Calgary Bird School: An Obedience Class for Companion Parrots
In a little city in Canada, owners are meeting once a month for a dog training class. Except there are no dogs in this class, only parrots! Birds in class learn foundation behaviours like “Step Up,” “Target” and “Station.” They’re introduced to marker training and positive reinforcement. Owners are learning to travel with their birds, give treats to their birds, monitor their birds for calm body language, and rearrange the situation to ensure their birds remain happy and calm. They ask questions, play, and learn a few things along the way. Each class ends with a trick they can show off to their friends.
Now, how exactly did this Bird School come to be? Well, here’s the story:
After many years of percolating the idea, in 2016 I launched the Calgary Bird School. My goals were:
- To create foundation behaviours in pet birds to increase bird-human communication
- To instill R+ techniques and LIMA thinking into bird owners from the beginning
- To bridge the training gap between bird acquisition and problems/surrender
The idea came to me while I was working with dogs. Through the basic obedience classes I was instructing, it hit me. Why do people come to dog training classes? Why do people really need to teach their dogs to sit? Where did that even start? Why is it important to continue to teach dogs things? How does it help? And if I can answer those questions, why can’t we do the same things for pet birds? Birds are less domesticated and less researched, and often kept as pets in homes (in fact they are the third most popular pet, right after dogs and cats). With so many birds sharing people’s lives, it’s up to us as trainers to help them be successful.
The first AKC-sanctioned obedience classes happened in the 1930s, after the first World War brought about a revolution in dog training. Over the years, as more owners enjoyed connecting and performing with their dogs, several industries were born: puppy school, obedience classes, dog sports, and service animal training.
It is now common knowledge that a dog who is well-behaved should know how to sit, lie down, and stay on cue. Owners are encouraged to connect with their animals through training. The IAABC focus on a LIMA approach to training is paving the way for even better communication with our animals. I’m proud to be part of this movement!
In participating in the bird world for close to two decades, I’ve seen the rise of a variety of bird trainers. We had the experiential “it-worked-for-me” gurus, we had the punishment-and-flooding–based trainers, and now a wonderful wave of R+ and LIMA trainers. It’s an exciting time to be a bird trainer!
Currently, the training focus in the bird world seems to be problem-solving. When your bird bites, this is what you do. When your bird screams for attention, this is what you do. When you are overwhelmed, here is the damage control, and so on. This focus has been a godsend for many people who find themselves sharing their lives with a parrot, but what about our versions of “sit” and “down”? Where are the basics? Why do we wait until the animal is severely reactive before we seek help? I’d like to offer a solution between Point A – getting the bird and bringing them home, cute as a button: and point J – bird is screaming for hours, hates my husband, and makes me bleed. Which often can lead to point Q – rehoming or rescue (where the cycle may continue).
I introduced a set of “basic obedience” classes for birds to help instill foundations with a LIMA approach. I find that most bird owners really want a great connection with their bird. Birds are charismatic and loving creatures, their antics are funny and charming, and they can melt your heart. Foundation behaviours teach skills and create positive associations at the same time.
Teaching foundation behaviors can provide the following benefits:
- Build a positive bird-human relationship
- Teach the bird skills for living happily with humans
- Increase communication between the owner and their bird
- Create foundations that make behavior problems easier to solve (or avoid them all together)
- Provide enrichment for both birds and humans
- Build confidence in both birds and humans
These benefits from training are universal across all species, and why we should work on foundation behaviours with any animal we share our lives with. Studies in dogs, like this one, have correlated going through formal obedience training with less likelihood of being relinquished to a shelter. Hopefully this will extrapolate to trained birds!
How group classes can help pet birds
Training is communication, and the more we can communicate, the more we can understand. Foundation skills are for life, and last long after the formal training stops. These foundation behaviours give confidence to companion birds. Birds are a prey species and tend towards escape behaviors when frightened. By teaching foundations, we can create confidence and teach calmness so that birds can live many happy years in their owners’ homes. And even if they are rehomed, they will have a better ability to readjust to the new family.
And there are times these “tricks” can come in useful! What avian vet wouldn’t love a bird who could stand still on a scale? Or allow a body exam without restraint? Or offer an open-mouth behaviour? The birds would benefit from the lower-stress vet experience as well.
What happens at a Bird School class
Classes run once a month for one hour. Each class contains: a 10-minute review of markers, reinforcers, why we love LIMA and R+, and how we will apply it to the lesson today. Then we go into the lesson, with demos, and time to give it a try. Then a fun trick. All in an hour! There is a handout with every class, so students can take the lesson material home with them. We also offer ongoing support via the website and Facebook group to keep students on track.
In addition to a closer relationship and better communication with their birds, owners learn about shaping and problem-solving. Shaping helps owners break the goal behaviour into baby steps, and makes working each step much more manageable towards the end goal. When problem-solving, we help owners focus on the do, not the don’t. We ask, what do you want your bird to do? Then we give them tools to train it, in small achievable steps, setting their bird up for success and rewarding each tiny approximation towards the goal. In this process, whether it’s a trick or a problem behaviour, owners learn how to problem-solve for themselves. Teach a man to fish…
In addition to learning great skills at Bird School, there are other fringe benefits. Birds in attendance get to practice going into the crate each month. Pet birds almost never get out of their houses, and this is building a positive association with new environments (and it’s not the vet!). So many wins all around!
An example of a Beginner skills class
Step Up. This is where the bird hops onto the owner’s hand, arm or shoulder. We have five parts to follow for a successful Step Up. We practice marker timing and effective treat delivery. We get a bunch of deposits in the Trust Bank Account (thank you forever, Dr. Friedman). We work on duration on the hand, we work on distractions like other people or noises. We work up to stepping onto a hand-held perch, onto strangers, down from high places, onto or off of strange new perches, generalizing the Step Up to as many situations and scenarios as possible. We all can continue to work on Step Ups for the rest of our birds’ lives. I think sometimes we take for granted that most birds have Step Up pre-installed. They don’t. Let’s open the dialogue to continually improve our cued behaviours!
At the end of the Step Up class we learn a trick—the wave! This really helps students hone the timing of their markers, and leaves them with something fun to work on at home. People love showing off their birds. With a trick, they can use those communication skills, timing, treat delivery, and increased trust to shape a wonderful skill to show off. Everyone wins!
We also have a class called Taming Your Tiny Dragon. This class is for birds that are not hand-tame, and have fear responses to hands or being out of the cage. Pairing a reinforcer with the approach of a human classically conditions the bird to humans approaching. Then we can teach from protected contact, or through the door of a cage to create positive associations with hands. Targeting is also a great skill for less-tame birds to learn!
Just like with dogs, bird trainers should be well educated, and able to offer basic foundations to regular pet owners. Not every situation needs a certified behaviour consultant, but if a behavior issue with a bird in class is identified, it’s the teacher’s job to refer that pet owner to a behaviour consultant for an in-depth assessment, evaluation, and individualized behaviour change plan.
The Calgary Bird School curriculum is available by email to IAABC certified trainers. We would love to see more foundations classes offered to birds around the world! We are currently looking into offering online classes, as Stephanie Edlund has done with her Understanding Parrots site. I believe this is a valuable avenue for accessing bird owners, regardless of location. It’s not expensive, and it’s full of amazing advice.
My sincere hope is that the Calgary Bird School starts a wave of pet bird education, and that teaching foundation behaviours to pet birds will become as ubiquitous as teaching a dog to sit. As trainers in the trenches, we try to spread the word about ABA and learning theory, focusing on LIMA approaches and giving birds choice so that we create long-lasting improvements in birds’ and their owners’ lives. If we can work towards a brighter future for all pet birds, surely Bird School will be a part of that movement!
Please enjoy this video from River Cha. She has put together an incredible snapshot of living with birds, and why we do the training. Featuring: Quentin (CAG), Monster, and Lou (cockatiels) and me.
Robin Horemans KPA-CTP is a supporting IAABC member with a passion for parrots. She runs the Calgary Bird School, a training class for birds and their caregivers. With a background in ABA, she enjoys teaching science-based force-free methods to local parrots and their people. When she isn’t training, she relaxes at home with her African Grey Quentin, and two cockatiels, Monster and Lou.