For my 100th post anniversary, I am delighted to publish a guest post by none other than Sid Price, founder of Avian Ambassadors, and a very well respected member of the professional bird training community. Sid is also president-elect of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators.
Sid and I had talked about the growing prominence of certain training programs in search results when people Google questions related to problem parrot behavior. Unfortunately, long-standing and well-respected avian trainers tend to focus on training, not on learning the newest web marketing techniques — as a consequence, the things you do find on the web tend to be promotional materials by people who are good marketers but not necessarily the best bird trainers.
I asked him to expand on an article he wrote on his own blog, called The Real Secrets of Training Success and Where to Find Them.
The following is his response:
Don’t Fall for Deceptive Training Tricks
by Sid Price
When one is trying to figure out how to deal with behavioral issues and training challenges with birds it is important to know not only that a particular strategy works, but also what long term effects the use of the selected strategy may have on the relationship between you and your bird.
It is unfortunate that much of what is available on the Internet is more focused on selling a product than providing the best possible training advice. Over the last year or so this situation has degraded to the point where searching for training help turns up more and more links to sites that offer instant success for every kind of training challenge. I say unfortunate because most of the links lead directly or indirectly to some really expensive, poor training advice.
Beware the Silver Bullet
So, how can one filter the good advice from the marketing hard sell? Your first clue, as is almost always the case with over-hyped products, is that while there are often simple solutions to bird behavior challenges there are rarely instant, fifteen-minute solutions. Remember that most behavioral challenges come down to relationships. This is true not only with birds and other animals but also with humans.
Think how long it took to build the trust and confidence of a really good friend or coworker, then think how a little time it takes to completely shake that trust and confidence with a single bad interaction. Well the same is true for your bird; using some of the techniques advised by these instant cure folks will shake any relationship you may already have established. If you are at the beginning of that relationship then the shaky ground for the future will be well established.
How do you decide if a strategy is one you should be using? There is one simple question that you can ask yourself about the advice being offered and that is “Does the bird have a choice to perform the behavior you are looking for?” It is well established by behavioral science that animals given choice and control over their environment show much lower levels of stress and aggressive behaviors than animals that are managed using force or coercion.
The Choice to “Step Up”
As an example of removal of choice and control let us consider the behavior that almost everyone wants to train, the step onto the hand. If the technique that you use does not allow the bird to make the choice to step onto your hand and it has no escape from the “pushing” hand it may well, having already sent a bunch of visual cues to the owner to back off, reach down and bite that hand. The hand is then withdrawn and the bird begins the process of learning that biting gets hands away when they are not wanted.
So, how do we give choice to the bird in this situation? Firstly we need to be observant, when the bird first signals it does not want to step up by what may be quite subtle changes in posture we need to back off. What the bird is now learning is that it has control over the situation using its natural body language; the same way it would communicate with its flock members in the wild. What the owner can then do is to carefully watch the body language and note how far the hand was from the bird when it “said” back off. In the future, just before the hand gets to this position bridge (click or say “good”) and treat and take the hand away.
Gradually the hand may be brought closer, the bridge and treat can come later, and the bird will learn that the approaching hand is a good thing; plus it still retains the right to “say” back off with its body language, the owner should always comply with that request. With time, patience, and good observation the bird will learn to step onto the hand. Note that if your bird is clipped it is a good idea to begin this training on a perch that allows the bird to walk safely away from you. One piece of bad advice I have seen is to work the bird on a small perch so that it can not get away … now ask yourself, where is the control of the situation for that bird?
There are many places on the Internet offering advice on how to train the step up. Many of them use techniques that remove choice from the bird, they use what behaviorists call aversives (something an animal will work to avoid) to achieve their goals.
One really poor technique promoted on several web sites is to move either the hand the bird is stepping onto higher once it gets a foot on it, thereby forcing (coercing) it to bring the second foot onto the hand, or the owner is instructed to remove the perch the bird is stepping from once it has the first foot on the hand. Both of these techniques not only remove choice from the bird they also undermine the trust the bird has in the owner. In fact lifting a bird before it has both feet firmly on the hand is a very common thing that many experienced owners do all the time, it is a habit they should do their best to break.
Marketing Hype versus Proven Training Solutions
There are several other ways of knowing whether you are getting good training advice or a large dose of marketing hype. Good professional trainers who post training advice will almost always explain the science behind their advice and also they will provide links to the sources of their information.
For instance when I write about the effects of punishment in my articles I always include references to the scientists who provide support data with their work. Behavioral science has been around for over 100 years; during that time some techniques have been refined as they have been better understood, however much of the science that professional trainers use every day with their animals is strongly based upon that well researched body of work.
If a web site claims a “revolutionary” technique or they promise to reveal the “secrets” of the professional trainers … don’t believe them. Professional trainers who have secrets are probably also trying to make a living by selling those secrets too.
The science of behavior is in the public domain, it can be read about and studied for free. Having said that you will find that professionals who teach training present not only the science but also the application of the science, the art of it if you prefer.
All my training class materials refer back to the sources of my knowledge; I do not invent new terms to gain some market edge. This last point is also a clue that you should be wary of any web site using terminology that is not used by the training community at large. If someone is claiming a new technique then they need to also publish the science that backs it up. They need to have it peer reviewed by the rest of the behavioral community, just like the current science the best trainers use was peer reviewed.
Just because they publish it on their web site does not make it fact, true, effective, or in some cases ethical.
If you have any questions about this article or about anything on my training blog (www.AvianAmbassadors.com/BirdTraining) please write to me at TrainingBlog@AvianAmbassadors.com and I will do my best to respond. Your email may be the inspiration for a blog article.
Enjoy your birds and your learning,