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A “Bird Attacking” Question

August 21, 2012 5 comments

Watching for subtle signs in body language such as the raised head feathers shown in this photos of Suki, the blue-fronted amazon.

Question: Hi Lara!  I have a bird “attacking” question.

I’ve had my Amazon since she was only a few months old.  I did have a couple of biting instances with friends and kids, so I’m pretty much the only one who handles her now.  In the last few months the problem has gotten much worse.

She’s fully flighted.  26 months old.  I do not seek out interaction with her – at least not interaction where I am holding her.  But she flies at my face constantly, lands in my hair and attacks my ears.  She also attacks my hands repeatedly.  This is not nipping.  This is grabbing my fingers in her beak and grinding to the bone.  And this has become EVERY interaction.  I have a house full of other parrots and dogs and I spend 98% of my time trying to deal with this bird.

I’ve taken a behavior analysis parrot class.  Studied all the ABA papers.  I don’t  use any kind of punishment , I don’t force her into anything (well, only if she’s got me to the bone, and then it’s only prying her beak off of me). All of her physical interactions with me are because she flies to me.  Her diet is well rounded (chop, Harrison’s pellets).  Her meds check out fine with the vet.  When I train her with positive reinforcement, she actually gets more aggressive (tail fanning, eye pinning and snapping).  She’s also impossible to motivate unless it’s something she REALLY shouldn’t have like butter or meat.  I can spend a great time with her, working on staying on the hand without biting, doing something OTHER than biting like holding a toy or keeping the head up.  Nope.  She nails my hand over and over again.

By the way, she does also express breeding behavior with me.  Wings down, panting, regurgitating.  I don’t encourage it, but it’s hard to get her off me at times and since there’s always a huge bit involved, I’m gun shy.

I’ve done everything.  I’ve tried to be quiet and calm.  I’ve tried to be peppy and upbeat.  Everything seems to upset her.

I’ve asked for help – but am shamed by the behaviorists who tell me that “I’ve created the problem.”  It’s humiliating when I’m trying to do everything to save this bird.  I’ve always wanted to be part of the parrot solution, not the problem.  I have excellent relationships with my other birds (even hard cases from rescues).  I really don’t want to give her up since I’m afraid she’ll be passed from home to home, but I don’t know what to do and my hands are sore and bleeding constantly.  I need to give some attention to the other animals in my home.  I need to read a book or watch TV without being attacked.

I’m tired of crying my eyes out.  I’ve spent thousands of dollars on behavior classes and books and everything I do seems to make matters worse. I need solutions, and fast because I’m running out of options.  😦

Thanks, Julia

Answer:

Hi Julia.

So many areas to begin but first I want to commend you for seeking help. Your determination is obvious and I admire your dedication and persistence in working with your amazon. You definitely have a serious situation and let me see if I can offer a few different things that may help.

I am sorry to hear that anyone in the field of giving behavior advice has shamed you for or about seeking help. I’m glad their intention has not worked because what does this solve? Our goal as behavior analysts and modifiers should be focused on the best for the bird and their caretaker and giving the help needed to help create a stronger relationship so the bird keeps it’s home and the family can live happily as a whole.

Let me start with body language. You may already know your amazon’s body language well, but I would encourage you to look more

Watch what your birds eats from its food dish first. Those are potential valuable reinforcers that could be delivered throughout the day to reward behaviors you want to see increase.

intently at it. Body language can be so subtle but it is one of our (as owners/caretakers) biggest clues as to what the bird is trying to tell us. Julia, when I first meet a bird and before I begin interacting with it, I watch it. I observe how it’s body language changes as it interacts or observes its immediate environment. What does the bird look like when a loud sound startles it? How does that bird react when someone stops near its cage or playstand? What does the feather placement look like when it is preening, sleeping, or relaxing? What does the feather placement look like when it is not relaxed? I need to learn as much as I can about the bird’s body language because I am more than likely getting ready to interact with it.

I also sit back and observe what the bird’s body language looks like when it is interested in something or what the body language

looks like when it seems to be enjoying what it is interacting with. I look at all of this as a form of communication from the bird to myself and how I respond to that body language is a form of communication to the bird.

I pair learning the bird’s body language with use of the bird’s reinforcers. If the bird walks to his food dish I try to look to see what it first picks out of the food dish. Was it corn? Was it a nut? Or was it to make one swipe of its beak and push the majority of its food to the cage grate? Each of these three items are very important and we can learn from each of them. If the bird first goes for the corn, guess what the bird doesn’t get in his food bowl tomorrow morning? Yeah, corn! If that corn is valued by the bird, it is going to be of more value to the bird if it hasn’t had any in several hours.

The sound of your voice, the tone of your voice, or how enthusiastically you deliver attention can be a very effective reinforcer for behavior. Photo courtesy of Viki Bullock.

As you have learned from taking the classes you have, reinforcers can be more than just food. One of my bird’s most delivered positive reinforcers from me is my voice. Actually it is more than just my voice. It is my tone of voice and the variance in how I use it when interacting with my birds from different rooms. I’m mentioning this because our interaction with birds and beginning to rebuild that relationship with our bird does not have to be ‘hand’s-on’ in the beginning. I am suggesting this is one of the approaches you take with your bird. When your bird makes a cute noise, respond to it vocally. You don’t have to get up. You don’t have to walk over to the bird’s cage. Just repeat the cute sound and watch how your bird reacts to it. When it does it again, repeat it. How does he react to it? Does he react to it? Try it again. If he begins to react to it and repeat the noise, guess what? That noise is being reinforced and if your bird keeps doing it, he might be enjoying this ‘hand’s-off’ communication and interaction with you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t touch your bird again. This just starts paving a new form of communication between you and your bird. Touching and physically interacting with the bird needs to be re-shaped as I explain below.

Remember that corn or that nut that he first ate from the food dish? Begin incorporating that by pairing it with yourself. Keep those favored foods and ration them out throughout the day and incorporate them into your training plan everyday. What I mean by this is, when you need to walk into the room, or by the cage, set a piece of corn (or whatever the favored food item is) on the cage, the furthest distance between you and your bird or at a distance where the bird’s body language remains calm. You don’t want to push this area of comfort to where the feathers raise on the back of the neck, or the eyes pin, or the feathers begin to stiffen up. Begin at a distance where you know the bird is going to stay calm and comfortable while you place the corn, nut, etc. on a cage rung and pass by. Bingo! That was a training session. Training sessions do not have to be long. Most of mine last ten seconds to a couple of minutes. The importance is not in the length of the training session but the frequency throughout the day.

Repeat the walks by the cage while pairing yourself with the bird’s favored reinforcers as long as it takes. You can feed a piece of corn

Rebecca target training Suki, the blue fronted amazon from inside the cage. She’s delivering the reinforcer between the cage bars to better learn Suki’s body language before getting her out and interacting with her by recall training her.

or a small sliver of a nut several times a day. Then take it to the next step and begin setting the food reward closer and closer. Then get to the point where you can hand it through the cage bar. The cage bars are nice and a place to really learn to see if your bird will take the food from your hands without biting you. Hold the treat far enough away that the bird can’t bite you just in case you misread the body language. You don’t want the bite to happen at all, but this is a great way to make sure you are reading body language correctly before moving to the next step. Soon, you can open the cage door and set the food reward down on the perch and then walk away. Soon handing the food to the bird inside the cage, etc.

There is more training that can happen but it could take me several pages to write. Remember, the bird is always the one that decides the reinforcer, never us. We can reserve the reinforcers and give at times of training and this is how we can make that reinforcer of higher value to the bird. Just as it is the bird that decides the reinforcer, it is also the bird that decides the aversive. An aversive is something the bird doesn’t like, as you may already know. Watch the body language and the bird is going to be the one that tells you if he or she sees something as an aversive and when he/she does, you really don’t want that paired with you if you are trying to re-build a relationship.

Julia, if you go to my youtube page (LaraJosephBirdLover) you will be able to see several videos of me working with birds that have a long history of aggressive behaviors being reinforced. Take a look at some of my training videos of me with Molly, my eclectus. Take a look at some of the videos of me working with Willy the turkey vulture. I know it’s a turkey vulture, not a parrot but the approaches in training and use of reinforcers and arranging the environment for successful outcomes is the same.

Hailey training a blue and gold macaw to touch its beak to a stick. This is also called target training and is a handy tool to use, especially working with birds who have a history of showing any signs of aggressive behaviors. This allows the trainer to request behaviors with no contact and the target can guide the bird to different areas of the cage or room.

Without turning this reply into a book, I wanted to mention target training her. Train her to touch her beak to an object on cue, such as a stick. If she doesn’t like the stick you can re-shape the behavior of her staying calm while touching her beak to a stick. You can also shape the behavior of her touching the top of her beak to the stick if she is tending to want to bite the stick and pull it in the cage. This would help not only in redirecting her attention when you think she’s getting ready to bite you, this will also help when you think she might be getting ready to drop her wings and start panting. Don’t wait until either of these behaviors happens. Ask her to target when you think the chances are high of either of these behaviors happening. And just like crate training, don’t wait to begin crate training when it’s time to go to the vet. Crate train when a vet visit isn’t even scheduled so that way when it’s time to go to the vet, the training is already set in place. Don’t wait to target train when she’s on your hand and getting ready to drop her wings. Target train her after you have already trained her to stay calm when you pass by her cage.

As far as working with reinforcers that aren’t the most nutritious for the bird, start with what works while gathering and making a list of others. Watch what she eats first out of her dish. Watch what she eats second. Pull those and reserve those for reinforcing throughout the day. Mix those in with what already works while slowly weeding out the not-so-nutritious.

Once again, I want to commend you for all of the steps you have taken so far to attempt to make a difference with your amazon. I understand your pain, frustration, and this emotional roller-coaster ride. I know that first hand. You, and situations like yours, are the reinforcers behind why I continue to do what I do.

Before I bring this post to a close, you may want to join me on my Avian Behavior, Training, and Enrichment page on FaceBook. I try to post behavior issues, training approaches, and different videos several times a week to help people.

Sincerely,

Lara Joseph

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Question on behavior . . . Bird showing sudden signs of aggression after change in routine.


Hey Lara,

I learned enough from your behavior seminar to know that SOMETHING is reinforcing this behavior but I was wondering about your input as to what started it. Boo (my african grey, male approximately 8 years old) has started being REALLY aggressive to the point of not being able to handle him. He shows all the signs and gives me warning (eyes pinning, feathers fluffed). There hasn’t been any trauma to speak of. His schedule was disrupted for the last week when my hubby was out-of-town. He usually gets him up and fed, etc for the day as he works from home. Boo likes to sleep very late most days….11 or so. He has his own (laundry) sleeping room/cage. While Dave was gone I had to get him up @ 7ish everyday that I worked. Boo wasn’t crazy about that but now we are back to the usual schedule.  He has been the same way to Dave since he got back. I thought maybe it was just ME doing all the care for the week that Dave was gone that threw him off. Then, just to throw a monkey wrench into the mix…he’ll be really sweet. Sometimes he displays aggressively, then when I ask him to step up he does willingly  (for which he always receives great praise).  It seems to be cage/territory related as it’s always when I am putting him back in the cage and sometimes when I’m getting him out, a lot of times to his request to get him. “Wanna come here?”  I try REALLY hard not to respond when he nails me but sometimes it’s so quick and hard that it’s hard not to yell out….I thought that was the game….and tried not to respond, I’ll just leave him on the door and walk out of the room to de-fuse the situation but it is escalating.  I thought that once he got back to his old schedule, it would die down….but not so far…(since monday) I’m using a perch to move him around because he has drawn blood a number of times.  I also noticed he is not eating near as well as he usually does.  He has plenty of enrichment opportunities.  He does not appear sick…is still vocalizing and whistling and interacting with us as long as we’re not in/around the cage.  The other variable is a new puppy that we have…I try to spend a little one on one time each night with Boo. I’m getting very wary of that because I don’t trust him…so, it’s kinda a catch 22…the less time I spend the more “wild” he gets….and the more “wild” and nippy…the less I want to handle him.  The other things I have considered are: 1) Don’t they reach sexual maturity about 8 yrs old?  2) The change in daylight hours lengthening…3) the new member of our “pack”…he seems to have accepted the new dog and they co-habitate well..meeting nose to nose (under my DIRECT supervision) and there is no striking. They have a healthy curiosity about each other than they go about their own way. Just wondering about any input you might have other than ignoring his strikes. I don’t know how to “punish” the behavior. He does say “Ouch” occasionally. No doubt he learned quickly from OUR responses but it’s really hard NOT to respond when the bites so quick and so painful. Other than TRYING to ignore the behavior, what do I do to defuse the behavior?

Shelley

Columbus, Ohio

Hi Shelley!

It is very good to hear that you are recognizing the fact that something is reinforcing an undesired behavior you are seeing in Boo. It is also good to hear that you have recognized this through one of my workshops. It is good to hear from you and I’m glad you are touching base with me about your concern on where this behavior is going and what it is now turning out to be.

Before we move on in suggestions in behavior change, I always suggest a veterinary check up, especially since you’ve noticed a change in his eating habits. Once the veterinarian gives a thumbs up on health, it can rule that out of causing behavior issues.

You’ve noticed the correlation in the change in the environment (the disruption in Boo’s morning routine) and the change in his behavior. Environmental

Small variances in how we present food during feeding schedules may help in forming routines.

changes can and usually to have an effect on behavior. There are many things in which I’d love to share thoughts with you in your situation, so let me begin with this one.

Often times it is easy for us to follow routines in our daily lives. Routines help us keep on track and make sure daily rituals are accomplished. Schedules are great such as in the mornings we eat breakfast, in the afternoon we eat lunch, and in the evening we eat dinner. Routines are those in which become habit and we mostly stick to an order in how things are done in our daily schedules. Many times we can not avoid schedules but we do have the option to change routines. The reason I mention this is because when we stick to having routines with our birds, if there comes a time where life happens and that routine needs to be broken it may cause stress, confusion, or frustration with our birds such as you have seen with Boo’s routine with your husband’s daily work schedule.

Schedules still happen and we have the opportunity to begin varying routines. For example, every day Boo needs to come out of his sleeping cage and into a main living space to eat breakfast every morning. There may be plenty of opportunities to begin varying the time in which Boo comes out of his cage. For example, if Boo is used to coming out of his sleeping cage at 11a.m. change that routine a little by having your husband take him out at 10:45 a.m. one day. Fifteen minutes isn’t a huge change, but it is a slight one that may be able to be implemented in such a small step that it doesn’t cause stress to Boo. The next day take him out at 10:55. The next day 10: 40. Maybe on a Saturday you go in and get Boo out of his sleeping cage at 10:50. Once he starts getting used to this change, maybe one day you can move him from his sleep cage at 10:30a.m. Keep the time changes at small increments with the intention of incorporating change into his daily schedule.

Another change in a routine could be one day he gets his breakfast in his main cage. Maybe the next day he gets breakfast on his play-stand. The next day maybe he gets breakfast back in his cage and the next on the arm of the chair next to you. This allows us to still have a schedule while allowing us to break away from routine.

These are things I focus on in my household. I try not to keep the birds on many routines because if that routine is broken, I begin to see undesired behavior issues begin to develop. If Rocky was used to coming out of his cage and into his bird room every morning at 10 a.m., how would this effect him when I have a doctor’s appointment next week at 11 a.m. and I need him to stay in his cage until I get back? At this point, I feel my assumption of Rocky beginning to scream once he realizes his routine is being broken will be pretty accurate. I feel good about this assumption because I’ve learned from experience. Rocky used to be on small routines. I now focus on keeping daily schedules varied such as food variety, variety in presentation, in time, and in the time he comes out of his cage.

Providing individually appropriate enrichment in cages may help in keeping a bird occupied while varying out of a routine.

When I know I am getting ready to go out-of-town for an upcoming workshop, I will also start varying schedules in bigger increments to get my birds ready for a major change in plans. I am on my way home now from a workshop and last week I knew my birds would be spending a good majority of their times in their large cages until I got home. So, I began leaving them in their cages for longer periods of time at varying times of the day each day. I began varying which bird came out and when, and where they went when they did come out. I like to keep them used to change while paying close attention to frustration levels. I keep the changes small and varying based on the individual bird as to not cause stress or frustration. As they start getting used to the change, I start changing things on a larger scale to the point where I can really make large changes in daily schedules and watching how the birds adapt readily from it.

One never knows when life is going to throw them a curve ball and it has a major impact on our daily schedule. The more we can continually vary schedules into our bird’s lives, the better prepared for change they will be when change happens and the less amount of behavior issues you will see if any.

In your situation, Boo had a major and pretty big change in daily routine when you were having to get him up at 7 a.m. versus what he was used to. If Boo perceived this waking and moving as something he didn’t like, guess who this may be associated with? Yes, you. You also have seen that his behavior has changed toward your husband too. Why, without more detail I’m not sure, but the important thing is that you have noticed this. This gives us a place to start in changing behavior.

I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement training because of how great of an impact it has had on my birds’ lives, for the better and their behavior issues or lack of them now. When I ask a behavior from my bird, I always make sure there is something of value in it for the bird. Always. Otherwise, why would my bird want to give me the behavior I am asking if there is nothing in it for him? This is true with us also. Why would you want to go to work everyday if there was not anything in it for you? The reason most of us go to work is because there is something in it in return for us and that is usually the paycheck. Many people love their jobs and are willing to take pay cuts because their work environments offer other positive reinforcers such as a very rewarding boss, good friends, the ability to help others, etc. My point here is that each of our positive reinforcers is different and varies among person to person. Our positive reinforcers are decided by us. Not by our friends, our neighbors, or our bosses. You may like chocolate and would get up off the couch to cross the room to eat a piece of chocolate from the candy jar. I on the other hand, do not like chocolate and can’t think of one instance where it would ever be a motivator for me to expend the energy of standing up and walking across the room. If there was a bowl of macaroni and cheese across the room, that would be of high value to me and I would probably sprint to the other side of the room to get it.

This is the same for our birds. Make sure praise is of value to your bird. Is it a fair return for behavior performed from Boo and if so, is it of high enough value at that particular time? Praise may be of high value to Boo when you ask him to step up off of his play stand onto your hand so you can walk him across the room and deliver him to your husband, but that praise may not be of high enough value to Boo to give to him when you’ve asked him to step up onto your hand from his sleeping cage at 7a.m. Do you see where I am coming from?

The more we reserve a particular highly valued reinforcer or reward from a bird, the higher value that particular item or event becomes. For example, if Boo

The reward for requested behavior we ask from a bird coming out of the cage may be completely different from the reward given for the bird going back into the cage.

loves walnuts and he received walnuts at no other time than when you asked him to step up out of his sleeping cage and onto your hand at 8, 9, or 10a.m., my guess would be that Boo will be more willing to give you the behavior you are requesting with little time for him to think about it. The consistent pairing of this behavior and this highly valued positive reinforcer could be a fair trade-off for the behavior being requested and more importantly, this positive reinforcer is consistently being associated with you!

One of the many things I love about interacting with birds with positive reinforcement is you are consistently being paired with the ‘fair trade-offs’ for requested behaviors, often times the bird’s positive reinforcer begins to change from treats to you.

Shelley, I picked your question to answer this time because there were several great points you brought up and great areas to address which I hope help you and the many others reading this that are having some of the same behavior hurdles to jump. In the workshop I was involved in giving over this past weekend, one of the many things we addressed was a biting bird. Ignoring a biting bird is extremely hard to do, dangerous, and one I would never suggest a person try. If you remember from the workshop we defined many things and punishment and positive punishment were two of the terms. Punishment is an event that follows a behavior that decreases the future rate of that behavior. For example, Johnny sticks his hand on a hot stove. The behavior is Johnny sticking his hand on the stove. The punisher is the burn that the stove gave him. If the future rate of Johnny sticking his hand on the stove decreases, the behavior has been punished. The burn from the hot stove was added (+) to the environment. The hot stove is therefore the positive (+ added) event that caused the behavior to decrease, this is an example of positive punishment. When trying to modify or change the behavior of our birds one of the things we want to stay as far away from as possible is using positive punishment because the positive punishers are always things the bird doesn’t like. If we use positive punishment with our birds to change behavior, this means we are using something the bird doesn’t like to decrease the future rate of the behavior. If we are using things the bird doesn’t like to decrease the behavior, there are many reasons we don’t want to use these and one of them is the fact that we are consistently pairing ourselves with using things on the bird that the bird doesn’t like. More than likely with this pairing, the bird will begin to not look forward to our approach. I was just telling attendees of the workshop this past weekend, the only time it is ok to use a positive punisher on a bird’s behavior is when the alternative is worse. I would never suggest someone endure the duration and pain of a bite. Pull your hand away and into safety and begin your training plan in how to begin working on modifying this behavior.

Rocky flapping his wings on cue from a safe place on my arm. I positively reinforce the behavior of him perching where I want him to perch, on my hand.

For example, last week I was relaxing in the aviary and reading a book. I wasn’t paying attention and Rocky moved from my lower arm and up to my shoulder. Rocky is never allowed on my shoulder because for whatever reason, when he is behind me and higher by my head, he tends to lunge and bite. Why? I have no clue, but the important thing is to notice that he does it and to prevent situations from letting it happen again. I’ve used target training to ask Rocky to move to different safe areas and the use of punishment was avoided. On this particular instance though, once I realized Rocky was on my shoulder I immediately became very concerned. I couldn’t target him back down my arm because I didn’t have a free hand to use to target because my hand was now up and covering my face. I moved in front of a window to see what Rocky’s body language looked like and he was showing the same body language he does when he’s getting ready to lunge and bite. I had a quick decision to make, take a severe bite to the face or drop my shoulder and shake him off. I chose the latter. I dropped my shoulder and Rocky flew to the ground. I punished the behavior of Rocky standing on my shoulder. By removing a place for him to perch, I was associated with the aversive. I chose to take this route and then work and focus on not letting this happen again to make sure this behavior is not being reinforced.

If Boo bites you, I would suggest removing your hand and work on a training strategy such as using positive reinforcement for asking Boo to step up. Find his favored treats and offer them to him only at the times in which you need him to step up. Remember, Boo is the one that decides what these rewards or positive reinforcers are, it is never us. Ask for the behavior and then when he does it, give him the treat. That may sound easier than what it is. In the beginning you may have to show him the treat when asking for the behavior. Offer your hand, ask Boo to step up and show him the reward. This is a behavior called “luring”. I often lure a bird in the beginning stages of training a behavior. Soon when the bird realizes that every time you ask a behavior of it and it does it, it knows there is something of value in it for him and the future rates of behavior increase….positive reinforcement. If you are unsure of using your hand to request the ‘step-ups’, try beginning training with a perch. At the same time you are doing this pay very close attention to the body language. You will begin to better read when Boo wants to do something and when he doesn’t. Don’t force him to do something when he doesn’t want to do it. This often brings on aggression. Instead find a different highly valued positive reinforcer of his.

Target training is another behavior I highly suggest you try. This puts you in a safe situation while better learning the bird’s body language. It also helps the bird better read yours. Target training is when you ask the bird to touch a certain body part to an object. It could be asking the bird to touch its toes to your finger or its beak to the end of a chopstick as shown in the video below. Positively reinforce the behavior you want to see increase all the while by paying close attention to not push the bird in giving behaviors such as lunging and biting that you don’t want to see.

In this video is a workshop I co-hosted showing Connie teaching an amazon to target its beak to the end of a chopstick. This could come handy to Connie if she found herself in a situation with this amazon where she couldn’t read the body language to tell if she was about to get bit or not. If the bird was already target trained she could ask the bird to touch its beak to the chopstick while she repositioned herself in a safer position.

A Girl & Her Dog

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Positive reinforcement interactions with our pets makes for strong, trusting, and lasting relationships - Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gerondale.

I think about posting here every day. Boy do I love to write and am going to try to come on here and just post small thoughts or experiences as I see or am involved in them.

Today I was driving down the street about a block from my house. Movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I was in a residential neighborhood and was driving slow so I had the time to observe a very interesting and powerful interaction. It happened quickly too which made it even more interesting.

A woman was walking from the front door of her house and across her lawn to the side-walk. Something behind her caught my eye. It was a small dog on a long retractable leash. I’m not all that good at identifying dog species but it was small and had an adorable face. Don’t they all? If I had to guess, I would say it was a Lhasa Apso. What was fascinating about the moment was the interaction I saw next. From the best of what I remember, it wasn’t the presence of the dog that made me look in its direction. It was what the woman had done that made me look behind her.

The woman was heading across the front lawn at a casual pace when all of a sudden she stopped and looked behind her. She looked down and about 8′ behind. There in that spot about 8′ behind her she was looking into the face of the dog on the end of the leash. In my best guess and observation of the quick situation at hand, I am assuming she stopped and looked behind her because the dog wasn’t moving. Maybe it was a quick tension in the leash that caused her to stop and turn and look at the dog. If I didn’t think the woman would have thought I was stalking her, I would have slowed down to observe the rest of the interaction. What I observed in those quick few and powerful moments was her reaction to something in regards to the behavior of the dog. She looked at the dog and the dog was standing there looking directly back up at her and into her face. “Wow, what a powerful statement that is” I thought to myself as I continued down the street now focusing on the parked cars on either side of the street making sure I didn’t hit one. She was looking down at the dog and the dog was looking directly at her face. What a clear line of communication there was in that snapshot in time between a girl and her dog. There was a lot of information being shared there at that moment. If I could rewind time, I would have had my camera ready to share this image. That dog was communicating with her and what she did after that I do not know but it stayed with me for a while after that.

I sat in the waiting room at my doctor’s appointment after that and thought “I wonder what the girl did after that.” Why did this stay on my mind? It stayed on my mind because this is how great relationships are formed between girls and their dogs, boys and their pets, families and the outside world, us with each other. I wanted to think that the girl stopped and respected the reluctance in her dog’s behavior. This means she was helping in keeping choice in the dog’s environment which has a major impact on behavior, let alone the impact on a great relationship and bond with each other. If she really knew her dog she would be able to figure out why the dog was stopping and determine what to do from there in the best interest of the two of them together. My mind hit ‘Option B’ in replaying this scenario. She could have then said “Come on. Let’s go.” as she tugged on the leash and continued walking as she pulled her dog a few inches before it gave in and continued to follow behind her. A picture that is probably very easy to visualize.

Not too many years ago, a neighborhood scenario like this would have not even attracted my attention. Neither would the one of my neighbor continually yelling at her son with more and more effort and a gradually increasing coercive tone to her voice as each week passes. As to not leave this post hanging and imaginations running wild, let me mention what I think happened. I think the girl stopped and paid attention to the reluctance in her dog. Why do I think this? I saw her body language. Without going into much detail, her body language was sympathetic or concerning to the reluctance in her dog. It was the way she paused and her relaxed stature that made my mind feel more at ease with assuming she bent over and asked her dog what was wrong. This thought brought a smile to the corner of my mouth as I gazed across the waiting room floor of the doctor’s office waiting room. “Yea, I think she waited for her dog” I thought. The dog’s body language told me so. I wanted this for the girl and her dog. I know how strong this makes for a trusting and happy relationship. The dog looked at the girl as though the girl understood this language. The body language of the girl looked as though she respected this line of communication.

“Lara Joseph”, the woman called as she stood in the door way waiting to take me back to the doctor’s office. “Yep, that’s me!” I said as I stood up and smiled at her. “How are those birds of yours?” she asked me. Boy, do people know how to peak my interest or what?

Ah, so its going to be one of ‘those’ days.

May 11, 2010 11 comments

Rico perching on my knee where I can better read his body language

I’m sitting here typing this with Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo on my knee. Why on my knee versus my head or shoulder? (hey, isn’t that a commercial?) He’s on my knee because it’s one of those days. Let me explain what I mean.

I was on the phone with my sister this morning. I went to get Rico out of his cage and he stepped right up as he usually does. He flew around the house a bit as I made breakfast. Flying to the top of the refrigerator to see what I was doing in the kitchen. Then flying back to his perch in the living room to check out the happenings out the front window. Then he flew to his favored or most frequented perch that hangs between the kitchen and the dinning room. I went to ask him to step up and he moved quickly in response to my hand with an open beak. I was a bit taken back by this action but respected it. Why would I respect this? Why wouldn’t I? Did I need him to step up? No. Did I want him to step up? Yes I did but it wasn’t a necessity. I was going to have him step up so I could pet and give him the usual neck snuggles.

I looked at him with a confused look on my face. He could have easily bit me if he wanted to as I was clearly within reach. I could have also gone in for another request to step up. I had a feeling if I did, he would have made his form of communication a little clearer that time. Yea, I don’t want to reinforce that behavior or teach him that the quick movement wasn’t clear enough and that maybe a step further, a bite I’m assuming, would do the trick. So I backed off, confused at the behavior.

I went on about my business and ate my breakfast. I walked up to Rico again, remembering his last action toward me. I showed him my hand without pushing it in front of him and asked him if he wanted to step up. I was going to see if he wanted to sit down with me while I ate breakfast. He sat on his perch obviously watching me. I saw his eyes move from my eyes to my hand. I paid close attention to his body language. You know what I saw? Some would describe it as nothing but I saw a lot. I saw him look at my hands, stand completely still, feathers up around the beak, and perched on one foot. Now that’s a lot of body language. My hand was held as an offering in front of him yet his body language or lack of movement clearly showed me he was not interested.

In a situation like this, I could have asked for more but why? Did I need him to step up? Like I said before, no I didn’t. I can’t read what is going on in Rico’s head so we rely heavily on each other’s body language. His body language pretty much told me “No, I don’t want to move.” or “No, I’m just fine where I am.” or “No, I find you and your human food pathetically uninteresting to me so please leave.” My point is whatever it is that was going through his head, I have no clue, but that body language can tell quite a bit. Rico has his own mind, his own life, his own opinion. This is nothing different than mine. Somedays I don’t want to be bothered with the telephone, the solicitor at the door, or someone touching me when I just want to be left alone. That’s ok and if you continue to force me or prod me to get me to get up off the couch because you feel like it, I may give you a piece of my mind after your continuing to try when I’ve thought I’ve made myself clear.

Rico eventually flew over to me at the dinning room table. I was happy to have him there. I wanted to reach out, grab him around his body with both hands, raise him upside down to my face, and kiss him on his back as I often do. Based on our previous two encounters this morning within the past few minutes, behavior was telling me this might not go off as planned or how I would like it to go.

I reached my hand over to him and rubbed my fingers together above but in front of his head. This is a signal that I often present to him at the same time when I ask “Can I pet?”. It is an added choice I can provide to them in their living situation with me. I ask them. If they don’t want to be pet, then I don’t do it. I rubbed my fingers and said “Can I pet?”. He turned his head and his eyes followed my fingers. Not a good sign for moving in for that pet. When he wants petted, he’ll usually slightly close his eyes or bend his head down in welcoming the scratch. When he turns his head and watches my hand, based on past experiences I know this means “Nah, not right now.” or “Just where do you think you’re with that thing?” or “That hand is better suited for putting that pathetic human food in your mouth versus on my neck right now.”. Whatever is going through his head, I don’t know, but that body language is clear. Very clear and I want to pay attention to that and let him know his message has been read loud and clear because if I push it, this teaches him that he hasn’t gotten his point across and he needs to make that message more clear.

So many times do I see people push the envelope with their requests. Actually, if the envelope is understandably being pushed, than is it a request? If you are telling me “No!” and I keep pushing, I think I’m taking your choice out of the situation and pushing the envelope. I know because I’ve pushed that envelope too and what I’ve learned is how effective, strong, relationship building, and easier it is when you don’t push that envelope.

I later went in for another request and Rico’s response was watching my hand and no movement of his feet stepping onto my hand. Yep, its going to be one of those days and by that I mean, his behavior isn’t the normal and typical bouncing, jumping, loving, and squawking cockatoo. He does this once in a while. I don’t know exactly why, but it happens. I know on days like today I really need to respect that body language because it means a lot to him and to my relationship with him. The more I respect the “Hey alright. You don’t want to be pet than I’ll go on about my business.” the more he respects that fact that I respect that. Did that make sense? Based on our behavior during and after days like this, I see our relationship getting even stronger as if that clear line of communication through body language on both parts are clearly understood and respected.

Our body language with each other is our language. It is our main form of communication with each other. Our language is “Rico/Lara” language. Just like English or Spanish, it’s unique and very strong and very powerful. It’s very effective if our sentences are put together properly, and just like English, if you use it loosely or get sloppy with it, you may see where your intention wasn’t well received or misunderstood. Hence the reason Rico is on my knee instead of my head or my shoulder. It’s days like today that I need to be able to see his body language and keep that communication clear. I don’t need the “Rico/Lara” language going bad or being used loosely when he’s on my shoulder. I try not to push the envelope to the point where I find myself saying “I knew that was going to happen.”

So here we sit on a dark, dreary, and rainy day in Ohio. I have a feeling its going to be a quiet day here in the house without a lot of action so I’m going to take advantage of it. Tomorrow, I bet will be one of those other days. You know, the crazy, jumping, squawking “Hey man, when are you going to pet me?” kind of days.

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