Positive reinforcement strategies involve focusing on kind and gentle methods to teach your bird that circumstances that were once frightening now result in desired consequences.
To better demonstrate how to apply the principles let’s work through an example. Imagine trying to introduce a new toy into the cage of a bird that responds with fear behaviours:
As the conscientious companion Parrot owner approaches her bird’s cage with the new toy, she notices her bird quickly moved to the back of the cage away from the approaching toy.
Rather than put the toy in the cage, she decides to take a few steps back until her bird shows behaviour that indicates comfort. She then gently and slowly places the toy on the floor in her bird’s line of sight.
Each day the companion Parrot owner gently moves the toy slightly closer to the cage.
All the while noticing if her bird responds with any behaviour indicative of fear.
If she notices fear responses, she moves the toy away from the cage until the bird shows calm behaviour.
Over time the companion Parrot owner has been able to get the toy so close it is right next to the cage. She then gently hangs the toy on the outside of the cage away from food or water bowls.
(This is because she does not want her bird to driven away from his resources by fear.)This process is known as systematic desensitization. It is the idea of gradually exposing a subject to fear producing stimuli, arranged from least frightening to most frightening in combination with a relaxed state.
After the companion Parrot owner has achieved this success, she then focuses on using positive reinforcement to train her bird to approach the new toy. An easy way to do this is to use a target.
If a bird knows how to follow a target, the owner can present the target to her bird in the cage away from the toy. She then gradually moves the target closer and closer to the new toy.
Each approximation is reinforced with food or another desired positive reinforcer. If her bird is especially fearful, many small approximations may be required. It also may take several training sessions for her bird to move close enough to the new toy to touch it.
Now that her bird is close to the toy, the companion Parrot owner can work on teaching her bird to touch the toy. One strategy to encourage this action is to place treats on the toy.
At this stage in the process her bird might be willing to take the treat off of the toy. This can also be further encouraged with more reinforcement offered from her hands after the bait is eaten.
After her bird retrieves several treats placed on the toy, it is likely her bird may touch the toy without the need for a treat as a lure. At this point a bridge and reinforcer can be offered after the bird makes the effort to touch the toy.
If touching the toy is particularly challenging, a treat can be held in such a way that the bird must accidentally touch the toy to retrieve the treat. If needed, approximations can continue to include touching the toy for longer periods of time or actually manipulating it with the beak.
Paralyzed with fear? Unlikely. Parrots are more prone to seek opportunities to escape or avoid a situation they find frightening. Avoidance is certainly contradictory with the goal of trying to create the best relationship possible with a companion Parrot.
Focus on showing sensitivity to fear responses and using positive reinforcement to turn a fearful feathered friend into a confident companion.
This article was originally published on Barbara’s blog in November 2008.
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Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training (www.BarbarasFFAT.com) provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.
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