Monday, December 31, 2012

My Top Three Animal Training Moments 2012

Animal training is always a thrill. There is a special moment that happens when an animal understands what you are trying to communicate. I swear there is an adrenaline rush associated with it for the trainer. And I often wonder if it's the same for the animal? A part of me thinks it is because you often see a little change in the reaction from the animal. It's like they realize they have solved the puzzle! As you can imagine it can be quite difficult to pick out just three special training moments in a year full of animal training. But here goes! Here are my top three…… and a runner-up.

1.    Sirocco the Kakapo: It would be hard for any animal training I've done to compete with the experience of working was Sirocco the kakapo. There are many factors that contribute to this. First the training addressed a very serious behavior problem. One that had in fact put Sirocco in danger. There is a great satisfaction knowing the training has helped ensure his well-being. Also rewarding was seeing how the rangers were successfully applying positive reinforcement training with Sirocco while he was on display. One ranger described it as “being introduced to Sirocco's brain.” I liked that. They definitely have a greater understanding of how to work with this very special parrot. And of course playing a small role in the conservation of these amazing parrots was the icing on the cake for me.

2.    Elephant Training at The Santa Barbara Zoo: One of my regular gigs is consulting with the Santa Barbara zoo on animal training. We do often work with the elephants, but during my last visit we encountered a very difficult training challenge. Susie an Asian elephant had already been trained to wave a eucalyptus leaf with her trunk. The problem was whenever the trainers tried to switch the leaf for a different object Susie would eat the new object! We tried a few good different strategies, all of which failed. We really had to put on our thinking caps to solve this problem. We decided to start with reinforcing for giving up the eucalyptus leaf when cued. We did fast repetitions of this. Next we paired the leaf with another similar object, such as a piece of bark or twig. And repeated the process. After more fast repetitions we slipped the leaf out of the equation. Success! Susie gave up the bark instead of eating it. We repeated the pairing of the leaf with several different objects and practiced phasing out the leaf. We then just started offering her novel objects, and as we had hoped she did the behavior instead of eating the new objects. Although the behavior doesn't seem very difficult, it really was for this particular elephant. It was a huge accomplishment and a big thrill for all the trainers involved when Susie chose to give up an object rather than eat it. I was even jumping up and down I was so excited over our success! Those are moments when trainers get that rush I described!

3.    Training my Macaw to Paint: My macaw Blu Lu certainly isn't the first animal to paint. But she may be the first parrot to paint pictures of other parrots. And she is the first parrot I've trained to paint. This was another behavior that was not as easy to train as one might think. Getting a parrot to pick up a brush is no problem. Training the bird to strategically place that brush on a piece of canvas is a lot more difficult. Once again I had to think strategically to determine the approximations I was going to use. I don't want to give away too much because detailed instructions will be in the next issue of Good Bird Magazine, but in a nutshell I used a variation of a retrieve to get this behavior. The best part is that all of Blu Lu’s paintings were raffled off to raise money to save parrots in the wild. When all was said and done about $4000 was raised and donated to blue-throated macaw conservation project the Bird Endowment.

Runner Up: Training Veterinarians to Train Rabbits: I teach parrot training workshops all the time. I usually know what to expect when we bring a group of 20 parrots into the room and have people try to train them. Some will work, some will be too nervous, some won't be motivated to eat until later in the day, and some will be simply fantastic.  Each parrot offers us a learning opportunity and in most cases we get some behavior out of just about everyone.  This year I repeated the process with 20 rabbits. Just like the parrots, the rabbits came from a rescue. These rabbits had never participated in a rabbit training workshop before, so there was no way to predict how they would react to a new environment, new people and the training. We were all pleasantly surprised when almost every single rabbit eagerly participated. Not only did they participate, they all learned several behaviors throughout the day. Best of all the veterinarians got to practice using positive reinforcement to teach rabbits to cooperate in their own medical care. I am thrilled that so many veterinarians are on board with incorporating training into their day-to-day practice. It is the wave of the future!

Here are my top 3 non animal training related moments of 2012:

1. Meeting Bruce Springsteen……. He really is nice!
2. Singing “Ramble On” with Robert Plant and 200 other lucky fans at my favorite music venue.
3. Spending an evening of laughter with the wonderful John Ellis before he unexpectedly left this world too soon.

A new year starts in just a few hours. I hope you will add some animal training experiences to your year in 2013. Teaching your parrot to target, turnaround or maybe even step up can really bring joy into your life and your parrot’s life when you train with positive reinforcement. Indeed it will be a very Happy New Year!

Barbara Heidenreich

Friday, December 7, 2012

Respecting the Bite

I am a wuss. I admit it. Oddly enough I think it has worked in my favor when it comes to working with animals. I don’t “take the bite” whether it is from a mosquito, a parrot or a lion. In fact I do everything in power to avoid a situation in which I might get bit. With mosquitoes sadly it usually means very little camping for me and when outdoors I am bathed in massive doses of repellent. With zoo animals such as lions, it usually means training through barriers and offering reinforcers via utensils, and avoiding creating aggressive behavior. With parrots……believe it or not I actually take an approach similar to what I do with lions! Not because I think parrots pose a particular lethal threat to my person, but because I respect a parrot as much as I respect a lion. Let me repeat that “I respect a parrot as much as I respect a lion.”

To understand this better perhaps I should elaborate on what I mean by “respect”. I interpret this as showing consideration for what an animal is telling me with its body language. For example if my close proximity to an animal is creating the slightest fear response or hint of aggressive behavior I recognize it and acknowledge it. I then do whatever I can, which may include backing away, to put that animal at ease.

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.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2008 Good Bird Inc. First appeared in Good Bird Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

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