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!

What’s my goal?

I want to pose a question that i don’t think we ask ourselves enough when we interact with our pets, especially when we are trying to get them to do (or stop) something. It’s too easy to behave reactively to a situation, without regard to whether we are behaving in a way that will make things better next time. When we are stuck in the moment, we may not consider the consequences. We need to ask ourselves “What am I trying to achieve?”, and then act in ways that will help us reach those goals with our pets.

It is common to see people acting in extremely counter-productive ways with their pets. Perhaps someone wants their dog to not lunge at other dogs on lead, so when they see another dog they start shortening the lead and restricting the dogs movement and choice. Or it could be that they approach their bird and chase it away when it lands somewhere it shouldn’t. What the owner wants, and what they will get, are completely opposite in these cases. Our behaviour influences our pet’s behaviour, so we need to get smarter.

If we are trying to help our pet feel less wary, afraid, or stressed by a stimulus (like other dogs) then we have to make sure our handling isn’t adding to their stress. Restrictive or sudden movements with the lead and collar do little to help our dog make good associations, and plenty to increase their stress in that situation. Instead we could try working at a greater distance, and rewarding calm behaviour with something our pet likes (treats, toys, play, petting). How do we know if it’s working? Things will start getting better! How do we know it’s not? Things will get worse. We need to keep reviewing what our goal is, and making adjustments so we are steadily working towards success.

If our pet is not afraid, but rather engaging in annoying behaviours in an attempt to stay entertained, then we need to get proactive and set them up to interact with their environment in more appropriate ways. That parrot who keeps flying to the bench to throw your worldly possessions to the floor? Rather than adding to his fun with a game of chase, start setting his play areas up with new toys, foraging games, and browse (leaves/branches/flowers) to investigate. Provide social contact and play when you notice him hanging out on approved parrot-stations. Reward the behaviour you want to see more of, not the behaviour you’re trying to extinguish. And while you’re at it, clear the bench of all those enticing parrot toys (e.g. coffee mugs, car keys, can you tell i’m speaking from experience….).

parrots on the bench

As owners and trainers, we should always be thinking about how we can help our pets succeed in our homes. If something goes wrong and you find your pet engaging in unwanted behaviours, stop and think about how you can change the behaviour for good rather than how you can interrupt it just for the moment. Long term plans and smart training lead to long term results, which is what we all want! Train smart, not tough.

Who’s walk is it anyway?

I grew up with a Jack Russell Terrier who pulled like a demon. From start to finish, whether we walked, ran, or cycled, Mickey would be out in front pulling for all he was worth. It was frustrating, and somewhat embarrassing as Mickey choked his way (sometimes loudly) down the street, but his small size meant it became something we all put up with.

My current puppy, Wilbur, is very different. He walks like a champion beside me on his little front-attach harness, and I couldn’t be happier…until he hears something, or sees something, or smells something. Wilbur stops dead in his tracks to investigate. His ears are pricked forwards, tail relaxed, and his little nose is twitching as he sniffs the air. He is a well-socialised young puppy discovering that the world has yet more to offer. In it’s own way this is frustrating too!

Us humans, myself included, go out for a walk with a view to cover ‘x’ amount of time or distance. We’ll go for a 30 minute walk, or perhaps we want to cover our favourite 5km loop. We don’t want to stop.

Our dogs live through their senses. We take them out of their well-known house or yard, and out into the world of new sights, smells, and sounds – but we don’t want them to stop. How do we explain that to them? How does that even make sense to our dogs? “Hey dog, i want you to keep walking and not stop to sniff or pee or look. It’s called exercise, it’s fun!” ….riiiight!!

walking dog

Wilbur isn’t being stubborn, he’s not trying to dictate what we do or be alpha, and he’s not being lazy. He’s being curious, inquisitive, he’s being a puppy. That goes for your dog too. Dogs don’t act for no reason, look at the whole situation and try to think what could have your dogs attention. Could you spare a moment to let him sniff? Does he actually need to go to the toilet? Can he hear something that you can’t?

So what can you do, when like me you’re standing there while you’re dog is being a dog? Reactively I want to tug on the lead and pull Wilbur along, but that’s not what a leash is for. I don’t want to tug, jerk, or pull when Wilbur is just trying to discover something new. I want walking to be a comfortable experience for Wilbur, and that isn’t what i’ll achieve by jerking on the leash. Instead i give him a moment, then encourage him forward with my voice. I reward behaviour i want to see more, like trotting along beside me. I walk proactively, sticking to the road or centre of the path where i know the scents aren’t so interesting, and i try to stay one step ahead of him – if i see a dog or person up ahead, i’ll step off the path with Wilbur and ask him to sit. This puts him in a position where i can reward him, rather than waiting until he is fixated on whatever is approaching.

Being a good leader for your dog is about being patient, setting them up for success, and rewarding good behaviours. You can’t achieve this by making your dog uncomfortable. And at the end of the day, I’m taking the dog for a walk. I wouldn’t be out there if it weren’t for him, so i do want to indulge his senses and offer him an enriching experience. Over time I can teach Wilbur that he can indulge in those fun doggy things while still in motion, or that he can take that opportunity when i release him to do so, but now while he’s a pup we will keep discovering the neighbourhood together. He’s learning more about the world, and I’m learning more about being a kind and patient dog owner and trainer!


Train It, then Name It

When teaching any pet a new behaviour we need to do two things – we need to explain to our pets what we want them to do, and we need to give that behaviour a name (or cue). If we do these two things correctly we end up with a pet who will offer that particular behaviour only when prompted by the cue, and most importantly they will offer it when given the cue.

Most of us, myself included, were taught to go about achieving these two things backwards. We repeat the cue that we would like to use, while trying to make our pets do the correct behaviour. “Sit, Fido!” as we lure our dog’s nose up or push on their bottom, “Step Up, Polly!” as we bring out the sunflower seed or push our finger into our budgie’s belly. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. But is it an efficient, clear, and fun way to teach our pet something new?

Let’s take a look!

The biggest problem with teaching this way is that we are setting our pet up to fail. If they don’t yet understand that “Sit” means put your butt on the ground, or “Step Up” means step onto my finger, then they are quite likely to respond to our chanting the cue incorrectly. They might stare at us blankly, walk away in confusion, or try the wrong behaviour. We get frustrated that they’re not getting it, and they get frustrated that they’re not earning their reward!

So how else could we go about training?

shake hands parrot
Elmo has learnt that “Shakes Hands” means hold this finger.

Say we want to teach our dog to “Sit”. First things first, zip your lips! Your pet does not speak English, and verbal direction at this stage is unhelpful. In this example we will start training using a food reward. We take the treat, move it in front of Fido’s nose, and then slowly raise it above his head. As Fido’s nose follows the treat his head goes up and his butt goes down. Bingo! He’s sitting. Job well done! Now we can work on fading that lure into a hand signal, then we can explain that “Hey, you know when your butt hits the ground? That’s called SIT!”

It is very, very easy to train your pet to offer a certain behaviour, such as in the above example, without ever opening your mouth. This means that when we do add in the name for a behaviour, we can use our body language to ensure our pet responds correctly – we know they will, because we’ve already trained it! Imagine how much less frustrating that is for everyone!

But won’t our pets associate our cue with the behaviour faster if we keep repeating it? No, they won’t. By putting our pet in a situation where they may not respond correctly we are muddying our cue. When i ask my pet to do something, i am asking them to respond correctly first try. If they don’t, i zip my lips and find where the holes are in my training. Maybe i need to go back a few steps. Hearing a cue repeated again and again before actually understanding what they need to do only creates confusion. Does “Sit” mean look up, look left, yawn, scratch, sniff, squat, or what?!

It’s about training smart, and setting our pets up for success without confusion.

Pass the Salt, Please

You may be wondering what salt has to do with training your pets, so let me explain.

In a e-Book by Sue Ailsby that i’ve been reading (which you can download FREE here), she wrote something that really left an impression with me. She wrote that we should cue our pets to do something just like we would ask a friend to pass the salt across the table. That is we should ask our pets in a happy and friendly tone, rather than telling them what to do in a stern voice.

pass the salt

Why should this matter? For me it comes down to training. If you’ve truly put the time into teaching your pet what a cue means, and you’ve demonstrated that when he does the job he’ll get something good, then you should never need to get stern. If they don’t oblige, you either haven’t trained the behaviour well enough yet, or you need to increase their motivation.

Too often we see owners really getting frustrated with their pets, especially in the dog world. “Fido sit. Sit! SIT! SIT DOWN!!!” Eventually Fido might sit, but not with enthusiasm. He might only be sitting to avoid his owners wrath, or a leash pop, or a hand pressing down on his backside. If Fido knew that “Sit” means put your bottom on the ground whether we’re at home, outside, or at the vet, and he had been motivated well to perform that “Sit”, then there would be no need to get stern.

A friendly tone induces friendly feelings, and when we treat our pets with kindness and mutual respect THAT is when we see great training results. We are way past the days of drilling obedience into our pets. We have the tools to teach our pets any number of useful behaviours without using force or corrections. Next time your pet fails to listen to your cue, look at how you can train the behaviour rather than increasing the volume of your voice.

Train smart, not tough – and pass the salt, please!

Training Talk: Primary vs Secondary Reinforcers

People really like to get their panties in a twist when it comes to using treats when training their pets. It seems as though treats make you a lesser trainer, or that it is somehow insulting that your pet will work for food. This instalment of “Training Talk” will explain why food makes such a great reinforcer during training, as well as looking at other reinforcers we can use and when to use them.

In the first “Training Talk” blog we looked at reinforcement, and how when we reinforce a behaviour that our pet is offering we will see it more often. But how do we reinforce a behaviour? When training our pets we can use what we call either primary reinforcers or secondary reinforcers.

primary reinforcer is something that is essential to our pets survival, and therefore is a very motivating thing to work for. Common primary reinforcers are food, water, air, shelter, and sex. Now personally I’m not into depriving my pets of water or air, nor am I likely to put them out in the hot sun and make them train for the opportunity to get some shelter. I’m definitely not going to offer them any “special favours”, so to speak, for a job well done either. That leaves us with food. All animals eat. In my blog post “Is Your Pet Food Motivated” I look at reasons why your pet might not want to eat during a training session, as well as how to remedy the problem. I recommend you read that post if you feel your pet won’t work for food.

dog treats
An assortment of dog treats

Now, many people who oppose positive reinforcement suggest that for food to be an effective reinforcer you must first deprive your pet of food so they are hungry. It is true that most animals won’t work for food if they’re full, but we don’t need to starve them to train either. I like to use food rewards that are either part of your pets daily ration, or something extra tasty that only comes in a training session.

Secondary reinforcers are things that aren’t essential to survival, but over time and by being paired with a primary reinforcer (like food) have come to be motivating and enjoyable to your pet. Common examples are petting and praise, or a great game with a favourite toy. For many pets these things don’t mean much initially, but over time and when paired with things your dog really enjoys, they come to be reinforcing to your pet.

Secondary reinforcers are not as motivating as primary reinforcers, which is why trainers recommend teaching new behaviours using food rewards. Once that behaviour is learned it is actually to your advantage to start mixing it up with how you reinforce your pet – you would work harder too if a bonus could be just around the corner!

toy play reinforcer
Wilbur loves training for a game of tug!

Take care when training with secondary reinforcers. Remember that reinforcement is an individual thing. If you are offering a pat or praise, make sure you pet is offering the behaviour more often. If not, it is not being reinforced – try something more fun or tastier!

Teaching veterinary behaviours

Working as a vet nurse for the past 7 years has taught me a lot about animal behaviour and handling. The more i learn the more aware i become of the level of stress many pets experience the moment they come through the door at a vet clinic.

Through my involvement with Puppy Preschool, Adolescent Training, and Obedience Club I am often recommending and teaching people how to practice handling their dogs to better prepare them for visits to the vet. People often don’t realise that vet visits don’t have to be big dramas, and that it doesn’t take a lot of work to teach a new pet to enjoy being handled! And it isn’t just dogs we can prepare for the vet either.

Dogs and cats will benefit from being taught to enjoy:

  • Having their ears handled
  • Having their paws picked up, held, and manipulated
  • Having their tail handled
  • Having their body and belly stroked and massaged
  • Having their mouths open
  • Sitting and settling on a table or raised surface
  • Stepping onto and sitting on a raised surface (dogs – for the scales)dog training townsville

A dog or cat that has previously been exposed to this sort of handling will have a much easier time during their vet visit that one who is rarely handled in these ways. They will also be easier to check over if they get a prickle in their paw, or another minor injury you might want to check.

Birds will benefit from being taught to enjoy:

  • Stepping onto a t-perch on some scales
  • Going in and out of their carry cage
  • Being wrapped and held in a towel (gradual process)
  • Having their feet picked up and handled
  • Having their wings handled

Birds that are familiar with being handled in these ways are much more relaxed during a veterinary check up, plus you will be able to do some of their routine care (like nail trims) easily at home.

It is important when introducing your pet to new handling that you take it nice and slowly, and reward them for calm behaviour with each step in the right direction. Use lots of yummy treats, and don’t be afraid to take treats with you for vet visits too. Speak to your vet clinic as most will be more than happy for you to come in during a quiet period to do some training with your pet. It helps your pet to relax if they sometimes visit the vet just for cuddles, treats, and training.

Why Behaviour Matters!

It wasn’t all that long ago that animal welfare only required that we meet our pets physiological needs – they have food, water, and shelter, and get treatment for illness or injury if needed. Recently we’re realising that meeting an animals behavioural needs are equally important to keep an animal happy!

Most behavioural problems are normal animal behaviours being expressed in ways that are annoying or disruptive to the humans having to put up with them! Unfortunately by the time a behaviour is getting really annoying, the pet has usually been practising it for quite some time, making it a hard habit to break.

It is important for pet owners to learn about what their pets normal behaviour should be, how to give them outlets for their natural behaviours that aren’t destructive or annoying, and how to notice signs that their pet might be becoming stressed or unhappy. This is just as important as researching which vet to go to, what food to feed, and what toys and bedding they will need.

Owners often say they’d love it if their pet could just tell them what’s wrong! Our pets, whether they are dogs, cats, or birds, are well equipped with a wide range of body language and behaviours that can give us wonderful information about how they are feeling.

body language

A massive part of what we do at Treat. Play. Love. is helping owners to learn how to pay attention to their pets body language – the different ways a dog can wag its tail, the way a cat might back away and watch warily if its unsure, and how a birds eyes might flash before a bite. These are all clues we can tap into to improve how we interact with our pets, showing that we understand and respect what they’re trying to tell us.

Not sure where to start looking for more information? Just ask us! There are excellent books, e-books, websites and online groups that are all dedicated to helping owners understand their pets behaviour. We want to help people unravel the mystery so they can train smart, not tough.

Otter and Weasel: A Training Journey

I had the exciting opportunity late last year to apply the principles of positive reinforcement to two young budgies that joined our family in November. Otter and Weasel were selected from a local pet shop by myself based only on the fact that they were young, male, and appeared outgoing in the aviary. They were not hand raised, and they had not had their wings clipped.

otter and weasel budgiesOtter and Weasel were very quick to strike up a “bromance” and they fast became inseparable. Tradition tells us that training two budgies at once is difficult, but it actually worked to my advantage. Weasel is the more confident of the two, and as he progressed so too did Otter in an effort to stay near to his buddy.

I began by allowing the boys to eat spray millet from my fingers. I then started pairing the word “good” with the opportunity to have a bite of millet – “good” became a bridge to let them know they had earned a reward. From there it was only a matter of time as i shaped their behaviour closer and closer to stepping on my hands and interacting with me.

recall training birds

Otter and Weasel have been in our home for a few short months, but they happily step up and recall to my hand on cue. Their association with me and getting the good stuff is strong, and i have never given them reason to fear me by pushing them faster than they were comfortable going. It has been a joy to watch their confidence develop in the birdroom with their 8 other birdy friends. They have integrated into the flock perfectly.

I want to encourage people to explore the option of training their birds with positive-reinforcement. It is the most rewarding experience to see your parrot choose to be with you and interact with you, even though it has the choice to fly away and play with its buddies instead.

When to seek help with a training problem?

I’m sure most trainers will agree with me in saying that it is easier to prevent a problem that treat one. With pets this would mean setting the animals in our homes up for success in a human environment, teaching them the behaviours they will need to live happily with us. Sadly we often expect that our pets will just know what we want, and we wait for them to make a mistake before getting worried.

So what about a pet that is already displaying annoying or unwanted behaviours? When is it enough of a problem to seek the help of a trainer or veterinarian? In my work as a vet nurse I often hear people joking, commenting, or even complaining about the latest string of bad behaviour their pet is displaying. It’s often something minor, like the dog barking at guests, and they’re not asking for advice or a solution – they’re just sharing.

anxiety dog trainer

Minor problems, either left untreated or approached in the wrong way, often become major problems over time. That dog that used to just bark at guests? If his owners had of considered that the dog was wary or anxious they could have sought help to change his feelings with people visiting from wary to positive. Instead they scolded him for barking and tried to bring him over to meet new people and get used to them. His anxiety increases, and he starts growling and snapping instead.

It is always easier to address a training or behaviour problem sooner rather than later, and i’m not talking about easier for the trainer or veterinarian you’ve hired to help! You will ultimately be the one following the training program and putting in the time to resolve the problem. Minor problems are usually less challenging for the animals to overcome as well. It’s just all-round easier!

Practice makes perfect – if you notice your pet doing something you’re not entirely happy with, then don’t let him practice it! Look for a force-free training solution, and if you’re not sure how to start then seek help from a professional.