Pressure and Parrots

Did you know that parrots were the catalyst for me to become interested in training and behaviour? Like most dog owners i “knew” how to train my dog, but when a problem cropped up with any of my pet parrots i would turn to others for advice. This helped me find a whole world of knowledgeable and helpful behaviourists, such as Susan Friedman, Barbara Heidenrich, and Jim McKendry (to name just a few).

One of the biggest factors that affects our success in training any species, but particularly a prey species with a high flight drive, is trust. So why does so much online training advice for parrots focus on the use of pressure and release (or negative reinforcement) and punishment? The use of these training tools wears down the trust our pets (of any species) have in us, and damage our training relationship and success.

cockatiel step up
Bailee is happy to step onto my finger and sing his sexy good morning song

Let’s look at a common example, getting a parrot to step up onto your finger or hand. Many online “experts”, or even average Joe who knows a lot about birds, will tell you to teach a parrot to step up you should push into their belly until they lose their balance and step forward. What does this teach your bird about hands? Hint: nothing good! When their parrot then starts to lunge, hiss, or bite the approaching hand we are told “ignore the bite, don’t let him bluff you”. By using pressure to get our pets to behave, we are not giving them the opportunity to express the behaviour we like. When they show us their discomfort in our methods we should show them respect, not continue to pressure them into escalating their body language.

Many people will tell you that being bitten is part of owning a parrot, but this is simply not the case! If we choose to train with respect and give our parrots control over their behaviour we will achieve our goals much more quickly and without the bloodshed.

Our macaw is a great example of the benefits of reward based training. He was 9 months old when we purchased him, and had not been handled since weaning. He was scared of people, and hands. We were no sooner going to get near enough to him to press into his belly than we were going to leave our hand there to “take the bite”. Besides, we respected him too much to put him through that.

macaw step up
Elmo at 4 years old, happy and relaxed on our hands

By building positive associations with ourselves and our hands (using favourite treats) Elmo quickly became interested in interacting with us, and so we were able to encourage him to move towards and eventually onto our hands. He was always free to move away again if he became unsure, and because of this his confidence in us grew quickly.

This is the approach we encourage people to take with any animal, but with the masses of advice online we feel this is especially important for parrot owners to understand. Parrots are highly intelligent, from the smallest budgie to the biggest macaw, and they deserve better than being pushed around. If you are having trouble with your pet parrot, or would simply like to learn a more parrot-friendly way to interact with them, get in touch. Train smart, not tough!


Walk the Dog, nicely please!

There’s a great saying in the dog training world, which goes something like this: “In dog training, jerk is a noun not a verb”. In other words, jerk should not be an action that you take when trying to teach your dog leash manners (or any other skills for that matter).

Traditionally, dogs are taught to walk beside their owner by praising them in position and giving a leash pop/jerk/tug/tap/correction/you-name-it when they pull forward on the leash. There is an assortment of collars, leads, and harnesses that are designed to help that jerk be felt more effectively by the dog, which should thus speed up the learning process.

I’ll start by saying i have been there, done that. Like most people, i was taught to jerk on my dogs leash when he pulled. We tried assorted harnesses, head collars, and training collars, all to no avail. Why doesn’t it work?

If i walked up to you and leaned against your side, you would lean back and resist (of course you would, otherwise you’d fall over). This is our opposition reflex, and our dogs have it too. When the leash goes tight, they oppose that force and pull ahead. Combine this with all the pee-mail to be checked, sights to see, and dogs to greet when you pull, and you have a recipe for some very well rewarded behaviour. Pulling works.

Now, if you apply a leash jerk with exquisite timing and precise force, you should be able to stop your dog pulling. The problem? Most owners (and trainers for that matter) do not have the physical training skills to apply that kind of timing. The result? Our intended message doesn’t get through, and you get a dog that still pulls. This is why you will see dogs who continue to pull to the point of injury regardless of whether they are wearing a check chain or other training aid.

So what is the solution? Loose-lead walking is a behaviour that can be easily taught with positive reinforcement when we set our pets up for success, and build the behaviour in baby steps. We love to get people started with their puppies at Puppy Preschool, but it is never too late to start.

loose lead walking

Start in a location with minimal distractions (such as your backyard) and practice moving one or two steps away from your dog and rewarding them when they follow. You can then build up the steps you take between treats, and select the position that you specifically want to reward (left or right side, slightly forward or behind). My own criteria for loose lead walking is that Wilbur can walk on either side of me, as long as the leash buckle hangs down and he crosses sides behind me (so i don’t step on him). When you have mastered the loose-lead walking in the yard, move out to the front yard, start tackling short trips up the street. As you increase the challenge, increase the rate of reward again. With time the walk itself becomes the reward, and the position is maintained through the foundation training you did in the beginning.

For a great poster on teaching loose-lead walking check out Lili Chin‘s work.

So why bother? It sounds like a lot of work! The great thing about teaching any behaviour with positive reinforcement is that your dog will develop a desire to learn and to participate with you during training. I want my dog to walk beside me because they love to be there, not because they’re afraid to move. Better yet, if your timing is off with positive reinforcement you will see it in your dogs behaviour. You wanted your dog beside you, but they’re slightly in front? Change when and where you reward. This is a far less stressful fall out for your dog that the fall out of a poorly timed leash jerk.

When i take my dog for a walk i want him to love being out with me, and to enjoy using his full range of senses to explore the world. My criteria is only that the lead is slack, with that met he is free to sniff, look, listen, and enjoy! Train smart, not tough!


Lures and Rewards

When it comes to using treats in training there is one concern at the top of most peoples list: “I don’t want him to only work for the food!” Indeed we see many cases where people have been put off using food because their pet is most responsive when they have a treat visible in their hand, and less responsive any other time. This is a highly undesirable situation, because most of the time when we need our pets to do something we will be empty handed.

The situation described above is the result of a common training error, which unfortunately leads many people to write off treats from their training entirely. Instead, why don’t we look at the different ways we can use treats with our pets.

food lure

Most commonly, people use a treat as a lure. This means they show their pet the treat, and use it to move or guide their pet into the behaviour they want (raise the treat for a sit, lower it for a down). Using lures can be a quick and effective way to get a behaviour started, but when you fail to fade that lure out in the early stages of training things start to go wonky.

Treat. Play. Love. will help you to learn to use treats as rewards, or reinforcers, which come after the behaviour has happened (like a pay check for a job well done). We can keep the treats tucked safely out of sight, and only bring them out once the job is done. To guide, or shape, a new behaviour we might initially use a food lure, or we could use our body language, good timing, or a target. By using the treat after the behaviour, our pets need to focus on us (not the food) if they are going to figure out how to get the job done. This is a much more desirable situation!

An important, and often forgotten, part of any training program is to change the rate of reward from a constant (every correct response gets rewarded) to a variable (only some get rewarded) schedule. By gradually expecting more from your pet as they become skilled at the job you’ve given them, they will become more persistent training partners who can work for longer periods of time without needing a treat. Rewards can also come in the form of praise, affection, games, toys, etc, depending on what your individual pet enjoys most.

A good human example is our pay check. It’s a fair bet that we would stop turning up to work if our boss stopped paying us. Of course we don’t get our pay check in little bits day-by-day, we maintain a high standard of work (i hope) over the course of the pay period (usually 1-4 weeks). Daily we might be rewarded by thanks from a co-worker, personal satisfaction at doing something well, etc.

This is what we want to aim for with our pets – good work ethic between pay checks, and loads of “life rewards” to keep them positive from day to day. Not sure where to start? Get in touch and we can set up a training session, or point you in the direction of some great group training classes where you can learn how to use treats to their greatest effect. Train smart, not tough!