Laura Monaco Torelli, KPA CTP/Faculty, CPDT-KA, TAGteach Level 2 on January 04, 2016
When an inquiry came through last spring from a cockatiel owner, I flew at the chance to dig deeper into her concerns to assess if I could be of help. Collaboration is a must to help with team success. My client was referred via her veterinarian to the IAABC website after expressing concern about how stressful medicating her cockatiel had become. This stress was not only being observed in her bird’s response to the restraint process, but generalized to their relationship at other times, as well. Hearing that her avian veterinarian supported a learning alternative to restraint through a positive approach, was music to my ears. Our collaboration had begun!
Upon hearing that Larry Bird was developing generalized avoidance to his caregiver (flying or walking away from when she would approach for feeding, play, habitat cleaning, and enrichment time) it become critical to problem-solve some creative solutions. A relationship that had a history of trust (enthusiastic approach behavior) was now compromised. The owner was heartbroken. Her 15-year old cockatiel is demonstrating fear behaviors in her general presence.
We know the saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I say that video is worth a million. I requested baseline video of what the current towel restraint technique to administer medication looked like. Boy, it was really hard to watch. Larry Bird showed every possible stress response a bird could offer contingent upon needed to be medicated. My client actually ended the video early, because SHE was upset. Good for her.
The towel restraint always happened when Larry Bird was closed off in his cage.
- Caregiver would approach with a towel
- Larry would fly to the back of the enclosure
- Caregiver would open the enclosure door
- Larry would vocalize, lunge forward and bite the towel
- Caregiver would wrap the towel around him
- Larry would vocalize with increased stress
- Caregiver would move him out of the enclosure
- Larry would bite the towel
- Caregiver would insert the medicated syringe into his beak
- Larry would swallow medication
- Larry would vocalize more
- Caregiver would move him back into the enclosure
- Caregiver would release him from the towel wrap
- Larry would fly away while vocalizing
- Larry would avoid her and refuse treats
She knew there had to be a better way. So did I.
A teaching approach that I find helpful is to ask a client what their final goal looks like. What does medicating Larry Bird in the ideal scenario look like to her?
- Larry would voluntarily approach her
- Swallow the medication from the syringe
- Eat a treat afterward
- Remain relaxed through the process.
That sounds like a great plan to me! Plus, there are a lot less steps than the current procedure.
Goal one: to remove the towel restraint procedure.
Our next goal: building trust again with Larry Bird and his caregiver.
Having animals in our lives is a conscious choice because of the mutual joy they bring us.
We needed to bring back the “fun factor” into their day-to-day relationship. My client had already heard about clicker training, and was eager to integrate training and play time back into their relationship.
Since providing Larry Bird the option of climbing in and out of his enclosure was possible, my client began to open the door, and let him choose where he wanted to be. We also increased enrichment options at various locations, and kept an empty syringe casing nearby as a general prop while supervised.
I had the pleasure of showing my client some clicker training basics. Larry Bird was onboard, too. Highlights included that their teaching sessions should be short. 5-10 click/treats a few times per day. His reinforcers of choice were millet and small cereal treats.
Changing our behavior!
No one can blame Larry Bird for behaving in a stressed manner when a person walks directly toward him. I respond the same way when a person that I do not know makes a direct approach at me. How do I respond? I take a few steps away from this person. I might even cross my arms, clench my fists, purse my lips, cock my head, lift my chin, and brace myself in an attempt to increase my odds of feeling safe.
Goal two: teach the owner about bird body language.
We introduced the clicker while seated comfortably next to Larry Bird.
We clicked the behavior of Larry Bird standing at the top of his enclosure.
Our success is about going as fast as his body language remained calm
We want to teach that hands coming toward him have safe, positive associations again.
He readily ate the treats.
We videotaped our first session, and I emailed her the baseline training video for her library.
Our initial homework goal had begun.
1. Short clicker training sessions each day.
2. Increase enrichment activities (her approach toward his enclosure equates positive outcomes).
3. Provide more opportunities for Larry Bird to walk/fly in and out of his enclosure when she was home to supervise his safety.
4. Empty syringe casing placed on a table next to her during clicker training sessions.
Our next session focused on the introduction of the empty syringe as a target. Larry Bird quickly caught on that if he chose to move toward the syringe, he would receive a click (syringe removed after the click), and then be offered a delicious treat.
This bird is a brilliant learner, given solid teaching procedures
At first, his mouth-open behavior toward the syringe showed Larry’s discomfort with the syringe and we wanted voluntary, cooperative behavior. So, we slowly shaped for less intensity of his biting toward the syringe, and more toward opening his beak gently.
All the while, in every session, Larry Bird could walk or fly away from the syringe. Giving him the control to leave made it more likely he would stay. Some sessions were planned when the syringe was not present. We would vary post-session activities with adding enrichment, misting with water
(a favorite) for bathing time, and being able to choose to spend time inside or outside his enclosure.
Variety is the spice of our success!
The referring veterinarian approved reducing the medication being offered during our successive approximations toward teaching voluntary swallowing of the medication.
We added small amounts of medication to the syringe, and offered it at various locations such as, near a perch by the windows that he enjoys, or outside his enclosure.
Before we knew it, this little bird and his caregiver made huge progress.
Having the immense honor of working with various species of animals, I can say that helping to build the relationship between a bird owner and her cockatiel brought more joy that words can say. Listening to a client, hearing her concerns, validating her frustrations and gut instincts, brought me the ultimate reinforcer. Seeing the joy in her relationship with her bird return.
“Laura Monaco Torelli has been a lifesaver in restoring the trust between my adopted pet cockatiel Larry Bird and me! Larry Bird tested positive for avian bornavirus (possible cause of PDD disease) and had to be given medicine orally under restraint. With those stressful medicine experiences, Larry Bird stopped trusting me and would try to run away from me whenever I came near his cage. Laura taught me some great techniques for restoring trust through positive feedback, and Larry Bird can now take his medicine orally without my need to restrain him. He also has made major improvements at slowly trusting my hands and fingers. The training is not just one-way though—I have learned to stay calm and read his body language and respect his choice to enter into training time. It’s been wonderful because I can tell that Larry Bird really enjoys our practice sessions. From the beginning, I could tell that Larry Bird trusted Laura’s gentle approach. It’s great having Larry Bird under the care of a great animal behaviorist specialist like Laura, and I look forward to continuing to work with her!
Diana W. with Larry Bird”
This partnership would not have happened had this bird-loving owner not found me through the Parrot Division. It is an honor being a part of the IAABC team!