his or her own ideas it is misrepresentation. It leads me to ask just what are the seller’s credentials if any? I am guessing they are lacking, if they indeed are resorting to using and/or buying other people’s material. Unfortunately how can the general public know the difference?

This misrepresentation of one’s knowledge and experience is easily sucked up by those naïve to the bird training world. And no doubt has been successful for those sellers who use those methods, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. A behavior that is repeated has been reinforced. So indeed money talks in this case.

So what to do, what to do? And is there anything to do? In my opinion there is. My hope is that there are enough of us out there willing to take a bit of stand against these practices. For one if something appears to be lifted, contact the person whose rights were possibly violated. They have the right to know and decide what they would like to do. Secondly I would suggest steering prospective learners in the direction of teachers you trust. It certainly does not need to be me, although I do appreciate the support. But there are a number of really, good, honest, ethical experienced, professional trainers out there and I promote them in Good Bird Magazine and on my website. Use them. Support them. Refer people to them. Buy their products.

And if asked for your opinion of these marketing practices, I hope you will share this story as well as your own experience. I personally don’t feel comfortable standing by and watching good people and colleagues misrepresented in this manner. I hope you feel the same.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Sun Conure Training Success Story

Usually readers of my publication, Good Bird Magazine, are the ones to submit success stories to me. For a change I thought I would share a success story about a parrot named Chile. Chile is a sun conure.

Chile was a bird that had been used in Education Programs for some time. However his reputation was not so great. He was known to make a piercing scream when he desired attention. He bit so hard and so often his handlers had resorted to wearing a leather glove to pick him up. He also was showing an inclination to only interact with one person. And he was doing a kamikaze launch onto the backs of passers by he seemed to dislike. In his case the target was often men. Needless to say the mere mention of his name often caused people to sigh and roll their eyes in exasperation.

But all that has changed. Now staff members talk about Chile with affection. I even heard the words "Chile" and "Superstar" used in the same sentence!

What is responsible for this change? Positive reinforcement training. The first step was to throw away the leather glove. Which in a way is symbolic of throwing away those old training strategies that rely upon coercion and aversives. Our goal was to create a situation that was so fun for Chile there would be no reason for him to bite!

We started with target training. We used a closed fist as a target. Once he mastered targeting, we worked on training him to turn in a circle on cue. This is an easy hands off behavior that helped Chile "learn how to learn."

The next step was a tough one. We really wanted Chile to learn to step up onto a bare hand. It took a bit more time to train. We used tiny approximations of using the target to encourage Chile to move towards the hand and a quick time out when the slightest aggressive behavior was presented. (You can see this exact method in my first DVD. The clip of just the portion on training step up is also available on my website. )

What a day it was though when he finally did it! Next thing you know he was stepping up onto new people, transporting easily in a carrier, and performing his circling behavior for school groups. He later also learned how to do a retrieve.
Now staff members are looking forward to training new behaviors with Chile. His screaming for attention has decreased dramatically. And he has even learned to like a few men.
For me, I am happy to know that Chile's life has changed for the better. Even more rewarding for me is to hear the staff members who work with Chile sharing what they have learned with others. I must admit I beam a bit like a proud mom when one of my "students" becomes the teacher. Congratulations to Chile and his trainers!

Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc

You Tube Parrot Training Video Clips

This is just a small little blog to let people now I have a You Tube Channel. If you are interested in viewing clips of parrots trained to do behaviors, parrots in the process of learning behaviors, parrots just being cute and also other species of animals, check it out. Here is the link

You will see Toby the Meyer's parrot who used to bite his caregiver. With positive reinforcement training he has become a completely different a good way : ) There are some clips on training parrots for medical behaviors, for training parrots for trick behaviors, and more. There is also a news piece on a zoo animal training seminar and also some clips from a Parrot Behavior and Training workshop presented in Sweden last year.

Enjoy! More to come.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Parrots and Punishment

The last blog generated an email response, if I read it correctly, in regard to being careful about teaching the application of punishment with parrots. Let me see if I can elaborate on my previous post a bit.

Some may be familiar with the hierarchy of behavioral procedures. This is essentially the order in which we apply the principles of behavioral analysis to address a behavior....typically this list is quite helpful when trying to change a parrot's problem behavior.

1.Make sure Medical, Nutritional, Physical are met.

2.Antecedents Arrangement - Can you change the situation or environment to increase success?

3.Train what you want with Positive Reinforcement.

4.Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior - reinforce a different behavior that is acceptable.

5.Negative Punishment - there it is....the time out from positive reinforcement.

6.Negative Reinforcement - another method to increase behavior, but usually involves an aversive.

7.Extinction - this is discontinuing to reinforce a behavior that was previously reinforced. This can be quite frustrating for an animal when used by itself.

8.Positive Punishment- waaaay at the bottom of the list. The addition of an aversive experience to decrease behavior.

For me, as this list recommends, positive punishment is a last resort. There is a lot of fallout from using positive punishment that can be very damaging to the relationship between the parrot and caregiver. Susan Friedman's article "The Facts about Punishment" go into this well, as does the book "Coercion and its Fallout" by Murray Sidman.

I think it is good for parrot owners to know what positive punishment is though. And here is why. Too often it is the first place people go to when they are faced with a problem behavior they want to stop. When the list shows us we have 7 other steps to consider before positive punishment. And I can say from experience the process works.

Going back to my Pooping on Cue example. If the problem behavior is "my bird poops on me when on my shoulder" I can change that by going through the steps.

Step 1. Make sure the bird is healthy and not pooping inappropriately due to a medical condition.

Step 2. One way to avoid having the bird poop on me, is to not place him on my shoulder. (antecedent change)

Step 3 I could train the bird to poop on cue for positive reinforcement prior to getting on my shoulder.

Step 4 I could also train him to leave my shoulder to go poop in acceptable areas when he needs to go. This is a different but acceptable behavior I could reinforce.

Step 5. I could immediately remove him from my shoulder when he does poop on me. If he enjoys my companionship this would act a negative punisher (AKA time out from positive reinforcement.)

And in reality I don't need to go to the other steps. By this point I have solved the problem in a whole myriad of ways. I did use punishment, but it was negative punishment. Here is where sometimes feathers get ruffled. I believe we are sensitive to the word "punishment." Keep in mind it is just a principle that means to decrease behavior. What we need to watch for is if the methods suggested involve negative punishment or positive punishment. Therefore I do teach application of negative punishment. However I also teach parrot owners to use steps 1-4 first. I also teach that the time out from positive reinforcement is most effective when paired with reinforcing the desired behavior. And that the time out really need be only a few seconds. This way a parrot learns what works and what doesn't.

Some examples: A parrot screams for attention- the care giver walks away (negative punishment). The exact moment the bird offers something else that is acceptable, the care giver walks to the bird to shower him with attention (positive reinforcement for that behavior.)

A parrot who usually steps to the hand, lunges at it. The hand is withdrawn as is some preferred treats (negative punishment). Seconds later the hand is offered again and the bird steps up. Treats are delivered immediately (positive reinforcement) To me this is much kinder than forcing ones hand on a bird and allow it to bite until it gives in and steps up onto the hand. There is a video clip on my website (from DVD 1 clip #4 on training step up) that shows the application of a time out and pairing it with positive reinforcement to get a lunging parrot to look forward to stepping up. It can be found at this link It is one of my favorites because you can watch the macaw's body language go from lunging so hard he almost knocks the perch over, to pulling my hand in closer so he can hop onto it. It only took two twenty minutes training sessions. And, no, I did not get bit. This was because the bird learned his slightest indication of aggressive behavior resulted in a short time out.

Hope that helps to clarify some questions!


Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Parrot Training and Terminology

Well, it sure has taken me awhile to get on here. And I do apologize. I see there were even a few lovely posts wondering when the heck this thing might start up. Thanks for letting me know that there is some interest.

I could certainly ramble on about various things, but my guess is most people are stopping by to hear about parrot training and behavior! So lets get to it.

I know many who visit are already well versed in the science behind the practical application of animal training. But when I cruise around the internet it is pretty obvious there are many who have yet to discover how helpful it is to wrap ones brain around the terminology. While it is true you can train without knowing the science. I do think it makes a big difference in your overall success and is very important in helping people use the kindest, gentlest methods possible.

I read on another site today that "parrots dont understand punishment" Hmmmmm. Not true : ) Just like any learning creature they sure do understand it.

The site also went on to mention that negative punishment wouldn't work with a parrot it. Again negative punishment works quite well. I think the author made a simple mistake that can be attributed to not knowing what "negative punishment" actually is. In this case I think the author really meant punishment that involved the application of an aversive. (Which by definition is actually positive punishment) But even works too.

It is easy to get the "negative and positive" thing a bit jumbled up as we tend to think of those terms meaning "good" and "bad." It helps to remember they mean to "add" or "subtract" in the science.

To sum up both negative punishment (the removal of something) and positive punishment (the addition of something -usually an aversive) both work to decrease behavior.....yes, even in parrots.

However most good trainers do their very best to avoid using positive punishment. Negative punishment is something that can be used that is effective and also in the realm of kind and gentle. Some of you may know it by its other name "time out from positive reinforcement"

In the Spring 2008 of Good Bird Magazine I wrote an article about Training your Parrot to Poop on Cue. In this article I explain how I used a time out to train my parrot to not poop on me and wait until he returned to his cage. It should be out soon. Once it is ready it will also be available on the website Just go to the digital media page to download.

Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc