Lara Joseph is a professional animal behavior consultant and trainer. She is also the owner of The Animal Behavior Center, an international educational center focusing on teaching people how to work with animals using the principles of positive reinforcement and applied behavior analysis.
We’re excited that Lara took time out of her very busy schedule to share some insights from her professional animal training experience.
Best in Flock: Tell us a bit about your background and the Animal Behavior Center.
Lara Joseph: I am the owner and operator of The Animal Behavior Center. It is an international educational center for people living, loving, and learning with animals focusing on applied behavior analysis and positive reinforcement. We do this through our live streaming services.
Creating a live streaming, annual membership program is something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I can now reach people all over the world, through their computers or mobile devices at their convenience. I’m reaching people who want to do better with their birds.
Rocky, our 20-year-old Moluccan Cockatoo, is the reason I started The Animal Behavior Center. He was rehomed with me over twelve years ago and was suggested to be put down for his behavior issues. I asked if I could work with him before that final decision was made. He now lives with me and helps me share my message of doing better by knowing better.
Who are your typical clients and what does training and consultation with you look like?
Lara Joseph: As far as parrots, my typical clients are companion parrot lovers, shelter workers, and zookeepers and parrot trainers.
Many people come to me for help with behavior issues, such as feather destructive behaviors and mutilation. One of the services I offer is a paid, annual subscription to a closed Facebook group for parrot lovers and caretakers called The Parrot Project. It is within that group that I live stream at least once a week, engaging heavily with the subscribers, showing them via the live streams how to train and take steps to change behaviors. I answer their questions via monthly Q&A’s and open their eyes to the subtle changes in body language they may be overlooking. Within The Parrot Project, I am always available for individual consultations to provide behavior modification plans that always involve training and enrichment.
Is there something every pet owner should do before they reach out to an animal training expert to solve their pet’s behavior issues?
Lara Joseph: Yes, I would suggest a couple of things.
First, make sure the behavior concerns are not due to a medical issue. Making sure they seek a well qualified avian veterinarian will help in ruling out any behavior issues resulting from a medical issue.
Second, I would suggest analyzing their approach to everyone’s interaction with the parrot. Does the bird want to do the behaviors requested? Many behavior issues are a result of forcing parrots to do things instead of positively reinforcing the behaviors they want to see. (Also, many people only think about positive reinforcers in terms of food, when they could also be things such as attention, play, choice, etc.)
What’s the most common issue you see with companion birds, parrots in particular?
Lara Joseph: I’d like to say screaming or biting but the underlying issue in many cases is under enriched. Enrichment comes in many forms such as interacting with toys, foraging, training, exercise, and control over their environment through choice.
It seems like everyone says they understand the importance of using positive reinforcement techniques, but very few people actually put the principles of positive reinforcement into practice correctly. Why do you think it’s so difficult to stick to it and what can people do to make it easier?
Lara Joseph: I think the strength and true understanding of the use of positive reinforcement is greatly misunderstood. The use of positive reinforcement is more reliable in getting consistent, reliable behavior. Its use can make the relationship between parrots and people increase beyond what words can describe.
Many people think the use of positive reinforcement takes so much patience. In the long run, it’s a lot easier. I’d rather have a bird fly or come to me when requested vs having to run or capture them.
The implementation of positive reinforcement results in much less (or no) anxiety than other methods. It requires thought and observation, which many people don’t want to take the time to do, because it’s inconvenient at the time. They can get the behaviors requested by using force, [but] in the long run that can lead to more resistance from the bird.
People can better understand the use of positive reinforcement by educating themselves and see examples of alternate ways to get desired behaviors. Their birds will thank them for it. When we know better, we do better.
What’s your favorite training success story?
Lara Joseph: There are so many, but my favorite story is the reason why The Animal Behavior Center even exists. Rocky, our Moluccan Cockatoo, was going to be put down for behavior issues labeled as aggression.
Most behavior is learned behavior. Rocky was a parrot who was misunderstood.
I wanted to show him a way of interacting with people that didn’t use force and coercion to get desired behaviors. I went back to school and took master’s level courses in Applied Behavior Analysis to do better by him.
I saw his behaviors beginning to change with my application and education. The more I applied my education, the more I saw Rocky blossom. I began seeing a bird excited to see me and interact with me. The biting decreased dramatically. The screaming began decreasing. Instead of chasing people when he was on the floor he began requesting play. He began singing, bathing, wanting to be held, and eagerly foraging through his toys.
I wrote about my behavior change plans and implementation. People began reading my writing, following our progress, and wanted to learn and know more. I began presenting our story across the nation at conferences, fundraisers, and colleges.
As the new behavior columnist for Bird Talk magazine, is there a specific focus or priority that you have for the column? What should people expect from you and what are you hoping you’ll accomplish through this platform where you get to reach a much wider audience of people who may be new to bird ownership?
Lara Joseph: It is an honor to be asked to write as the new behavior columnist for the new Bird Talk Magazine. My focus and priority are to share the education I wish I had when I was new to birds.
I also want to share my information and education with those who aren’t new to birds. I hope to give many readers new perspectives on parrot behavior, training, and enrichment. I’m a very down-to-earth, approachable person. I love interacting with people who truly want to do better.
My goal is to share insights and approaches they may not be familiar with. I want to share behavior concerns I have with the parrots in my care, what I look for, and where I begin my behavior modification plans. I want to share with them that I make mistakes, too. We all do. I just make sure I learn from those mistakes and approach the next situation in a different way.
Do you have any recommendations for books or other resources people could check out if they can’t make it to the Animal Behavior Center but would like to deepen their understanding of animal behavior training?
Lara Joseph: As far as behavior, I always recommend anything by Paul Chance. He’s a well-educated writer in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis.
I know flying to The Animal Behavior Center is not within the financial means of many people; this is why I have opened my live stream learning and services via my online learning memberships and The Parrot Project.
I love listening to podcasts and audiobooks about applied behavior analysis, which I apply to parrot behavior and training. One of my favorite podcasts is called Functionally Speaking. I also have my own podcast show called The Animal Behavior Hour.
And finally, I have a very popular, free, weekly live stream episode called Coffee With The Critters that airs every Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time on The Animal Behavior Center’s Facebook page.
You can learn more about Lara and her work on her website TheAnimalBehaviorCenter.com.