Thinking Outside The Box When Training

Written by Linda Fisher

For the most part, the tide has turned regarding animal training philosophy. It’s understood now that empowering animals rather than disempowering them not only garners better results but creates happier and healthier animals.

What isn’t mentioned often enough though, is how to repair the damage archaic training methods create. Those negative and sometimes abusive methods can have long-lasting and devastating results for the animals and can exacerbate existing behavior problems and create new problem behaviors. “Problem animals” often end up homeless or are chronically rehomed. Those animals may also experience stress-related illnesses.

How can we teach abused animals to feel safe while we work with them, considering their many negative experiences? Using positive reinforcement and up-to-date training methods is an obvious solution. But what is not always obvious is the complexity of the animal victim’s state of mind and their level of emotional damage. In some cases, it can be difficult to even pinpoint a problem if those behaviors are not obvious or predictable. Not all “damaged” animals respond the same way. Some may become extremely inhibited and withdrawn. Some animals may bite and become dangerous to others and themselves. Then there are those who seem quite “normal”, until an aggressive, unexpected behavior occurs, seemingly out of nowhere.

To illustrate an example, I’ll refer to my Senegal parrot Mikey whom I rescued and adopted 30 years ago.  Suffice to say, Mikey was unsocialized and I believe he suffered from PTSD which I will explain later. Initially, he would step onto my hand without hesitation, nor show any fear behaviors such as hissing and growling, nor would he try to fly away, indicating he was agreeable and wanting to interact. However, once he was briefly on your hand, he would bite and grind unexpectedly, and he would not let go. His bites were deep and painful. My first thoughts were that I was at fault, rushing him into a new situation too soon, therefore I needed to give him a little time and some space. What I initially didn’t know however, and learned after the fact, was that he was a notorious biter. He was deemed “unsuitable pet material” and was labeled “breeder only”, forever. That new information didn’t change my goal to rescue and adopt him. He needed rescuing anyway. His existing environment and care were poor.

There were many things about Mikey that made him very challenging. His bites were dangerous because they were deep and therefore could potentially cause serious harm, and they were seemingly unpredictable.

I decided to work with Mikey without handling him, to teach him what I call enrichment behaviors (tricks). By respecting Mikey’s personal space and working with him from a short distance, I hoped he would feel safe, gain confidence, and ultimately learn to trust me. Luckily, he rewarded and reinforced easily with his favorite treats. Mikey loves food like no other parrot I’ve ever encountered. He transferred over to pellets easily, loves veggies of all kinds, and he’s willing to try any food at least once. When I took Mikey to his first veterinary exam, the veterinarian said he was a “chubby little guy.” Not necessarily a healthy chubby, from years of a sunflower seed diet. Between working on losing weight, and addressing the fear underlying his challenging behaviors, Mikey and I had a lot of work to do.

Early on, Mikey learned to love his tricks. He would rush to his training stand as soon as I opened his cage door, and he would begin his routine without prompting. Head scratches became equally reinforcing as his favorite treat.  (He has learned however, that harder to-do tricks deserve greater reward.) He’s a negotiator and I took that as a positive trait. He also loves foraging and vigorously chews up wooden toys. A lot was achieved with Mikey as his quality of life drastically improved. I was also able to request a step-up without receiving a bite…MOST of the time. But an unexpected bite and grind were still a problem. Since step-up requests were an antecedent to biting, I assumed all step-up requests were unwanted.

I paid careful attention to distant antecedents that I perhaps wasn’t noticing previously, such as environmental objects that might incite fear, and of course I paid close attention to any subtle body language he might be presenting that I was missing. Or was I projecting my own body language that caused Mikey fear, such as moving too quickly to open his cage door? That was one of the many questions I asked myself.

One thing I eventually resolved in my mind, was that in Mikey’s previous life, he was forced to step onto a hand, even if he didn’t want to. And he was probably punished if he refused. Mikey was a perfect example of the problems that develop when force and punishment are used in training. Mikey’s previous caretaker believed Mikey was an unpredictable biter who could never be trusted not to bite.  Contrary, I assessed that Mikey was fearful about what was coming up next, and biting was a safety mechanism that came after the fact. I would guess that in his previous life, he assumed that a step-up onto a hand guaranteed an unpleasant future predicament, such as going back into his cage, a cage that offered no enrichment or joy, and forced to participate in situations that were frightening and/or uncomfortable. Hence, Mikey learned that giving a warning makes the human retaliate with punishment, therefore, don’t warn.

At the time, I sought opinions from fellow animal behavior consultants to offer advice. What’s the solution? Unfortunately, they too were bewildered and none of their recommendations were helpful. I eventually came up with my own solution. Since stepping onto a hand was the antecedent that caused Mikey’s challenging behavior, I had to let Mikey know that it was okay to refuse a step-up request if he didn’t want to accept it. This was key to Mikey’s emotional rehabilitation. As Brandon Keim poignantly wrote in his Popular Science article about abused parrots, “piece together their pasts to help them find solace in the present.” It was time for me to do just that for Mikey.

Because I had already taught Mikey a few enrichment behaviors and targeting, it made teaching him this new “trick” easier. (The beauty of enrichment behavior training is that it opens communication between the animal and the human. Once an animal learns to learn, animals learn faster.

Fortunately, Mikey’s unpredictable biting eventually stopped. Here are a few highlights from the shaping plan I created for Mikey.

Goal Behavior: Mikey feels safe to refuse a step-up request. Mikey steps onto my hand without biting me and he stands comfortably on my hand without fear.

  1. Determine a safe, consistent, and quiet location for Mikey’s training sessions so there aren’t environmental changes or interruptions while training him outside his cage.
  2. I make sure my energy is relaxed and my voice consistently calm. (Any heightened voice exclamations, or excitement can negatively stimulate Mikey’s response to me.
  3. I always planned our training sessions per Mikey’s schedule when he would be most receptive. Mikey likes his afternoon naps, so we never trained during that time.
  4. Since I had already taught Mikey target training and a few enrichment behaviors, such as turn-around, and wave, I began each approximation with a simple targeting behavior or trick he already liked to do. This helped to flow new approximations into the training.
  5. During the initial approximation, I gently presented my hand outside his cage door (a distance from where he was standing). When he calmly looked at my hand, I removed my hand and I walked away. I repeated this process for several days, and I never at any time requested him to step onto my hand.
  6. I continue to present my hand each session, while Mikey ignores me, and I walk away. (I would return a few minutes later, or hours later depending on my schedule.) After a few days of presenting may hand the same way, one day, Mikey approached my hand, and I kept my hand still while Mikey watched. I waited a few seconds and then I walked away. I repeated these sessions a few more times throughout the day and again the following day.

The morning of the next day, I rested my hand on Mikey’s cage door. I could tell by his body language that he was feeling relaxed (eating and preening his feathers) and uninterested in me and my hand. I knew then that Mikey and I were making great progress.

The following day, I rested my hand on Mikey’s cage door as I had been doing for several weeks. Mikey approached my hand and stepped onto it without prompting from me! It was a momentous occasion. I quickly gave Mikey his favorite reinforcer in unison while placing him on his favorite perch so he could eat his reward without interference.

Instead of accepting an unwanted step-up request and then biting, Mikey has learned to reject an unwanted request by putting his head down (a behavior he chose to do on his own). When he does that behavior, I walk away, and I provide him a little time (anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes) before I offer my hand again. If after waiting and he’s still rejecting me, I don’t ask again until hours later or the next day. I also make sure the environment feels comfortable for him before making a request. And I ensure that what is coming after the step up, is of high value to him.

Mikey gained confidence and learned that it’s safe to refuse a step-up request without receiving retribution. This not only improved our communication, but our relationship also flourished. Now that Mikey feels free to make his own choices without punishment, he doesn’t panic or feel threatened, therefore he doesn’t feel the need to defend himself by biting. This was a major turning point for Mikey! And an exciting learning experience for me.

It’s not always the hand that the bird is afraid of. It could be what’s in the room or the environment, or what might be coming after the bird steps up. It’s important that after a successful step-up, the upcoming event or situation must also be highly reinforcing. For example, if the parrot must go back into his cage but doesn’t usually want to, be sure you’ve put something in the cage that the parrot considers higher value than what is outside the cage.

I believe it’s too often taken for granted that an animal’s refusal to do what we want, is due to the animal’s obvious dislike of something. However, the problem can sometimes be much less straightforward and not so obvious.

Here is another example: Years ago, a client of mine struggled to teach her dog Jasper to use his doggie door. Jasper tried the doggie door once and refused to do it again. Jasper was an outgoing dog. He was always exuberant and excited to participate in amateur K-9 events such as agility courses, which have all kinds of props and free-standing objects. Therefore, Jasper’s unwillingness to use his doggie door was a bit odd.

I first assessed the doggie door. Was it the right size for Jasper? Was the flap hard and stiff, making it awkward to enter?  Where was the doggie door located within the house and where does it lead into the yard outside? I also started wondering if Jasper had a bad experience with a doggie door in the past and was simply frightened now. Jasper’s caretaker said to the best of her knowledge, Jasper never had a bad experience with a doggie door. He used it once and never used it again. I exhausted all doggie door possibilities, now it was time to turn to Jasper. Being an extremely athletic dog, with no physical trauma or indication of pain, it didn’t appear that Jasper had a physical condition that would keep him from using the doggie door.

However, I wanted more information about Jasper’s history. I learned that he was rescued from a breeder with an unsavory reputation. Jasper was a medium-sized mixed breed —  American Pitbull Terrier and a small unknown breed. His tail was docked at some point by the breeder. There were complications that left Jasper with a large wound on the tip of his tail that did not heal quickly. While there is no evidence at this stage that Jasper has any tail problems, I recommended that Jasper see his veterinarian. Jasper’s person hesitated, stating that he had regular veterinary visits with no sign of problems. Nonetheless, she agreed to take Jasper to the veterinary clinic for a checkup, but this time, explaining the botched tail docking when he was younger. After the veterinarian’s careful examination, pulling back the long fur on the tip of Jasper’s tail, the veterinarian confirmed that there was excessive scarring on the tip of the tail, indicating signs of a tail docking complication, that perhaps left nerve damage. When I heard this, I had a light bulb moment. I reexamined the doggie door and how the flap responds to an animal’s body when the body exits the door. And I discovered that the door flap harshly swings back and touches the dog’s back end. In Jasper’s case, the tip of the tail. While I initially examined the door flap to see if it was too heavy, at that time I was thinking about entry, not exiting. My approach to teach Jasper to use his doggie door was now clear. Jasper potentially experienced discomfort or even pain when the door flap touched his tail when he exited the doggie door. Therefore, my client purchased a new doggie door that didn’t have a heavy backward swing. I designed a new shaping plan for Jasper that would teach him to trust the new, pain-free doggie door.

Every situation and every animal is different. And not all unwanted behaviors have an obvious origin. Although the problems may be complex and the solutions not always easy to identify, thinking outside the box has helped me unravel some bewildering behaviors so I can get to the root of the problem and design shaping plans that have successful outcomes.

Mikey is the love of my life, and he’s living an enriched life now. He has provided me with a special companionship that others never deemed possible. Mine, Mikey’s, and client’s experiences inspired me to help animal caretakers resolve once thought unresolvable, unwanted behaviors, especially for those animals who are victims of punishment training and labeled “unfixable” as Mikey once was.

I write this article to send a reminder for all of us, to think outside the box to identify unwanted behaviors so we can help our animals move past them, and feel better.

Linda Fisher is an animal behavior consultant and has been helping animal guardians and their animals for more than 30 years. Linda works with all species of animals; however, parrots hold a special place in her heart, inspiring her to take on the most difficult psittacine cases. A lifelong learner and Fear Free Veterinary certified, Linda also teaches parrot behavior classes for staff, officers, and adopters, at local animal shelters.

TO CITE: Fisher, L. (2024). Thinking outside the box when training. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.6