Enforcing But Without Force- A logical approach to behavior modification

As a teacher, I fully believe that kids need to experience frequent success everyday.  If I am able to plan lessons that allow students to experience frequent success, they leave my class with a feeling of accomplishment.  Most of us have experienced an “ah-ha” moment and when we experience it, its a great feeling -it’s intrinsically rewarding.  When students are able to experience success frequently in the classroom, they know that if they listen to the teacher and if they follow what the teacher says, then they will succeed.  Students learn to trust the teacher because they’ve experienced success by following the teacher’s instructions.

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If we teach our dogs by allowing them to experience frequent success, they will learn that good things come from listening to us. On the other hand, if they are constantly punished in our presence, training becomes frightening and dreadful.

When it comes to teaching our beloved animal companions, it is no different.  Our pets need to experience frequent success everyday.  Sadly, when we observe people interacting with their pets, the opposite is often the case.  We are somehow led to falsely believe that we must be this “macho leader” or dictator who enforces rules through physical force.  Dogs are constantly subjected to leash jerks while birds are yanked out of their cages for step up drills.  We undermine the intelligence of these animals when we resort to these barbaric, old fashioned, and out-of-date techniques.  But more importantly, when we resort to using harsh punishment, we are essentially reducing our relationship with our pets down to a state that is more or less, adversarial.  It is of no surprise, then, why trainers who are in this mindset often end up correcting their dogs all the time; they are constantly in a struggle for dominance.

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This is Snuggles at an outing at the park. These outings allow her to continue socializing with different people and dogs.

Our relationship with our pets doesn’t have to be adversarial.  The time that we enjoy with our pets shouldn’t be hindered by the constant itch that some of us have to question our dog’s subservience to us.  Our dogs don’t need a stronger leader.  They don’t need an alpha wolf.  What they need is gentle guidance.  Moreover, what our canine and avian companions really need is an owner who will teach them how they should behave rather than constantly punishing them for doing something wrong.

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Smokey’s curiosity being fed.

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Snuggles posing for the camera.

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Eye contact. A challenge for alpha status? No silly, we’re just having a conversation.

Just like teaching children, when we allow our dogs or birds to experience frequent success when training them, they will learn to trust in our ability to lead them.  Our dogs will learn that if they listen to our command to sit and stay, then their leash will suddenly and magically fall off.  Our pets learn that their success comes from us, or more precisely, it comes from listening to us and following our instructions.  What we need to do is to broaden our perspective on training.  We need to keep learning more effective ways to teach. We need to learn that there is much more to training than punishing.

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Again, the eye contact. We reward her every time she makes eye contact with us. This is our invisible leash.

Please join me in this movement to drive animal training into a much more positive approach that focuses on improving the quality of life for all animal companions.

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What’s better than chillin on a pile of tall grass?

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The Most Important Thing To Teach Your Puppy

Many people acquire dogs with the expectation that their dog will become a Lassie:  a perfectly trained and socialized companion that will accompany them on  many life adventures.  While this is not at all an unrealistic expectation, it is unrealistic to think that your dog will be like this all on his own -without any guidance.  Sadly enough, when the dog fails to live up to these expectations,  it is usually the dog who suffers -not the owner.

Puppies need to have positive experiences with new people and new dogs everyday.

When you first bring your puppy home, it may be tempting to train the puppy to do all the tricks that are in the dog books.  However, it is important to note that while trick training can be delayed, socialization cannot.  Dogs can learn to do tricks at any age but  you have a very short time to socialize your puppy and the clock has already started ticking.  The Critical Socialization Period starts to close after 12 weeks.  This means that most of the your dog’s temperament, behavior, and habits are dependent on what he learns (or fails to learn) at this age.  Should you decide to postpone socialization until the next month, it is a little too late.  Socialization must start now.

At 12 weeks of age, your puppy’s socialization window begins to close. If you decide to delay training, it will be a little too late. Socialization must start now.

Before a puppy is 12 weeks old, he/she must meet at least 100 different people.  It is not enough for your puppy to play with only a small group of the same people.  Your puppy must meet new people everyday and every experience with new people must be a positive one.  Every day, invite a couple of friends over for pizza or for a casual hangout.  More than likely, your friends will be excited to play with your new puppy, so don’t keep the puppy a secret.  Provide your friends with treats to feed your puppy and show your friends how to play with your puppy.  Remember, your goal is to teach your puppy that people equals fun.  Never allow anyone to tease, hurt, or scare your puppy.  One bad encounter with an obnoxious human who finds joy in terrorizing or scaring animals may permanently scar your puppy for the rest of his/her life.

Socialize your puppy to both small and large dogs. Make absolutely sure that the other dog is dog-friendly. It is a good idea to setup puppy playdates with friends. Shown here, Snuggles is hanging out with Pooh Bear.

As with socialization with people, you must make your puppy’s encounter with other dogs a positive experience.  Socialization with other dogs must occur in a controlled environment with dogs that you are familiar with.  If you know friends who have dogs that well socialized, arrange a meet-up for a doggy playdate.  It is extremely important that you make sure that the other dog is friendly before allowing your puppy to meet it.  All it takes is one bad encounter with an unfriendly dog to ruin your puppy’s socialization.  A well socialized dog knows how to handle itself around puppies and these are the dogs that will make the best  friends for your puppy.  When going on walks, allow  your puppy to meet other dogs only after asking the owner if his/her dog is dog-friendly.  If the owner says no or if he/she is unsure, change your route.  If the owner is unsure or if the dog is said to be “sometimes friendly”, you don’t want to find out with your puppy; there will be many better opportunities for your dog to socialize in the future.

Take your dog out as much as possible. Early socialization makes it possible for your dog to enjoy future outings.

Sooner or later, it will be tempting to want to take your puppy  to the dog  park, as this may appear like a good opportunity to socialize your puppy with both other dogs and people.  However, it is in my opinion that while dog parks were created with good intentions, they are a bad idea.  Dog parks are uncontrolled; there are too many unfamiliar dogs and there is no way of telling which dogs are friendly and which are not.  Do not buy into people telling you that  “they will sort things out themselves”.  Your dog will not learn to toughen up by being bullied and beaten by other dogs.  One encounter with a poorly socialized dog will likely end your puppy’s socialization with dogs altogether.

Snuggles is learning about the world. Dogs must experience new people, new dogs, and new places on a daily basis.

A well socialized puppy enjoys going on frequent outings with his/her human companion.  As this dog continues to meet new people and new dogs everyday, his/her socialization becomes practically endless; this dog is a joy to be around .  A poorly socialized puppy, on the other hand, will likely bark at everyone that passes by at the park.  Training for this dog will likely be stalled on a very long and frustrating process of re-socialization.  Even then, the dog will not be as socialized as it could have been if the process started during puppyhood.  The behavioral problems associated with this dog -although completely preventable- will likely become tiresome and the dog will likely live the rest of his/her life confined to the backyard of his/her owner’s home or worse, in a small cage at the pound.  The type of dog that your puppy becomes depends completely on what you do now.  Dogs need to meet new people and new dogs everyday.  Socialization must start now.

Your dog’s socialization does not end after puppyhood.

The Importance of Socialization & Desensitization

African grey parrots are generally characterized as being fearful, flighty, and aggressive birds.  It is of great bewilderment, therefore, that when Smokey -my African grey- enters the bird store, she is an extremely cool customer.  Nothing in the store seems to phase her; not even men pulling large carts with stacked boxes.  Is Smokey an exceptional African grey?  Is she gifted or special?  No, Smokey is just a well socialized bird.

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Baby birds are very curious about their environment. As their caretaker, we must foster that curiosity.

In the realm of bird training, there is nothing more important than socialization and desensitization.  Before any training even begins, socialization and desensitization should already be under way.  Far too often, when people acquire a new bird, they are excited to train the bird to talk or to do tricks.  Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize that if the bird is not comfortable being around other people, going to different places, and experiencing different things, than all training will prove useless -if it gets anywhere at all.

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Socialization is the process of getting the bird comfortable with interacting with different people, birds, or other animals.  Desensitization is the process of getting the bird comfortable with being around different things or objects.  Socialization and desensitization go together.  A well socialized bird is completely comfortable with being around other humans and going to different places.  This bird has no problem performing tricks for a group of strangers and is a joy to be around.  An unsocialized bird that has not been properly desensitized to everyday things will be shy of hands and will burst into flight at the sight of a new pot of flowers, a frying pan, or a child’s new toy.  This bird is extremely difficult to manage and if not re-socialized, will be unsuitable as a pet or companion.

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Smokey learning how to use a tool.

Socialization and desensitization must start as early as possible; it may even begin before the bird is even weaned.  Birds could be taught tricks at any age but the process of socializing and desensitizing him/her cannot be delayed.  As each day goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to socialize the bird.  When the bird is young, he/she must be encouraged to step onto the hand of different men, women, and children of different ages.  The point here is to teach the bird that people are fellow flock members and that they are pleasant to be around.  I would recommend placing a treat cup on top of the bird’s cage that reads “Feed Me” to encourage visitors to feed the bird.  This way, the bird will learn to enjoy human company and view it as being something positive. Just remember to never allow anyone to tease your bird, as this will have a damaging effect on your efforts to socialize the bird.  Every interaction with a human should be one that is positive.

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Shown here, Smokey is learning how to untie a treat bag.

Exposing a baby bird to different people, although important, is not sufficient.  Birds must experience new things everyday.  From the onset, baby birds must be offered a variety of different colored and textured food items.  They must be allowed to play with bright and colorful toys.  Birds need to see and be introduced to anything that goes on in the household on a normal basis.  Walk around the house and show the bird the toilet and how it flushes.  They need to see pans, the vacuum cleaner, boxes, pots of flowers, children’s toys, hair brushes, and other everyday objects.  Make it a goal to introduce your bird to one new object everyday.

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Buddy being successfully desensitized to bikes.

So now, the troubleshooting.  More than likely, your bird will be terrified of a few things that you plan to show your bird.  If your bird ever shows any signs of discomfort (look for feathers pulled tight to the body or wings arched), NEVER force it on the bird.  Immediately back away at the first sign of discomfort and remove the bird or the scary object.  Did you fail?  Absolutely not.  Your goal is to desensitize the bird to the object.  This means, teach the bird that the object is not so scary.  We do this in very small increments.  The first step is to place the object somewhere in the room so your bird can see it, but far enough away from the bird so that he/she is not spooked by it.  Each day, move the object a little closer to the bird’s cage until you are able to get the object right next up to the cage without the bird being spooked.  If your bird shows discomfort, you are moving too fast and you need to move the object back farther.  Eventually, you will be able to get the object right up next to the bird’s cage.  Now, place your bird’s favorite treat right next to the object so that the bird has to come close in order to get the treat.  Repeat this procedure with anything your bird is unsure about.

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Baby birds must be given the opportunity to choose between different food options.

A baby bird is in it’s most critical stage in life.  This is the stage that makes or breaks the bird.  Birds can still live very happy lives even if they never learn how to talk or play basketball.  However, a bird that is not properly socialized and desensitized will likely be subjected to a lifetime of confinement.  The sad part is, it wasn’t the bird’s fault.

Do Dogs Really Understand?

Do dogs understand what we’re saying to them?  Most dog owners will say yes, but if Fido really does understand what you’re saying, why doesn’t he sit, lie down, stay, or come when asked?  In these situations, most owners are quick to dismiss Fido as being a bad dog or worse, a stupid dog.  Is it Fido’s fault that he wasn’t able to understand that sit means sit?  Is it his fault that he doesn’t understand that he has to relieve himself OUTSIDE of the house?  I mean, we’ve only told Fido 100 times that he needs to go outside to pee right?  In fact, we’ve also started using the finger pointing method to direct Fido to where we want him to go.  Why doesn’t he get it?

Think about how unnatural it is for a dog to walk on a leash. Any animal (dog, horse, rabbit, bird) would pull. Pulling on leash is not the dog trying to establish dominance; it is the dog not knowing how to walk on leash. The job of the trainer is to kindly teach the dog how he wants the dog to walk.

Dogs will understand only what we teach them.  Imagine if I told you to sit in a foreign language, one that you do not understand.  How would you respond?  Just like Fido, you will probably tilt your head in amusement.  Would it help if I got frustrated and shouted at you?  Probably not and probably not to Fido either.

According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, one of the most respected dog trainers in the world, the first stage in dog training is essentially teaching the dog ESL:  English as a Second Language.  We must continually teach our dogs basic words that we want our dogs to understand if we expect them to understand them.  A new puppy will not understand the word “Sit” no matter how many times or how many different ways you say it.  Teaching our dogs, therefore, requires that we set our dogs up so that they will sit naturally and then telling them that “Yes, that is right!”  It does not involve screaming, hitting, choking, or punishing our dogs.  That will only teach them what NOT to do and will ultimately create a submissive/fearful dog.

We are happy to call her our canine companion.

The word that a puppy or any new dog must first learn is “Good!”  Unfortunately, most dogs start their lives learning that every behavior is followed by an antagonistic “NO!”  Used excessively, “No” followed by a reprimand will lead to a shut down of all puppy inquisitiveness.  This means that you’ve successfully created a withdrawn dog.

So why is “Good” a better alternative? Put simply, this word allows you to communicate with your dog what he’s doing right.  The problem, however, is that most dogs do not understand what “Good” means.  Yes, “Good dog” must be taught.  Most dogs have no idea what it means when their owners say “Good dog”.  So what we need to do is we need to teach the dog that “Good” means that we’re happy, we’re satisfied, thank you, and “here’s a treat”.  To teach our dogs the meaning of this word, we must ALWAYS follow the word with something pleasant, such as a treat, a hug, a kiss, a frisbee, a tug toy, etc.  Otherwise, this word has no associated meaning.

Praise your dog often for good behavior.

Dogs will only understand what we teach them.  If we fail to teach our dogs how they should behave or what they should be doing, we are in no position to punish them if they start misbehaving.  That just isn’t fair.  Remember, dog training is essentially teaching our dogs ESL.  Through good teaching, your dog will be able to understand much more than you might have imagined.

What’s the Best Time to Train Your Dog?

Many of us who have dogs often face the dilemma of deciding whether to train our dogs or to play with them.  You want to play with your dog because let’s face it, it’s fun and  you know he needs the exercise.  But at the same time, you know that you ought to be training your dog.  Tough choice, isn’t it?  Actually, it doesn’t have to be.

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Training and play should go together.  In order for us to effectively train our dogs, we must make it fun for them.  The best way we can do this is to train them through play.

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Take Snuggles, for example.  When we first took her to the park, she was extremely excited, as most dogs would be.  She would tighten the leash and want to dash away to run and play.  Running and playing was HIGHLY reinforcing for her, much more so than treats.  This is a perfect training scenario.  The next time we took her to the park, we kept her on leash and asked her to sit.  Immediately after she sat, we praised her and released her for play.  Play was the reward for sitting.  She caught on very fast and eventually, we would ask for longer and longer periods of stay before releasing her.

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So does this mean we need to take our dogs to the park every time we want to train and play with them?  Absolutely not.  To answer the question that is posed at the beginning of this blog, the best time to train your dog is at any opportunity you get.  Stated more blatantly:  now.  If you look at it, there are so many different things in the environment that your dog loves.  It could be jumping on the couch, going outside, sniffing around the bush, chasing wild birds, meeting other dogs, amongst many other things.  These are all highly reinforcing things that you could use to reward your dog during training.  No treats required.  The next time you ask your dog to lie down and he does it, pick him up and put him on his favorite couch.  Or, the next time you see another dog, take this as a great way to reinforce your dog’s good behavior.  Ask your dog to calmly sit and stay, then reward him by allowing him to meet the other dog (ask the other owner if it’s okay first).  When you see a wild bird, cue your dog for a behavior and then reward your dog by showing him the bird.  Soon, your dog is going to think that all he has to do is follow your instructions and you can magically make birds appear.

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Training must be integrated with play.  By doing this, not only will you make training a fun and positive experience for your dog, but it will become so for you as well.  And since a positive consequence increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future, your dog will likely enjoy and appreciate the added attention.

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Giving Your Bird A Bath

Yes, birds take baths.  Luckily for us, bathing is something that most birds love to do so they make it very easy for us.  Simply fill up your sink with water and let your bird loose.  Or, you can mist your bird down with a hose that has a misting option.  Both my birds prefer the latter.  Yours might be different.  Just find a method that your bird enjoys and stick with it.  Here are some photos of Buddy enjoying his shower on a nice warm day outside.

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My birds get to shower at least once a week; sometimes more.  In the summer, they will usually shower everyday.  Not only is bathing a fun activity for your bird, it is essential for keeping their skin and feathers in top notch.

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Just make sure that when you’re showering or bathing your bird, it is their choice.  If your bird doesn’t want to shower that day, don’t force it on them.  This will only make your bird hate water even more.  Remember to make it fun and positive!

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After his shower, Buddy enjoys sun bathing.  The sunlight dries him up and it allows him to absorb vitamin D3, something that birds cannot do without sunlight.

Improving Reliability: The Window of Opportunity

So your dog learned a new trick.  The only problem is, he’ll only do the trick when he feels like it.  What are you to do in this situation?  How can we get the dog to do as we ask when we ask them?  Without question, reliability is one of the biggest problems we face when training any animal, from birds to dogs.

This would be a great time for you to reach deep down into your training toolbox to retrieve your shock collars, prong collars, and choke collars.  Now, it is important that you trash those because you won’t be needing them for this training session or any other subsequent sessions.

Improving reliability is an ongoing process.  It is something that we must work on continuously and in order for us to understand how to improve reliability, we must view this through the lens of mother nature.  Imagine there is a hawk perched high up on a lamppost.  When the hawk spots a mouse moving through the brushes below, the hawk does not sit and think “Hmm, should I get this mouse now or later”. The hawk knows that this opportunity might not come until hours, days, or even weeks later.  Until then, the hawk could starve to death.  There is a very short window of opportunity for deciding whether to dive on the mouse or to sit and wait.  Wait too long, and the opportunity is gone.

Nature provides many animals with a very short window of opportunity. Should this crowned eagle hesitate to act on its prey, the opportunity may not reveal itself until days or weeks later.

So, how does the example of the hawk help us to improve the reliability of our canine and avian companions?  In a typical training scenario, most owners would ask the dog to sit.  The dog understands the command but this time, refuses to do it.  So, most owners will continue to repeat “Rover, sit, sit sit!!!”  Unfortunately, repeating the command does not seem to work.  So what do owners do next?  They start yelling the command at the dog, as if though the dog was deaf and didn’t hear the command the first 20 times.  The problem is that in the dog’s mind, he doesn’t have to sit the first time because he knows the owner will give him a second chance at doing the behavior.  In fact, the owner will continue to give the dog many more opportunities to sit.  Why do it when the owner wants?  In this situation, the dog figures that he can sit whenever he wants because the owner will continue to give more chances for sitting by repeating the “sit” request and the reward for sitting will stay the same, regardless of when the dog sits.  The window of opportunity is very broad in this situation; what we created is trained slowness.

Many of Snuggles' training sessions are integrated with her play sessions at the park, making training very rewarding and fun. In fact, it's all just play to her!

To improve reliability, we must simply shorten the window of opportunity.  The window of opportunity is the time frame for when the dog can still perform the behavior and earn a reward.  So in the above scenario, the way we would shorten the window of opportunity and improve reliability is we simply would just ask our dog to sit:  “Rover, sit”.  Then, we pause and wait for the dog.  We do not need to repeat “sit” 10 or 20 times.  We simply pause and wait a few seconds.  If the dog sits within 5 seconds, praise and reward the dog.  If the dog fails to sit, give the dog one more chance by repeating the command only once.  If the dog does sit this time, praise and reward the dog.  However, if the dog still does not sit the second time around, leave.  Do not play with the dog, do not reward him with a treat, just leave him alone.  The window of opportunity is up.  The dog failed to capture his “mouse” because he was too slow to respond.  Now, just wait until the next training session and try again.  When used correctly, this method not only makes you appear less insane, it is highly effective for improving reliability in our companion animals because they learn that if they don’t comply with our request the first time, they lose that opportunity to earn a reward and that opportunity might not come back until hours, days, or weeks later.

To improve reliability, we need to continuously work on shortening the window of opportunity. Buddy is rewarded here for his prompt response.

Interestingly, the idea of a window of opportunity is not limited to just birds and dogs alone.  Humans are also affected by it.  Prime examples include a wife calling her husband repeatedly, only to have the him respond on the 10th or 20th call or a child coming down for dinner 10 minutes after mom called.  These habits can quickly become very irritating and frustrating to the other person.  To the wife, it may seem as if the husband is lazy or that he’s irresponsive.  In actuality, he very well does hear her, but it has been subconsciously ingrained in him that the point is to come on the 10th or 20th call.  If we want prompt response, we should opt to shorten the window of opportunity.  Simply give the command and wait a few seconds.  Then, decide if the response fell within your accepted time frame.  If it did, reward; if it didn’t, ignore.

*For completeness, I think that it’s important to mention that shortening the window of opportunity does not mean we are starving our animals to train.  In fact, it is extremely dangerous and downright cruel to starve any animal to train them.  When we shorten the animal’s window of opportunity, we’re simply shortening the time frame for when they can still earn the reward; but they are still freely fed their main/sole diet.

Parrot Biting

Most of the literature that has been written on parrot behavior suggests that biting and aggression are easily solved by techniques that serve to show the companion parrot “who’s in charge”.  This simplistic view strikes the novice owner as a great revelation because it is so intrinsically based on human behavior that we can make sense of it and accept it.  However, this view is limited in that it is drawn directly from human behavior with a disregard for the perspective of the companion parrot.

Buddy cleaning his feet.

During one of my early encounters with parrots, I witnessed a customer enter a bird store to complain that her cockatiel bites too much.  The response of the store employee and one that is often cited in most avian textbooks is that, “All birds bite”.  At the time, I didn’t think much about what had happened.  However, over the years that followed, my experience with training and keeping parrots has caused me to re-think this assumption.  Today, when looking back at this with my own birds, I think the assumption that “All birds bite” is wholly inaccurate when used to describe companion parrots.  I believe that a much more accurate assumption would be to say that all birds are capable of biting.

Parrots communicate greatly through their body language. Here, Buddy is shown enjoying a head scratch.

Parrots bite for numerous reasons but not all parrots will bite.  Some parrots bite because they are territorial, hormonal, defensive, agitated, and some may nip their owners because biting is one way parrots communicate.  In order to solve a biting problem, owners must first identify the underlying cause of the bird biting.  Is it territorial, hormonal, or defensive biting?  Each underlying cause is solved differently.  It is impossible to solve all problem biting by using just one strategy because the causes are different.  Yet, this is what most textbooks do when they suggest using “step up drills” or similar methods to try to solve all parrot biting problems.  The purpose of this post is not to provide owners a manual for diagnosing and solving all parrot biting problems.  Parrot behavior is so complex that no troubleshooting manual would ever be sufficient to accommodate for every single problem.  Rather, the purpose of this post is to:  (1) dispel the myths associated with parrot biting (2) examine the ineffectiveness of currently accepted methods of redirecting parrot aggression and (3) offer suggestions for redirecting parrot aggression by considering the perspective of the companion parrot.

Smokey, an African Grey Parrot

One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to parrots is this idea that parrots have a flock leader and that owners should emulate this flock leader mentality with their own birds to show them who’s boss.  This is often used as a rationale in many books for enforcing horrible techniques to stop parrots from biting.  Without going further, I would like to state it clearly that parrots do not have a flock leader.  Biologists and ornithologists have never observed nor have they ever documented any evidence for the existence of a flock leader in a wild flock of parrots.  Considering the fact that wild flocks of budgies, cockatoos, and amazon parrots can number up to hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds, it becomes hard to imagine that there can be one bird who can oversee, much less have authority over the other hundreds and thousands of birds in the flock.  Parrots live in large social flocks; they do not have a flock leader.

Parrots are social animals that require daily interaction with their flock members. Buddy is shown here with his human flock.

The problem that arises when owners try to extrapolate the idea of a flock leader to companion parrot behavior is that they unintentionally create much more damage than was there in the first place.  Parrots are prey animals.  When they encounter a human being, their initial interaction with that person will tell them whether the person is someone to be trusted or if that person is a predator to be feared.  Now, imagine a novice owner reaching his hand into a parrot’s cage to take him out and the parrot bites.  What does every single bird book say to do?  Undoubtedly, all the bird books and most behaviorists will tell you to accept that bite, show no reaction and continue to press forward to force the bird out.  This is the currently accepted strategy for dealing with a parrot biting in this situation.  The thought behind it is that if you show no reaction to the bird’s bite, he will learn that biting is ineffective from getting you to back off.  Further, people believe that if we continue to press forward and force the bird out, then he will learn that we are the boss; we make the choices, he doesn’t.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!   This is a great way to get bitten, it’s a great way to create a bird that fears hands, and this is a great way to create a bird that feels helpless in his environment – all of which are worthless qualities in a companion parrot.  If we wish to create a much more trusting, mutual, and ultimately friendlier relationship with our avian companions, we must adopt a different strategy when dealing with a biting parrot.

Empowerment is giving our birds choices and allowing them to make their own decisions. Smokey is shown here, sparkling with curiosity.

So what should we do when a parrot bites?  Show reaction, lots of it.  Although biting is natural for parrots, it is not natural for parrots to bite their flock members to the point of drawing blood.  So, what are we missing?  In the wild, a baby parrot growing up would experiment different things with his beak.  When he plays with his clutch mates and flock members, they will let him know when his beak delivers too much pressure.  If we observe our parrots playing with one another, they will often screech very loudly and very distinguishably to communicate pain.  This screech tells the other bird that he’s delivered too much pressure with his beak.  If the wild parrots do not learn how to inhibit the force of their bite, they will soon find themselves without a flock.  It is, therefore, essential to their survival to learn bite inhibition.  So, whenever my birds bite, I scream “ouch”, pull my hand away, and ignore the bird.  This short time-out lets the bird know that if he continues to bite, playtime will be over and his companion will disappear.  Eventually, my bird will learn to inhibit his bite so that it becomes less and less damaging.  However, even then, if my bird puts on even a tad bit of pressure, I would exaggerate and yell “ouch” even if it didn’t really hurt.  This tells the bird that human skin is super sensitive and they must be extra gentle.

Smokey, the gentle giant.

Of course, the limitation with this approach is that it works very well with birds that are already bonded to their human counterparts and see humans as being their flock members.  For these birds, biting means that owners leave, which is a bad thing since these birds adore human company.  For birds that are unaccustomed to humans and human hands, however, this approach may not work so well because it will reinforce the bird for biting.  Using this approach on a completely wild parrot, for example, will inadvertently teach the bird that biting is effective in getting humans to leave.  So, for these birds, we are dealing with defensive biting.  In this case, we must first earn the bird’s trust.  We do that using target training.

Parrots are capable of forming very strong bonds with their human companions.

Finding the Best Toys Your Dog Will Love

Sometimes, the best dog toys are those that you find unexpectedly.  While we were at the park a couple days ago, we wanted to play fetch with Snuggles but without a ball, this simple task became pretty difficult.  So Dina decided to look through her purse for anything that we might be able to use.  We found a portable hair brush that when folded in,  looks like a plastic disk.  So, we decided to give it a shot.  The cool thing about this was that since it was in the shape of a disk, we could easily roll this across the field and it would continue to move on and on.  Snuggles was immediately hooked because she loves to chase things that move.  Round after round, she tirelessly fetched her new toy with pure joy and excitement.  This quickly topped her list of favorite toys; it sure topped ours as well because we love to see her having a good time.

Of course, this is not to suggest that you start giving your dogs random things to play with.  That would be downright dangerous.  However, with a little imagination and some common sense, we could find different ways to enrich our dogs’ lives while saving a few bucks on our pets’ yearly expenses.  Needless to say, there will probably be a time when you’re somewhere with your dog and a fetch toy might not be in obvious reach.  In these times -just like how our dogs explore their environments- we should explore ours for potential ways to make our dogs’ lives more interesting.  Who knows, along the way we might discover that our dogs’ favorite toys might be something that’s been lying around for quite some time untouched.  Nowadays, we rarely leave for the park without bringing her hairbrush toy.  This thing keeps her going!

Enjoying a nice day at the park.

Snuggles chasing after her new toy.

Got it!

I'm coming back!

Almost there!

Where's my toy?

Going for it again!

Okay, maybe not so "tirelessly".

Puppy Biting

Puppies come with razor sharp teeth and their bites can be very painful.  If these puppies are not taught to inhibit the force of their bite during puppyhood, these bites can be lethal when the puppy grows older and stronger.  In fact, it can quickly become the ticket that gets the puppy sent to the pound or worse, put down.  When we teach puppies to inhibit their bite, we do not teach them out of frustration.  We do not want to teach the puppy to stop biting all at once!  Teaching a puppy that it cannot bite human hands without teaching them bite inhibition is downright dangerous.  Instead, we teach this in a two step process:  (1) We teach the puppy to inhibit the force of their bite and (2) we teach the puppy to stop biting or to reduce the frequency of their bite.

Teaching bite inhibition means we are teaching our puppy that their bites have the potential to cause pain.  All dogs must learn this just like a human child would.  We do not hit our children when they bite too hard, so let’s not do that to our dogs.  They must learn that they have to reduce the force of their bite so that it becomes gentle mouthing.  In order to teach this, we begin by playing with our dogs.  Whenever your dog puts pressure on your skin, immediately scream “OUCH!” and leave the room.  This teaches the puppy that his bite causes pain and therefore, playtime ends whenever he inflicts pain on his human companion.  Return 2 minutes later and resume playing with your puppy.  It is important that you do not wait too long to return because an important part of the teaching process is giving your puppy chances to learn from his mistakes.  So, resume playing with your puppy and whenever he puts pressure on your skin, immediately scream “OUCH!” and exit the room again.  You want to repeat this procedure until your dog learns that he must limit or inhibit the force of his bite.  Eventually, his bites will get less and less painful, indicating that the dog is learning proper bite inhibition.

Snuggles relieving her urge to chew on a bone.

In this exercise, your goal is to get your dog to think that “Gee, these humans are super sensitive!  I have to be very careful with them”  So when you’re playing with your dog, saying “OUCH!” the first few times and exiting the room will cause your dog to gradually inhibit his bite so that it becomes less and less painful.  What you want to do is continue saying “OUCH!” even if the bite doesn’t hurt you.  Fake that even a little pressure the dog puts on your skin causes excessive and massive pain.  Yell “OUCH” and exit the room.  This will teach your dog that human skin is extremely sensitive and that he must inhibit his bite to just gentle mouthing. Gentle mouthing, is okay as long as you initiate it.  However, the dog must learn to stop at your request.  The way to do this is to tell the dog “off” while offering a treat in the other hand.  Since mouthing and eating the treat are mutually exclusive or incompatible behaviors (your dog cannot mouth you and eat the treat at the same time), your dog will quickly learn to let go to look for a treat.  You can eventually fade out the treat by offering just praise and affection.  Never allow your dog to bite your hair, clothes, or shoes, since these things cannot give feedback to how hard the bite is.  If your dog is allowed to bite your hair, for example, he may one day miss and hit your face.  Since your dog never learned to inhibit his bite on hair (since there was no feedback from the hair), the bite will likely be severe.

It is extremely important that in addition to you teaching your dog bite inhibition, that he receive the same training from other puppies.  If you have friends that have puppies, set up a puppy play date.  While puppies are playing, they learn a great deal about bite inhibition.  Whenever one dog gets too rough and bites too hard, you will hear the other dog yelp in pain.  This dog will stop playing for a short period of time to attend to his superficial injuries.  During this short time out, the other dog will learn that if he does not inhibit the force of his bite, he will lose his playmate.  So, what the puppies are teaching each other is exactly what we try to emulate in our own training with them.

Snuggles and rexter playing. These play sessions are important in teaching good bite inhibition.

Some people may question why it is necessary to teach bite inhibition.  Why not teach the dog that he cannot bite in the first place?  Well, imagine a clumsy 5 year old child tripping over your dog and falling on your dog, stepping on his tail.  This dog might react by quickly turning over and biting the girl in the face.  Without good bite inhibition, both the girl and the dog are doomed.  However, a dog with good bite inhibition, although he may still react by turning and biting, his bite will be inhibited so that it causes little if any injury.  There will always be a time when accidents will happen, especially in a house with children.  In these cases, it is apparent that bite inhibition is extremely important and well worth the time and effort to teach.