Sid Price, CPBT-KA, CPBC on September 24, 2015
When teaching behavior and training, getting students to give up control over the animal they are working with is one of the more difficult concepts for new trainers to embrace. Unfortunately when one says “training” to most people the mental image that comes to mind is a person having control over their training subject, indeed the majority of the general public thinks in terms of “commands” and not “cues.” Not getting and maintaining control over the training subject somehow conjures up images of “animal anarchy!” This is pervasive in our society … from a very early age.
At the end of our free-flying bird shows we try to do a “meet-and-greet” encounter with one of the show birds for people to get up really close, take photos, and ask questions. Many, many times over the years a small child will approach us and ask “can you make him fly again?” Aha! A teaching moment for us to explain that we allow our birds to make the choice to engage with us so we don’t “make them” do anything. Control is deep-rooted in our society indeed.
The challenge for everyone teaching training and behavior is to gently guide our students away from this deeply ingrained concept.
As an example of removal of choice and control I use the following 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 The hand is then withdrawn and the bird begins the process of learning that biting gets hands away when they are not wanted. Incidentally, repeated “back-off” signals is probably an indicator of a poor relationship between the owner and the bird and this should be addressed first.
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”), reinforce and take the hand away. Gradually the hand may be brought closer; 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 unless this is an emergency situation. With time, patience, and good observation the bird will learn to step onto the hand. Note that if the 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?