Archive for the ‘Changing Behavior’ Category

Behavior Serves A Purpose…

July 24, 2013 3 comments

Rocky's reaction to a change in the environment

Rocky’s reaction to a change in the environment

Behavior serves a purpose for the individual doing the behaving. If the behavior proves of no value for the individual, the animal or human will have no reason to perform or exhibit this behavior again. If behavior, whether desired or undesired by us exists, it is because this behavior serves a purpose for us or for the animal. If that behavior happens once, the animal learns from that behavior by the consequence giving that behavior serves for the animal. If that behavior happens twice or three times, that behavior is being reinforced. There is something that causes that behavior to maintain or increase and that ‘something’ is the reinforcer for this behavior.

Often times I hear “The behavior happens for no reason.” The behavior does happen for a reason or this behavior would not continue to exist for this animal. Once we can find why the behavior happens, then we can work with that consequence or reinforcer and begin working on changing that behavior. Why is the bird screaming? Why is the dog charging the door? Why is the owl flying off of the glove? When we can answer these questions, that is when we can accurately begin working on changing the behavior of the bird screaming, the dog charging the door, and the owl flying off the glove.

If the bird is screaming for attention, give it the attention when it does something that is more desirable. I do this with all screaming parrots. Screaming is a tough behavior to live with. If the dog is charging the door, find a reinforcer that is of higher value to deliver when it is staying calmly in a desired area when requested. If the owl is flying off the glove, figure out what purpose that serves for the owl and then arrange the environment so that purpose does not need to happen for the owl. Obviously there are several steps and different approaches that can be used in the above examples but for the purpose of this post, all behavior serves a purpose for the animal. If that behavior happens more than once, that behavior is being reinforced and exists because the consequence is of value for the animal. These behaviors can be changed or redirected.

I also commonly hear “I was hoping the animal would grow out of the undesired behavior.” Each time that undesired behavior happens, the more well-practiced it is and the stronger it is likely becoming. By no means does this mean that well-practiced behaviors cannot be changed, because they can. What it does mean is that the longer the behavior is practiced or reinforced, the longer it can take for us to change it. The longer a behavior happens or is being reinforced is called a history of reinforcement.

Rocky, my 13-year-old Moluccan Cockatoo has a long history of reinforcement of his screaming and his abnormal

Training Falka to not charge or bark at unknown objects or things at the door.

Training Falka to not charge or bark at unknown objects or things at the door.

repetitive behavior of doing a back-flip in his cage. Both behaviors of screaming and flipping used to happen consecutively every 3-5 seconds for at least two hours at a time. These two behaviors are well-practiced by Rocky and from my best observation over time, have had a long history of reinforcement. I say this because these two behaviors still exist today and Rocky has been with me and under my care for over five years. Before you get discouraged, please keep reading because rarely do these two behaviors exist together currently. Also based on how often the screaming used to happen, I can now happily say rarely does his behavior of screaming exist anymore. If I do hear him scream, it is because it is serving a purpose for him. When I hear it, I pay close attention to his environment, observe potential reinforcers for this behavior, and immediately take control of his environment to change the delivery of the reinforcer. I do all of the above so I can change the behavior and reinforcer for that behavior. When I can do this, I can change the behavior. Now if either of these behaviors happen, which is few and far between, they are indicators to me that this behavior is likely to begin to rear its head again at some time in the future if intervention does not happen. The longer the history of reinforcement is for a behavior, the more that behavior may happen in the future if key cues or indicators are ignored. The cues or indicators of Rocky screaming or doing back-flips in his cage are very obvious to me because I’ve paid so close attention to changing them. I now know what environments or environmental events will likely bring out either of these behaviors with Rocky. This gives me the opportunity to rearrange the environment for the undesired behaviors to not happen by giving a particular toy or object he prefers or incorporate positive reinforcers for alternate behaviors when the undesired is likely to happen. This is training. This is communication happening.

Target training Kwynn, the micro-mini pig at a consultation at The Animal Behavior Center.

Target training Kwynn, the micro-mini pig at a consultation at The Animal Behavior Center.

Whenever I see an undesired behavior happen or beginning to be practiced, the least I do is take note that it did happen. This is when I note to myself that this behavior could be a concern and lead to more intense behaviors. If I see this behavior happen again, I’ve probably already begun to think of how I can change it. I do not want to see undesired behaviors happen twice or a third time because I know each time it happens, the more well-practiced and purpose it has for the animal. For example, I recently had Kwynn, the micro-mini pig with me for training for a weekend about a month ago. I went to get her ready for bed for the evening. I set up her crate and when I turned for her she took off running and squealing. An eyebrow went up and I began laughing. The crate and time of night was an obvious cue for her that it was time to go to bed. I could have chased her around the room and by her behavior of running and squealing, I predicted the more I chased, the faster she would run and louder she would squeal. I didn’t feel like running nor did I want to associate her being with me and putting her to bed was a time to not look forward to. I knew Kwynn was already trained to touch her snout to a target stick. So when she ran and squealed, I turned for the target stick. The presence of the target stick has a long and strong history of reinforcement for Kwynn. When she saw it, she knew the opportunity for goodies to be delivered was high. She quickly came running to me instead of away from me. A few repetitions of her touching her snout to the target stick and she was easily guided inside her crate. Then I stood and reinforced periods of time of her sitting calmly inside her crate while I slowly turned down the light. She was quick to catch on and the following night she saw the opportunity for going to bed as a highly desired one.

I often tell people “When working with an undesired behavior that has a long history of reinforcement, you can pretty much bet it took a lot longer to train that undesired behavior than it will for us to change it.” That has been my experience in changing behaviors with animals. Often times undesired behaviors have been unknowingly trained for a long time. If the steps needed to take to change the behavior are broken down into small approximations, one will see the behavior changing fairly quickly. Unfortunately, many times by the time a person seeks professional advice to change behavior, if the behavior change doesn’t happen quickly, the animal is likely to lose its home, even though the undesired behavior probably took months or even years to get to this intensity. The importance in seeking professional behavior and training help is the key in helping keep animals in their homes and out of shelters.

We are always learning. Animals are always learning. Training is communication and we are always training. The key question is “What are we training?”

Lara Joseph is the owner of The Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania, Ohio. See her website at


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


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.


Lara Joseph

Behavior Trained Through Consistency…A Win/Win Outcome for All

July 15, 2012 4 comments

I get a lot of requests on topics in which to write. I consider each and everyone of them and give them a lot of thought. I had recently posted on my

Rocky on my shoulder for the first time ever!

Lara Joseph; Avian Behavior, Training, & Enrichment Facebook page a photo of Rocky, my almost 13 year old moluccan cockatoo on my shoulder. What is the big deal about this photo? The fact that Rocky is on my shoulder. Rocky is a re-home that came into my life almost five years ago. He came to me from a shelter with a plethora of behavior issues and was highly suggested to me that he be euthanized for his level and intensity of behavior issues. Five years ago when I began interacting with him I was not able to get him out of his cage without a bite or obvious signs of aggression. Through consistent training and use of applied behavior analysis and positive reinforcement training over the past five years, Rocky is many things including one of the most well-behaved birds in my house and has just, for the first time ever, perched on my shoulder.

I hear cockatoos (in addition to many other parrots) getting labeled with names such as psychotic, unpredictable, hormonal, out of control, and yes, even vicious. I also hear them labeled with names such as cuddly, loving, needy, velcro birds, and very trusting. I don’t want this to be an entry about cockatoos. My intention is to have this be an entry about behavior, the procedures taken in changing behavior, and the fall-out with using labels.

Labels are descriptions given to describe, in this instance, birds. The problem with labels is that they can cause a lot of harm to the bird and its future. If a bird is labeled psychotic, many times it will cause people to not interact with the bird. The way I was taught was to describe what the behaviors look like because once you describe what they look like, you can then work on identify what is causing them. The objects or events that cause the undesirable behaviors to maintain or increase are called reinforcers. Once you identify these, then work can begin on changing the behavior and when behavior is changed from undesirable to desirable, it helps keep the bird and the caretakers happy in living together with less chance of the bird losing its home. Labels almost cost Rocky his life.

Birds are not hatched with all of these behavior problems and labels. They learn these behaviors through experience and observation. When they know what actions they make get them the reactions that work in their interest, they most likely will try exhibiting those actions again in the future. Training is learning and communication and birds are knowingly or unknowingly trained to behave much in the way they do. Training is always happening the question is, what are we training?

A strong and trusting relationship built through positive reinforcement interactions.

The longer a bird has to learn and repeat or refine behaviors, desirable or not, this is called a history of reinforcement. When I first brought Rocky home almost five years ago, I could tell his screaming probably had a long history of reinforcement. Generally the longer a behavior has been reinforced, the longer it will take to change the behavior because the bird has had such a long history of having that behavior serving some value to him or her. With observation I could tell Rocky was screaming for attention and from how strong and persistent he was with his screaming, I could tell the screaming had a long history of reinforcement. By no means did nor does this mean this behavior can not be changed. Five years later, Rocky rarely screams. In the beginning he screamed for several hours a day. With consistency and efficient use of differential reinforcement, I was able to see progress in change within a few training sessions. This doesn’t mean the screaming ceased in a few days. It took quite a while be able to get through a day without a scream, but when we did, it was nothing short of awesome and very reinforcing for me to continue interacting with Rocky in changing this behavior. Each bird is its own individual just as the behavior exhibited. The amount of time it took me to begin to see change in Rocky’s screaming could be different from bird to bird and from caretaker to caretaker. The methods used can be the same.

I hear several people say “All of a sudden my bird started (insert behavior here)”. If this is a behavioral issue, more than likely the behavior has been reinforced for a while. When behaviors issues are undesirable and intense consistently is usually when awareness is usually emphasized. Often times the undesirable behavior issue was unknowingly reinforced once in a while for a long period of time before it has reached intensity to where someone or another animal gets hurt or the behavior is unbearable to live with. When changing behavior, I have found it often takes a shorter amount of time to change the behavior than it took to unknowingly teach it in the first place.

Finally, when I first brought Rocky home my goal was never to see if I could get Rocky on my shoulder. Having a bird on a shoulder is many things

Rocky at his first children’s program.

including individualized. When I first brought him home and observed all of his behavior issues including chasing me and lunging at me, getting him on my shoulder was the furthest thing from my mind and actually I probably thought it would never happen. Over the past five years I have consistently worked on many different behavior issues with Rocky. I took the same approach in changing all of them and that approach was a procedure called shaping; reinforcing small approximations toward the target behavior. If Rocky was perched on the arm of a chair I was sitting in when I tried to get up or if he got behind me, he would lunge at me and pinch me with his beak. This is definitely a behavior I did not want to see increase or even maintain so I immediately began shaping a new and alternate behavior. That behavior was having him remain calm as I stood up or moved past him. I slowly positively reinforced him staying calm while perched near my elbow. Over time I was reinforcing him for staying calm as I slowly stood up. Over the past five years with our interaction between each other being primarily based on positive reinforcement, the behavior of him getting further and further behind me or further and further up the arm of my chair was constantly changing. Instead of lunging he would wait for me to give him praise and scratch the back of his head. As you see in the photos Rocky and I now have a strong and very trusting line of communication and relationship built through positive reinforcement. All behaviors aren’t for all birds and for all households. Each bird, history of reinforcement, and behavior being trained or modified is as individual as you and I and should be treated as such. Rocky was a diamond in the rough. He is such a treasured jewel in this household and with those that have had the pleasure of meeting him agree. He has been one of my best teachers and I will always thank him for that.

A Question About an Issue with Nipping

June 2, 2012 11 comments

Rewarding small steps in teaching a new behavior earns the trust between the bird and the bird owner. Keeping the training sessions short and frequent can result in obvious progress.


Hi Lara.

Two people have highly referred me to you. I have a blue-throated macaw and she is really nippy and pulling new feathers out.    Her worse times with me is nipping.  She turned three on February 21st. She needs to trust more and needs more enrichment activities.  She free flies and has an aviary. From the time I got her until about the time she was a year old, I applied the positive rewards, her nipping just got worse.  Then I did the earthquake and things were better.  There are times she could be as sweet as can be then in a blink of the eye, she screams and nips.  I am the only one living in my house. I don’t  take her outside because I can predict her reaction (she flies and is scared) and I have not moved my hand. Actually I am not even touching her, just holding her against my head.   I was advised to spray her even if she doesn’t like it.  Well I did but now she shakes so I am not doing it anymore.  She does need to be sprayed.  An overhead mister that goes off if I am not around would be great.

Melinda – Ohio



Hi Melinda.

There are several things that can be addressed from your situation. First, you mentioned see needs more enrichment. Enrichment is unique to each bird just as it is to us and it is the bird that decides what is enriching, not us. It is up to us to identify their forms of enrichment and then offer them to the bird and in the bird’s environment. I was just telling someone yesterday that my birds’ favored forms of enrichment are flight games and flight training, positive reinforcement training, and foraging. I know this by watching my birds’ behaviors.

If you read other entries in my blog, you will find how I define finding reinforcers and rewarding effectively. If a behavior is increasing, it is because it is being reinforced. You mentioned you’ve tried positively rewarding other behaviors but the nipping increased. If the nipping increased, it is being reinforced. It is easy to take bigger steps than what our birds are ready for. The steps need to be small and at the bird’s pace. It is also the bird that decides the reinforcer, it is never us. If behaviors aren’t changing, make sure you are not taking too big of steps and make sure the reinforcers you are offering are of high value to your bird. The best form of communication from our birds is their body language. As you are interacting with your bird, ask yourself “Does this bird look completely comfortable?” I not, you could be pushing your bird too far. Take a step back in what you are training and reward from there.

If you are holding your bird and she bites for no obvious reason, I would try target training her. There is a reason and training may help you in identifying it. Target training is one of the first things I train with a bird because it develops a line of communication and it teaches the bird what you are asking and learning the new positive consequences. Positive reinforcement training is the best form of communication I have found to use with an animal, which is why I am a huge fan of it. Target training is when an animal touches a specific object with a particular body part. A very common form of target training is asking a bird to touch its beak to a stick when the stick is presented.

Here is a video of Rebecca, who trained Suki the amazon to target her beak to a stick during A Day With The Trainer.

I’ve target trained all of my birds to put both feet on my wrist when I ask them to step up. Yes, this is a form of target training. If they step up, I reward. I have several birds that had issues with biting or nipping and I used this form of training to train them the behavior of stepping on my wrist without biting. This is what I am training the green-winged macaw in the photo above. I’m not pushing him and I rewarded him for even putting his foot up before he stepped onto my hand. Once they do this, I reward and then ask them to step off and reward again when they do. If I know a bird has a nipping issue, I definitely do not want them nipping when on my wrist so one of the places I’ll begin is to ask them to step back off immediately before the bird has the opportunity to nip. If the bird nips twice, it is being reinforced so I want to ask the bird to step off of my hand before he has the opportunity to nip. Then I slowly begin increasing the amount of time the bird is on my wrist and then reward that amount of time. Once I ask the bird to step up and it does, I reward. Ask it to step off and it does, reward. Ask it to step back on, reward. Have it sit there for two seconds, reward. Ask it to step off, reward. Then reward for sitting on the wrist for four seconds, for six, for ten, twenty, etc. Do you see how this works?

Keep training sessions short and frequent. I often train a bird for 20 seconds to a couple of minutes and then the training session is over. I’ll then come back and train again thirty minutes later and have another quick training session. Training short and frequently often is more effective than training long periods of time infrequently throughout the day. With every interaction you have with your bird you are training it. The key question is “What are you training?”.

I don’t use the earthquake method if I don’t have to. The only time I’ll use it is if the alternative is worse, and even then, if I have to use it, I’ll use it once and then make sure I then work on the behavior issue causing the problem versus having to use it again. Here is the reason I don’t use the earthquake method, it doesn’t build the trust and the relationship between you and the bird when the bird is on you. If this method is used once in a while, it could keep nipping behaviors very strong because the bird may know when that method is coming, and may get nervous in the anticipation of it which could result in the sudden bite or nip. Using the earthquake method doesn’t teach the bird what you really want it to do. Teach the bird to do something else, like target it’s beak to a stick. This way if you think you may see a nip coming while the bird is on you, ask it to touch the stick instead. This way the bird knows if it touches the stick, the reward is coming and you can direct the bird’s beak away from your arm. I would then ask the bird to step off of you so a nip isn’t accidentally reinforced.

When you begin the target training, I would begin when the bird is not on you, this way if you see a potential nip getting ready to happen you can avoid being accidentally bit. This way, when the bird is actually on your arm and you ask the bird to touch the stick, it is already familiar with what you are asking.

How water is introduced to the bird and the consequences will be the underlying factor in the bird’s future acceptance of how it is presented. This is often how I introduce a bird to allow the hose in close proximity, prepping the bird to accept taking a shower from it.

I’m glad to hear you have stopped the spraying if the bird doesn’t like it. You can train her to like it taking the same small steps in positive reinforcement training that you’ll use in target training her. I’ve trained all of my birds that the mist from the shower or the mist from a hose is a good time. The approach was different for each bird, because each bird is its own individual. Often times I’ll take the hose and shower another bird that likes it and have the bird watch. That doesn’t always work on its own though. Many times I’ll have the bird drink the water from my hand to introduce it to the water coming from the hose. Then I’ll introduce the hose in close proximity and reward the bird for allowing the hose in close proximity. Then I’ll reward the bird from drinking from the hose. My goal is to reinforce calm behavior while in close proximity to the hose. Once the mist gets so close to the bird, I may have a few droplets of the mist touch the bird for a quick second and then reward with the bird’s positive reinforcers. If that is too much for the bird and it shows any sign of nervousness, I take a step back in introducing the mist to the hose and start over. Often times in this house, the bird’s positive reinforcers are attention from me and for the bird to hear how good they are. Slowly I begin having a few drops of mist hit the bird’s wing very quickly and frequently, each time reinforcing heavily. This pairs the bird’s most valued reinforcers with the mist hitting its wing. If I use the reinforcers effectively, the bird will begin looking forward to the presentation of the hose.

After positively reinforcing the introduction of the hose into the bird’s environment at the bird’s pace, I’ve seen most birds enjoy the opportunity for a shower.

Putting Behaviors on Cue…Knowingly or Unknowingly

December 31, 2011 2 comments

Offering our hand can be a cue to the bird to step onto it.

A cue is a sound or signal that elicits a behavior. Many times we give cues or signals to our birds when we want them to do something. For example, we may cue a bird to step up on our hand or fly to us by offering our hand. There also may be multiple cues such as saying the word “step up” or “come” accompanied by tapping the area of our hand where we want the bird to step up or fly to. See Video Below.  In the world of domestic animals, the cue for a dog to sit may just be the word “sit”. Many times we have multiple cues and many times we need them. With cueing a dog to sit we may also point down and click our fingers while saying the word “sit”. All of these are cues for a particular behavior.

Cues are strong and numerous. Many undesired behaviors from the animals we work with may unknowingly be on cue. For example, the sound of approaching foot steps to a bird room could be putting a bird on cue to lunge when you walk by the cage. If with each time we pass the cage, that bird continues to lunge, we are reinforcing the bird’s behavior of lunging when we walk by. If a bird is on the floor and it chases feet whenever it sees feet, when we walk into the room, we could be cueing the bird to begin chasing our feet. So what is the solution? Put desired behaviors on cue. Putting desired behaviors on cue can be very effective if using the bird or animal’s positive reinforcers. Positive reinforcers are also known as rewards and it is always the bird or animal that decides what they are, never us. As long as we are working with a positive reinforcer that is more rewarding to the bird than the undesired behavior, we can make an alternative (desired) behavior more valuable to the bird. As I’ve stated, it is always the bird or animal that decides what the positive reinforcer or reward is. We, as caretakers or trainers can make those positive reinforcers more valuable to the bird by reserving their use for only during time of training.


For the bird that lunges with each time we walk by the cage, let the sound of our footsteps approaching the bird-room be a cue that something good is coming for the bird.  For example, Molly my eclectus would lunge when I walked by the cage. She would hear my footsteps approaching and the sound of my footsteps was her cue to stand on the bowl-holder in her cage, which was closest to me when I would walk in. As I would approach her cage, she would rock back and forth quickly. Seeing my approach was her cue to go to that particular bowl holder. As I walked by she would lunge. So is it me walking by that cued the lunge? I wasn’t sure so I tried it again at a slow pace. She didn’t lunge. I tried it again at a normal pace and she lunged. What this told me was it wasn’t me walking by her cage that caused her to lunge, it was the pace at which I walked by her cage.


Immediately I began walking by her cage at a slower pace. I needed to begin pairing my approach with something of value to her. This had to be developed through repetition because my approaching footsteps are already a strong cue for an undesired behavior. I needed to re-train this. With each approach I slowed my pace of walking. As I walked by her cage she did not rock and did not lunge. As I began to pass her I would tell her “Good” and then positively reinforce or reward with a pine nut. From prior history I know Molly loves pine nuts so I made sure the pine nuts stayed of high value to her by not giving them to her at any other time other than training her to stay calm during my approach, my walking in front of her, and my passing her. Through consistent pairing of my approach now with the pine nuts, I began cueing a new behavior of calm. If there are not positive reinforcers or consequences for requested behaviors, why would the bird or other animal want give the behaviors when cued? If the animal is always positively reinforced after a requested behavior, the future rate of that behavior is very likely. If lunging while we walk by serves a purpose to the bird, why wouldn’t it continue? Find reinforcers of more value to the bird than lunging while we walk past, and deliver them to the bird when they give the desired behavior when cued. Make the pairing of the approach and walking past of more value to the bird than the lunge.


In this video you will see how I trained this. I edited out a few areas of long pauses in training to make it more interesting to the viewer. The first two times I walk by her cage, I walk by at a normal pace. She does not lunge like she does when the camera is not there, but you do see the quick rocking back and forth that is the cue to me that a lunge is very likely to happen. This, in addition to the lunge are both behaviors I want to see replaced by staying calm at my approach, during my passing, and after my passing of her cage. This video shows each consecutive approach and passing. I did not edit out any approaches or passing, they are all shown in order of how they happened. With each approach I slowly increase my pace. By the end of the video, I walk by two times at my normal pace. My approach has now been consistently paired with the delivery of the positive reinforcer. My approach is now her cue that she will receive a pine nut. The lunging no longer exists because the alternate behavior of staying calm is of more value to her.

With the bird who’s cue is to chase feet when he sees them on the floor, find an alternate behavior that is of more value to the bird. How? Pair it an alternate behavior with a consequence that is of high value to the bird. For example, I have a moluccan cockatoo that used to chase my feet as soon as it saw me come into the room. If I were to jump onto the countertop I could escape the consequence of the chase but the bird would still come over to see if I had jumped down. As soon as I jumped down, the bird would begin chasing me again. If the reason the bird was chasing my feet was to get me to leave the room, if I left the room I am reinforcing the future rate of the behavior of the bird chasing my feet. From a little history of interacting with this bird, I knew it liked to toss a ball. Before I would get the bird out of his cage and I knew the opportunity for this bird to chase feet was likely, I would make sure I had a ball within easy reach for me. There were cues to me that the bird was going to start chasing my feet. First cue was he would stand completely still and watch me with his crest up. I could see him look down at my feet. He would then look up at my eyes. Then he would take off running toward me whistling with his crest up. The chase was on.


Rocky running after ball vs running after feet

Here is where the training started. When I saw the two cues, standing still, then the body scan, before he could start running I would grab the ball and toss it in the air. This caused him to focus on the ball and not on my feet. I would then put the behavior of him interacting with the ball on cue by pairing the words “Get the ball, Rocky” with me tossing the ball. As this continued to happen with each time I walked in the room, I began looking for the cue of him standing still. I would toss the ball before he even gave me the cue of the body scan. Through consistency of pairing my walking in the room with him standing still and my tossing the ball in the air, Rocky began chasing the ball more. Me walking in the room was now his cue for the ball toss game getting ready to begin. In the beginning, I needed to pair my walking in the room with the ball-toss game every single time until I knew Rocky clearly understood that me walking in the room was his cue for the ball-tossing game to begin. I had to be very careful to not let the chase begin because if I let it happen once in a while, this puts his behavior of chasing on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. What I mean by this is that the behavior of him chasing my feet would be reinforced once in a while. Having a behavior (desired or undesired) reinforced once in a while helps keep that behavior very, very strong. If I were to walk in and see that he was cueing me the chase was going to start and I didn’t think I could cue him to do something else, I would walk back out before he could start chasing while I thought of what else I could do. I definitely did not want to let that chase begin because I would intermittently reinforce it. I would find other things for him to play toss with and then positively reinforce him playing toss. Sometimes his positive reinforcers for tossing the ball were to hear the tone of voice I give when excited. Sometimes my clapping my hands in excitement were his reinforcers for tossing the ball. I often sat on the floor with him while tossing the ball. Soon he tired. Soon he would be calmly perching on my leg while I petted him.

So many behaviors. So many cues. If we see an animal reacting consistently to our approach, we are cueing that animal to act that way. If a bird begins screaming when they hear our car pull in the driveway, that behavior is being cued. Cueing desired behaviors helps take stress and anxiety out of our parrot’s environments. Many undesired repetitive behaviors such as rhythmic screaming, rocking, and feather picking can be consequences of having stress and anxiety in their environment. Training and reinforcing alternate behaviors is one way to help eliminate that stress and anxiety.

An Upcoming Behavior Workshop

June 12, 2011 1 comment

Upcoming Behavior Workshop

Next weekend I will be giving another Behavior Workshop. It will be hosted by the Central Ohio Friends of A Feather. This one will be in-depth and one of a series of three workshops offered in Columbus, Ohio. This workshop will be seven hours in length and class size will be limited to be able to address each individual, behavior issues, and leave plenty of time for lecture and examples in working with behavior issues with birds on site.

The tactics used in modifying behavior issues can be used on any animal, including human. I was just having a conversation yesterday with my step-sister in telling her how the same tactics can be used on a dog and other people. She found it interesting and said she would be signing up for my blog to read further information on how to incorporate these methods with her dog. In the next workshop offered in Columbus, a bird of prey trainer will be attending.

I use these same tactics in working with birds of prey and I will continue to use these methods because it seems to be a preferred form of enrichment for them. The birds of prey seem to now look forward to our training times when they once used to fly into walls to escape an oncoming care taker. They now fly to the front of their enclosures in anticipation of the interaction. So do my parrots and the blue jay and pigeon in which I work.

I look forward to giving these workshops and one of my most valued positive reinforcers is the continued e-mails I get after a workshop is completed, on how well the tactics learned are continuing to build relationships between the attendees and the birds in which they live or interact.

For more information about this particular workshop, upcoming workshops, or a workshop in your area, please feel free to e-mail me at:

That is music to my ears…

May 18, 2011 6 comments

Rocky foraging with a new toy in his cage. He almost looks as if he's getting busted with his hand in the cookie jar.

I’m not one that believes in keeping many routines with birds because it can lead to behavior issues, but one I do stick somewhat close to is not opening the bird room door until 9 a.m. This is a behavior I started shaping or creating about four years ago. The bird’s foraging toys are stocked full the night before so when they wake up, if they chose to do so, they have the option of foraging for their food until the bird room door opens at 9 a.m. The choices they have in their cages are many and each bird has about 6 – 8 foraging stations in their cages.

Four and a half years ago this house was full of ear-piercing screaming as soon as the crack of dawn began. That’s when everyone’s day began, including the other birds. After all, who can sleep through that decibel level? “Sleeping-in” became a term quickly unknown in this house, but not for long. There were several steps I took in modifying that behavior and all well worth while. One of them was putting foraging toys in Rocky’s cage. This obviously didn’t happen over night because when I first brought Rocky home four and a half years ago, not only did he not have a great diet, he had little food reinforcers in addition to not playing with toys, let alone foraging toys.

So this morning it was 8:45 a.m. My husband and I had been up since about 6:30 and we were walking all through the house doing laundry, taking showers, going up and down both sets of stairs in the house, and having conversations. Yes, we were having conversations and even yelling up and down the stairs to each other asking questions. What’s the big deal about all of this? These things were all former behaviors that would set Rocky off screaming every morning for sure when he first came into this house. Not any more or very, very rarely. All of these things were going on in this house this morning and I was ready to open the bird room door and glanced at the clock. It was only 8:45 a.m. I stood there and thought for a second “Well, he has been very quiet and I know he’s awake.” I knew because I could hear the bell on one of his toys. How did I know it was

Rico eating his early morning treat after pulling it down through the top of the cage bars.

Rocky’s toy? I put certain sized bells on Rocky’s toys so I can identify which bird-cage the interaction is coming from on the other side of the door. I like to know that Rocky is interacting with his toys and playing independently when I’m out of sight.  I smiled a huge smile and those butterflies went zooming through my stomach like they do every morning. “I suppose it is time to modify the behavior and include variance of when that bird room door opens.” I thought. I turned and headed to the bird room door.

The door handle creaks when opening. This is the cue to the birds that I’m coming in. I heard a bell stop ringing. I looked at each bird and said “Good Morning” in a light but exciting tone. Murray, my greenwing whispered “Hi” back to me. I tip toed over to Rico’s cage and rubbed his belly through the cage bars. He was sitting high up in his cage foraging for a peanut I put in a paper cone cup and then wrapped in a paper cup and threw on top of his cage the night before. He stopped eating and stood still for the belly scratch.

I kept hearing the ding of a bell behind me and each time I turned to look, Rocky would stop foraging. That’s ok, he tends to stop what he’s doing when someone looks at him. A label many would call ‘shy’. I don’t know why he does it but it is pretty cute. I walked over to his cage with camera in hand and kept telling him what a good boy he was to be able to snap a great photo of him with his foot way down deep in the foraging toy searching for the goodies. He wouldn’t budge but I was able to snap the photo I posted above. One toe in the cookie jar.

I turned to open the blinds and the windows and I heard the dinging of the bell again. I didn’t move. I stood there and the dinging was just going to town. I glanced down at my camera, turned it on and got it ready. I took

Rocky digging in to one of his foraging toys.

a step backwards toward his cage and the dinging stopped. I waited until it started again and took another step back. The dinging stopped but not for too long. One more step and the dinging continued. I turned and quickly snapped this photo of Rocky going to town in his foraging toy! “Ah ha!” I yelled in my head. I felt like I caught Santa red-handed delivering under the Christmas tree! I was able to snap this photo before I got the ‘deer in the headlights’ look again. I’m chuckling. Actually he looks at me as if he’s wondering what it is that is so exciting. That’s fine, I’ll take it.

Seeing Rocky foraging like this is very rewarding to me. Many, many behaviors of Rocky have been modified since he’s come home to live with us. I always say “He’s my favorite mistake.” I’ve adored the moluccan cockatoos from afar and would have loved the opportunity to live with one. I just couldn’t purchase one knowing so many are without homes due to behavior issues. Rocky and I’s path crossed one day when he was eight years old and homeless. I jumped at the opportunity and took him in blind sided. It didn’t take long before I found out why he lost his home. The road was ‘rocky’ and full of work but here we sit four and a half years later and he’s probably one of the most well-behaved birds under this roof. “Someone’s trash is another’s treasure.” Isn’t that the saying? He is an awesome life added in this household and boy has he ever changed mine. He’s turned me and my husband’s life on its axis and it has been such an eye-opening and learning experience for us both. Oh the quite lifestyle of leisure and travel we once knew. Now before I open the bird room door on the weekends I glance at my husband and say “Are you ready?” Once I get the nod I open the bird room door and out runs Rocky yelling “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! Tickle, Tickle, Tickle! Peek-A-Boo!” and through our house goes running the big, pink chicken with crest up trying not to trip over those big feet running a mile a minute. We would have life no other way.

You know what’s even better? We get to sleep in now on Saturday mornings before the big, pink chicken show begins! 😉

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