Friday, December 25, 2015

Memorable Moments with and for Animals 2015

As the year comes to a close, a glance to the calendar is a lovely reminder of the many wonderful  animal encounters, endeavors and experiences in 2015. It was difficult to zone in on the things that were most significant to me this year. These are my stand outs for various reasons. 

1. Working with Harry the Gorilla at the Dublin Zoo: I was thrilled to begin consulting work with the incredible team of keepers at the Dublin Zoo. A favorite amongst the staff is Harry, a gentle giant with an unfortunate past prior to his arrival at Dublin Zoo. Thankfully now he lives in a luxurious habitat and is the silverback of a beautiful troop of western lowland gorillas that are thriving. Because of their deep affection for him, staff members were very sensitive to wanting training to be something based in positive reinforcement and something all the gorillas would truly enjoy.  As we were standing there discussing techniques Harry offered a behavior we liked. He opened his mouth. One of the keepers said “good” and offered a piece of fruit. Harry did it again. This repeated for quite some time. Within about 15 minutes Harry was presenting a beautiful open mouth behavior on cue! While capturing a behavior is not necessarily a big deal, it was for Harry and it was for this team. It was a breakthrough moment for everyone. Suddenly the door was open for so much more. In the next few weeks this team went on to train so many more behaviors. And nothing fills your heart with more joy than to get reports that say “Harry is a superstar. And he seems to really love it. And the training has improved our relationship.”  It may sound a bit trite, but I do think force free animal training is about changing lives for the better…both animal and human. Harry for me was one of the examples that will stick with me for a lifetime. Can’t wait to visit again in 2016 and see the progress this team has made with him and his troop.

2. Not Forcing the Bunny: Not too many people know this, but for several years I have been asked to bring my rabbit and guinea pigs on America’s Got Talent. Although I do post video clips of my pets online as a means to encourage people to engage in positive reinforcement training to connect with their animals, getting my animals on a talent show has not really been an objective of mine, so I have always declined. After three years of pressuring, I finally caved.  After lots of training to prepare my animals to perform under unusual conditions (new places, lights, 10,000 people, music, etc.) and driving 1800 miles to NYC in a snowstorm, the big day finally came.  The animals performed flawlessly during rehearsals even with the crowds, lights and music.  However when the cameras were rolling the bunny went on strike. Fortunately she was uber relaxed and even laid down on the table for a little siesta.  I set up my segment explaining I was a force free trainer and my animals were my pets, not seasoned stage performers. They may or may not do their behaviors and to me that was just fine, I wasn’t going to force them. The funniest bit came when the rabbit didn’t want to go back in her crate to leave and I wouldn’t force her.  The judges made a few jokes, Nick Cannon came out to “help", and of course eventually my rabbit did go in the crate voluntarily and the crowd cheered! It was actually delightfully funny and Howard Stern applauded my work and said he loved what I was doing. The producers told me they loved the segment, but it never aired on TV.  Who knows? Maybe the clip will make it to the internet one day. After filming I met some friends in a nearby restaurant and was rushed by some children who were at the taping. They had seen the rehearsal as well as the live taping and absolutely loved the animals and the message. That alone probably made the whole trip worth it. (This is a clip of my bunny preparing her routine for AGT)

3. Jack the Cockatoo and the Fear Free™ Movement: In the zoo community we often train animals to cooperate in medical care. One of my favorites is a cockatoo named Jack at one of the zoos at which I consult. He has been trained to accept oral medications without restraint, intramuscular injections without restraint, tactile, wing manipulation, get on a scale, etc. He is also trained to be comfortable having a towel wrapped around him for restraint if needed and has had blood drawn relatively stress free using this approach. Recently he did become ill and all his prior training absolutely made a huge difference. I watched him accept four injections, take sub cutaneous fluids and put his head into a mask for nebulization (for 15 minutes) all without restraint in a single day. I was told since my visit he has had to undergo more treatment for his condition and continues to cooperate. What a testament to the power of force free training. Jack also was not the perfect training candidate. He was an ex pet, donated to the zoo with behavior challenges at the time. He was also over 40 years old when we began training him.  Examples like Jack further support my belief that there is much we can do to reduce or eliminate stress when it comes to veterinary care. 

I have long been lecturing on ways to train companion parrots, small mammals and zoo animals to cooperate in medical care. I was thrilled to be asked to be a part of the Fear Free™ Veterinary Advisory Group organized by Dr Marty Becker. This team is working hard to make Fear Free™ Vet Exams the norm by educating veterinary professionals about strategies such as systematic desensitization, counter conditioning, antecedent arrangement, hospital design, pheromones, pre-visit sedation and more to reduce stress for companion animal care.  To learn more visit Not only was watching Jack a memorable moment for me in 2015, but seeing Fear Free™ actually take hold and take off is a bit of a dream come true. Now instead of a few small voices talking here and there about this idea, there is a whole movement with lots of support behind it. Just think! It could one day be the norm for all pets to look forward to going to the veterinarian. (Here is a video of training a dog to accept injections without restraint from a 2015 visit with veterinary students from the University of Giessen in Germany)

4. Challenging the Industry- Continuing the Conversation on How We Create Motivation in Animal Training: This was an initiative I started in 2014 with a presentation called Weight Management in Animal Training: Pitfalls, Ethical Considerations and Alternative Options that I presented at a few conferences.  You can read the paper here or watch a video on the presentation here. Since then a lot has happened.  For one Eva Bertilsson and I co-hosted a very successful symposium in Sweden on the Ethics of Creating Motivation in Animal Training. What was clear is, this topic is hot! The Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference (ABMA) immediately followed in Denmark and motivation was mentioned many times over in presentations. I was fortunate to present on Conscientiously Creating and Evaluating Motivation which I hear will soon be available for viewing via ABMA’s Collabornation site.  Getting people talking has been step one. And in my travels as I talk with others I often learn of new examples or new scientific information that confirms it is essential we explore this topic more.  This subject ranks for me because I find myself thinking about it or talking about it almost every day. It is a very deep, convoluted topic. And aspects of it can be very damaging to animal welfare.  I very much hope to be able to provide some good resources in the near future for those who are interested.  Stay tuned! (Here is a video clip of Kipling a Southern Ground Hornbill from Avian Behavior International. He is being trained using a progressive approach that allows healthy relationships with food and challenges traditional training techniques used for creating motivation. This clip is from my visit in December of 2015)

5. Teaching Through Technology: This has definitely been the year of the webinar for me. I made 10 new webinars!  (Which was no easy feat. lol) Most were for the companion parrot community on just about every parrot behavior problem you can think of. (However I also made some for the zoo community as well.) All can be scheduled to be presented live as a virtual presentation for a bird club, your business, veterinary clinic, special event, zoo staff, rescue volunteers, etc. Or you can watch a recorded version at anytime.  I am in love with these webinars because they are my most comprehensive resource. I was able to zone in on very specific topics and dive in deep. It is almost like having a private two hour consultation with me.  They were a lot of work, and definitely count as a big chunk of my 2015. My summer was all about making and presenting webinars. However I stand by them as one of the best resources out there for expert advice on parrot behavior problems. I also made a new website for my zoo consulting clients that is packed full of information and resources.  Regular zoo clients – be sure to contact me if you need access.

Other unforgettable moments: 
There were a lot of pretty darn spectacular moments it is pretty hard to narrow things down. Some other stand outs include working with veterinarians and veterinary students at the University of Giessen on training dogs for voluntary injections and a horse for a voluntary blood draw.  I also enjoyed some great brainstorming with this team on their projects and mine.  It was a thrill to play a very small part in helping the Dublin Zoo team train their elephant calves for medical behaviors. This zoo is leading the way on progressive elephant care and management. My heart swells with pride when I look at the overall progress of the team at the Santa Barbara Zoo. I have worked with them for a number of years now and am just amazed at how much they have progressed.  I especially enjoy the work they have done with their giraffes (including the fabulous hoof curl behavior!), big cats, and domestic animals to name just a few. I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to speak at the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference. And I never tire of the many hands on parrot training opportunities, this year in places such as Mexico, Sweden, France, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Canada, Oregon, and Texas. Of course what makes all of it most memorable are the people and the animals. Hope to see you in 2016!

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015 

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Free! Training Rescued and Re-homed Parrots Webinar

I have to be honest, while my name may be somewhat known, I am like many in the animal business and make a modest living. As an animal lover I struggle with the inner battle that many share, of needing to make a living but at the same time wanting to help as many animals as possible.  I realize at this time some cannot afford to pay for the behavioral help they need for their parrots. However I believe I may have a small solution to this dilemma. As is commonly the case, as a community we are quite strong. When times are favorable we often have the ability to support our friends and colleagues. We often do this by donating what we can, when we can.

So for this reason I have decided to continue to make the webinar on Training Rescued and Re-homed Parrots available at no charge. However I ask if you watch this webinar that you consider saying “Thank You” by offering to pay what you can.  The amount is up to you! (The webinar normally sells for $19.95.) Your contribution will help make it possible for this item to continue to remain free for those who can’t afford it. If the generosity of others has helped make this a wonderful opportunity for you, you can help pay it forward by helping spread the word about this resource on social media, in chat groups, etc.

If parrot people come through with their support, maybe this can be extended to other resources. I sure hope so! It is up to you parrot community :) If you love these resources and want more, let it be known through your contribution and/or word of mouth support. What you do and say matters!

Webinar Description:
Whether you work in a rescue or sanctuary, foster parrots or have adopted a parrot into your home it is sometimes difficult to break through or overcome behavior problems with a parrot with an unfortunate or unknown history. This webinar will provide guidance for those working with some of the more challenging behavioral cases in the avian community. Total run time is 1 hour and 50 minutes. You can log in and out as much as you want to watch at your convenience or repeatedly. 

How to Contribute:
Click on this link.

The donation is set at $1. If you would like to increase this amount,  change the number in the box under “Qty” then click on the  words “update quantity.”  This will allow you to increase your contribution by increments of $1. Then proceed to checkout.

Visit this link to access the webinar

If you are experiencing any problems connecting to the seminar in your usual browser, consider switching to a different browser. Just paste the link to the webinar in a different browser such as Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. Also be sure to have a current flash player on your computer such as Adobe Flash Player

For iPads use the Puffin browser or Photon both are free apps. This will allow you to view flash video files included in the presentation. You can log in and out as much as you want.  

This webinar is one of many resources you can find at I hope you will find it extremely beneficial to helping you foster a wonderful relationship based on trust with the parrots in your life.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015 

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

Monday, August 3, 2015

Overcoming Fear Responses. Two Tools Every Animal Trainer Needs

When it comes to animal training you often hear people sing the praises of positive reinforcement. Me too! I love it. But there are two other tools that I can’t live without, systematic desensitization and classical conditioning. Try saying those three times fast! They sound like a mouthful, but they really are very important tools, especially when it comes to introducing your pet to new things or new situations.

Systematic desensitization is exposing your animal to something in a gradual way without evoking a fear response. For example if I want my parrot to get used to a syringe that I would like to use to deliver oral medications, instead of just presenting it in front of his beak, I will have it far enough away that he can see it but shows very little response to it. What I would like to see is mild curiosity or indifference. What I definitely don’t want to see is any body language that indicates a fear response. If I see fear responses, that means I failed at my use of systematic desensitization.  If I use this approach correctly, over time I will be able to gradually bring the syringe closer to my bird and no fear response will be presented.

This same strategy can be used to introduce many different types of objects including stethoscopes, new toys, travel crates, even people. In some of my parrot training workshops I have had participants successfully wrap a towel around a parrot using this technique. It requires very slow movements and excellent observation of parrot body language.

Systematic desensitization becomes an even more powerful tool when paired with classical conditioning. This means at the same time I am gradually getting closer with this new object or experience, I am pairing it with something I know the animal likes, usually preferred food items. In other words new things are introduced at a pace the animal can handle and good things happen at the same time. This is a powerful way to help an animal accept new things. And it can happen quite fast. Using this approach I can usually get a syringe, stethoscope or towel very close to a parrot in just a few minutes. This allows me to then transition to using positive reinforcement training strategies in which the animal makes choices to engage with the object to earn desired goodies.

These two tools are great for training behaviors that facilitate medical care and they can also be used to help get your parrot engaged with new toys, new people or just about any new object or circumstance you think might be uncomfortable for your parrot.  Next time you see your parrot or any other pet in your household hesitate around a new object or circumstance, think about pulling these two important but often overlooked tools out of the tool box.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015

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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

5 Things You Should Know About Parrots

You may be new to sharing your life with parrots or you may be an old pro. Or perhaps you have never even considered a parrot. Either way you may be surprised to learn a few facts about parrot behavior that make them a bit different from your average companion animal. Here are a few of my favorites.

1.    Parrots prefer to have their head feathers stroked towards their beak.
While your dog, cat or rabbit may appreciate being stroked from head to tail, this is often merely tolerated or it can be sexually stimulating to companion parrots.  Look at your bird’s body language to clue you in as to whether your parrot is just taking it or can’t get enough. If your parrot is squatting, trembling or panting it is a good idea to reconsider this practice. A bird that is tolerating it isn’t really the goal either. I prefer to see a parrot who fluffs his head feathers up in a big ball in anticipation of a few head scritches. Touch on the head is definitely a great way to foster your relationship. Allopreening (grooming each other’s feathers) is an important part of parrot social relationships. Parrots can’t reach those pin feathers (new feathers growing in) on their head, having their human companion remove the keratin casing on newly grown feathers is usually quite welcomed. Check out this video clip on how to pet a parrot to see what touch should look like.

2.    Parrots show love by puking for us
. Isn’t that a fun one? Yes it is a true. A parrot who has decided you are its chosen mate will express its love by regurgitating for you. The beak will be brought to the chest and the head will arc in a repetitive motion as food is brought back up into the mouth. The bird may try to dribble this usually smelly gooey mush into your hand if you make it available. This courtship behavior is also one that caregivers will want to avoid reinforcing. This means removing your attention the moment the behavior is exhibited. Wait for the bird to present any other acceptable behavior and reinforce that instead. Reinforcing courtship and sexual behavior can contribute to a number of behavior problems such as aggressive behavior towards other members of the household, excessive vocalizations for attention and more. Learn more on how to address these problems from the webinar recording Solutions for Parrot Behavior Problems Related to Hormones.

3.    Just because a parrot has feathers doesn’t mean it can fly well.
In some countries it is common to clip the flight feathers on parrots right about the time the bird would first attempt flight. If this happens (or the parrot is kept in an enclosure that is too small to allow flight) during that time in development when flight should be happening, it can lead to a loss in flight for the rest of that bird’s life. This is especially true for heavy bodied birds such as Amazons, macaws and African grey parrots. Some people may have an older parrot that now has full flight feathers but never flies unless startled. These typically are the birds that were clipped during this critical stage of development in which their genetics would have been urging their body to attempt flight. Instead of flight, each launch off of the perch would have been met with a crash landing. This quickly teaches the bird to stop attempting flight. Unfortunately it has an impact that can have a lifetime effect on flying. Lighter bodied birds such as budgerigars, cockatiels, conures, some cockatoo species and a few other smaller species of parrots can regain flight. But unfortunately for many of the larger species, even with excellent training, a confident flying bird in most cases is very unlikely. It is often best to provide as an enriched a life as possible without flight for such individuals. If your bird was never clipped or has sufficiently recovered flight, training with positive reinforcement does offer solutions for managing the behavior of flighted parrots those who are interested in keeping parrots flighted. Behaviors such as recall, station training and developing flight skills make living with flighted parrots a pleasure.

4.    Parrots are super-duper visual. Your dog has a super sniffer. Your cat hears the slightest rustle of a cockroach in debris. Your parrot can see the tiniest speck of a spider on the ceiling or teeny tiny airplane in the sky. This means he is also carefully watching you. Especially if he is interested in your attention and companionship. If you have a parrot that has the problem of vocalizing for attention this is important to know. This is because one of your goals is not to reinforce the undesired vocalizations. Often we think we are ignoring the calls, but many times things like our moving shadow on the wall, or the body language of the dog responding to us (even though we are out of line of sight) is enough to clue our parrots in that we are just there around the corner. This can be enough to keep a parrot screaming for attention. This is often a reason why people have a hard time being successful at resolving this behavior problem. Learn more about how to address this common parrot behavior from the webinar recording Addressing Screaming for Attention in Companion Parrots.

5.    Parrot friendships can take time, but can be extremely rewarding.
Most of us are accustomed to meeting a dog or cat and within minutes being able to interact with our new furry friend. Certainly there are exceptions, but in general most dogs and cats friendships seem easily earned compared to parrots. Many parrot species are not as social as we might think. In the wild they live with only one partner or small family groups. Flocking may only happen under certain circumstances such as foraging or roosting.  Therefore automatically accepting new individuals may not be the norm for those species. Some parrots species also show a tendency towards neophobia (fear of new things). This can also inhibit a parrot’s inclination to warm up to new people. Learning history also plays a role in how quickly a parrot may be inclined to respond to a new potential friend. That is where training can help. Teaching your parrot some simple behaviors (like waving, saying hello, or turning around on cue) to present with strangers can help give your parrot an activity to focus on that has past reinforcement history that can be paired with new people. This can go a long way in helping build trust with new people and experiences. It may take a little more effort than some of our more gregarious companion animals, but what an honor when a parrot decides your company is delightful.

Whatever species you share your life with; it is about getting to know them. Parrots have characteristics that are unique to them, but like any animal they are also influenced by learning history. This means behavior also has flexibility to some extent. Unfortunately we can really miss the boat on flight if we don’t allow birds to fledge properly when nature is telling their bodies to do so. However we can definitely still influence things like building trust, addressing vocalizing for attention, preventing behavior problems associated with reproductive behavior and more by getting a good understanding of learning theory and how it applies to the behavior of animals in our home. Even though your parrot’s behavior may present challenges that might be a bit different from your dog or cat, don’t give up! They are often eager students and ready to learn. Check out more resources on parrot behavior at

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars 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.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Animal Training Quips: Set them Up for Success!

Of course you want your animal to be successful…but what the heck does that mean?? Do you want him to graduate college, become the CEO of a major corporation, or get 1000 likes on his photo on social media? You hear people say that all the time when it comes to animal training. It sounds like a great idea, but if you are like me, you need a few more specifics please.  If you want to get technical you might define setting them up for success in animal training as antecedent arrangement. What this means is you are going to physically manipulate things in the environment so that it is very likely that your animal is going to do the exact action you want.

I will give you two different examples, one in which I am trying to make it less likely an undesired behavior will happen and another in which I am trying to promote a desired one.

I have perches around my house that my flighted parrots have learned via positive reinforcement to visit frequently. They have learned these are great places to go to for attention, toys, treats, head scratches, etc. Most of the perches do not have many unacceptable things near them that are tempting to chew. (That is one example of setting them up for success.) However one perch in particular has some unavoidably tempting attributes. There are some edges of the walls that are often too inviting for my parrots to resist.  Traditional training methods would have caregivers punishing parrots with aversives for chewing, but the force free approach is to set them up for success. Which means in this example, I could move the perch to a less tempting location or I could make those wall edges less accessible and interesting.  I chose the latter.

I decided to custom fit plexi-glass to cover the edges of the wall. Just this cover alone has made the wall less inviting for chewing. This allows me to relax when my parrots are sitting on the perch. I definitely don’t ever have to be the bad guy and punish bad behavior, I get to be the good guy and reinforce excellent behavior while they sit on the perch. Just by making it difficult to misbehave by removing access to temptation I have helped set them up for success.

Another way we set animals up for success is when we are training new behaviors. One of my favorite challenges is finding a way to get the animal to present the action we want so that it can be reinforced. Manipulating the environment is often one of the first things I look at. This means I visualize what movements the animal will have to do. I then think how can I minimize how much effort the animal will need to present for me to get that movement? For example if I need the animal to load into a crate, will it have to step over a lip of a crate? Is the opening so small that it needs to duck its head?  Will the crate wobble and cause the animal to be unbalanced? All those factors mean more effort and therefore not a good example of setting my animal up for success.  If I was in that situation I would be searching for a different crate!

Anyone who has been to one of my parrot training workshops has seen me apply these strategies in my parrot training demos. Little details like placing a station on the corner of the table instead of the middle, putting my hand at the end of the perch, in line with the perch and with a tight grip for step up, making tunnels for towel training, all of these approaches were developed from years of trying to find a way to make it more likely a parrot would participate and learn a new behavior.  Do they make a difference? Absolutely!

The next time you hear someone say “Set them up for success!”  Now you can nod knowingly and whisper to your friends “Oh they just mean manipulating the environment a bit so it easy for the animal to do the correct behavior……you know, antecedent arrangement.”  More importantly now with a clear understanding you have a tool you can use that can really have an impact on achieving your training goals.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015
Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars 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, May 24, 2015

Secrets to an Awesome Training Session

I had one of those training sessions the other day. You know the kind, the ones that stay in your mind because you just felt so great afterwards.  This particular training session was at a zoo, one of my regular contracts. When I work with zoos I usually do a lot of coaching and stand back and let the keepers do the hands on portion. I only step in if needed since the goal is for keepers to practice and refine their training skills, as I am only a temporary visitor. On this day our third person was needed elsewhere which left just two of us of to work with one of the female giraffes.  This meant I needed to help out a bit more than usual to attain the intended training goal. I had been told this female had been hesitant to offer much in the way of behavior and while she was often enthusiastic to eat the special leaf eater biscuits we had to offer it was challenging to get her to actually do much.  I wasn’t quite sure what this meant but I kept it in the back of my mind as we discussed out training goal and plan.

A major healthcare goal for giraffes is to be able to trim their hooves. A nice behavior to have them do to facilitate this is to voluntarily curl a front hoof under their body and rest their fetlock on something like a bale of hay. This gives us full access to the bottom of their hoof for trimming. This was our behavior goal. The challenge is how do you get a giraffe to voluntarily present this behavior?

No matter what species you are training or what behavior, the first goal is to find a way to get an action happening so that you can reinforce it. There are a number of ways to do this. You can show what you have to offer. For example you can lure a rabbit onto a scale by leaving a trail of favorite food items to the scale. Eventually you can start leaving less of a trail and start delivering the food after your rabbit gets onto the scale. This is a good strategy as you don’t want your animal to be dependent on seeing what you have to offer.

You can also get action by using a target. You can easily train your parrot to gently touch a ball on the end of a stick with his beak. This can then be used to direct him where to go. This is especially helpful for parrots that may have issues with hands. You can easily direct them in and out of enclosure without having to pick them up.

Another strategy is to use free shaping. This is when the animal offers tiny actions towards the desired behavior and these actions are bridged and reinforced. This approach requires excellent observation skills by the trainer and good timing of the bridging stimulus and delivery of reinforcers.  This approach creates an animal that typically is eagerly offering actions trying to discover what works. Trainers must walk a fine line of pushing for more action but also keep reinforcement rates high enough to avoid frustration.

We decided to use the free shaping strategy with this giraffe. We also set up our environment so that it might be easy for her to present the action we wanted. This meant placing the bale of hay close to her front feet, with the keeper on the other side of the fence offering her biscuits for any actions that involved interacting with the bale.  She did start offering tiny movements of her feet right away, however as mentioned the challenging part can be trying to up the criteria without frustrating your animal or causing them to lose interest. To address this we came up with a strategy that relies on behavior economics. In other words we assigned a rating system to her efforts as we raised our criteria; 1, 3 or 5 biscuits.  Low but acceptable effort only got 1 biscuit, a little extra effort got 3 biscuits and when she really gave us extra effort she received 5 or more biscuits. Yes sometimes her efforts were too low to receive any biscuits and as we raised criteria what earned biscuits did change. But we did this carefully and our rating system allowed us to reinforce more often rather than less often. This helped address the challenge of her reputation of not offering much. By keeping our rates of reinforcement high and communicating what was more important with extra reinforcers we were able to increase criteria and keep our giraffe girl eagerly participating.

Giraffes are BIG. I was focused on the feet and shouting out 1, 3 or 5 and the trainer feeding was also watching the giraffe's face and body language for her level of focus and engagement in the session. She could also decide if we needed to offer more to keep her engaged in the session.  It may seem odd to have two trainers making decisions, but it is sometimes required when you can’t see the entire animal. In any case our strategies worked! Within 8 minutes we had her holding her left hoof in the exact position we wanted for a good 10 seconds.

Talk about a rush! We got the behavior quickly, our animal was eager and engaged and no longer labeled a hesitant learner once we revisited our training strategies.  Best of all we are now looking forward to having regular hoof care be a breeze. 

You probably are not training a giraffe in your home, but believe it or not the same principles can apply to your parrot, rabbit, guinea pig, dog, even your fish! Do you have a behavior or animal that has been a bit of a challenge to train? Do you have a good plan for getting an action started? Have you set up your environment so that it is easy for your animal to present the action? How will you keep your animal engaged in the session and avoid frustration? Take a look at these factors and with a few adjustments to your strategy maybe you too can have one of those training sessions that make you and your animal feel just awesome.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015

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

Monday, May 4, 2015

Yeah, But………

"Yeah, but...." puts the brakes on receiving help

Have you ever found yourself saying these words when someone gives you advice?  You probably have. We all have! Haven’t we? I am guilty of it too. But now I try really hard to catch myself if I feel those words creeping out. Here is why. When we respond with “Yeah, but….” it pretty much puts the brakes on receiving assistance from the person trying to help.

Here is an example:

Question: My parrot screams when I leave the room. How can I get him to stop?

My Response: It is really important to not reinforce the screaming and heavily reinforce another sound that will work to get your attention.

Owner’s Response: Yeah, we have tried that, but it doesn’t work. He just keeps screaming.

My Response: Well, there are a few things that could be going on. You could still be inadvertently reinforcing screaming. Birds are very perceptive to little responses.

Owner’s Response: Yeah, but we are definitely ignoring the screaming. We turn up the TV louder or go over and cover the cage.

My Response: Actually going over to the cage or making any sounds that the bird perceives reinforces the behavior. Everyone in the family needs to be on board and act like they have vanished into thin air the moment the bird screams in order for him to understand screaming doesn’t work to get attention.

Owner’s Response: Yeah, but that is not possible in my house

Many times every solution I offer is countered with a “Yeah, but...” and eventually I am so beaten down I just end up saying “Yup, you are right! It can’t be fixed in your case.”  It is very disheartening especially when you know the problem is fixable and there is pet and household that could really use your assistance. But every time you try to help you are being told no your advice won’t work or doesn’t work or has already been tried.  

Those who do provide professional science based services and information on addressing behavior problems with animals can tell you that the methodologies do work. If they are failing there is usually a problem in the application. Professional consultants are usually excellent detectives at helping uncover where the application is failing. They are going to ask detailed questions about your process. This is where it can be tempting to say “Yeah, but…” This is because most believe they have followed instructions to the letter. But in reality what was described by the consultant, what was heard and what was actually done probably were all somewhat different.  Sometimes it can be difficult to have clear communication. But the good news is we can keep the lines of communication open and continue discussions about important details that will be helpful to both owner and consultant trying to come to the solution to a behavior problem together.

I recently had a phone call with someone having a hard time getting a bird to go back into his enclosure. I asked the person to describe to me how she asked the bird to step up and go back to the cage. The person suddenly got defensive and said “Just the way you told me!” I had to reassure her I was just collecting information so I could help her and that I had only seen her with the bird once and needed more details. Part of her defensiveness was that she was frustrated by the problem she was having with the bird and angry in that moment. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves it really is about getting the problem solved and putting our emotions to the side for a moment.

People who provide information on addressing behavior problems really do want to help. So the next time you find yourself tempted to say “Yeah, but…” ask yourself if maybe some other phrases might be more helpful such as “I think so, but maybe I didn’t apply it correctly” or “I am not sure, can you give me more information?” or “Can you help me understand how I can do that in my situation” You will find the person trying to help you will be even more eager to give you guidance towards a solution. And best of all you will get resolution for that troubling pet behavior problem.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars 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.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Is Animal Training Really All About Relationships?

I often hear trainers say animal training is all about “relationships.” I must admit I often say the reason I got into animal training is I love the relationship you can develop with an animal. But talk about vague! Let's be honest here,  there's is almost always a relationship going on regardless of the kind of training being done and there's always training happening regardless of the relationship you have with the animal. A little clarification is most definitely needed.

First we need to define what we mean by “relationship.” I would venture to say most force free trainers are meaning a relationship that is based on trust, results in desired consequences for both parties involved, is free of aversive experiences, etc.  We have all seen animals trained with aversives that work extremely well. I would venture to say these animals also have a relationship with their trainer. However that relationship may include things like avoidance behaviors. It may also cause the animal to resist presenting behavior for fear of punishment. It is still a relationship, but one that exists with very different criteria in place.

Some trainers state that animals behave because of their “good” relationship with the trainer. This is another interesting statement. “Good,” of course, is another word that needs some defining.  Good may mean that the animal views the trainer as a deliverer of desired things such as treats, attention, toys, etc. To others, “good” could mean that aversives have been used with such accuracy that the animal wouldn’t dare present unacceptable behavior in the presence of the person that can deliver punishers. In other words the animal “obeys” so well!

Some might say a good relationship is one in which the animal seeks out the companionship of the trainer. Certainly this does happen when a trainer dispenses desired things. However we also see some animals that pick individuals as their preferred human for no obvious reason. Parrots are excellent examples of this. We often see a parrot completely drop the human who has been the perfect positive reinforcement based trainer for a complete stranger.  On the not so pleasant side, many have also seen horses give in and “join up” with a trainer when the pressure of being forced to run around a ring has been lifted. Each of these pairings happened due to different motivations.

On the flip side of this, you can be an excellent force free trainer and have no relationship what so ever with the animal. This is often the objective in conservation projects. The intent is not to create a relationship between humans and wild, or soon to be released animals. The goal is to get behavior but find ways to reinforce remotely. We typically do not want to pair desired consequences with people to avoid the other fallout that can happen when humans and nature collide.  In this example a relationship is not required at all to be a successful trainer.

Here is another example. Chris Shank is a trainer who free flies cockatoos on her property. This is a behavior that takes some study, skills and cojones! There is always risk involved and not something I recommend people attempt without an experienced mentor holding your hand every step of the way. Someone once stated her birds don’t fly away because of her relationship with her birds. This person had assumed these were hand raised babies with a pet like attachment to Chris. What this person didn’t know was that the birds were parent raised and didn’t have any formal recall training to the hand at the time. But this didn’t mean they weren’t learning and that other training wasn’t happening. Or that they couldn’t successfully learn to free fly.

The point is a relationship is a by-product of training. It is not what makes learning happen. What that relationship will look like is a result of what tools you choose to use as a trainer.  If you choose things like positive reinforcement, pairing of desired consequences, systematic desensitization, being sensitive to not create fear responses and aggressive behavior, you might be lucky enough to enjoy a relationship with an animal that is very fulfilling, which is one of the wonderful added bonuses of being a force free animal trainer.

So while it may sound profound to say animal training is “all about relationships.” In reality it’s more about application of the tools of the trade that determines if and what type of relationship you will have with the animals in your life.  So rather than focus on your relationship, focus on the choices you make to influence behavior. Choose wisely and you get to have a wonderful relationship with an animal based on trust.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars 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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Do Animals Bluff?

Have you ever thought about the word bluffing? Some synonyms are conning, tricking, faking. When people use the word bluffing in regard to animals it is usually associated with aggressive behavior such biting or lunging. In other words they are suggesting animals are faking it or don’t really mean it when they try to bite.

When an animal shows fear or appears content, it is pretty unlikely someone would label that as bluffing. It is a curious thing that people accept animals might be afraid, but not willing to believe an animal’s body language that is saying “Stop it! Or I am going to bite! 

Force free animals trainers understand it is a very rare animal that is deceptive in its body language. In fact few species have truly been shown to use deception intentionally.  And usually it used to control access to resources.  For example a raven may “pretend” he doesn’t know where a stash of food is hidden to avoid alerting others to the location of the goodie.

In my experience an animal that is showing aggressive behavior or precursors to aggressive behavior is being about as open and honest as he or she can be. Rather than thinking the animal is trying to trick me and doesn’t really mean the aggressive behavior, I take such body language as clear communication and time for me to rethink what I am doing. Even more important is to pay attention to the tiniest body language and respond in a way that says I got the message. I don’t want the animal to have to escalate its aggressive behavior to get me to stop. I also don’t want the animal to learn I only pay attention to big body language…like biting. This can teach the animal to skip all the subtle signals and go right to very aggressive behavior.

In the parrot world, some folks believe that bluffing is a stage of parrot development that will pass.  Knowing a bit more about parrot development and how behavior is influenced will help explain what is really happening.

Parrots like other animals have critical periods of development. This time period starts in the nestling stage and continues for a short time past fledging. During this time period, parrots are very open and receptive to new experiences and also will allow quite bit of handling. This openness is what motivates young animals to want to explore their world and learn. Force free trainers take advantage of this time period to pair good things such as treats and attention with things animals will need to encounter throughout their lifetime such as nail clippers, scales, towels, etc.  This can have a nice long lasting affect into the future.
Harness training is easier when started during the critical period of development

However this openness also means young parrots will tolerate a lot, including coercive handling. As they mature past this stage the willingness to tolerate such handling disappears. And parrots start responding to forceful handling with aggressive behavior to express their objection.  This can be confusing to a parrot owner. For months the birds was so easy to handle and now it is becoming quite difficult. This is why it is so important to use positive reinforcement and empowering the bird to choose to participate even when it might allow a heavy handed approach. 

If the critical period of development has passed and the parrot is being forced to step up or otherwise comply, this is when much more aggressive behavior is exhibited. This is when people start suggesting the bird is bluffing…because in the past compliance was easy. This thought process then causes people to be more heavy-handed in trying to get compliance. A bird can learn in these moments that no matter how much they object, they will be forced to cooperate. This approach can get compliance, but has tremendous fallout and is detrimental to the relationship between caregiver and parrot. 

This ability to get compliance through force has also caused some to think it is just a phase, when in fact the parrot has learned to cooperate via negative reinforcement and in some cases flooding.  Instead of being a stage, it is a parrot learning that nothing it does causes the coercion to stop, and gives up. Needless to say this is not a fun way to learn and in reality not necessary.

Instead, caregivers will want to focus on being incredibly sensitive to the tiniest body language that says the bird is uncomfortable. When such body language is observed caregivers should stop what they are doing and give the bird the choice to participate. Cooperation and participation should result in good consequences such as treats and attention. This approach will create a super eager participant without any need to use aggressive behavior. Instead you get to enjoy a wonderful relationship based on trust with your parrot.

Next time an animal in your life tells you “no” through his or her body language, think of it as useful information. Your animal is just trying very hard to communicate and your relationship will benefit if you choose to listen.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2015

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provide animal training DVDs, books, webinars 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.