Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Training Session with Strider!

As you know, I rescued Strider from a tree in September of 2008 (although at our age, climbing trees is not on a recommended list of anything!)

Once he completed quarantine, and received a clean bill of health, he was ready to meet the flock! This was the beginning of an ongoing journey of learning to trust. It does not happen overnight, but it is always worth the time and effort!

A big temptation, for any bird owner, can be to force the relationship... to hurry things along, or take seeming short cuts.

One such short cut that is very damaging, in my opinion, is a practice known as flooding. This is a process whereby the bird learns to cope with its fears by relentless, and usually traumatically, exposure to a fearful situation. This is done until the bird learns that it cannot change the circumstances. Naturally, this is not a relationship building technique; I cannot strongly enough denounce its use.

A human example of flooding would be: If I were afraid of spiders, and someone put me in a room with billions of them as a 'technique' for helping me overcome my fear. Perhaps they might think that if none of them bit me, I would see they meant me no harm!

(Some with birds fall into this trap of thinking that if they just hold the bird, or corner it, and it cannot get away, that it will come to see the person means no harm and then it would bond. This is an example of flooding.)

It is not a pleasant thought to be in a room with a bunch of spiders or whatever else we might fear. If our worst fears (being bitten) did not come true, it would still not cause us to conclude that spiders were our friends. It would be a horribly traumatic experience. While inside the room, we might gradually appear to relax a bit, accept our circumstances, or become tolerant of our conditions. But the minute the door opened, we would be out of there!
We see this in birds that appear to be accepting of touching or interaction over which they have no control, but the minute they are empowered to escape the situation, they do take advantage of every opportunity.

To the extent that we may become desensitized to the spiders and lose some of our fear of them, we would be quick to avoid the person who had put us into this untenable position. If we had trusted this person prior to the experience, our trust in them would have been compromised by their decision to flood us, literally, with spiders.

I believe that if those who promote flooding as a training technique envisioned themselves being flooded with their worst fear, it would instantly change their approach.

Unfortunately, at times, either inadvertently or due to bad advice, some birds are exposed to flooding experiences.
Relationships cannot be fostered through use of traumatic experiences. They can, however, be fostered through the use of patience and positive reinforcement (or reward training). Patience is both a virtue and an asset when it comes to building a trusting relationship with our birds!

If you know (or suspect) that your bird has been flooded in the past, rest assured that with plenty of reward training and relationship building work, progress can be made! I don't know what Strider may have experienced prior to coming to me, but it is my goal that he have only positive experiences from the point he arrived forward.

With that in mind, nothing is forced upon him. My goal is to empower him to make decisions. If he is out flying around and I am ready for him to return to his cage, I open the cage door and hold it up to him, wherever he is sitting, and then he goes directly inside (as opposed to grabbing him, toweling him, etc.). Now he will step onto my open palm and accept a ride to his cage, but this was not an option at first. We understand that there are certain circumstances, a vet visit for example, when restraint is necessary, and done as quickly as possible. But from a practical day to day experience, I want to promote all positive experiences for Strider.

He has not yet sat on my shoulder, but will sit on my knee for awhile. If I am doing crafts, he will sit near me for an extended period of time, and seems quite interested in my activities. He is a pretty shy guy, a beautiful singer, and very bold when it comes to interacting with the other two much larger birds.

You may wonder, "Wait - he has been with you for six months and all he will do is step up?" Oh, so much more has been accomplished in this time than what can be seen in a training session or recorded by listing skills! For example, I can rearrange all the toys in his cage without him moving. He knows that my hand does not bring him any harm, so he sees no need to move away from it. It certainly won't grab him or poke him; he is happy to sit and be entertained by the hand moving toys!

During a training session with Strider on Sunday, I had my husband sit next to me with the video camera. This placed him as close to Strider as I was, and created a new dynamic in the environment. Initially, he was understandably slower to respond, a bit shyer, and kept an eye on the camera and my husband.

He was not terribly interested in the millet, at first, but came around quickly. The change in the training conditions was of more concern or interest than the reward of millet. But it was good to see that, with patience, he responded quite well! I was very pleased with how calm and focused he remained.

I hope the video demonstrates a few different things:
  • Strider is not in any way, shape or form tame (yet). I hope to show his progress through the coming months as he and I develop a closer companionship.
  • The entire training session was less than six minutes in length. Trainings sessions must end on a high note and before the bird loses interest.
  • The training session takes place while Strider is still in his cage. Presently, if I were to try to do the session out of the cage, he would be much more interested in flying around and interacting with the other birds. Once he is out of the cage, it is a fun time for him and the rest of the flock. I do not like interrupting that joy with an attempt at a training session.
  • Strider stepped up without getting a finger shoved into his belly. Shoving a finger into his belly would have been an aversive, and if he did step up, it would only be to avoid getting poked. It did take some patience on my part, and more than one try. With the introduction of my husband and a camera into the training session, he was understandably a bit more hesitant and cautious than usual.
  • During one step up he seemed to be 'testing the perch'. Natural. He was not exerting any pressure or causing any pain whatsoever. However, I chose not to give him a millet reward. But he was rewarded for stepping up in that nothing bad happened to him - it was a positive experience. He stepped onto and then off of my hand. Just a few seconds later, he did step up without putting down his beak and received a jackpot reward!
  • Although not shown on the video, we ended the session the way it began, with some bites of millet for free - - just for being wonderful Mr. Strider. He did not need to 'work' for them. I like to end the session on a high note with a skill the bird is able to do easily for a treat. At this point, Strider does not have a bank of skills to choose from, so we start and end with some free bites.
  • Our goal is to foster a trusting relationship with our birds, and give them lots of positive experiences (and no, or little to no, negative experiences). This takes time, and we do not always do things perfectly. The right technique at the wrong time (when the bird is tired or disinterested) is not going to be as effective as a nearly perfect technique at a time when the bird is highly engaged.
So - here's Strider! I would love it if you would view the video first, and then proceed below where I have written some things I have observed about myself, my training skills and some things I would like to improve!

Video taping is really a great way to show us places we can improve, give us encouragement to stay the course, and allow us to see body language we may have missed in real time! And it is just fun to see our birds! I could watch videos of my birds all day long!

We are all learning, all the time, and there is always room for improvement! With that in mind, here are a few things I learned from watching my video:
  • I would like to work toward providing a simpler, clearer communication with Strider of my desired target behavior. To accomplish this, I can offer my hand, wait a few seconds, and if he does not step up, withdraw and then try again in a few seconds or a minute.
  • Strider can see the millet. If, however, I ask for the target behavior, receive it, and then the millet appears, Strider 'caused' the millet appear. That's very powerful. So we will be doing more of that in our training sessions.
  • It is believed that allowing the opportunity to gain a reinforcer for too long can be confusing to the bird. It can also make it more difficult to assess progress, as well as to determine the value of the reinforcer. (Additionally, as long as the millet was there for him to take at any time, the motivation is low.) Notice that when I removed my hand and the millet, the next time I introduced my hand he jumped on immediately! This further demonstrates my need to offer my hand for a step up, but to remove it after a few seconds if he chooses not to, step up. And then ask again after a few seconds or a minute has passed.


Bug said...

i like this new entry very much :)... Strider really wants that millet!!...you can see him watching the camera as he steps up with you..

what i did with my budgies.. instead of giving them the millet openn handed like you did.. i would put the millet in one closed fist and offer my other hand as a perch.. when the budgie i was training would put a foot on my hand i would open my closed fist and reveal the treats..
it found it easier to handle rather than moving the treats around like you needed to to get his attention :)..

hope it all goes well and that the training sessions get better and better..

who is the "jealous" one in the background? hehe..

Robin said...

Thanks, Bug! Geek is so lucky to have you.... And, here's a 'hint' on who is the jealous one in the background... she is the largest of the 3, and green! That should narrow it down! LOL!

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