Monday, August 18, 2014

3 Common Training Mistakes People Make that Cause Behavior Problems

Many people have learned a lot about training. However sometimes it can be hard to apply the information in real life. In this article I will share three common mistakes people make when trying to teach their parrot or other pet to be well behaved.

Mistake #1: Forgetting to reinforce good behavior

It is very easy to fall into the habit of forgetting to tell your parrot, other pet, even your friends and family when they have done something right, especially after they have learned the desired behavior. We usually just expect good behavior to happen and stay that way forever. But the truth is we have to reinforce that good behavior if we want it to keep happening. So when you parrot steps up onto your hand, goes back in his cage, steps off your shoulder and so on, you should always offer him something he likes for being such a good parrot and cooperating.  Many people think saying “good boy” is enough. But for some animals the words aren’t really that meaningful to them. You want to make sure whatever you use to reward your pet is something you know he really loves. This will help guarantee your animal will continue to do things when you ask.

Mistake #2: Repeating the cue over and over
I always cringe a little when I hear someone repeating a cue over and over to an animal. The next thing that happens is the cue gets louder! Repeating the cue is a big red flag that the training process needs some attention. That is why my gut reaction is so strong. There is a big problem going on, but fortunately it is easily fixed. When the cue is presented over and over the animal can learn to respond whenever he feels like it. He can also learn the cue is actually “step up, step up, step up” or “sit, sit, sit, sit” instead of just “step up” or “sit.” The key to fixing this is to go back in your training process a little bit. For example if I am training a parrot to fly to me, I may keep the distance short instead of asking for a big flight. I then wait for the bird to look like he is 99.9% ready to fly to me.  Then I offer my cue. By doing this I will get a quick response to my cue that I will present one time. When the parrot responds, I will offer lots of goodies. Overtime I will gradually add more distance and difficulty. But my first goal is to teach the animal to respond right away to the cue presented one time.  If you ever find yourself repeating the cue a lot, stop and do a little retraining to get things back on track.

Mistake #3: Accidentally reinforcing bad behavior
The most common example of this with parrots is screaming for attention. Most people don’t like it when a parrot vocalizes for our attention. We usually respond with “Be quiet!” or running into the room to shut the door or cover the cage. We think these actions will cause the parrot to see that we are upset and stop the screaming. But instead the parrot learns screaming gets us to call back or come running into the room. In other words screaming results in exactly what the parrot wants. Therefore he will use screaming more often to get attention. Another example is when a dog jumps up on people. Usually people try to push the dog down, or give in and pet the dog while he is jumping up. Both of these actions teach the dog jumping up on people results in desired attention. In both examples it is better to teach the parrot and the dog that a different acceptable behavior will work to get attention. For the parrot it could be talking or singing. For the dog, it could be four paws on the floor or sitting. Once your pet starts getting reinforced for the correct behavior and no longer is rewarded for the bad behavior, you will go back to having a well behaved pet.

Now it is your turn. Try to get in the habit of reinforcing your pet for good behaviors, avoiding reinforcing behaviors you don’t want, and paying attention to how many times you cue for a behavior. Your good training will result in good behavior from your parrot and other pets.

Copyright 2014 Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides pet training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in eighteen countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos.


The Reluctant Adventurer said...

Thank you as always for your excellent advice. I particularly liked #2 about presenting a cue more than once. I do this, probably mostly out of my own impatience. I will stop it :) BTW, I have learned so much from all your info, DVDs, workshops, book, articles. It has made a very big difference in my relationship with my birds. I have had tiny birds in the past and sadly felt I could push them around a little bit especially when putting them in their cage when in a hurry. I studied up just before I got my caiques (I have 6 of them). They all go back to their cages willingly for a treat and do many other behaviors, targeting, coming when called (sometimes), turn around, wave, hop... I really feel the only reason they don't do more is lack of time on my part. It has been super fun so far and I look forward to many more years with them and their babies (one day). Because they are flighted and mostly come when called or bribed I have gotten away without having a reliable step-up but I think I would like to work on that and also I plan to teach them to "move". I would like to place my palm up next to their body and slowly move it toward them and have them take a step away. I think this would be helpful when one or two happens to land on my shoulder and I need to separate them from one another or my face (they are scary when they get carried away). Kind of like targeting but I can have my hand between them instead of away from them. I'll let you know how it

Unknown said...

Love it! This is like a mini how to avoid behavior problems guide. Like Dr. Friedman taught me "Set them up for success!"

Caitlin Bird