Solving Parrot Behavior Problems

On Facebook last week, someone in my network asked me some questions about parrots. They were questions I have heard before. I thought I’d write a post so that others too can learn from my answers.



Watching a repeat NaturePBS about the difficulties of raising and keeping Parrots.  They seem to exhibit bad behaviors due to sexual maturity and seeing their people as mates.  Would it be better to adopt 2 parrots together? Or can you get a parrot to see the relationship as parent/child and would that cut the risk of them exhibiting bad behaviors (biting, screeching, and self mutilation)?

 My answer:

Hi Deneen,

Drat, I wish I had seen that. I love that you want to learn and have taken initiative to ask the questions.  I will see if I can give you some clarity (and hopefully be of help to others who may be having the very same questions).

Let’s look first to the question, what is behavior?  In its most simplest description, behavior is a tool that animals – including parrots – use to get a desired consequence from the environment.  How do you know if a behavior ‘worked’ to serve that purpose? Well, if the behavior continues or even strengthens, then we know the behavior got the animal something it valued. If the behavior did not get the animal something of value, the behavior would weaken. Consequences of behavior – including biting and screaming – determine the future rate of parrot and dog behaviorthat behavior.

What does this have to do with the ‘bad behaviors’ (biting, screeching and self-mutilation) associated with sexual maturity?

In captivity,  ‘we’ as our pet’s caretakers have a lot to do with the rate and strength of our pet’s behaviors since behavior is influenced by its environment.

In Concepts in Behavior (by S.G. Friedman, Ph.D.; Thomas Edling, D.V.M, M.S.p.V.M.; and Carl Cheney, Ph.D.),  authors point out that “knowledge of the behavior patterns of free-range parrots, as well as environmental conditions that elicit and shape them, greatly increases our ability to predict, interpret and manage many parrot behaviors in captivity. “

They add that perhaps the most important things caregivers can learn from their pet birds are the behaviors that serve a communication function.  Parrots subtle body language involves nearly every feather on their bodies to communicate their comfort or discomfort, or desires. Problems arise when humans misunderstand or miss seeing that body language their pet uses to indicate boundaries of personal space. “Most species of parrots use threatening stances rather than outright aggression to drive off perceived intruders in the wild, and many of these behaviors are seen in captivity as well,” the authors wrote.

What are some examples of that body language? The authors list – Warnings may include raised nape feathers with wings slightly lifted, a raised foot held open at chest level, directed hacking motions with an open beak, and growling.  (referencing Lantermann W: The New Parrot Handbook. New York, Barron’s, 1986, pp 91-94. 19. Lattal KA: Continge)

As an example, Dreyfuss, my pionus, will use the displacement behaviors of stretching her wings and legs if I put my arm out at a time when she does not want it there.  If I did not move my arm away, she would escalate that behavior to lunging at it. And if I still did not move my arm away, a bite is sure to ensue.

And, if she ultimately needed to bite me to get distance from my arm, guess what behavior she would do more of in the future? She is much more likely to go straight for the bite because her past history would have taught her that stretching her wings and legs did her absolutely no good to remove my arm from her space. You can actually read something I had written awhile back on my solving an issue with her biting my approaching arm in this post.

If she then began biting my arm every time it was in her cage, someone else could say that was due to her being hormonal or any number of other reasons; however, I would know that the real underlying reason for her behavior was because quite simply…biting works for her when other body language does not. By the way, Dreyfuss is a bird for whom I will always need to closely monitor her body language but because I do that and also teach her positive associations with me, it has been a very long time since I have been bitten.  When it occurred, I always go back to see what ‘I’ did wrong.

As for screaming, which is a natural form of vocalization for birds, if it is occurring in excess while in captivity, we need to remind ourselves again that behaviors that are repeated are serving a function for that animal.  Ongoing behaviors that are even strengthening are being reinforced by something in the environment (meaning there is some valuable consequence to the animal from doing that behavior).

Rather than delving extensively into that here, I’ll refer to one of my very first writings about how I solved a screaming issue with Barnaby, my Timneh African Grey.   Actually, it was learning how to successfully modify his behavior (with lots of help and encouragement from Dr. Friedman, for whom I so grateful) that sent me down this whole journey of wanting to learn more about behavior science.

With many behavior problems, changing the environment rather than changing the bird is a great way to set your pet up for success. Chester, my Alexandrine Ringneck who lived with me for 18  plus years, was an incessant chewer. He had destroyed a piece of furniture once before. How I solved that problem was by giving him many different opportunities to have his needs met in appropriate ways with rolled up phone books in his cage, wood blocks, and more plus play stations on the floor.

Now let’s circle back to your questions: Would it be better to adopt 2 parrots together? Or can you get a parrot to see the relationship as parent/child and would that cut the risk of them exhibiting bad behaviors (biting, screeching, and self mutilation)?

I think the answer really is to understand that all pet bird behaviors are occurring to serve that animal a function. When we understand that, the question is not really about whether we should have a parent/child relationship but rather how can we as our pet bird’s caretaker arrange our bird’s environment to set him/her AND me up for success?

Effectiveness Is Not Enough In Animal Training

I was one of more than 500 trainers from across the globe who convened on Dearborn, Michigan in March for the Karen Pryer Clicker Training Expo. It was a phenomenal opportunity to learn from some of the best trainers and behaviorists whose focus is on modifying behavior in the most positive way. What also made the weekend special for me was the chance to see my very first teacher and long time mentor, Dr. Susan Friedman (who pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Science to the care and training of captive and companion animals). Susan is who opened my floodgate to behavior science and got me hooked on it.

In one of her lectures, ‘Effectiveness Is Not Enough’, Susan reminded us to make a habit of two things: to HELP or at least to DO NO HARM.

Ask yourself…

When a dog snarls at youth on skateboards and is held down while they continue to skateboard in small circles around him until he stops reacting, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

When a dog struggles to escape a comb held close to his face and is restrained at the scruff while combing his muzzle until he stops resisting, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

When a dog lunges, growls and barks while on leash while another dog is around and is restrained until he stops those behaviors, is that the least intrusive, effective solution for the problem situation, or, is it ethical??

What do all of these approaches have in common?

In each of these circumstances, the frequency and/or intensity of a behavior is decreased in order to remove or get distance from an aversive stimulus that is added to the environment. Scientifically this is called positive punishment.

Does this work to change behavior? Unfortunately, it does, and every time it does the teacher is reinforced for using it.

Susan has reminded me time again the cost of using this approach.

Sure, you may have changed behavior but punishment can cause apathy, generalized fear, counter aggression, and escape/avoidance. Punishment does not serve to ‘teach’ the animal what you want him to do instead and most certainly does not teach the teacher how to help the animal succeed. It requires escalating intensity to maintain suppression. It is actually a double negative in that it both it is a big withdrawal from the positive reinforcement bank while also being highly aversive. AND, for all of this, the teacher can become associated with those aversives.

In fact, in several of the cases above what has happened is called ‘learned helplessness’ as a result of flooding. Flooding is a form of training in which the animal is exposed to an aversive stimulus with no possibility of escape until the stimulus no longer arouses anxiety or fear. But can you imagine the level of anxiety and discomfort it causes the animal in the process? It is either sink or swim basically. In many cases flooding only serves to make the animal more anxious and forces it to adopt different coping mechanisms to ensure safety and survival.

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

Watch this video where Ceasar Millan teaches a dog to ‘calm down’. Specifically at about 3:14 into the video you will see an example of flooding. Watch the body language of the little dog he is working with. Sure, that little guy is not lunging and barking any longer after being held back but does he look like a dog who has learned a positive association with being near to the golden retriever or is this a case of learned helplessness? (What is that little dog’s tail, face, and body doing?)

Susan teaches a Humane Hierarchy when it comes to behavior change strategies. As much as possible, animals should be empowered to use their behavior to control significant events in their life. Read more: Dr. Susan Friedman: What’s Wrong with this Picture

The Humane Hierarchy is a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive with Level 1 being the most socially acceptable and giving the animal the highest amount of control. “The overwhelming majority of behavior problems can be prevented or resolved with one or more strategies represented in Levels 1 to 4,” she wrote in a paper.

The levels include:

Level 1: Distant Antecedents – address medical, nutritional and physical environment variables.

Level 2: Immediate Antecedents – redesign setting events, change motivations, and add or remove discriminative stimuli (cues) for the behavior.Dr. Susan Friedman's Humane Hierarchy in animal training

Level 3: Positive Reinforcement – contingently deliver a consequence to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur, which is more reinforcing than the problem behavior.

Level 4: Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behavior – reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.

Level 5:

  1. Negative Punishment – contingently withdraw a positive reinforcer to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.
  2. Negative Reinforcement – contingently withdraw an aversive antecedent stimulus to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur.
  3. Extinction – permanently remove the maintaining reiforcer to suppress the behavior or reduce it to baseline levels.

Level 6: Positive Punishment – contingently deliver an aversive consequence to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.

Learn more about antecedent arrangement and using it by clicking here.

Learn more about differential reinforcement, by clicking here.


When I train dogs and other animals, I always work to empower them, by teaching them that making a wanted behavior choice will result in a positive consequence. What is an example of how you modified your pet’s behavior in a positive way? I’d love to hear.


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!

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!

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!

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