NOTE: This is one of my past Hyde Park Living pet behavior columns. Sadly Chester is no longer with us but I thought this information was important to share.
Every once in awhile you get to read about one of my own personal stories. This happens to be one of those times. I felt like I needed to write this for all of those people out there who think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks – or for that matter, birds – and for everyone, who blames their pets’ behavior issues on their pet.
This is the story of my dad and my birds, Chester and Dreyfuss in particular. Three totally different living beings, all of whom I care very much about, but until recently didn’t care much for each other. In fact, it would be a fair argument to say that description was being polite.
In case you’re new to my column, I’ve got three beautiful birds – Barnaby is my Timneh African Grey, Chester is my Alexandrine Ringneck, and Dreyfuss is my Maximillum Pionus. Of course, everyone loves Barnaby, my little grey talking teddy bear. But for the 11 plus years that I’ve had Chester, my dad has never been fond of him. It’s actually kind of been a mutual thing. My dad would walk in the door and Chester would scream. Then the minute Chester would scream, my dad would say, “I can’t stand that scream.” And shy little Dreyfuss would just run to the farthest corner of her cage and sit totally erect until danger left the room.
I’ve been a student of animal behavior for many years. I consider myself very fortunate to have met and learned from internationally renowned behaviorist Dr. Susan Friedman and trainers who use only positive reinforcement techniques – Steve Martin and Barbara Heidenrich. Through them I’ve learned that it’s not only possible, it’s most effective to change behaviors in the least intrusive, most positive way – without the use of punishment.
Earlier this year, armed with my new found knowledge, I was determined to change that unhealthy relationship. And, you know what, it not only worked, we were able to correct a problem over a decade old in less than a week.
Before I explain our plan, let me explain my thought process. Number one was that in any modification plan, it’s very important that you always progress at the pace and comfort level of the bird. In other words, my dad was to stop moving toward any of the birds as soon as he noticed a sign of distress (like feathers puffed, leaning away, etc.). In giving a bird a seed, he was to stand arms distance away waiting for the bird to ‘invite’ my dad into his space with body language (leaning toward him, etc.) Number two was that it was very important to not reinforce Chester’s screaming behavior, while also immediately and consistently reinforce Chester for being quiet every time. And thirdly, was to keep in mind that for the time being anyway, I was much more rewarding to the birds than my dad.
Here is a condensed version of our plan. When we walked into the birds’ room, both my dad and I had seeds. We walked toward Barnaby’s cage (me on the side closest to Chester), completely ignoring Chester who started to scream, while lavishing Barnaby with attention and seeds for his being quiet and willingly accepting seeds. The second that Chester stopped screaming *I* turned around and gave him a seed. If my dad turned around and Chester screamed, we’d both calmly turn our backs and continue doting on Barnaby. Eventually we wanted to phase in my dad being able to turn around and give Chester seeds.
Chester’s a pretty smart guy. Because of the immediacy with which I reacted to his either being quiet or screaming, he was able to develop a relationship in his mind fairly quickly that *if* I scream, *then* Lisa and her dad will ignore me but *if* I am quiet *then* I get seeds. Within a matter of 10 minutes in the very first session, my dad was already able to give Chester a seed (from an outstretched arm). Chester also did his *stand tall* and *wave* for me in front of my dad.
The second day went even better, and by the third day, a magical thing happened. For the first time in more than 11 years, my dad walked into their room and not only were none of them displaying any level of discomfort, they were actually showing signs of eagerness. Chester immediately began *standing tall* and *waving* and Barnaby just kept turning round in circles (one of his tricks). Even Dreyfuss, was at the front of her cage leaning forward toward my dad. And, not one single scream. Instead of relating my dad to negative experiences, they were associating him with positive reinforcement. It was absolutely an amazing moment. I never thought I’d see the day that my dad would ask to feed the guys seeds – or the day that the guys would be eager to see my dad. But it has definitely happened.
I hope that my story will serve to inspire other pet owners, especially those who believe in the power of punishment because it’s the power of positive reinforcement that we should focus on instead.