How To Touch A Parrot

This is written by Barbara Heidenreich, an internationally renowned positive animal trainer. Thank you to her for permission to posting this to my blog.


Barbara Heidenrich on petting a parrotIsn’t it fun to pet your dog or your cat? Most of our pets usually liked to be stroked from the top of their heads down towards their tails. Have you ever tried that with a parrot? If you have, you may have noticed the experience was not quite the same. Your dog or cat may respond by cuddling up closer, rolling over for a belly rub or relaxing and falling asleep. Usually when we touch a parrot in this manner the bird either tries to escape, bite or just tolerates our touch.

Does this mean we can’t touch our parrots? Fortunately for us, parrots usually do like to be touched. But the way parrots liked to be touched is just a bit different from the other pets in our home. The next time you have the opportunity to touch a parrot try the following tips.

Touch on the Head

Try to avoid touching your parrot on the back, wings or tail. Most parrots prefer to be touched on the head. This is similar to how many parrots interact with each other in the wild. Because parrots can’t reach to preen the feathers on their own heads, they often appreciate the help of a friend for this job. When touching your bird’s head you may encounter something that feels like a little plastic tube. This is a new feather. When the feather is still growing it can be sensitive to touch. But once it has finished growing the last step is for the keratin wrapping to come off. You can help by pinching this “pin feather” in between your nails or fingertips. This will cause the wrapping to break away and expose the new feather. If the feather is still growing and not ready to be unwrapped, your parrot will let you know with a little squawk.

Stroke Head Feathers towards the Beak

Instead of petting from the beak towards the back of the bird, use your fingers to stroke the feathers towards the beak. A parrot who is really enjoying this will fluff up all his head feathers. Many times the bird will tuck his beak into his chest and close his eyes. When you see this body language you will know your parrot is really enjoying being touched.

Move Slowly

Bring your hand up to your bird’s head slowly. This will give you time to look at how he is responding. If he is moving away from your hand, he may not be in the mood to be touched. Come back and try again later when he is more receptive.

Look for a Relaxed Parrot

Many parrots are very receptive to touch right before they are ready to take a nap or go to sleep. Slowly move your hand towards his head and offer a nice head scratch when your parrot looks ready for a snooze.

Teach a Signal that Means Touch

Teach your parrot a signal that means you would like to touch him. An easy way to do this is to wiggle your fingers a little bit right before you reach to touch his head. Your bird will quickly learn that wiggling fingers means the opportunity exists to get a head scratch. Over time your parrot will lower his head and fluff his feathers when he sees you wiggle your fingers. That will be his way of saying to you “Yes! I would like a head scratch. Thank you for offering.”

Once your bird realizes you know the right way to touch a parrot, you may find your bird is open to being touched on other parts of his body. This can make it easier to train your bird to allow you to trim his toenails, stretch out his wings and even train him towear a harness. It can be a very wonderful feeling when your bird trusts you enough to let you touch him. Try these tips with the parrots you meet and you will find you will have many new bird friends.


Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Good Bird Inc ( provides parrot training DVDs, books and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos. Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training


Copyright 2014  First appeared in Fledglings Magazine by The Parrot Society of Australia

Holiday Child and Dog Safety Tips

I am a member of Doggone Safe, educating families to set their kids up for success with their pets. Below is information on holiday safety tips for children and dogs.

Please click here to read my list of some of the dog body language to get to know.

And if you are in Cincinnati – please register your child for my upcoming Me and My Best Friend event in partnership with Cincinnati Parks on January 11.  Please visit my Children and Dogs page for more information.


Remember Behavior In Pets Happens Because It Has Value

If a behavior produces a consequence of value to a dog or other animal, that behavior will continue and even strengthen. It is so easy to reinforce behaviors in our pets that we don’t want to see without even realizing we are doing it. Sometimes that reinforcement is coming from the environment (such as sensory, tactile or social reinforcement). Always know that if you are dealing with an ongoing behavior issue, something is occurring after it to give that behavior value.

dog training tip

In Pet Training, Clarity Counts

In pet training, clarity counts. Remember, it is pretty tough for an animal who doesn’t speak human to understand what we want them to do. When teaching, remember clear two-way communication is so important. Teach with small steps and great reinforcement for good choices.

pet training quote

In Animal Training, Practice Builds Confidence

Practice builds confidence

Why is an Awesome List for your pet important to training?

Reinforcement for pet

Well, when it comes to teaching behaviors in the most positive way, it is absolutely important that you know what is of great value to your pet. Training for me is all about choice. I don’t take away that power from the animal, instead I work to make the wanted choice the most valuable and easiest choice for the animal.

If you take time to observe your pet and really take note of what it is that just makes his day – thinking in terms of food, activity and the environment – it will give you a running start to setting you and your pet up for success. But more than that, with so many options to offer in the lesson plan as an outcome for a behavior – think about how totally awesome that is for your student.

But here is the thing, it is not enough to just know what gets that tail wagging or that bird stepping up. Once you’ve got that list, go back through your list and rank your items.

A  =  over the top value

B  =  valued unless there is something better available

C  =  will choose in certain, ideal conditions

D  =  your dog will only choose once in awhile

Why is this important? Well, remember, animals will choose to do behaviors that have the highest value outcome. When you begin teaching a simple behavior in an environment with no or minimal distraction, a dog biscuit or low value toy will probably be enough of an incentive for your pet to choose to do the behavior. (There may be other factors involved, however, in your pet not getting the lesson plan such as too large of approximations or poor timing on delivery of the reinforcement – but for the sake of this post I’ll focus on the reinforcers only.)

However, as your dog does the behavior reliably in a particular environment and it is time to begin proofing, or teaching the behavior in a variety of settings with a variety of criteria, you may be adding distractions. Those distractions will be competing with you as a valued outcome of a behavior. If you want your pet to choose to focus on you, you will need to increase the value of the reinforcer. (Please click here to read my post on proofing behavior.)

As an example, I have been working with our family dog, Sam, on his loose leash walking skills. (And I am strengthening my skills too, continuing my education online with a trainer I look up to – Pam Johnson.) When I practiced with him inside my parents’ house, I used plain dog crackers. When I began working with him on their semi-quiet neighborhood street, I brought with us a variety of processed cold cuts mixed with the dog crackers and cheese. Tonight we were ready to walk around the cars in a strip center, and what I packed in my bag was the real deal – pieces of juicy left over chicken from dinner (warmed together with the other food).

If  Sam was a border collie or another dog who placed a lot of value on tugging, I would have brought a tug toy to mix in with my bag of reinforcers.

Defining Positive and Negative Reinforcement In Pet Training

reinforcement in pet training

What is reinforcement?   Simply stated, a reinforcement is a consequence of a behavior that increases the likelihood of a behavior happening again, and even strengthening. But not all reinforcement adds to the animals quality of life.

Positive Reinforcement or R+ are consequences such as food, play, or other fun interaction. These are consequences of value that are added to the animal’s environment.

Negative Reinforcement or R– are consequences that re removed from the environment. Some examples include removing the  pinch of a pinch collar by walking on a loose leash or removing the proximity to a towel for a bird by stepping up.

All of these consequences occur after a behavior, and serve to cause an increase in that behavior’s occurrence. However, which consequence do you think will teach the animal  that doing the behavior is a great choice because of the valuable outcome?



Why Labeling Your Pet Does Not Solve Problems

(This is one of my past Hyde Park Living columns)

My whole fascination for the study of behavior science was founded over 12 years ago on an international list started by Dr. Susan Friedman (a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Analysis with companion animals). Having that knowledge and support helped me to transform my Timneh African Grey, Barnaby, from an incessant screamer into a bird who talks human to me all day. And it has so changed my relationship with all of my pets.

Now I am paying it forward by helping other animal caregivers to have that same success . One way I am doing that is by returning to that same list. This time around, however, I am training to be a list leader teaching others about Applied Behavior Analysis and its relevance in setting themselves and their pets up for success (and continuing to learn by the awesome mentors on the team).

Our very first lesson of the series is about constructs or labels vs actual behavior. It is a very important distinction when it comes to solving behavior issues in the most positive, least intrusive way.

Have you ever described your pet as stubborn, dominant, spoiled, or jealous?  Those words are referred to in behavior science as constructs or labels. They describe what people ‘think’ their pet IS but here is the problem – as a trainer, I have absolutely no idea what it is your pet is ‘doing’ to cause you to see him as stubborn, dominant, spoiled or jealous. What set of behaviors I may picture in my mind may be very different from what set of behaviors that animal is actually ‘doing’.  I can help you strategize positive ways of solving a problem of your dog jumping on guests or a bird destroying furniture but I can’t help you strategize solutions for a jealous pet.

quote from Rise Van FleetDr. Risë VanFleet (internationally renowned for her work in the fields of play therapy, Filial therapy, and animal assisted play therapy) described some additional problems with labeling   (VanFleet, R., Jan/Feb 2012, “That Lazy Owner! That Lazy Dog! The Pitfalls of Labeling our Clients”. The APDT Chronicle of the Dog.)

“When an owner comes in and says, ‘My dog is being dominant. He is deliberately trying to rule me,’ that person is using labeling as well as another cognitive distortion (mind reading) not to mention the application of inaccurate pack theory. These cognitive distortions lead to exaggerated frustration and anger,” she wrote.

Why is labeling a cognitive distortion? She gave three reasons:

1.   People – and pets – behave differently in different situations. Risë gave as an example a dentist who might call some patients ‘noncompliant’ because they don’t floss their teeth but does that mean that the patients are always noncompliant? Most people do brush their teeth.

2.  If we apply labels to people or dogs, we stop learning about them. “We have, in essence, fooled ourselves into thinking that we have figured them out,” she said, ”The dog who is labeled ‘aggressive’ begins to be seen through that particular lens, and the anxiety or medical problem beneath the behavior might go undetected.”  This is HUGE. A label stands in our way of seeking valuable information we need to understand what is going on with the animal and in the environment that is affecting the actual behavior.

3.  Labeling brings with it a problem of interpretation. How one person interprets ‘anxious’ may be very different from how someone else would. Risë also pointed out that labels have a way of becoming more rigid with time.

So, what is a better option than using labels to explain behavior?

Well, begin by asking yourself, “What does that label ‘look like in terms of actual, observable behavior? Under what conditions does the behavior occur? What is the immediate outcome the behavior produces for the animal?”

The answer will help us determine clearly defined behavior change targets, antecedent predictors that set the behavior in motion, and quote on labeling behavior by Lisa Desatnikconsequences that maintain or strengthen the behavior.

Maybe your bird chews on furniture when your bird is activity deprived and has access to the furniture. Or maybe your dog bumps your leg when you are sitting on the couch watching tv and ignoring him. Okay…now we can work on a behavior modification plan!










When It Comes To Training, Practice Often

A quote on motivation in pet training

A Note On Using Positive Reinforcement In Dog Training

dog training tip with positive reinforcement

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