Choices, Not Labels Help Birds Learn

Written by Lisa Desatnik

Dreyfuss, my pionus, is a bird who—if I’d let her—would spend much of her day sitting next to me or on me, frequently with her head down for rubs. So why was it that this sweet girl would lunge at my arm and even bite it, whenever I’d put my arm in front of her body before asking for a ‘step up’ from her inside cage perch?

Was this a case of a bird showing dominance over me? I could have called it that and chosen to force her to step onto my arm by rushing a fist into her belly to get her to step up, or I could have moved in with a towel to get her to come out. I even could have given her away in frustration, thinking she was too aggressive.

Using a term like “dominance” could have led me to make any of these unfortunate choices in response to an undesirable behavior. That is the problem with using labels to describe an animal or a behavior. Labels are simply hypothetical explanations for why animals behave a certain way; they are not helpful in developing plans for changing behavior in the most positive, least intrusive ways. In fact, using labels can lead to excuses for blaming pets and to ineffective training strategies or strategies based upon punishment. Labels can also become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Instead of labeling Dreyfuss, I looked at her specific, observable behaviors and how the environment was impacting them. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a systematic approach to solving behavior problems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a bird screaming or flying at people) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value. What happened immediately prior to the behavior to set the ball rolling (antecedent)? And what happened immediately after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?

With my ABA hat on, this is what I saw going on with Dreyfuss.

Background: Dreyfuss is in her cage.

Antecedent:                Lisa moves arm to Dreyfuss, saying “step up”

Behavior:                     Dreyfuss lunges or bites

Consequence:              Lisa removes hand

Prediction: When Dreyfuss is on a perch in her cage and Lisa puts her arm in front of Dreyfuss, Dreyfuss will lunge or bite more to get Lisa to remove her hand.

This may seem odd for a bird that, once she was on me, could be there for a long time. But obviously there was something about my arm being placed right in front of her when she was on her perch in her cage that she found aversive. How did I know? Because her behavior of biting/lunging continued and got more frequent when I put my arm in front of her body.

With this ABC formula, I could see that her behavior of lunging and biting had a function for her: to remove something aversive (my hand) from her immediate environment.

I set about coming up with a plan for teaching her to step up in that situation (from her cage perch onto my arm) using only positive reinforcement. I taught her the contingency that when I put my hand on her door, if she moved to the left side of the perch, then I would put my arm at the right side. And if she got onto my arm, then she could come out for attention, seeds and more.

So, here is the new ABC:

A:        Lisa puts hand on door

B:        Dreyfuss moves to left side of perch

C:        Lisa puts arm at right side of perch

2nd ABC:

A:        Lisa puts arm at right side of perch

B:        Dreyfuss moves to arm and steps up

C:        Lisa takes Dreyfuss out for attention, seeds and more

Prediction: When Dreyfuss is on the left side of her perch in her cage and Lisa puts her arm on the right side of that perch, then Dreyfuss will move toward the arm and step up more often in order to get Lisa’s attention and treats.

The really great part of this was that, once we got this down, Dreyfuss didn’t just move slowly toward my arm, as if it were something unpleasant, she started to run to it and jump right on. Taking her out of her cage is that simple now. The beauty of it is that I never used force or punishment. My bird—who some may have labeled “dominant” when it came to getting her out of her cage—now reliably runs to my arm with her feathers relaxed, and as a result we both have confidence in that situation.

Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a Cincinnati certified dog trainer and certified parrot behavior consultant. Learn more about her at