Parrot Boarding and Training Opportunities

tyThe other day a parrot-training friend who I admire and adore asked me why we didn’t board parrots in our homes in order to give them focused training sessions and allow their owners the opportunity to maintain behaviors rather than build them from scratch. I scoffed at this idea. In fact, I think I puffed out my chest and said, “ANYONE CAN LEARN TO TRAIN!”

Of course, anyone CAN learn to train, but as my friend pointed out — not everyone wants to learn to train new behaviors. Doing things you’re not good at is frustrating. Sometimes people just want to do right by their pets and enjoy them. Why does everyone have to be an expert? Dog owners send their dogs off to be trained all the time.

“I’d never send my dog off to be trained!” I said. Except that even as I said it I realized it was a lie. I’ve happily sent a dog off to “bird dog” school to learn to point upland game and have every intention of sending my puppy off to do the same this summer. Who am I kidding? There is nothing wrong with boarding/training situations in the hands of the right trainer.

Then I started thinking about the opportunity to build a relationship with a parrot on a daily basis and build behavior on our own time, rather than in the afternoon allotted to an in-home consult. The whole idea of it got me kind of excited about the possibilities.

I have always been frustrated by my limited ability to shape behavior in a single consultation and the pressure of knowing a parrot might have to be re-homed if you can’t help the household learn to train can be immense. I realize that behaviors are easy to reshape and sometimes aren’t transferable, but I do find myself wondering if I couldn’t do a better job of helping loving, dedicated and frustrated parrot owners succeed in building or renewing a relationship with their parrots that works for everyone. Why not set them up to succeed with a bird that already had the basics? I want to try!

So here we are… I’m officially offering a very select number of train and board opportunities in my home that include:

  • Flexible training plans based on your needs.
  • Ongoing and consistent daily training.
  • Multiple daily training sessions and ongoing household interactions.
  • Opportunities for socialization, short trips and new experiences.
  • Personalized behavior maintenance plans.

Details on services and pricing for training and boarding are here.

I know everyone can’t afford this luxury (and I hope to get to a place where I have slots for pro bono birds every year). Still, I hope a few people are interested and I’m curious what parrot folks will think of this opportunity. I suspect it will be a bit controversial. I bet you all will let me know! 🙂

Throwing the Baby in the Bathwater

As I work on my new parrot training book for TFH, I find myself noticing training for better or for worse all over the Internet. The book includes trick training and training for husbandry and behavior, but I personally think the most important bits of the book are training the day-to-day. Right as I was about to write the section on training a parrot to take a bath, I noticed a video on Facebook of a scarlet macaw taking her first bath.

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I hope the video owner will forgive me for not entirely approving of this method of “baby’s first bath” which is essentially here is how you take a bath, get over it. He is very gentle and careful and talks calmly to his parrot. Obviously he loves her a great deal and wants to help her with new feather itchies. However, she is not happy about her bath and may or may not be willing to get in the sink next time.

What do I mean by “not happy”? Explicitly at :19 she starts trying to get out of the sink. At :34 she tries again and when she is unsuccessful holds up a foot, wanting to try again, but not making a big attempt because she wasn’t successful on her last try. When she succeeds in busting free at :54 she definitely has escaping on her mind and beelines out of the sink. If you have ever heard me talk about watching for subtle body language that exhibits discomfort or fear, that is what I am talking about. Her body language is saying, “I don’t like this.” If the parrot finds the situation undesirable, then it is not training with positive reinforcement, because being in the sink and being sprayed is obviously not reinforcing. It is also not operant conditioning because the operator is clearly not in control.

Is she terrified? No. Traumatized? No, I think she is just fine. However, it’s now a crap shoot whether or not she is going to want to take to her next bath, because it obviously wasn’t rewarding. Behaviors only repeat themselves if they have been rewarded. Compare her experience to Blu Lu, Barbara Heideinrich’s parrot and her first bath which is entirely directed by the parrot.

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When Blu Lu is uncomfortable, she is allowed to leave. I know not all of us believe in having our birds flighted. If she were unable to fly, Barbara would have just offered her a hand, when Blu Lu lifted a foot wanting to get away from the water and let her step back down when she leaned toward it again. The parrot can make the decision and discover for herself how she feels about bathing. What she discovers is that it is positive; look at her body language in compared to the other parrot. She is flicking and bobbing her head and dunking herself in the water voluntarily. Her body language shows engagement rather than a desire to escape. And when she does leave, she comes right back. The experience was positive and chances are it will repeat. There is no question about how she will feel about being near the sink or being offered a bath in the future. Perhaps she won’t jump right in, but it will only be because does not feel like having a bath, not because she is nervous or fearful.

So you can train a parrot with operant conditioning to take a bath by allowing her to reinforce herself, or if you have a reluctant parrot, you can be the giver of reinforcement and shape the behavior. Those step would look something like this:

Leave the water running in the sink and step your parrot on the counter. (You may have to do some repetitions on and off the counter if your parrot is uncomfortable with standing on it.) Once your parrot is comfortable sitting on the counter train her to bath by shaping the behavior for rewarding each step progressively:

  1. Reward for looking at the water. (She looks at the water, you say “good” hand her a treat.)
  2. Reward for getting closer to the water.
  3. Reward for getting right next to the water.
  4. Reward for touching the water.
  5. Reward for getting beak all the way the water.
  6. Reward for leaning all the way into the water.

At any time, if she is uncomfortable, she can back out or quit all together and you can pick up your training session again later. And once you get her going to the water on her own you can ask her to step up and position her with your hand so that she can move all the way into the water for rewards. Pretty soon you have a parrot that has learned that bathing is fun and enjoyable and getting into the water will likely be its own reward.

Sure, a lot of us have learned how to swim by being thrown into the water, but who wants to learn that way when you can just as easily put on your floaties and slowly the test the water on your own? Life should be a self-explored adventure, not a task that is forced on us. Those of us who have found our way by exploring and being in control are well- adjusted and on the look out for fun. This is similar for all animals. So give your parrot a chance to delight in the simple things in life, like taking a bath!

The Alien in the Room

Alien Eye

A snippet of the parrot training book I am working on…

 

Imagine that your parrot is an alien dropped into your home from another world. Actually, this is pretty close to the truth.

Parrots don’t have lips and cannot smile. Their strange little pupils expand and contract with their thoughts. Overall, they have strange expressions that do not make sense at first, expressions mostly based in the rise and fall of feathers. They communicate in clicks and beeps. Their locomotion is even different from ours. It is hard to even imagine what it would feel like to travel through the world on wings, but they do it and in the wild make it look easy. You may as well have E.T. in your living room. (If you haven’t seen the movie E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, you should definitely rent it.)

Yet, despite the fact we must seem just as alien to them, we assume parrots understand our words, motions and sometimes even our thoughts. So where would you start if you found yourself having to share your home with an alien you wanted to communicate with, have fun with and teach how best to live with you? If it were E.T. you would coax it into interacting with you with Reece’s pieces, train it how to integrate into your home without making too much trouble, teach it to talk, learn everything you could about the species and then work on some awesome tricks together. (Who wouldn’t want to ride a flying bicycle?) You should skip the candy, but working with a parrot is not all that different than working out how to live with E.T.

 

 

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You Get What You Reward

Attention Please

Attention Please

I do hope everyone is enjoying my more fanciful “Tuesdays with Ty” posts, but I realize I have been neglecting what was initially the core of this blog–   training and behavior advice. I need to get back at that as well.

I love writing the little essays for Tuesday, pondering what it is that the parrots remind me every week about what it means to be human. I’m lucky to be so easily inspired by my avian friends. Just don’t think for a minute that I think my parrots are little people or a magical mystery. What the birds do in my home, they do because I asked for it.  Every behavior my parrots repeat is a product of the consequences of that action.

Speculate, imagine, engage and have fun with your parrots! Just don’t ever forget the every behavior that repeats itself has been rewarded (likely by you). If you enjoy something your parrot does–  stop a minute and pay attention, give him a treat or a scratch on the head. If your parrot does something you don’t like, ignore it and do your best not to reward it. (ie– asking for a peanut while you’re working like Ty has been doing for the last ten minutes. Don’t turn and look at him, don’t talk to him and for goodness sake, don’t give in and get him a peanut. He’ll never never never stop asking for one. And you’ll never get to finish the article your writing.)

Behavior is simple and you are always shaping it. This is the key to animal training. If you ask me, it’s the crux of every rewarding relationship. What are you rewarding?

Have you seen the Jan Issue of Bird Talk?

January Bird Talk

January Bird Talk

Check out this month’s issue of Bird Talk if you haven’t picked it up yet. It features an article on getting a “do over” when your relationship with your parrot has gone awry.

It is the one thing all parrot owners dread happening. The sweet baby parrot that used to spend hours cuddling in your lap has suddenly turned into a piranha. In fact, this has been coming on slowly with a nip here and a lunge there. Now you are not certain which parrot you are going to get when you open up the cage, Dr. Jeckle or Mr. Hyde. Then one day you cannot get near your parrot at all without blood shed. Your feelings are hurt and you wonder if you have lost your best friend forever. What happened and what can you do to fix it?

Starting Over

Starting Over

The article explains how easy it is to accidentally create a monster. Behavior is learned and we are often reinforcing behaviors that we don’t want.

It discusses how to rebuild your relationship by starting from scratch. It also has reminders about how important it is to be mindful of your training. If you take responsibility for being clear about what behaviors are appreciated, you’ll get a lot more of those behaviors and a lot less of the annoying ones.  So check it out!

I loved the art on this!

If you have a subscription, your probably just got your March issue. (hint– I have an article in that one as well).

Be Kind to One Another

…People are Animals too!!

by C. Pedersen From Flickr.com click to see source

by C. Pedersen From Flickr.com click to see source

Those of you who have heard me speak on parrot training, have likely heard me say this in 10 different ways in my lecture. We often forget how incredibly important it is to be considerate to the others who live with our parrots and are not necessarily parrot people.

The ex-parrot post got me thinking that I ought to clarify this point just a bit further especially as more and more people commented privately, on Twitter and Facebook that the girlfriend should just “get over it” or “get some self-esteem.”

I’ve been around the block enough times now to know that no gets over anything when you tell them to “get over it.” And no grows self-esteem on demand. I agree that everyone should love parrots, I’m not really sure why they don’t. I also think they should have thicker skin. However, the fact of the matter is that some people don’t care for parrots and therefore don’t have much tolerance. Those people might love you, but not your parrot.

Don’t let the bird (or the dog or the cat) to be a bone of contention in your relationship with your roommate, children or significant other. The people in your life deserve just as much respect and love as your animals. No one deserves to be attacked, even if it is just by a tiny little Senegal parrot and they surely don’t deserved to be laughed at and told to “get over it.”  They also don’t deserve to have to listen to screaming or your ex-girlfriend’s bedroom talk if it really bothers them.
What do the people in your life deserve? Your understanding. Your empathy. Your willingness to work on a solution so that everyone came live comfortably together. They deserve for you to take their feelings seriously and come up with a training plan to change the bothersome parrot behavior. If the bothered party won’t take part in the training plan, then its their own problem that the parrot is being a pain. At least you were understanding of your roommate’s quality of life and tried to make a change for their benefit. At this point, I would say perhaps you are living with the wrong person, but not before.

In the end the quality of life will be better for everyone including your parrot if you care about the humans in your household. More importantly, you will never get to the “it’s me or the parrot” stage of your relationship.

It’s an Ex-Parrot

From the Contra Costa Times:

Last month my boyfriend moved in and with him came his pet African Grey parrot. The bird calls his ex-girlfriend’s name all the time and says things like, “Michael, I love you” in his girlfriend’s voice. I want to kill this bird. And, now she’s asking to visit the bird. I’d rather just give the bird to her, but my boyfriend refuses. He says he loves “Rufus” and will never part with him.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterfuchs/ / CC BY 2.0

I’ll admit it, I read this and laughed.

And then I felt sorry for the girlfriend. We really do need to be kinder to one another.

If the boyfriend, Michael  is going to encourage the grey to say things that irritate, if not infuriate his new girlfriend, the one in this equation who is going to suffer the most is the parrot. How much fun will it ultimately be for the Rufus to live with a person who hates him? Unless Michael does want the grey to go live with his ex, there is really no reason for visitation. Time to move on, folks.

The columnists suggested that the new girlfriend, Sharyl teach the parrot to say some things like, “Sharyl, is so sexy!” Great. The next girlfriend will love that too. How about we just don’t perpetuate the cycle? At least just in case. Ignore what you don’t like, encourage what you do. Let your bird narrate your life naturally. It’s more fun that way. Believe me.

My African grey has been through embarrassingly numerous boyfriends in the last fifteen year, a couple of them live-in. I really don’t hear much about them or in their voices because the phrases are no longer applicable to daily moments and they don’t get a response anyway. The conversation in my house has always changed with the times, because I let the times change. It’s a good way to live

So, Michael, stop being such a jerk. Especially if you love your parrot.

Relinquish

Amazon Parrot at the Lincoln Park Zoo circa 1900

Parrot at the Lincoln Park Zoo circa 1900

I had a dream the other night…a nightmare, really, that I couldn’t take it anymore.

The animals were too much.  I decided that I had to give up my African grey, Ty and my Brittany spaniel, Booth. Worse. I was desperate. I wanted them out of my life immediately.

And so, I left the grey in a park and the dog on a street corner and I swore to myself that I was doing the right thing.

Oh, the HORROR.

If you know me and my menagerie, you would understand that this was a dream about the two animals I would only give up last and in utter desperation. Don’t me get wrong. I love Anakin, the peregrine (and if you aren’t sure why, you should read LIFT ) and I love my other two parrots too. However, I would have to be crushed to lose the bird that narrates my idiosyncrasies and the dog that takes care of my falcons and warms my nights. My other birds would be fine in the right home, but these two animals are a piece of what keeps me human and whole. And after so many phone calls from people wanting to give up parrots on a whim, my disdain for someone doing as I did in the dream is immense.

So it wasn’t long before I realized the horrid mistake I had made in this dream. And I managed to get my animals back. Booth and Ty weren’t the same though. Ty was missing most of his feathers (plucked by rats) and Booth didn’t trust me much anymore. I woke up terrified and reaching for my dog, then jumping out of bed to make sure the parrot was safe and sound. And for the rest of the day I found myself thinking and humbled.

These are bad times and pets suffer for it. The people who have to relinquish their pets suffer for it too. So many of us are in a panic. And I think I understand.

Don’t panic. Think. There may be solutions, even temporary solutions before you have to relinquish your pets forever. Before you do something drastic, consider the following.

  1. Consider solving behavior problems before you decide there is no possibility of moving you parrot or other pet to another home. We’re all hurting for money, but talk to your local rescue. There may be a resource for getting you the help you need to problem solve for free. You better be committed and serious, but you’ll get to keep your pet. I for one, as someone who consults, would lend a hand to someone local if it were a matter of keeping their parrot or relinquishing it.
  2. Consider being creative. Explain your situation to a rescue group and see if there is a temporary alternative. Maybe you can afford food, medication etc. for your animal but, it is a question of housing. Be creative. Bad times don’t last forever and animal people who work in rescue are giving and flexible.
  3. Join a local parrot group. (Or other enthusiasts depending on your animal.) I have heard several stories of people who have agreed to long-term arrangements for “fostering” someone’s pet because they knew that person and understood that it was tough times and a temporary situation. And generally it turned out it was temporary.
  4. Get support. We’ll all struggling. Believe me, as someone who works in fund-raising with major donors I know what the economy is like. I also know that I feel guilty because I’m not yet in dire straights like so many others. I also am depressed because I have watched so many people that I admire and really like lose everything and have to start over. What most of us need is an understanding ear, a friend, someone who can tell us honestly that they love us and it really will be okay. Sometimes that’s all you need to get you past the panic that would cause you to relinquish a pet that you love.

Stay strong. Look for help.  And much love to you and your parrots.

The Challenges of Plucking

Uploaded on February 18, 2006 by .ash Courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

Uploaded on February 18, 2006 by .ash Courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing

Of all the behaviors that parrot owners struggle with, the most frustrating and difficult to manage is plucking.

All parrot species seem to be capable of resorting to this behavior, but the reasons and level of plucking vary. Some parrots over preen their primary wing feathers, some may just pluck the feathers around their legs and others may pluck every feather they can reach until they are bare.

The reasons for plucking include illness, stress, nutrient deficiency, boredom and habit.  The challenge is to figure out why your parrot is plucking.

If you notice your bird is beginning to pluck bare spots on his body, the first thing you should do is get him to the veterinarian. Your vet can test to make sure your bird is not suffering from zinc toxicity or an other illness and also check to make sure his blood work is normal. If your parrot is given a clean bill of health, trying to decipher the reason for plucking can be challenging.

If there is anything that changed in your parrot’s environment right before he started plucking, immediately change it back to see if this might be the cause. Humans are not always good at guessing what might stress out a parrot, so start with a process of elimination. If you are fairly certain the plucking is not the result of a recent environmental change, the next step is to eliminate boredom.

Make sure that your busy-minded parrot has plenty of environmental enrichment. Changing out what is in his cage to play with frequently is more important than stuffing the cage full of toys. New and interesting things can keep him busy playing and investigating instead of plucking.

When you have tried everything and your parrot is still plucking, don’t despair. It can become a habit, like a person who bites their nails to the quick, but is unable to stop. Keep encouraging new habits, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Perhaps sometime in the future veterinarians will be able to come up with a definitive way to end plucking in parrots and other birds. In the mean time, there are many plucked parrots that live fine lives.<-->

Stationing

Got a bird that hits the floor and goes for feet? Teach him to station.

An easy thing to train your bird which can keep him out of all kinds of mischief is “stationing.” Training animals to station is a common husbandry technique in zoos. If you need to work with an animal that is dangerous or uncomfortable being touched, teaching him to go to a particular place for a reward can help you get close enough to examine him or move him to a secure place away from the zookeeper. You can use this same technique to send your lory someplace safe if there is trouble, or if you just want to keep him out of mischief.

Uploaded on November 17, 2005 by Vanessa Pike-Russell Courtesy of Creatives Commons Licensing

Uploaded on November 17, 2005 by Vanessa Pike-Russell Courtesy of Creatives Commons Licensing

Stationing can be very helpful to keep parrots off the floor and stop them from attacking feet. First you have to choose a spot for your bird to station and stay for a reward. The top of a play stand or cage can be great for this. Mark the spot with a nontoxic marker or a piece of nontoxic tape. Choose a word for the cue to this behavior like “station” or something else short and easy. Then begin training.

Place your parrot next to the spot, first making sure he is not nervous of the modifications you’ve made. If he is comfortable say, “station” and hold a treat just far enough away from the spot that he has to step on it in order to get the treat. As soon as he steps on it say, “good” and let him have the reward. He will likely move away from it again to finish he treat. Once he’s finished try to get him to station again. After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll see him “get” it.

When he starts deliberately stepping on the station, you can ask him to step up, move him a little further away from it and then ask him to “station” again. Make sure you train in small increments to ensure that he understands and does not get frustrated. Once you have him trained to station though, you should be able to get him to climb up the cage and walk over to his spot when you give him the cue. You will also find that he spontaneously stations, hoping for treat. As long as you often reward him with attention or treats when you see him on his station spot, he will continue to offer this behavior. Training your parrot to find his way to safe spot to get what he wants can save you a lot of headaches and maybe even your parrot’s life.