Training For Treats
by Joan Weinzierl
For those of us who live in changing seasons, spring is filled with promise and new growth and sparkly unicorns dancing through fields of flowers. ☺ For many of us with birdie roommates, it’s also filled with HORMONES. Not our own (necessarily), but the hormonal shifts of the flockmates in our care who can become very touchy this time of year, acting out suddenly and painfully from frustration and discomfort.
Why? As a bird-loving friend of mine says, “I’m her flock. Who else is she supposed to focus on?” When springtime urges descend, higher-than-normal confusion can come with them, and a sweet-tempered bird with escalating physical needs may show uncharacteristic aggression that’s tough to deal with when her human doesn’t respond the way she wants.
In addition to adjusting our birds’ surroundings and our ways of petting and stroking them to minimize this frustration, redefining our relationships with our little flockmates through training can help focus all that energy into a positive give-and-take, especially in short daily sessions. Of course it’s easier to establish a training routine BEFORE your bird starts showing signs of hormonal stress, but any time is a good time for a start (if you can avoid bloodshed in the process).
When Sammi (Goffins cockatoo) became aggressive and chose me for her bite-fests, I was at a loss. Several bird behavior articles led me to try the give-and-take of trick training with her. I started with behaviors she already did (raising one foot, for example) and got her to connect the behavior with a verbal request (“Wave”). At first she was rewarded for doing her usual behavior on request. Then, I slowly began to expect a little more – opening her foot while it was up, then opening and closing it, then repeating so the motion looked like a wave. It only took a few days for us to get on the same page.
Sammi also liked to hang upside down from my hand, so that behavior became “Hang like a bat.” She quickly grew to dive to the position on request and swing back and forth while hanging, then pulling herself upright for her treat.
Her repertoire now includes “Big bird” (spreading her wings and bouncing), “roll over” (this one still requires help from her human), “play dead” (laying motionless on her back on a flat surface), “Shake” (presenting her foot for a handshake) and “Lay down” (laying in the palm of her human’s hand). There’s also “Gimme kiss” and “Hoppy bird” (which involves jumping around a table or bed with her crest up). We’ve been working on “Knock knock” because she’s surprised me a few times by standing right outside the bedroom or bathroom door, waiting for it to open so she can attack my feet; I’m hoping to get her to announce her presence by tapping on the door so I can protect my toes. I think she’s figured out my motivation, because THIS trick is the one she’s been the most resistant to learning.
The positive to all this is that it really doesn’t take much time, doesn’t encourage loud vocalizations and truly cements our relationship. There’s a reliable cause-and-effect (do the trick, get the treat) that seems to calm Sammi even as it provides her with a reward that she likes. For me, it’s a way to maintain regular physical contact with her without too much fear of being bitten, and it gives us a daily way to have a positive physical connection that gives both of us satisfaction and closure. I watch the expression in her eyes change from wild and agitated to curious and content in the course of a few minutes when we go through our routine – not EVERY time, but most of the time.
And if she seems to think SHE’S training ME, that works too – whatever keeps her happy. =)