Sunday, November 23, 2014

Lessons Learned from the Loss of a Trained Companion Animal

Are you one of those people deeply affected by another's suffering, especially if it is an animal?  Now imagine it is your companion animal. Add on to that, an animal that you have spent hours and hours building trust and training with positive reinforcement.  An animal with whom you have made such a deep connection and bond you feel there is a special understanding and communication between the two of you. Imagine if you couldn’t relieve that animal’s suffering? How deep is that pain?

This is the beauty and the tragedy of force free animal training.  On the one hand you create such a deep bond of trust, even friendship, that your emotional connection is almost indescribable. On the other hand when that animal is suffering or breathes his or her last breath the pain is that much deeper.

Not too long ago I lost one of my trained guinea pigs, Caledonia, to a tumor behind her heart. When I mentioned to someone that I cried for two days, it was clear they thought it was astonishing that anyone would feel such emotion for a rodent.

Caledonia (and Lucille) were only supposed to be temporary visitors at my house. I was going to film their training process and they were then supposed to become a part of an education program.  But after a few months of training them to do a number of behaviors, I found myself dreading the day I would have to give them up. Fortunately the new “owners to be” were understanding and accepted my offer to train two other girls for them. I promised not to get so attached. 

My two girls went on to learn a number of fun behaviors that I shared on YouTube. Their big hit was the clip of them playing basketball. I was quite proud when they were mentioned in Dr Marc Bekoff’s blog on the PsychologyToday website.  But mostly I hoped showing how intelligent these creatures are would inspire people to take a second look at their guinea pigs. Maybe they would be more inclined to provide enrichment and activities to keep them stimulated, maybe they would be a little more apt to invest in a nice habitat, and maybe they would even get their feet wet with some training.

When Cale didn’t run out for breakfast one morning I knew something was wrong. Based on her symptoms the vet thought the best course of action was to treat for a respitory infection. (We didn;t find out about the tumor until after she passed) This meant giving her oral medication with a syringe. This part was fairly easy. The hard part was that she wasn’t eating and had no appetite. This meant trying to get nourishment into her in the form of thick liquidy concoction designed for sick guinea pigs. This is what hurt the most for me. Several times a day I had to try to get her to eat the goo from a syringe. She wasn’t feeling well, and she didn’t want it.

I found a way to make handling low stress. I placed a soft fleece in front of her and covered it with a hiding place. She voluntarily moved to the fleece. (A sick guinea pig knows it is important to stay hidden.) I lifted the hiding place and replaced it with the flaps of the fleece. Tucked in cozy, it was easy to gently pick her up.

Offering the food proved to be harder. This is the part that broke my heart. While she needed the food to survive, delivering it was not pleasant to her. This meant my last interactions with her were the opposite of what she had known from me all her life. I always meant good things were about to happen. And now I was being associated with something she found unpleasant. I felt as if I betrayed her and her trust. And sadly she didn’t recover. I didn’t get the chance to make up for those last few days. Although my vet assured me it would have also lead to death had she not had the feedings, the experience still stings.

Like many of us who care deeply for animals, I am trying to mostly recall all the wonderful interactions I had with Caledonia. But this experience once again reminded how very important it is for us to train our companion animals to be comfortable with some very basic medical care. Fortunately Cale was a champ at getting on a scale, loading into a crate, being wrapped in a soft towel, and taking oral meds. Taking the food supplement was something we had never practiced, and maybe something to add to my list of behaviors to train. To make the vet visit less stressful, I brought familiar items from home, like the yoga mat upon which the girls practiced their trained behaviors. This was a familiar scent, texture and always had been associated with favorite foods and activities.  I also brought Cale’s guinea pig companion Lucille. Thankfully these things seemed to keep her relatively relaxed while at the veterinary hospital, despite not feeling well.

There is a new movement to help make vet exams fear free. I am proud to be a part of a group of professionals asked to facilitate this initiative.  Losing a companion animal is painful, knowing you could have done more to reduce stress to care for them when they were sick, can be even more heartbreaking.  I hope Caledonia’s story will inspire you to work on training behaviors that will make veterinary care for your animals stress free.  There is an animal you love that will one day appreciate it.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2014

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Is What You Heard True?

It was recently brought to my attention, that a few people had some misconceptions about my work and my objectives in the animal world.  I realized that those who made the statements are likely not very familiar with what I do or teach.  I thought I would take this opportunity to help clarify my position for those people, and any others on the items that were mentioned, as I am happy to address such concerns.

Misconception #1: What Barbara Teaches Doesn’t Work in “Real Life”

This statement caused me to think that perhaps I should explain how I came to work with the companion parrot community. I learned about force free training techniques doing free flight bird shows in zoological parks over 24 years ago now. I also have lived with large and small parrots for almost 30 years now. My inspiration to work with companion parrots came from seeing how what I learned in zoos helped teach any bird I was working with to be well behaved, compliant and a joy to be around, including my own pets. People would chat with me after shows and share the problems they were having with their parrots. I realized the information we were using in zoos was not out there for pet owners. I wrote my first book solely as a way to give people a comprehensive resource to help them with their parrot behavior problems. I had no intentions of turning it into a business. I had a job as a zoo animal trainer already and considered myself primarily a zoo professional.

But things snowballed. People kept asking for more and more help and more resources. I started teaching workshops and making DVDs so that I could help as many people and parrots as I could. I practiced force free training with parrots at rescues, sanctuaries, zoos, veterinary teaching hospitals, etc. Almost every parrot that came to a workshop had behavior problems. And I would demonstrate how to use force free training to address those problems in front of the audience. (I can’t even count the number of birds that feared hands or showed aggressive behavior towards hands that learned to eagerly step up during workshops!) I have now personally worked hands-on with 1000’s of parrots using force free training technology to solve behavior problems and gain compliance. Not only do I have my own experiences that show the information works, but I get countless emails from parrot owners thanking me for providing resources that helped them finally connect with their parrot. (I actually have several of those emails in my inbox now.) Real life successes have been a strong part of my motivation to keep sharing. Knowing birds are being helped by the information has been a very strong reinforcer for me. There is no point to this work for me if it isn’t helping animals. Thankfully the evidence shows that it does.

Misconception #2: Barbara Won’t Help Me!
I certainly understand and appreciate that sometimes applying the information may require more guidance. Getting direct feedback on application can make a big difference in a person’s success with a bird. This is exactly the kind of work I do in my zoo consultations. However at the moment I don’t offer private consultations to the companion parrot community. Let me explain why. As one can imagine I do get thousands of emails asking for advice. They often start with “I have a quick question…” but the answer is not a quick answer if real help is going to be provided. It is a tall order to meet those demands. Many don’t know this, but my company is just me. I am the only employee. So I don’t have staff to answer all those emails.  Most of the time, I am on the road teaching workshops or working with zoos. When on the road, time for emails is very limited due to my obligations to those who have hired me to be there, but I do want those who email to get the help they need.

To address this conundrum, several years ago I prepared a page of frequently asked questions about parrot behavior problems.  Each question has a brief answer but also a reference to a more comprehensive resource. This may be a free video or article but yes it may also be a product I have created specifically to help with that issue. I dedicated a lot of time, thought, and money to create comprehensive resources to help people. I am proud of these tools and by all means know they have the power to help people.  It makes sense that I would want to refer people to them. They are the tool they need! I also know these resources are backed by my many years of experience and study. I really have dedicated my life to this…..just ask my friends back home who would like to see me once in a while or talk about something other than animal training.

Some have expressed concern over the fact that not all of my services, information or products are provided for free, but I believe it is appropriate to expect professionals to earn a living by sharing their expertise. Whether one is a plumber, tax consultant, teacher, lawyer, musician, artist or doctor; we expect to pay for their services/products/skills. And I think people in animal related professions also deserve the same respect for their professional contribution. So while I do offer tons of free videos, free articles, an extensive free blog with lots of information, I do also believe I should be permitted to make a living from my expertise and life’s work just as any other person in this world.

The products and services I offer are limited to DVDS, live workshops, ebooks, webinars and books. As mentioned I don’t offer private consultations (email, phone or in person) to the companion parrot community at this point in time. I have made the decision that for me, spending the time to make a comprehensive resource that can help thousands is a better contribution than meeting with one person at a time. Knowing this, I have provided a list of consultants whose work I know very well on my FAQ page. I always include this in the response people get when they ask for behavior problem help.  So when asking for help people get a combo of free resources, references to comprehensive products that address their questions, and recommended behavioral consultants. They are not left without help, but they are not given a free private email consultation either, as that is not a service I offer.

Misconception #3: Barbara Says you Need to Starve Birds!
This was quite interesting to hear as in the professional community I am currently regarded as one of the biggest advocates for moving away from practices that cause animals to be overly concerned about food and have taken quite a bit of flak from some other professionals for taking that position. The ethics of creating motivation for getting behavior is of special interest to me and one that I have researched greatly. I am actually co-hosting a symposium in Sweden to help people understand how to create motivation in a responsible, welfare conscientious way for many species of animals. It is a very deep, complex topic and there is much to discuss. I realize the companion parrot community may not have knowledge of this personal mission of mine as it has been targeted to professional trainers. But even so, my materials I have put out on parrot training certainly reflect this position. In a nutshell what I teach for the parrot community is primarily to save treats for training and leave the less interesting parts of the diet in the bowl. I am also a big advocate of using many types of nonfood reinforcers and have an entire section of my workshop devoted to this. Compromising a bird to get a response to food is definitely not something I teach. And my DVDs and written materials do reflect this.  Here are a few of my free resources that have been on the internet for years that explain a bit more.
The Parrot Training Diet?
Tips to Motivate Your Parrot
Expanding Your List of Reinforcers
Training Your Parrot with Toys

Misconception #4: Barbara Thinks “Her” Way is the Only Way
The information I teach is based in the science of behavior analysis. A science with a lot of excellent data that demonstrates force free approaches are the way to go.  So while some people refer to “Barbara’s techniques” you will find that I actually tend to refer to the science. I see this information as something that is available to everyone, not “my” special method. What I do well is act as a good facilitator for helping people understand how to use that science to influence animal behavior focusing on the principles that are kind, gentle and have been proven to be successful, while maintaining a great relationship with the animal. When people refer to “other methods” it puzzles me, as there is no method that falls outside of the science of behavior analysis. The science helps us identify what principles are being used to influence behavior in whatever “technique” someone is using. Some principles have been shown by research to have detrimental effects on animals, and others produce cooperative animals that enjoy our company and participating.  When I do speak out about a technique it is usually because it falls into the detrimental category. This is because I believe my role is to help animals by sharing my knowledge about the drawbacks of these methods and help people learn they have kinder alternatives. I also openly support other professionals with whom I have had first-hand experience and who demonstrate integrity, are ethical in their business practices and teach a force free approach based in the science of behavior analysis. There is a growing community of force free trainers and I am proud to be one of many out there using science based training technology to do good things for animals.

I hope this answers a few questions that were brought to my attention. I understand that in this age of social media communication it is easy for misunderstandings to occur. Have you heard something that needs clarification? Don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks in advance for your critical thinking, open and honest communication, and inquisitive mind.

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.