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Question on training a behavior; training a bird to trust me getting closer in proximity to him.

August 14, 2011 6 comments

Question:

Dear Lara,

        About a month ago I adopted what I was told to be a 6-year-old blue-fronted hybrid amazon parrot. When I got him I was told he was given up because the lady that had him got him to breed him and when he didn’t she got rid of him. Since I first got him he’s never really wanted anything to do with people. He would snatch food from our hand and then throw it, and wouldn’t come out of his cage. After about 2 weeks he got up the confidence to come out on his play-top and he isn’t rough at taking food from us anymore he has even started to mimic me as long as he sees the pieces of almonds I use to reward him. However, he is still very skittish when it comes to us getting too close. he wont step up, let us touch him, or even let us get within a foot of him unless he sees a treat. He is also afraid of a hand-held perch. I’ve been told different ways to deal with this such as forcing him to step up which only resulted in him being scared and my hand bleeding, and to just go slowly and wait until he’s ready…I’m in this for the long haul and love a challenge but was wondering if there was any tricks to help it progress a little faster or to help me gain his trust a little faster. He’s not really a biter or have an aggression problem it’s only when he gets cornered which I understand, but any type of advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

        Sincerely, 

            Terri, Florida

Hi Terri.

First I want to thank you providing a home to a bird that is in need of one. I know I’ve spoke with you before and this bird is lucky to have found you. Time and patience can be exactly what this bird needs but one thing I’ve noticed in training, especially with birds who show signs of extreme fear, if we focus on minute accomplishments in the desired direction with these birds, we will see many of them. Keeping training sessions short and very frequent can produce desired results more quickly. Pending on the individual bird, when working with birds that are very hand-shy or fearful of the sight of us, I keep my training sessions anywhere around 10 seconds to about a minute and a half. I make these sessions very frequent though. If my training session lasts about 10 seconds, I may have twenty of these 10 second training sessions in the period of an hour or two. I’ll come back a few hours later and repeat the training sessions. Terri, I find this very effective and this repetition helps build the trust in expectations of us from the bird pretty quickly.

Secondly, I’d like to say, the progress you’ve said you’ve made so far with your amazon is pretty impressive. I just want to send a kudos where and when nice work has been done.

All body language is a sign of communication - an african grey raising its feathers in an approach - photo courtesy of Viki Bullock

Here is exactly where I would start in working with his confidence in proximity to you and the members of your household. Start with rewarding the proximity he will let you to him now while slowly shaping closer steps towards him. Shaping, as you may know is taking small approximations toward the desired behavior. How small of approximations? Your amazon will tell you. Look for the subtle signs he may show you that you may be getting too close. You will want to watch for all of the subtle signs he gives right before he thinks about moving away from you. Your goal is to have him not move away from you, right? Don’t forget to reinforce this. You will be reinforcing him for staying still and showing all signs of calm body language as you approach.

These subtle signs in which you will learn to read may be the raising of the feathers on the nape of the neck, the small lean away from you, or just glancing in the direction of his escape. Learn to read these and pay attention to these, as you may already be taking these steps.

In addition to the above, I would arrange the immediate environment for you to be able to reward the behavior you want to see increase. Since it is proximity in which you are wanting, it may be hard for you to reinforce because you can’t get close enough to reinforce him.

Forcing a bird to do a requested behavior can have many side effects as you have already seen one, increased aggression. Forcing a bird to do something takes his choice out of the environment and there are many side effects to this also and none of these are relationship building. One major problem with forcing a bird to do something is that it is often times associated with us. Isn’t it us in which we are trying to shape the behavior of trust with the bird? As you have seen, forcing a bird to do something often sets you way back in your training strategy.

It sounds as though you have successfully trained him to be trusting in getting close enough to him to calmly take food from your hands. For others reading this who may have a bird that they can’t get this close to yet, I would suggest setting up an attachable and mobile food cup on the outside of his cage furthest  from him. If that is still too close, pull up a rolling play stand with food dishes and place it next to the cage. Drop the treat in the dish furthest away from the cage so the bird has to climb off the top of the cage top and across the rolling play stand.

Using a highly valued reinforcer for the behavior of calm perching on my computer vs anything else. This is now a very desired spot for my bird to sit because he knows praise (a highly valued reinforcer of his) is always given to him for perching calmly here.

You may want to begin shaping the behavior of having him stay calm without seeing the treat. If he knows with each approach you are delivering a highly valued reinforcer of his, the quicker he will begin to learn you are always paired with this reinforcer. That happens through consistency and you have to make sure you are doing this every single time while shaping the behavior. Otherwise, if you are not delivering the reinforcer on a continuous schedule of reinforcement, you maybe putting his reluctance in your approach on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. By this I mean if once in a awhile you do not deliver the treat, he may be anticipating that once in a while and this can keep his behavior reluctance in letting you close to him very strong. When shaping a behavior, the trainer wants to make sure they are always reinforcing that desired behavior….always until the behavior is consistent and understood by the animal.

As I was saying, you might want to start shaping your proximity without showing the treat. Showing a treat to encourage a desired behavior is called luring and I will lure when trying to shape a behavior. The problem with luring is exactly the problem you are seeing. The bird will not give you the desired behavior unless he sees what is in it for him.

With fading out the lure, we need to re-think our strategy and approach and maybe take a few steps back and re-work in getting that desired behavior back without luring. Fading out the lure is shaping a new behavior, Terri. Based on what you’ve described in the behavior you have already trained, I have no doubt you can do this and if you love a challenge, I guarantee you that you’ll love this one. It is very rewarding when birds start giving us behaviors when requested without knowing what the reinforcer is or when it will be delivered.

I’ve recently trained a bird with luring him to go into his cage by showing him a handful of pine nuts. I have recently started fading out

Luring in shaping the behavior of recall to an african grey. - photo courtesy of Viki Bullock

the lure by showing him my closed fist while requesting him to step onto his perch. When he steps onto and only when he has both feet firmly placed on his perch do I open my hand to show the contents. I just have to make sure the contents are of value to him and the bird is the one that always decides. My next steps are to slowly fade out my closed hand having to be in such close proximity to the perch to attain the behavior of him stepping onto it. With time, patience, consistency, and fluency we will quickly see progress. The signs of progress can be very minute signs in body language and comfort. (3 videos of fading out a lure below)

Terri, I was going to suggest target training for your amazon in this reply but have decided to make that a separate entry because fading out the lure would be my next suggestion in your training plan. I’ll work on target training being one of my next entries because I think it would also be of high value in progress in your training strategy.

I hope this has helped. It was a pleasure responding to your questions.

Sincerely,

Lara Joseph

luring a screech owl to step onto the glove (1 of 3 of a series of videos on luring and fading out the lure)

gradually fading out luring a screech-owl to the glove. In this video you will see me cue him and he doesn’t respond so I quickly show the lure but the lure wasn’t present in the beginning.

This is a video showing me calling the screech-owl to the glove while totally fading out the lure. The lure no longer exists. You may have noticed in this video and the last, I was also teaching the owl to a designated perch on cue after calling it to the glove. These are very casual videos of training but training strong behaviors.

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