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Posts Tagged ‘behavior’

Preparing our animals for success with social encounters and new environments

February 5, 2015 1 comment

Quincy sitting at the checkout line of a pet store. She received both treats and attention as a reinforcer for this desired behavior.

Quincy sitting at the checkout line of a pet store. She received both treats and attention as a reinforcer for this desired behavior.

Does the undesired behavior of your animals prevent you from taking them on social outings or to new environments? This can be changed. So many times I see people restricting themselves from leaving the house or taking animals with them on outings because they don’t feel they can keep their animal under control or keep from being embarrassed about their behavior. This makes me sad for the animal and for the person both. I love seeing happy animals and I love seeing people who are proud of their animals, especially in public. Let me share with you an experience I had yesterday with my dog, Quincy.

We’ve been pretty busy here at the center through the winter with behavior consults, on-line classes, consultations, etc. Many of these consultations are for behavior concerns people want to change now so they can take their animals out for socialization, therapy, etc when the weather warms. I was talking to the other trainer here at the center yesterday and letting her know I wanted to get some of our animals out for more socialization through the winter. There are plenty of places you can take your animals for exposure to people and changing surroundings during the cold months. Yesterday I picked a pet store.

Quincy hasn’t been to a pet store in months. I was careful in picking the store, the time of day, and the weather. I wanted to set Quincy up for success for the behavior I was expecting from her, being able to reinforce the desired behavior, and not pushing her past her comfort level. This began with me getting her out of the back of the Jeep. There are a lot of scents, visual enrichment and distractions, sounds, animals, and potential for people wanting to interact with her. For a dog that hasn’t been to a pet store in months, this is a lot of information for her to take in and be comfortable with. I picked an outing at Quincy’s comfort level and I chose to go on a day that was snowing heavily, early afternoon, and during the week. I picked this day and this time in hopes that my encounters with other people and animals would be low because I need to control as much of Quincy’s environment as possible to make sure this outing is a success. It was but I also recognized behaviors that needed addressing and training.

We got out of the Jeep and immediately saw a woman with a puppy. Quincy gave a small bark. I asked her to sit as the puppy approached. That puppy’s future is just as important to me as Quincy’s. Quincy is a big dog and not all puppies are comfortable with big dogs approaching them. I don’t know how the woman is training her dog and it is not fair for me to decide if it is ok for us to approach her dog. The woman did not ask me if it was ok for an encounter so I reinforced Quincy for sitting until the puppy got in the car.

Within seconds of walking into the store, I could tell this was the jackpot of sensory information for Quincy. She kept stopping and smelling everything. I let her continue to sniff when we entered the store. She is a dog after all and this is enrichment and information to them. Keeping in mind this was her first time in a pet store in months, I relaxed the criteria of what I was asking from her. As we continued to walk through the store she began pulling on the leash. Ahhh, I can work with this. Why is she pulling on the leash? Because she wants to get to the next scent. I identified the reinforcer behind a behavior I did not want to see increase so I used it to our advantage in training. When she pulled, nothing happened on my end. When she relaxed on the leash and looked back at me, I told her “Good” and motioned for her to go and get the scent. As I continued to do this she understood that she was going to be able smell the goodies and that was contingent on a loose leash.

We saw another dog that surprised us walking around an isle. I immediately saw Quincy’s ears rise. The dog was galloping towards us. The person on the other end of the leash was looking at the toys in the isle and not at us or his dog. Since he wasn’t watching what his dog was watching, I redirected Quincy’s attention by asking her to follow me and we walked quickly toward the rabbit isle, an isle I thought the person might be less likely to walk down. I reinforced the heck out of the behavior of Quincy giving me the behavior I asked. I reinforced with an exaggerated “Good girl” and kneeling down in front of her for a neck scratch and a kiss.

After about five minutes we headed to the checkout counter. This outing was successful so far so I wanted to keep it short. There was no one in front of us which was what I was hoping for by picking a day where I thought people were less likely to visit a store. Within a minute someone walked up behind us. She asked if she could pet Quincy and I kindly told her, “Please don’t” and then explained to her my intention. I told her Quincy hadn’t been in a pet store in a while and this was a training exercise for her. I told the woman that I didn’t want Quincy to learn that every time she sees a person that she can run up to them expecting to be petted. The woman clearly understood. As Quincy sat next to me during checkout, I put her goodies in a bag and turned to the woman and asked if she was ok petting Quincy after I told Quincy to go greet her. The woman was obviously happy to do so. Before I told Quincy to go greet the woman, I told her “Good” gave her a treat and asked her if she wanted to go greet the woman. This was something I could tell Quincy clearly wanted to do, so I used it as a reinforcer for her behavior of sitting next to me until I was finished at the check-out line. I was very proud of Quincy. I saw some things we needed to work on so I knew we could work on these behaviors after we returned to the center.

On the way out the door I saw the display isle. I knew Quincy would want to sniff it so I let her sniff the base of it as a reinforcer for walking next to me on a loose leash until we got there. I told her to “Go ahead” as I motioned to the isle.

Dogs have such a great sense of smell. To be in a pet store and not be able to gather information from those smells would be cruel for me to ask. Quincy and I make a team. I enjoy spending time with her and I want her to enjoy her outings with me. Our training makes it beneficial to both of us. If you want to learn more about working with behavior concerns or training desired behaviors you and your animal will look forward to, take a look at our Webinars and our On-Line Consultations.

Here is a video I think might be helpful to people wanting to better understand what your dog gathers through its nose and how it impacts behavior and information gathering. Enjoy and as always, contact us if you have questions.

How do dogs “see” with their noses? by Alexandra Horowitz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7fXa2Occ_U&feature=youtu.be

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When Does Training Cease?

March 29, 2014 Leave a comment

What is training anyway? Training is our primary form of communication with the animal(s) in our care. We are always training, the questions is….What are we training? If our animals can see or hear us, training is happening. When our training plans take an unexpected turn and the consequences are not what we intended, this doesn’t mean the training of the animal has ceased. Quite the contrary. If our animals are reacting or learning from our mistakes, they are learning from our lack of preparation. Once an animal learns a behavior, desired or undesired, it has experienced it. It cannot ‘un-experience’ the consequence of this interaction. The training has not stopped. The training is continuing, it is just not the training or communication we want. This is when undesired behaviors are being trained or communicated. When force is used to try to control behavior, what message are we communicating to the animal in which we are trying to build a relationship? If force is being used to communicate a message to the animal, coercion is being used. Coercion may work but not without its side effects. Coercion is “Do it or else!” Coercion has many side effects and reinforcing increased aggression from the animal is a powerful one and so is learned self helplessness. Is increase aggression what you want from your animal? Is a cowering animal what you want portrayed as your relationship with the animal in your care? When our training plans don’t have the outcomes we want, this doesn’t mean the learning from the animal has ceased. That animal is learning how to respond in future situations. As mentioned before, “What are we training?”

My blog entries can now be found on my website at: TheAnimalBehaviorCenter.Com.

If the animal is observing its environment, it is learning from its environment

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 theanimalbehaviorcenter.com.

What a Little Flight Can Do

March 16, 2013 12 comments

Rico on my head looking out into the aviary.

Rico on my head looking out into the aviary.

I’m sure many people are ready for this winter to be over. I’m a big lover of the snow and cold but this winter has been long enough and I’m ready for some warmer temperatures. The birds are also. I love the summer for them because they get the fresh air, the sun, and all of the benefits of their aviary. I’m a big advocate of aviaries for our birds because of all of the health benefits, mental stimulation, and physical stimulation it offers them. I like helping people visualize how they can incorporate aviaries for their birds whether they live on 20 acres, in a condominium, an apartment, or in a town house. Where there is an idea, there is an aviary!

Anyway, back to winter and being cooped up because of the temperatures. Each day I try to get each bird out for interaction with me, interaction with other things in their environment and just for a change in scenery.The other day I was working at my desk that overlooks the aviary and Rico was perched on his favorite perch, which happens to be my head. Whatever it was that I was working on, I noticed Rico began to bob up and down on my head. I opened my phone and flipped the view backwards so I could see where Rico was looking. He was bobbing up and down, holding his wings out, and looking out the window at the aviary. So much body language here and these signs all together gave me a hint that he may want to go out into the aviary. I put down what I was doing and out into the aviary we walked.

I sat Rico down on the banister in the aviary and ran to the other side. I called him to my hand and after a few struts on

Rico flying across the aviary. The windows are open letting in fresh air and natural sounds from the outdoors.

Rico flying across the aviary. The windows are open letting in fresh air and natural sounds from the outdoors.

the banister he was off in flight. Right to my hand he flew. All of that fresh air going into his air sacs, being distributed to his bones and organs. How healthy this is for him, how fun it is for him and for me to be a part of it.

Not all of my birds fly. One hasn’t flown in his life, which is my greenwing macaw, Murray who is about to turn 9 years old. Then I have one that is a beautiful flyer but doesn’t know how to land. This would be Rocky, my moluccan cockatoo who is a little over 13 years old. Let me correct myself…Rocky is still working on perfecting his landing. Myself and the volunteers here at the center are helping him work on his landings. When Rocky flies, he doesn’t know how to land and when he lands he has to crash into something to stop. I no longer encourage him to fly until we have his landing gear perfected. We have not clipped his wings, we just don’t encourage him to fly yet. He loves to run so we are encouraging him to run while we work on training him to land and use his wings, tail feathers and feet to stop. He’s getting pretty good at this. We hope to be posting photos and videos soon of Rocky’s flights through the aviary this summer.

So Rocky runs and in the meantime we are focusing on hanging vines in the aviary to give Murray more means of locomotion and choices in transportation through the aviary. When birds have more control in their environment, how to navigate it and choices in navigation, I see it having a huge impact on decreasing behavior issues such as screaming, feather destructive behaviors, and issues related to stress, aggression and anxiety.

Before I took Rico out of his cage and before he was on my head, I could tell he was up for a change in his environment, which was his cage. Keeping animals in the same space without changing that space or having different areas to move to, creates a stagnant environment. Objects and interactions in that environment become predictable and studies show that with predictability comes boredom. I could see Rico was getting bored and was in need for a change. If I didn’t provide change I could tell undesirable behaviors were about to happen such as screaming, hunkering down and flapping wings in anticipation which brings along signs of anxiety, and probably grabbing a toy and banging it on the side of the cage. I don’t like seeing any of these signs in my birds because of the stress I see that it brings out in them.

Rico flying over the 4 1/2' pit in the center of the aviary. His concentration increases while learning depth perception.

Rico flying over the 4 1/2′ pit in the center of the aviary. His concentration increases while learning depth perception.

After one flight across the aviary I could tell Rico was still interested in flying. Down into the pit I went and I called him to my hand from there. Rico has been showing signs of not understanding how to fly to my hand when I am down in the pit. I’m not sure what it is but he’s not used to flying to me when I call him from different elevations. We’ve slowly been working on this at his comfort level while slowly increasing the complexity in elevation when calling him. Sometimes I’ll go one or two steps down into the pit and call him. The pit is about 4 1/2′ below regular ground level. Then I bring out the ladder, walk up a few rungs and call him up to my hand. Each time I step down a step or up a rung allowing him the slow change and adaptability in depth or elevation. This is a process called shaping; reinforcing small approximations toward the target behavior, and in this instance the target behavior was him still flying to my hand and gradual changes in elevation. In working on this several times in the past, this time I ran into the pit and called him to my hand. He flew over the banister and down into the pit and on my hand like he’s done it a million times before. He yelled “Yahoo!” as soon as he landed on my hand and you bet I yelled it back to him. I love having this interaction with birds and especially with the ones under my care. His learning something new (depth perception) in his new flying environment is not only physically stimulating for him, it is also mentally stimulating. He is learning from changes in his environment. When I slowly integrate change at their pace, I see the birds in my care dealing with unforeseen changes very readily. I want this for them, for their health, and for their future.

Not everyone has room like this to fly their birds. I understand that. A few months ago I didn’t either. I lived in a small house with five parrots and a crow with a Barred Owl in a mew in my backyard. I know what small living quarters are like with birds. This didn’t stop me from getting birds out and flying them all over the house, increasing complexity by having learn to fly through doorways and up the stairs. Rocky played fetch by running all over the first floor. Murray would swing from a vine in the aviary. Molly would soak up the sun for hours in the aviary, obviously with the option to move into the shade. I noticed that if I were to get them out of their cages and get them running, flying, and/or flapping their wings, energy was being burnt off, behavior issues would decrease, and the more they seemed content with perching, sleeping, preening, and foraging for the next several hours.

My point in this post is to share how a few minutes of burning off energy in large amounts can greatly impact behavior

Five minutes of flight provides several hours of rest, relaxation, preening, foraging, and a decrease in behavior issues.

Five minutes of flight provides several hours of rest, relaxation, preening, foraging, and a decrease in behavior issues.

or the potential for undesired behavior issues not to happen. Less than five minutes of flying in the aviary for Rico in the photos above, and we went back into the Birdroom and Rico flew straight for one of the perches and rest and relaxation were in his near future and mine. Parrots are intelligent creatures that have a lot of energy to burn and they want to put that mind and body to use. This is why I train them. I like putting their minds to use. I like providing environments where they can continue to learn and manipulate that environment. When I provide environments like this and interactions like this, I see our relationships skyrocketing.

For more information or ideas on how to build aviaries or extended exercise areas in your house for your birds, take a look at the Enrichment and Aviary section on my website at LaraJoseph.com. I will be building more aviaries this summer and plan on sharing my plans on my website. For everyday quick tips and ideas on behavior change, training tips, and enrichment ideas, sign up to my Behavior, Training, & Enrichment page on Facebook. I hope to see you there. I’d love to see photos and videos of your enclosures and how you exercise your birds.

Beginning the New Year

January 21, 2013 8 comments

Rico and Rocky in their new aviary. Rico is on his favored perch, as usual.

Rico and Rocky in their new aviary. Rico is on his favored perch, as usual.

I love to write in my blog. I enjoy writing about my experiences and observations with the birds I have. Our recent move has kept me from doing this but it has also given me many things I could write about.

We are moved in, finally. It took quite a while. This move and the new center was quite a project for my husband and myself and it has probably aged the both of us. We are finally getting back to full nights of rest and we are loving our new home. I am up, ready and out in the center by the wee hours of the morning every morning. I love being out there and it is like home for me. The birds are settling in nicely for the most part. Rocky is showing signs of anxiety and stress that he hasn’t exhibited in quite a while. It isn’t in great amounts but the amounts they are in lets me know I need to be working on them and I have been. This issue I will save for a blog post on its own so I can write in detail on my training strategy and outcome.

The flock has grown by two. They were driven here by an animal trainer from Massachusetts. This is also another topic I will be writing about next on

Austin (volunteer) reinforcing desired behavior while cleaning cages.

Austin (volunteer) reinforcing desired behavior while cleaning cages.

my blog. I have a ton of photos, a story, and plenty of training videos to show.

There are a few people who have continuously dedicated their time, efforts, and thoughts in volunteering at the center. I have been so thankful to them for all of their help. This place isn’t just for me and my birds. It is a place I want to share with animals and animal lovers. I have many, many plans for the future.

I have less than a couple of months before I hit the road again. California, Massachusetts, and Chicago are all coming up this spring. I’m focusing on getting the birds ready and the caretakers of the birds ready. So far, I’m very pleased with what I am seeing and I will be writing about this also.

I am happy to say that Rocky is flourishing with all of the people coming through the center for visits, volunteering, and tours. It is so exciting to see all of the interaction he is getting. I love telling people “Sure, go ahead and walk in to Rocky’s cage and bring him out.” He’s come a long way, baby.

So if you have the opportunity to walk through the Birdroom door, make sure you look down at the message etched into the concrete. I hope that message and this center are here for years to come, even after I am gone. This is why we jumped in this project after all. Happy New Year to all.

 

A New Chapter, Turning the Page for the Birds

October 31, 2012 5 comments

Dearest Blog,

Murray and Suki making the most of the height in the new facility. The facility has been designed to provide choices even for the birds that don’t fly. Suki, flighted blue -front amazon on the left. Murray, non-flighted greenwing macaw on the right.

I have not abandoned thee. I wanted to post an update. I know several people have heard me talk over the past year about wanting a larger place for my birds. Actually, I’ve wanted this for the past three or four years. When Suki, the blue-fronted amazon came to me last year for training, Murray, my greenwing began interacting with her to the point that it was obvious they were creating a new form of enrichment for each other. I liked what I saw it providing to Murray’s future and growth. I enjoyed having Suki around also so I knew if I wanted to keep yet another bird I needed a larger place. I don’t feel I can properly provide what five parrots need in my current household, even with the aviary.

For the past several years I have been searching for a larger house with land to build indoor and outdoor flight spaces and enrichment areas for the birds. We have found one. We found a 10,000 square foot building that we can dedicate strictly to the birds. Lucky for us, there was also a house on the property. We have been working on the building and the house and we are almost to completion and couldn’t be happier.

First and foremost this building is an enrichment area for the birds to run, fly, play, and scream to their heart’s content. Over the past several years I have spent much of my time traveling the United States giving presentations and workshops to the animal community. I have been saving all of my pennies to purchase this place for the birds and I thank each and every one of you for your support. I have kept my workshops in mind during the design of this new building. I plan on having several workshops at this new facility along with one-on-one or small groups of individualized training also known as A Day With The Trainer. I also have designed the building for many functions that will benefit the avian and animal community.

“Can you hear me now?” Rico, the umbrella cockatoo recalling to my hand from the rafters and over the arena, or pit.

We are designing this facility to be unlike anything we have ever seen or experienced. From the moment any

Grass being laid in the center arena. More animal enrichment being installed this winter. Yes, we will be the only ones in Ohio mowing the grass in January.

individual drives into the parking lot, their avian educational experience will begin in so many ways.

I have been introducing the birds to the facility slowly over the past month. It is a large area and I have seen it be overwhelming for the birds at times. After taking the small steps in introducing the facility to the birds they are now showing signs of being very comfortable with it. The ceilings are very tall and the center of the building has an area to walk down into a center arena or area. This height and depth has been a new concept for my birds and very interesting for me to experience with them.

I am posting updates on my FaceBook page. I have been receiving a lot of e-mails and messages asking when the facility will be open, my plans for it, and bookings for workshops and A Day With The Trainer. Feel free to send me an e-mail (aviansanta@gmail.com) with questions. We hope to be moving in a few weeks and will take the time during the holiday season to share this experience and joy with our birds. This is a huge move for all of us.

Thank you to everyone for your continued support and we hope to share this with you also. Happy Holidays. And to my birds, Merry Christmas with all of my heart.

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.

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