My Thoughts On Taming A Pet Parrot

Alright, I’ve got to speak my mind this month. I have heard so many people and seen so many web sites talking about ‘taming’ birds.
Thoughts on taming your pet bird by Cincinnati certified parrot behavior consultant, Lisa DesatnikKnowing what I know about behavior and being as compassionate as I am about other living beings, I hate that phrase. It makes me cringe actually because taming to me infers dominance and force. And dominance and force in no way helps build a relationship of trust and foster quality of life.

Let me share some excerpts of ‘taming’ tactics suggested on web sites.

“If you make a fist and bend your wrist as far as it will go, you’ll notice that the skin on the back of the fist becomes very tight.  Bring your fist up to the bird very slowly, finding out where its striking range is….The Fist, brought slowly toward the bird’s beak, can be used to control the bird, move it away from you, hold it off and let it know that you are not about to be driven out of the territory.”

“If your bird is so aggressive that you cannot safely place your hand inside its cage, try wearing thick oven mitts on your hands. If your bird bites the mitt, gently push in towards his beak rather than pulling away. This will eventually teach him that no matter how hard he bites you, he cannot make your hand disappear.”

“You have to expect the bites and be prepared to take them if need be..reacting to those bites is just about the worst thing you can do. Once the bird discovers that his bites WILL NOT back you down..he will stop trying.”

Let me repeat that with a BIG question mark. “Once the bird discovers that his bites WILL NOT back you down…he will stop trying.” REALLY? Some months back I devoted an entire column dispelling the reasons people use for why parrots bite. I’ve pulled a paragraph from it below.

Why then do birds bite humans? Well, for one humans who get bit generally aren’t very good listeners when it comes to watching their bird’s body language. They don’t allow their bird to nonagressively warn them to back off. Instead they push the limit and they have their body parts where they shouldn’t be (that’d be too close to a bird’s beak when the bird doesn’t want you there).  They teach their birds that nonaggressive body language just doesn’t work in communicating to aggressive, grouchy or dominant humans.

I used to get bit, and bit hard, by Dreyfuss until I began studying behavior with Susan Friedman, Ph.D. about 16+ years ago. Since then the only rare bites I have gotten have been when “I” have not paid attention to her body language.

My compassionate side shudders to think of that poor bird who has to come face to face with a person’s fist in order to learn how to be calm. In science, they call this ‘learned helplessness.’ It is when an animal is subjected to an aversive stimulus from which it cannot escape and it eventually stops trying because learns it is utterly helpless to change the situation. A great example of this is Jaycee Dugard, who stopped trying to escape her kidnapper, abuser and father to her children, after she realized it would do her no good to try.

Think about under what circumstances you are most eager to learn and you are most likely to succeed. Think about your favorite role model or teacher growing up or a favorite boss who inspires you to do your very best simply by believing in you and letting you learn from your own experiences.

That’s the type of person we need to be to our pets – a partner, friend and cheerleader, not a dictator and punisher. Instead of thinking about ‘taming’ your pet, think about setting your pet up for success. Your role should be to evoke joy in living, to make learning pure fun, and to make being with you the best choice ever because only good things come when you are around.



Teaching A Bird To Step Onto A Perch

I have a perch in my kitchen that adheres to my refrigerator, and when I bring Dreyfuss (my Maximillum Pionus parrot) in with me, I usually keep her there while I am cooking. However, I began noticing the other day that when I’d move my arm to the perch for her to ‘step up’ onto it, she was simply remaining standing on my wrist with her weight 10-19-dreyfuss-smon both legs. The problem kept occurring so I thought I’d take out my behavior analysis hat and try to figure out what was happening.

With more careful attention, I realized that I had begun for some reason getting a few seeds out as I moved my wrist to the perch. Initially, I pulled the seeds out after her pause for a split second near the perch and then she stepped onto the perch to get the seed (held on the other side of the perch). Being savvy to training, that really was all it took for that split second to become longer and I was holding treats in my hand at the time.

Ah, I was reinforcing her behavior of standing on my wrist when it was next to the perch because the consequence of her doing that was my pulling out the treat and luring her to step up. I was creating this problem.

People do this all the time with their pets. I was just working through this with one of my dog training clients the other day.

So, what did I do to resolve this problem with Dreyfuss? I held treats behind my back as I moved my wrist (with her on it) near the perch, and waited. I waited until she eventually stepped up onto the perch on her own, and then I said, ‘yes’ and gave her a treat. Then we practiced that some more.

Problem solved! At least this time. Behavior is always evolving, and we are always influencing each other’s choices. There will no doubt be future issues I will need to analysis. Beginning by stopping to think about the function of that behavior is a great start.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Should Pet Birds Be Allowed On Shoulders?

I’d like to address a question that is often asked by those who have birds.

Should birds be allowed on shoulders?

Should pet birds be allowed on shoulders? Well, let’s first ask – is there really such a thing as height dominance?

Steve Martin, renowned trainer and president of Orlando-based Natural Encounters, wrote about it in a paper actually. “To
put it bluntly,” he said, “height dominance does not exist in parrots.”

Talking to those in the know – ornithologists, field biologists, and wild bird behaviorists – there is no such thing as an alpha parrot. Aggression between wild parrots is brief, and a parrot that loses in one confrontation may very well win in the next.

A frustrated bird owner may question that. “Well, of course my bird gets dominant when he’s up high. He bites me every time I try to pick him up from somewhere high,” that person may say.

My response to that? Let’s do a little behavior analysis and look at a scenario that bird owners frequently use as an example of their pet showing ‘dominance’. Butch – a macaw – is on top of his cage playing with a toy when his owner, Suzy, needs to put him into his cage. She reaches for him and when he steps up, ‘without any warning’ (as is often described) he nails her.

Let’s look at some potential things that could be coming into play here.

• Birds are more comfortable stepping up. However since Butch is up high, unless Suzy gets on a chair, more than likely he is needing to step down to her and may even catch his long tail on the cage. Not very fun for Butch.

• Butch was perfectly happy playing with his toys. His past experience of stepping up for Suzy when he’s playing with his toys is that the consequence of his stepping up means he goes into his cage more often than not. And being inside that cage is just not as fun as being on top of it. (He’s at least taken away from doing something that he was enjoying doing.)

• Before Butch actually bit Suzy, he tried to show her he didn’t want to step up by pinning his eyes or other body language but she ignored or didn’t pay attention to it. Therefore biting her is the only behavior he can do to get the message across that he really does not want to step up at this time.

So, now, is this really a case of height dominance or is the bird simply behaving to escape something negative from the bird’s point of view?

Now back to the original question. Is it okay to wear your bird on your shoulder?

Well, there are a number of factors to take into consideration with regard to that decision. None of them have to do with height dominance.

• What is your relationship with your bird? Does your bird reliably ‘step up’ onto your hand?

• One problem with having your bird on your shoulder is that you can’t see his body language. Therefore you can’t effectively allow your bird to communicate a fear or aggressive response, thus you may be setting both of you up for a possible bite.

• Another consideration is that, while it’s fun companionship to wear shoulder birds it’s healthy to offer a variety of enriching activities for your pet that encourage independent play, foraging, and more. Encouraging your bird to stay perched in one place for long periods of time limits the time he could be learning and playing in different ways.

I do want to just mention that if it is a goal of yours to wear your parrot on your shoulder, a good first goal would be to teach a reliable ‘step up’ behavior.

Use Several Strategies To Change Pet Behavior

Have you ever tried to stop an unwanted pet behavior by simply ignoring it? If it is a behavior that is really difficult to ignore, like a bird’s scream or a dog’s whining, you probably know, that strategy is pretty difficult. And there is much potential fallout with punishment. Here is a dog and parrot training tip: use a combination approach called differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI). I explain in this older post.

To stop your parrot or dog’s problem behavior, a training tip is to use a combination approach.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Thoughts On Taming Pet Birds

I have seen and heard so many explanations for ‘taming’ a bird, many involving training a pet bird with some kind of force or punishment. Even before I met my first teacher in behavior, Dr. Susan Friedman  the compassionate side of me always had a difficult time understanding those perspectives on animal care.

On ‘taming’ parrots, one explanation I read explained that for a frightened or aggressive cockatiel, you should catch it in a towel, and clip its wings fairly severely before returning it to its cage to recover; and later trying to get the bird to step up onto a stick. If it won’t step onto the stick from inside the cage, it was said to catch it gently and take it into a small room to work with it some more.

Another explanation was to make Thoughts by certified parrot behavior consultant, Lisa Desatnik - a dog and parrot trainer in Cincinnati) on taming a pet bird and tips for prevent pet parrot bitesa fist, bend it as far as it will go, and then bring your fist to the bird slowing to find out its striking range. Yet another description I have heard is to expect bites and do not back down when it happens, in order to teach the bird that he cannot make your hand disappear.

To this approach, my compassionate side that has learned about behavior science also must ask, in that circumstance, is the bird REALLY being ‘tamed’ or is it learning it has no power over its environment – a dangerous slope to go down. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is subjected to an aversive stimulus from which it cannot escape and it eventually stops trying because it learns it is utterly helpless to change the situation.

Sure, the animal may (or may not) stop lunging but at what cost? Imagine the extreme stress it must endure and also imagine how that will impact its association with the person who was at the other end of that intrusive body part.

Wow, I think I will stop there.

I would much rather focus on talking about how we, as pet bird owners and caregivers, can help our animals – and our relationship with them – succeed in the most positive, least intrusive way.

Instead of expecting birds to bite humans, first consider why that occurs in captivity.

It is important to keep in mind that all behavior occurs for a reason, and that reason is simply, to get a consequence. Behavior is a tool animals use to move them toward something of value (to the animal) or to move away from something aversive (to the animal).

When the consequence of a bird moving away, pinning its eyes, standing erect, flailing its tail or a number of other behaviors to increase distance is a hand or human body part continuing to move closer; then the bird is learning those ‘distance increasing’ behaviors simply do not work to get humans to move away.

Unfortunately, if the bird then escalates its behavior (since its nonaggressive body language does not work to communicate with humans) to a lunge or bite and only then do hands and bodies back up, then the bird has learned lunging and biting is the most effective strategy for getting distance.

Here are a few general suggestions for setting yourself and your pet bird up to succeed.

  1. Be aware of your bird’s body language. If your bird is exhibiting distance increasing behaviors, then give your bird some distance to teach it those nonaggressive behaviors work.
  2. Keep in mind that from your bird’s perspective, stepping up onto a human body part can be a pretty scary thing to do. Expecting your bird to quickly step onto your hand or arm without any practice with lots of positive outcomes is unrealistic.
  3. Give your bird a choice to come closer. Instead of approaching your bird, reinforce your bird for moving closer to you….one small step at a time. Never be too greedy here and ask for more than your bird is comfortable with. Do not expect in your first interaction to have a finished behavior. In your first training session, success may be your bird moving two steps toward you. You then may work up to your bird touching your arm, putting a foot on your arm (while you keep your arm stationary), then two feet on your arm, then lifting your arm a small bit and putting it back down, etc. This process is called shaping behavior. I wrote about it here.
  4. If you are worried about your bird biting you when it is outside its cage, or your not being able to get your bird back into its cage, you will be helping yourself and your bird to succeed by beginning training with your bird kept in a closed cage – out of reach from human hands and bodies.
  5. In general, teaching your bird some new behaviors to do to get reinforcement will not only increase your bird’s confidence but will increase your bird’s positive association with you (as the giver of reinforcers).
  6. And when your bird is with you or on you, ensure it is a positive experience (from your bird’s perspective).

Here is link to how I solved a past issue with biting in my household.

Why Is Trust Important In Pet Training?

I was rereading yesterday a 2103 IAATE Conference presentation made by Dr. Susan Friedman of Utah State University and Steve Martin of Natural Encounters.

The paper talks about a very important motivating operation (a change in the environment that temporarily increases the value of a behavior reinforcer) known as ‘trust’.

importance of building trust in dog and pet training - using positive reinforcement

Hmm, what exactly does that mean? Well, let’s begin with a definition. According to the dictionary, ‘trust’ is defined as a confident expectation of something; hope; and a reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety of a person or thing.

As humans, we are much greater inclined to build relationships with others – either personal or for business – when trust is at its foundation. Between each other, we tend to share and empathize more. We are more open to others’ insight, and to compromise. We will work harder for those we trust. And more often than not, we tend to reciprocate trust with trust.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense then that our non-human animals are also greater inclined to build relationships with and work harder for caregivers and teachers with whom trust is at the core foundation.

Let’s look at it from a behavior science perspective.

Susan and Steve wrote: “A useful way to operationalize trust is as a level of certainty that interaction will result in good outcomes and so interaction increases. Trusting animals use their behavior to confidently approach, rather than escape opportunities to interact with people. They not only accept invitations to interact with their trainers, trusting animals create interaction opportunities for their trainers as well.”

Think about this in action.

I had written years back about how my Chester (Alexandrine ringneck parakeet) would scream the minute my dad walked into the house and would retreat on his cage or fly from my shoulder if my dad were to walk into the room. However, a behavior modification plan involved reinforcing Chester for calm body language around my dad that ultimately resulted in my dad always entering the bird room with seeds in hand. (Please click here to read about my behavior change plan for them.) Soon, because my dad was always paired with valued seeds, Chester could reliably predict that interaction with him would result in good outcomes; and Chester began eliciting welcoming body language around my dad (wings slightly out and quivering, body leaning forward while shifting weight from left foot to right foot). Chester had learned to trust my dad.

Months back when I arrived for a first visit with a client whose dog would run away from new people, the sweet little guy was lying under a chair not wanting to come out. When he did venture out, I tossed some food away from me. He ate the food and I threw more food in another direction. Later I began teaching him that when he chose to do certain behaviors, treats would follow. I carefully watched his body language as an indicator of his stress. I was careful to make sure our interactions were very positive. When I arrived for the next visit, guess who was there at the door to greet me! Yep, he learned to trust me.

But what about the dog who returned to his owner when called (after a long delay) and was scolded when he got there? Do you think that dog would turn in an instant the next time his owner called him to come – if the dog was off leash and had the freedom to choose between coming or not coming?

Sure, as in any relationship, it is nearly impossible that every single interaction is going to have a positive outcome. This is life after all. Things happen. I may accidentally step on my dog’s foot or drop a loud object that scares my bird. I may inadvertently have my hand where it shouldn’t be, in front of a sick and stressed bird that may result in a bite.

quote about dog and pet training

“The goal with all our relationships,” Steve and Susan pointed out, “is to build a big enough trust account to withstand the withdrawals that inevitably occur with our animals and each other.”

Building the trust account

As your pet’s caregiver, day in and day out teachable moments happen all the time. Our animals are constantly learning from consequences which behaviors to practice and strengthen, or to reduce in frequency or extinguish. They are building their trust – or lack of trust – in us based upon their history of behavior outcomes associated with us.

Training dogs, parrots and other animals with positive reinforcement strategies is the greatest way to build that trust. When you can empower an animal by giving him control of his decisions, but just making the choices you would like him to make, the most valuable and easiest choices, you will see more of those wanted behaviors. And you will see an animal who solicits learning from you because learning is great.


How have you built your pet’s trust account? I’d love to hear from you.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Find Time To Bring Smiles To Those Around You

Find Time To Smile by Lisa Desatnik

The Value Of Empowerment To Our Pets

A quote I remember hearing from a long time mentor resounds in my head. Dr. Susan Friedman, a psychologist and professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the use of applied behavior analysis worldwide, refers to power this way.

Susan Friedman, Ph.D., quote on empowering dogs and other animals

 “The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behavior reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice.”

 What exactly does Susan mean here?

Well, let’s take a deeper look at the function of behavior. What is behavior, really? Simply put, it is an observable, measurable tool that animals use to get a consequence. And when that tool helps an animal achieve an outcome that is of value to it, confidence and quality of life naturally grow.

I have seen that time and again when I teach an animal to do a behavior, not by force but simply by ensuring a high value consequence for the animal making the choice I want him to make. Often it doesn’t take long before that ‘learned and wanted behavior’ is the one that is offered quickly and reliably.

Choice is the key word here. It is something that brings out the best in all of us. Think about it. Do you perform better for a boss who tells you how you have to do your job or one who encourages you to find your own solutions?

And what about when it comes to issues of fear or anxiety? Again, having the freedom to escape and the power to choose and say no are huge. When you take those defenses away, there are so many possible negative ramifications. Among them – apathy, aggression, heightened fear, and learned helplessness.

You can force your bird to step up by pushing your hand into him or you can give him the power to choose to walk toward you (for a valued reinforcer like a seed). You can hold your struggling dog down to clip his toe nails or you can teach him through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to associate positive things with nail clippings. (See below for a description.)

Recently one of my clients told me she thought car rides were stressful for her dog because she was noticing little Bear’s fur was very wet upon arrival at their destination. Bear rides in car safety seat that used to be placed on a back seat in their SUV.  Jackie used to have to pick Bear up to put the little girl into her seat as it was pretty high off the ground.

What did I do? I devoted one of our lessons to counterconditioning that response through empowerment. counter conditioning fear response in dogs with empowerment

I taught Bear how to get into her seat on her own and then made the choice of sitting in her seat a valuable one by giving Bear cheese only when she was in her seat. It was wonderful to see how quickly Bear learned being in her seat was a pretty nice place to hang out. I practiced moving the seat with her in it. I first worked with her on this in their kitchen, then outside on the ground near the car door. And finally put the car seat on the floor of the back seats (it actually wedged in securely between the seats and we put something in front of it). Bear jumped into it on her own several times. When she showed no sign of stress, we practiced driving around the neighborhood while I sat in the seat next to Bear and occasionally gave her a piece of cheese, decreasing the time between treats as we went and as Bear showed me through relaxed body muscles that she was comfortable. We rode around for awhile with Bear showing no sign of stress.

What a difference it made to work with Bear from a standpoint of empowerment.

My take-a-way question for you: Think about you and your own pet. What are some ways in which you empower him/her? I’d love to hear about it.


About Systematic Desensitization and Counter Conditioning

Systematic desensitization is a positive approach to not just overcoming fear, but also to teaching the animal to re-associate the fear-eliciting stimulus into a feel-good eliciting stimulus. (This process is called counter conditioning.) With systematic desensitization, you gradually expose the animal to what is scary to it and the criteria for advancing to the next step is your watching his calm behavior and only moving forward at a pace that does not elicit even the mildest of fear responses. The beauty of this is that the animal is always in total control. And empowerment builds confidence.

Please click here to read how I used desensitization and counter conditioning after our dog became afraid to go outside at dusk following July 4.


Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

Understanding Extinction Burst In Dogs and Other Pets

(a past Hyde Park Living column)

Have you ever tried to solve a screaming issue with a parrot or an attention seeking issue with a dog simply by ignoring it?

Oh my. Let’s just say, I have and it was the lesson that got me started 13 plus years ago down this path of wanting to learn a better way to manage pet behavior.understanding extinction burst in dogs and other pets

If you too have ‘tried’ this solution unsuccessfully, let me guess as to probably what happened. In the case of your bird, your ignoring him caused him to scream louder and louder, persistently for longer periods of time until you finally couldn’t stand it any longer and you yelled at him, covered him, or did something else. In the case of your dog, your ignoring him caused him to go from making a small sound to increasing the volume, then bumping or pawing you until finally you give in and tell him to stop or even pet him.

So, to those of you who recognize this scenario, I want to congratulate you. You have just taught your bird to scream loud and strong, and your dog to go straight for the bumping and pawing because obviously you just are not hearing the quieter scream or whine, and your vision isn’t what it normally is because you completely missed seeing your dog sit (a behavior that may get attention in other settings).

What is really going on here? Well, the scientific explanation is called ‘extinction burst’. In operant learning (learning from the consequences of behavior), extinction means withholding the reinforcing consequences of a behavior. While the overall effect of extinction in dogs, parrots and other pets is to reduce the frequency of the behavior, the immediate effect is often an abrupt increase in the behavior known as extinction burst. (Learning and Behavior by Paul Chance)

During the extinction burst, you may think you have just made your pet’s problem worse; however, if and only if you can continue to withhold reinforcing consequences from that behavior, then you will more than likely see a fairly rapid decline in the behavior.

The problem is that it is pretty difficult to just ignore an unwanted behavior. And, if you ‘give in’ and offer any kind of reinforcing consequence to the increased behavior, THAT increased behavior level is what your pet has just learned gets a valued outcome.

This is why, when I talk about modifying behavior in the most positive way and setting both you and your pet up for success, I talk about a multi-tiered program that includes arrangement of the environment so as to try and not set the behavior into motion to begin with, give no value to the unwanted behavior, teach your pet an incompatible behavior that will have a consequence of the same or greater value (to the animal) than the unwanted behavior.

Another benefit to solving and/or preventing a pet behavior problem in this way is that you do not need to use aversive strategies, which serves to build a stronger relationship between you and your pet. And that is the ultimate reward for both of you!


How Young Is Too Young To Begin Pet Training?

A common question is how young is too young to begin dog training (and other pet)? Well, as living beings, learning begins the day we are born. We learn from the consequences of our behavior. Behaviors that get repeated have value to the animal. It is never too early to begin your relationship with your pet by making the behaviors you want to see, the behaviors that have the most valuable consequence.

how young is too young to begin dog training

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