To Change Your Pet’s Behavior, Try Changing The Environment

One of the greatest gifts that behavior science has given me is the incredible ability to modify behaviors in the least intrusive, most positive way. Often times I can set myself and my pets up for success simply by rearranging the Cincinnati certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, explains how arranging the environment can help to solve many dog and bird pet behavior problems.environment to make the wanted behavior easier than the unwanted behavior.

Sound confusing? It is really not.

 The ABC’s

I write a lot about the ABCs of behavior. It is the foundation from which I analyze what my pet is doing and what in the environment is influencing his learning.

Applied Behavior Analysis 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 dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.

I’m going to focus on the A (antecedent) in this article. It’s important to note that antecedents do not cause behavior. However, they do serve as a sign to the animal that when A is there, that if the animal does a certain behavior, then there will be a consequence.

The implications of understanding this are huge. Here are some ways I can use antecedent arrangement as an effective, non-intrusive and positive way of setting my pets up for success:

parrot enrichmentKnowing that my bird, Chester (he passed away), was an incessant chewer who could easily destroy furniture (and did a long time ago), I changed the setting of his environment and provided him parrot enrichment activities. I made play stations on the floor to keep him mentally and physically stimulated if he got on the floor. I also weakened his motivation for coming off his cage by giving him lots to chew on inside and outside his cage.

To eliminate any possibility of my bird, Barnaby, from chewing on the window shade near his play cage, I moved the cage away a couple additional inches.

To prevent a puppy from grabbing onto my sweater, I can avoid wearing loose sweaters around that puppy or I can have a toy in my hand and make the toy very exciting or I can avoid sitting or laying on the ground near the puppy.

To prevent our dog, Sam, from barking at neighbors’ dogs, I can avoid leaving him outside by himself and unattended for long periods of time. (and also give him enrichment toys and more exercise…but that is another article)

Next time your pet is doing something you do not like, ask yourself, “Can I rearrange the environment somehow to prevent that behavior from occurring in the first place?”

Your answer may be the difference between your calling your pet ‘brilliant’ and calling him ‘stubborn.’ And I’d prefer brilliance any day.







What To Feed A Pet Bird

When we bring companion psittacine birds into our homes, they are reliant on us to provide them with an environment in which they can thrive.  Nutrition is a very important piece of that when it comes to their physical and behavioral health.

what food should you feed your pet psittacine bird?So, what is a balanced diet for companion bird pets? Well, there is no one-size-fits-all here for many reasons. There is such a broad range of birds kept in captivity, with very diverse geographic origins and diets depending on that location and available food sources (that we may or may not even have access to).  Also in considering caloric, fat, and nutritional intake, we need to remember that captive birds generally lead very significantly more sedate lives than their wild counterparts that spend a considerable part of their day flying, moving and foraging for food.  Additionally, everyone reading this will house their pets in different environments with varying temperatures, light, etc.

That being said, feeding our pets the right foods is important for their health. A balanced diet based on sound bird nutrition recommendations is the key. Balancing a parrot’s diet from the beginning may prevent many health and behavior problems.

While keeping this post as general as possible because of these differences in species and dietary needs, I wanted to share some general considerations. I very much appreciate Dr. Diane Krumanaker, DVM, a veterinarian with the Montgomery Animal Hospital who, in addition to seeing dogs and cats, also treats birds, small animals and exotics, for her input with this post.

For specific dietary questions about your specific bird, please consult your avian vet. And anytime, before you modify your pet’s diet, please have your bird examined by your avian vet.

Begin with a good quality pellet.

Dr. Krumanaker recommends 60 to 75% of your bird’s daily food intake should be high quality pellets.  Manufacturers formulate their food to provide good, balanced nutrition.  Some quality brands to look for include Harrison’s, Roudybush, and Zupreem.

Fruits and Vegetables

Dr. Krumanaker recommends about 20 to 30% of your bird’s daily diet come from fresh vegetables and fruits.

Keep in mind that fruits have high water and sugar content. Vegetables tend to have a much broader spectrum of nutrients; however, berries are high in antioxidants and nutrients.  Stone fruits should be fed without the seeds. And organic, whenever possible, eliminates potential dangers of pesticides.


Other treats such as seeds, nuts, grains and limited dairy are ok too. Dr. Krumanaker recommends up to 10% of a pet bird’s diet can fall into this category.

Some additional things to keep in mind here are:

Dairy – When it comes to cheese and dairy products, birds have very tiny quantities of lactase enzymes needed to process milk sugar known as lactose. They may develop diarrhea if they eat too much. Certain milk products contain less or no lactose.  Natural, aged cheese such as cheddar, parmesean and swiss only have trace levels of lactose. Cheeses such as cream cheese or rigotta have low levels of lactose. However processed cheese foods and spreads are best to avoid as that processing stops the aging and also adds other problem ingredients such as whey and milk.

Nuts – I stay away from peanuts for any potential danger. Peanuts are unusual in that they flower above ground but fruit below ground. They have been known to harbor aspergillus spores and aflatoxins. While aspergillosis infections are generally secondary to other issues, it is very difficult to treat. Aflatoxins are toxic chemical byproducts of mold.  (Although I do not feed seed mixes, there are some commercial pet bird seed mixes that contain peanuts.)

Seeds – Speaking of aflatoxins, they are one of the reasons why when feeding seeds, that you should use organic seeds and not seeds purchased from a garden store that could potentially have pesticides and molds, which can be dangerous to your pet.

Seeds are high in fat and low in nutrients. Even fortified seed mixes,  vitamins and minerals are only on the hulls of fortified seed mixes (which are discarded by the bird). In general, companion birds that are fed only seed or a high seed content diet will suffer from malnutrition.

Sprouting Seeds – Dr. Krumanaker pointed out that by sprouting seeds, you are changing the nutrient profile, as sprouted seeds have lower oil content and the growing roots uses up some of the starch and produces more vitamin C and enzymes. A word of caution: sprouts spoil quickly so only make a day’s ration at a time. Sprouts should always smell fresh and never be slimy. If in doubt, it is always best to throw out.

To sprout seeds, these are tips from Dr. Krumanaker:

How to sprout on your kitchen counter (you can also buy sprouting kits)

  • Start with sprout-quality seeds/beans (preferably organic)
  • Soak in water for 8-12 hours (start lukewarm) in a covered pot
  • Rinse vigorously and drain
  • Let seeds sit in a sieve in the covered pot for 12 hours
  • Rinse seeds and drain well again
  • Let sit another 12 hours in the sieve in the pot
  • Rinse, drain, repeat until sprouted (usually takes 24-48 hours after soaking)
  • Refrigerate and use quickly (within 1 day)

You can also plant sprouts in sterilized potting soil and feed the seedlings or greens to your bird.


Your companion bird should always have a clean, fresh supply of water. Bottled spring water or filtered water can be used if your water quality is unsure. I am an advocate for water bottles as bacteria can quickly form in bowls from dropped food, fecal matter or other things.  When I brought Dreyfuss, my pionus, into my home many years ago she drank from a water bowl, however, liked to soak all of her food in it. It was difficult to keep it clean so I taught her using clicker training and shaping to drink from a bottle.  Note that the water bottle should be checked daily to ensure it is working as birds can sometimes lodge something into the tube.


Grit is a granular, insoluble mineral material (usually granite or quartz). Dr. Krumanaker said parrots do not need grit or cuttlebones. “While many cockatiels will happily ingest small quantities and be perfectly fine, some will swallow large pieces of cuttlebone or too much grit and obstruct their intestinal tract. Parrots hull their seeds before swallowing, so they do not need grit to break down seeds like pigeons and doves,” she said.

Toxic Foods To Avoid

Foods to avoid due to toxicity to birds include avocadoes, chocolate, rhubarb, onions, caffeine, tomato leaves, some mushrooms, foods with high salt and/or sugar, alcoholic beverages, seeds and pits of stone fruits. On the seeds and pits, for example, while apples are safe (organic preferred), apple seeds contain cyanide. And the pits of cherries, plums, apricots and peaches contain seeds that produce cyanogenic glycosides. I would also avoid grapes, especially grapes that are not grown in the United States as organic.


In an upcoming post, I will write about suggestions for encouraging your bird to each new foods including vegetables and fruits; and food enrichment ideas.





Using Antecedent Arrangement In Solving Pet Problems

solving dog and pet behavior problemWhen it comes to modifying a pet’s behavior, my focus is always on the most positive least intrusive solution. I look at what is happening in the environment to set that specific behavior into motion in the first place, what the consequences are to that specific behavior that are maintaining or even strengthening it, and what can be changed both in the environment and in terms of skills that can be taught to set that animal up for success.

In scientific terms, I use applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis is a systematic approach to solving behavior antecedent arrangement to prevent parrot screamingproblems by changing the environment in which the behavior occurs. It involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a bird biting or a dog barking) and the related environmental context that signals and reinforces it. We ask, “What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling?“ And, “What happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)?“

But for the purposes of this specific post, I want to focus on the problem behavior prevention piece – or antecedent arrangement. This is very important because practice with any behavior builds confidence and fluidity.

When I look at modifying an unwanted behavior with a pet in the most positive way, I look at what function that behavior served to the animal and what skills that animal needs to learn to solve the problem. While teaching a pet those skills (replacement behavior) that can give the pet equal to or more reinforcing value than the unwanted behavior, managing the environment so as to not give the pet opportunities for reinforcement of the unwanted behavior is going to help both of us succeed and succeed much quicker.

And, when I talk about changing behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way, there are many times where careful management of the environment so as to not set that behavior into motion in the first place is all that is needed.

For example, if I know that my using a hair dryer is an antecedent for my bird’s screaming, then I can give him something to occupy his attention before turning on my hair dryer, or I can simply use my hair dryer in another part of my house. If I know that my dog is going to be over the top with excitement when company comes over, I can take my dog for a long walk first to lessen the value of over the top behaviors.

My challenge to you is this – when you think about your pet’s annoying behaviors, think about what is occurring in the environment to set those behaviors into motion. Are there simple changes you can make to prevent that chain from occurring?


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

A Tip For Solving Dog And Pet Behavior Problems

I have heard the story so very often. “I want my dog to stop jumping on people.” “I want dog to stop chewing on my shoe.” “I want my bird to stop screaming.”

differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior in dog trainingIt is a natural tendency for many when they are frustrated to think only in terms of stopping it. The problem is that thought process often leads to solutions that involve some sort of aversive stimulus to try and put an end to the irritating behavior. And there are so many negative ramifications that can result for your pet AND your relationship with your pet. Please read my post about my thoughts on punishment.

Here is the thing. All behavior occurs for a reason, and that reason is to produce a consequence. If the consequence is something of value to the animal then the behavior will reoccur and even strengthen. If the consequence does not have value then the behavior will decrease in frequency and even extinguish.

What we have to realize then is that, if our pet is jumping up, chewing a shoe or screaming, it is because that behavior has a positive outcome for the animal. Simply ignoring or punishing the behavior won’t serve to teach the animal what you’d rather it do instead.

To solve a dog or other pet behavior problem in the most positive, least intrusive way, a great strategy is DRI or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior.  (Note that there are other types of differential reinforcement strategies, for this post my focus is on incompatible behaviors.)

DRI is a systematic process of reinforcing a wanted behavior that can not be done simultaneously with the unwanted behavior while also completely and totally ignoring the unwanted behavior.

For example, an incompatible behavior to jumping up is sitting or laying down; and an incompatible behavior to screaming is talking in words.

I learned from Dr. Susan Friedman that an important consideration in identifying replacement behaviors is the function of the unwanted behavior for the animal.  “If we select replacement behaviors carefully, we can teach our pets to communicate their needs in acceptable ways while preserving the valid function of these behaviors at the same time,” she said.

The strategy is most effective if the incompatible behavior produces a consequence of at least the same value, if not more, for the animal; and if the incompatible behavior is something the animal already knows.


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

Solving Dog, Parrot & Other Pet Behavior Problems Positively

Something to give you thought…

pet enrichment

Please watch my video, and see how easy it is to set yourself AND your pet up for success.

Pet training: It all comes down to motivation

As living beings, we always have a reason for our behavior.  Our behavior either helps us gain more of what we value or helps give us distance from what is negative to us. When it comes to behavior management, you can either motivate an animal with a   behavior consequence that adds  enrichment or with a behavior consequence that is punishing.

Which motivation do you think will create a love for learning in your pet?

pet behavior comes down to motivation


Make Your Own Parrot Toy – Easy Enrichment

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to come up with ways to keep your pet parrot busy. Here is an idea for a parrot enrichment toy (a foraging activity for your parrot) that you can easily make at home.

From  a block of soft, scrap wood, I drilled a hole in the center for the string or chain and lots of small holes around the sides in which I inserted safflower seeds.


make your own pet parrot foraging toy

Pet Enrichment Game – 101 Things To Do With A Box

The ‘101 Things To Do With A Box’ game is a really fun clicker training game to just encourage a love of learning in your dog or other pet. It also is great practice for you in watching for those teachable, reinforceable behaviors from your pet.

No expensive props needed for this. You can use a cardboard box or anything really. I will use a dog as my example for this but if you have a 101 Things To Do In A Box Gameparrot or rabbit you can play this with them.

Simply put the object down on the ground (or a table possibly if you have a bird), have your dog on a leash (or off if he will stay with you) in a room without many distractions and sit or stand a few feet back – then wait.

Watch for any kind of behavior – no matter how small – that relates to the box or object. It can be as simple as a look, sniff, step toward it, pushing it, etc.  When you see it, click (or use a verbal marker like YES) and treat or give another behavior strengthener. At this stage you will be clicking for any purposeful behavior directed toward the box.

What’s wonderful about this is that because you aren’t starting with a specific goal in mind, there really is no wrong answer.

As his confidence builds, you will notice that he will start offering more behaviors.  At some point, you may want to come up with a goal behavior based upon what your dog has offered and shape it into something specific. (Please click here for my post on shaping to learn more.)  A goal could be to have two feet inside the box, flip the box, etc.

Below is  a video of the game from another trainer:

Clicker Training Basics

What I love about clicker training is that it is all about empowering animals to make brilliant decisions (at least by our standards) by teaching them exactly what behavior will earn them a valued reinforcer. Initially the animal learns to associate positive outcomes by associating treats, clicker trainingtug time, or whatever other behavior strengthener you use with the sound of the clicker (classical conditioning), and then the animal learns to intentionally repeat a behavior in order to get that positive outcome (operant conditioning).

Why is that important?

Operant conditioning creates purposeful, lasting behavior. It builds confidence in the animal who has total control over his decision as to what behavior to do (we just make the RIGHT decision easy to make by making the behavior’s consequence valuable), and it fosters a love of learning.

Benefits to using the clicker are many: it accurately marks the correct behavior; it allows for distance and flexibility in delivering the reward (it isn’t easy to hand your dog a treat the very instant it does something but it is easy to click to mark the behavior – and then have a delay in getting the treat); it can divert your dog (or other pet) from focusing on the food so as to focus on the behavior instead.

So how do you use the clicker?

Well, first, you need to build that association between the clicker and good things (we’ll use treats as our example). In a quiet area, press the clicker and immediately offer a treat. Repeat about ten times and test its fluency by clicking when your dog isn’t paying attention. If he suddenly looks at you, you know you are ready to begin. Note that because of the accuracy for which it marks behavior, your timing is critical. If you are even three seconds off, you could be unintentionally marking (and teaching) the wrong behavior. It’s always a good idea to practice beforehand.

Now, when you want to train a behavior follow three simple steps – get the behavior, mark the behavior, reinforce the behavior. You can use the clicker when shaping behaviors (please click here for my post on shaping) by marking each small step the animal makes toward the final behavior. You can use the clicker to capture behaviors by seeing your dog do something naturally, then clicking and offering the treat.

Teaching AND learning can be so much fun. It’s up to you.

Parrot Enrichment Made Easy

Another parrot enrichment idea. I cut up an old t-shirt and put some crushed sunflower seeds and pellets in the middle. Then tie it ‘very’ tightly together and hang in their cages. The guys love them. NOTE: for safety, if you do this, use thick rope (I use hemp) and make the note so tight that a head can’t get through if the material falls out when they are through. I only give this to my guys when I am sure keeps them busy for awhile.

Parrot enrichment


parrot enrichment

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