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.

No comments: