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Don’t Fall for Deceptive Bird Training Tricks – Guest Post by Sid Price of Avian Ambassadors

December 8, 2008

For my 100th post anniversary, I am delighted to publish a guest post by none other than Sid Price, founder of Avian Ambassadors, and a very well respected member of the professional bird training community. Sid is also president-elect of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators.

Sid and I had talked about the growing prominence of certain training programs in search results when people Google questions related to problem parrot behavior. Unfortunately, long-standing and well-respected avian trainers tend to focus on training, not on learning the newest web marketing techniques — as a consequence, the things you do find on the web tend to be promotional materials by people who are good marketers but not necessarily the best bird trainers.

I asked him to expand on an article he wrote on his own blog, called The Real Secrets of Training Success and Where to Find Them.

The following is his response:

Don’t Fall for Deceptive Training Tricks
by Sid Price

When one is trying to figure out how to deal with behavioral issues and training challenges with birds it is important to know not only that a particular strategy works, but also what long term effects the use of the selected strategy may have on the relationship between you and your bird.

It is unfortunate that much of what is available on the Internet is more focused on selling a product than providing the best possible training advice. Over the last year or so this situation has degraded to the point where searching for training help turns up more and more links to sites that offer instant success for every kind of training challenge. I say unfortunate because most of the links lead directly or indirectly to some really expensive, poor training advice.

Beware the Silver Bullet
So, how can one filter the good advice from the marketing hard sell? Your first clue, as is almost always the case with over-hyped products, is that while there are often simple solutions to bird behavior challenges there are rarely instant, fifteen-minute solutions. Remember that most behavioral challenges come down to relationships. This is true not only with birds and other animals but also with humans.

Think how long it took to build the trust and confidence of a really good friend or coworker, then think how a little time it takes to completely shake that trust and confidence with a single bad interaction. Well the same is true for your bird; using some of the techniques advised by these instant cure folks will shake any relationship you may already have established. If you are at the beginning of that relationship then the shaky ground for the future will be well established.

How do you decide if a strategy is one you should be using? There is one simple question that you can ask yourself about the advice being offered and that is “Does the bird have a choice to perform the behavior you are looking for?” It is well established by behavioral science that animals given choice and control over their environment show much lower levels of stress and aggressive behaviors than animals that are managed using force or coercion.

The Choice to “Step Up”
As an example of removal of choice and control let us consider the behavior that almost everyone wants to train, the step onto the hand. If the technique that you use does not allow the bird to make the choice to step onto your hand and it has no escape from the “pushing” hand it may well, having already sent a bunch of visual cues to the owner to back off, reach down and bite that hand. The hand is then withdrawn and the bird begins the process of learning that biting gets hands away when they are not wanted.

So, how do we give choice to the bird in this situation? Firstly we need to be observant, when the bird first signals it does not want to step up by what may be quite subtle changes in posture we need to back off. What the bird is now learning is that it has control over the situation using its natural body language; the same way it would communicate with its flock members in the wild. What the owner can then do is to carefully watch the body language and note how far the hand was from the bird when it “said” back off. In the future, just before the hand gets to this position bridge (click or say “good”) and treat and take the hand away.

Gradually the hand may be brought closer, the bridge and treat can come later, and the bird will learn that the approaching hand is a good thing; plus it still retains the right to “say” back off with its body language, the owner should always comply with that request. With time, patience, and good observation the bird will learn to step onto the hand. Note that if your bird is clipped it is a good idea to begin this training on a perch that allows the bird to walk safely away from you. One piece of bad advice I have seen is to work the bird on a small perch so that it can not get away … now ask yourself, where is the control of the situation for that bird?

There are many places on the Internet offering advice on how to train the step up. Many of them use techniques that remove choice from the bird, they use what behaviorists call aversives (something an animal will work to avoid) to achieve their goals.

One really poor technique promoted on several web sites is to move either the hand the bird is stepping onto higher once it gets a foot on it, thereby forcing (coercing) it to bring the second foot onto the hand, or the owner is instructed to remove the perch the bird is stepping from once it has the first foot on the hand. Both of these techniques not only remove choice from the bird they also undermine the trust the bird has in the owner. In fact lifting a bird before it has both feet firmly on the hand is a very common thing that many experienced owners do all the time, it is a habit they should do their best to break.

Marketing Hype versus Proven Training Solutions

There are several other ways of knowing whether you are getting good training advice or a large dose of marketing hype. Good professional trainers who post training advice will almost always explain the science behind their advice and also they will provide links to the sources of their information.

For instance when I write about the effects of punishment in my articles I always include references to the scientists who provide support data with their work. Behavioral science has been around for over 100 years; during that time some techniques have been refined as they have been better understood, however much of the science that professional trainers use every day with their animals is strongly based upon that well researched body of work.

If a web site claims a “revolutionary” technique or they promise to reveal the “secrets” of the professional trainers … don’t believe them. Professional trainers who have secrets are probably also trying to make a living by selling those secrets too.

The science of behavior is in the public domain, it can be read about and studied for free. Having said that you will find that professionals who teach training present not only the science but also the application of the science, the art of it if you prefer.

All my training class materials refer back to the sources of my knowledge; I do not invent new terms to gain some market edge. This last point is also a clue that you should be wary of any web site using terminology that is not used by the training community at large. If someone is claiming a new technique then they need to also publish the science that backs it up. They need to have it peer reviewed by the rest of the behavioral community, just like the current science the best trainers use was peer reviewed.

Just because they publish it on their web site does not make it fact, true, effective, or in some cases ethical.

Contact Sid

If you have any questions about this article or about anything on my training blog (www.AvianAmbassadors.com/BirdTraining) please write to me at TrainingBlog@AvianAmbassadors.com and I will do my best to respond. Your email may be the inspiration for a blog article.

Enjoy your birds and your learning,
Sid.

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7 comments

  1. I absolutely agree. As I rescue/rehome birds, I have gotten many that were rehomed many times, with the last owner trying to undue previous issues by using such force methods. Believe me, they do nothing for the bird, and rarely get what the “owner” wants, either. On the off chance you get a bird that they “work” well enough on to get them to even step-up, they develop, now or later, other behavior problems as a result, and often only step-up for the person who forced them, and use their now learned hard bite with any one else. It is so sad, and can be very hard to undo.


  2. I’m well aware of whom you are speaking and I personally have used their training methods. None of which call for me to force my cockatoo to do anything. It’s all about giving the bird the choice and reading their body language. I would suggest doing a little more research or maybe even contacting these people you go about making false claims about their materials and methods. Or is it easier to sit back behind the safety of your computer and write negative things about them?


  3. Well Jason,
    I understand you’ve contacted Sid personally, so I’m not sure what else I need to say since you were addressing him not me.

    No names were listed in this post. If you know who the criticism is leveled at, it must be because it’s been leveled at you before. The advice Sid gave is general, for people to learn about training techniques and teach them how to evaluate training products. I don’t see why that should concern you if you do everything the way Sid recommends… because, again, no names were named.

    I should point out that for someone who criticizes people posting from “the safety of their computer”, it’s ironic that you aren’t more transparent in your comments. You imply that you are leaving a testimonial as a satisfied customer. In reality, you work for BirdTricks.com.

    I think it’s telling that you chose not to disclose that little fact.


  4. January 8, 2009

    Hi,
    I am a new bird owner(have owned several in the past), and I ran across BirdTricks.com while trying to get as much info as possible before getting my baby grey. I also do have a psychology degree and have done Skinner conditioning and shaping with small animals. I do find the BirdTricks videos to be somewhat amaturish, but I think most of the content is based on correct postive reinforcement behavior modification techniques. They seem to really care about their birds, and in all fairness some of their earlier lessons are followed up later with improvements they have developed. I have watched four of their CD’s and have seen absolutely no forcing of behavior, and in fact it is stated that the best training allows the bird to make their own choices. The training I have seen is done on tables or stands with ladders or in cages which all allow the bird to move away if it chooses. Granted I am a somewhat a novice to bird training and no doubt have a lot to learn, but I like these guys (and I do not work for them nor do they know me as anyone but someone who has purchased some of their material.

    Sincerely,
    Martha Howe


  5. As a follow-up to my previous email, I have just read Sid’s remarks about the marketing techniques at BirtTricks, and I do agree with him there. Thsy are aggresively marketing far more material than anyone needs and now have a monthly program you seem to get automatically enrolled in when you order anything. They do advise after the first shipment that you can email and cancel and you will not be charged for the first monthly shipment. I did cancel and they did not charge me and immediately emailed me confiramtion of my cancellation. Ido think that if they are linking to other professional’s sites that is unetehical.

    Martha


  6. Hey Martha,

    i’m not too political when it comes to this stuff, but I do feel compelled to respond to your post. Firstly, I’ve actually purchased some material off of these guys and didn’t mind an aspect or two of it. This however was long before I found much better advice (which also came for free). I’ve only seen the one DVD that I own, so I can’t comment on a broad range, however in what I saw, flooding was certainly encouraged as a taming technique. I did not like this. However Some of the parlor tricks were trained really well with good use of operant conditioning. I also agree that these guys do seem, from what I can gather, to really care for there birds, this is not something that I would debate.

    I’m taking a while to get to my point, but I wanted to say that as a fellow psychologist, you should be aware that when these fellows are correcting their errors “with improvements they have developed” that our educations alone show that these aren’t ideas that these lads have developed. Much of the criticism that is directed their way is a result of them claiming ideas as there own. Again, as a result of your education, you would surely know that these guys did not develop these ideas themselves. These are ideas that have been around for a long time and put to use by many great psychologists and animal trainers alike.

    Again, to reiterate, I really don’t have a political agenda here. Money and parrot training are not things that I get too worked up about. I also don’t really have too strong an opinion about the trainers/marketers in question. However, I do realise that some of what they are claiming as their own material is not. I hope that with your education, you would realise this too and realise why this would be upsetting to many respectable members of the bird training community.

    If you’ve read this far, thank you for hearing my opinion.

    Scott.



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