I learned enough from your behavior seminar to know that SOMETHING is reinforcing this behavior but I was wondering about your input as to what started it. Boo (my african grey, male approximately 8 years old) has started being REALLY aggressive to the point of not being able to handle him. He shows all the signs and gives me warning (eyes pinning, feathers fluffed). There hasn’t been any trauma to speak of. His schedule was disrupted for the last week when my hubby was out-of-town. He usually gets him up and fed, etc for the day as he works from home. Boo likes to sleep very late most days….11 or so. He has his own (laundry) sleeping room/cage. While Dave was gone I had to get him up @ 7ish everyday that I worked. Boo wasn’t crazy about that but now we are back to the usual schedule. He has been the same way to Dave since he got back. I thought maybe it was just ME doing all the care for the week that Dave was gone that threw him off. Then, just to throw a monkey wrench into the mix…he’ll be really sweet. Sometimes he displays aggressively, then when I ask him to step up he does willingly (for which he always receives great praise). It seems to be cage/territory related as it’s always when I am putting him back in the cage and sometimes when I’m getting him out, a lot of times to his request to get him. “Wanna come here?” I try REALLY hard not to respond when he nails me but sometimes it’s so quick and hard that it’s hard not to yell out….I thought that was the game….and tried not to respond, I’ll just leave him on the door and walk out of the room to de-fuse the situation but it is escalating. I thought that once he got back to his old schedule, it would die down….but not so far…(since monday) I’m using a perch to move him around because he has drawn blood a number of times. I also noticed he is not eating near as well as he usually does. He has plenty of enrichment opportunities. He does not appear sick…is still vocalizing and whistling and interacting with us as long as we’re not in/around the cage. The other variable is a new puppy that we have…I try to spend a little one on one time each night with Boo. I’m getting very wary of that because I don’t trust him…so, it’s kinda a catch 22…the less time I spend the more “wild” he gets….and the more “wild” and nippy…the less I want to handle him. The other things I have considered are: 1) Don’t they reach sexual maturity about 8 yrs old? 2) The change in daylight hours lengthening…3) the new member of our “pack”…he seems to have accepted the new dog and they co-habitate well..meeting nose to nose (under my DIRECT supervision) and there is no striking. They have a healthy curiosity about each other than they go about their own way. Just wondering about any input you might have other than ignoring his strikes. I don’t know how to “punish” the behavior. He does say “Ouch” occasionally. No doubt he learned quickly from OUR responses but it’s really hard NOT to respond when the bites so quick and so painful. Other than TRYING to ignore the behavior, what do I do to defuse the behavior?
It is very good to hear that you are recognizing the fact that something is reinforcing an undesired behavior you are seeing in Boo. It is also good to hear that you have recognized this through one of my workshops. It is good to hear from you and I’m glad you are touching base with me about your concern on where this behavior is going and what it is now turning out to be.
Before we move on in suggestions in behavior change, I always suggest a veterinary check up, especially since you’ve noticed a change in his eating habits. Once the veterinarian gives a thumbs up on health, it can rule that out of causing behavior issues.
You’ve noticed the correlation in the change in the environment (the disruption in Boo’s morning routine) and the change in his behavior. Environmental
changes can and usually to have an effect on behavior. There are many things in which I’d love to share thoughts with you in your situation, so let me begin with this one.
Often times it is easy for us to follow routines in our daily lives. Routines help us keep on track and make sure daily rituals are accomplished. Schedules are great such as in the mornings we eat breakfast, in the afternoon we eat lunch, and in the evening we eat dinner. Routines are those in which become habit and we mostly stick to an order in how things are done in our daily schedules. Many times we can not avoid schedules but we do have the option to change routines. The reason I mention this is because when we stick to having routines with our birds, if there comes a time where life happens and that routine needs to be broken it may cause stress, confusion, or frustration with our birds such as you have seen with Boo’s routine with your husband’s daily work schedule.
Schedules still happen and we have the opportunity to begin varying routines. For example, every day Boo needs to come out of his sleeping cage and into a main living space to eat breakfast every morning. There may be plenty of opportunities to begin varying the time in which Boo comes out of his cage. For example, if Boo is used to coming out of his sleeping cage at 11a.m. change that routine a little by having your husband take him out at 10:45 a.m. one day. Fifteen minutes isn’t a huge change, but it is a slight one that may be able to be implemented in such a small step that it doesn’t cause stress to Boo. The next day take him out at 10:55. The next day 10: 40. Maybe on a Saturday you go in and get Boo out of his sleeping cage at 10:50. Once he starts getting used to this change, maybe one day you can move him from his sleep cage at 10:30a.m. Keep the time changes at small increments with the intention of incorporating change into his daily schedule.
Another change in a routine could be one day he gets his breakfast in his main cage. Maybe the next day he gets breakfast on his play-stand. The next day maybe he gets breakfast back in his cage and the next on the arm of the chair next to you. This allows us to still have a schedule while allowing us to break away from routine.
These are things I focus on in my household. I try not to keep the birds on many routines because if that routine is broken, I begin to see undesired behavior issues begin to develop. If Rocky was used to coming out of his cage and into his bird room every morning at 10 a.m., how would this effect him when I have a doctor’s appointment next week at 11 a.m. and I need him to stay in his cage until I get back? At this point, I feel my assumption of Rocky beginning to scream once he realizes his routine is being broken will be pretty accurate. I feel good about this assumption because I’ve learned from experience. Rocky used to be on small routines. I now focus on keeping daily schedules varied such as food variety, variety in presentation, in time, and in the time he comes out of his cage.
When I know I am getting ready to go out-of-town for an upcoming workshop, I will also start varying schedules in bigger increments to get my birds ready for a major change in plans. I am on my way home now from a workshop and last week I knew my birds would be spending a good majority of their times in their large cages until I got home. So, I began leaving them in their cages for longer periods of time at varying times of the day each day. I began varying which bird came out and when, and where they went when they did come out. I like to keep them used to change while paying close attention to frustration levels. I keep the changes small and varying based on the individual bird as to not cause stress or frustration. As they start getting used to the change, I start changing things on a larger scale to the point where I can really make large changes in daily schedules and watching how the birds adapt readily from it.
One never knows when life is going to throw them a curve ball and it has a major impact on our daily schedule. The more we can continually vary schedules into our bird’s lives, the better prepared for change they will be when change happens and the less amount of behavior issues you will see if any.
In your situation, Boo had a major and pretty big change in daily routine when you were having to get him up at 7 a.m. versus what he was used to. If Boo perceived this waking and moving as something he didn’t like, guess who this may be associated with? Yes, you. You also have seen that his behavior has changed toward your husband too. Why, without more detail I’m not sure, but the important thing is that you have noticed this. This gives us a place to start in changing behavior.
I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement training because of how great of an impact it has had on my birds’ lives, for the better and their behavior issues or lack of them now. When I ask a behavior from my bird, I always make sure there is something of value in it for the bird. Always. Otherwise, why would my bird want to give me the behavior I am asking if there is nothing in it for him? This is true with us also. Why would you want to go to work everyday if there was not anything in it for you? The reason most of us go to work is because there is something in it in return for us and that is usually the paycheck. Many people love their jobs and are willing to take pay cuts because their work environments offer other positive reinforcers such as a very rewarding boss, good friends, the ability to help others, etc. My point here is that each of our positive reinforcers is different and varies among person to person. Our positive reinforcers are decided by us. Not by our friends, our neighbors, or our bosses. You may like chocolate and would get up off the couch to cross the room to eat a piece of chocolate from the candy jar. I on the other hand, do not like chocolate and can’t think of one instance where it would ever be a motivator for me to expend the energy of standing up and walking across the room. If there was a bowl of macaroni and cheese across the room, that would be of high value to me and I would probably sprint to the other side of the room to get it.
This is the same for our birds. Make sure praise is of value to your bird. Is it a fair return for behavior performed from Boo and if so, is it of high enough value at that particular time? Praise may be of high value to Boo when you ask him to step up off of his play stand onto your hand so you can walk him across the room and deliver him to your husband, but that praise may not be of high enough value to Boo to give to him when you’ve asked him to step up onto your hand from his sleeping cage at 7a.m. Do you see where I am coming from?
The more we reserve a particular highly valued reinforcer or reward from a bird, the higher value that particular item or event becomes. For example, if Boo
loves walnuts and he received walnuts at no other time than when you asked him to step up out of his sleeping cage and onto your hand at 8, 9, or 10a.m., my guess would be that Boo will be more willing to give you the behavior you are requesting with little time for him to think about it. The consistent pairing of this behavior and this highly valued positive reinforcer could be a fair trade-off for the behavior being requested and more importantly, this positive reinforcer is consistently being associated with you!
One of the many things I love about interacting with birds with positive reinforcement is you are consistently being paired with the ‘fair trade-offs’ for requested behaviors, often times the bird’s positive reinforcer begins to change from treats to you.
Shelley, I picked your question to answer this time because there were several great points you brought up and great areas to address which I hope help you and the many others reading this that are having some of the same behavior hurdles to jump. In the workshop I was involved in giving over this past weekend, one of the many things we addressed was a biting bird. Ignoring a biting bird is extremely hard to do, dangerous, and one I would never suggest a person try. If you remember from the workshop we defined many things and punishment and positive punishment were two of the terms. Punishment is an event that follows a behavior that decreases the future rate of that behavior. For example, Johnny sticks his hand on a hot stove. The behavior is Johnny sticking his hand on the stove. The punisher is the burn that the stove gave him. If the future rate of Johnny sticking his hand on the stove decreases, the behavior has been punished. The burn from the hot stove was added (+) to the environment. The hot stove is therefore the positive (+ added) event that caused the behavior to decrease, this is an example of positive punishment. When trying to modify or change the behavior of our birds one of the things we want to stay as far away from as possible is using positive punishment because the positive punishers are always things the bird doesn’t like. If we use positive punishment with our birds to change behavior, this means we are using something the bird doesn’t like to decrease the future rate of the behavior. If we are using things the bird doesn’t like to decrease the behavior, there are many reasons we don’t want to use these and one of them is the fact that we are consistently pairing ourselves with using things on the bird that the bird doesn’t like. More than likely with this pairing, the bird will begin to not look forward to our approach. I was just telling attendees of the workshop this past weekend, the only time it is ok to use a positive punisher on a bird’s behavior is when the alternative is worse. I would never suggest someone endure the duration and pain of a bite. Pull your hand away and into safety and begin your training plan in how to begin working on modifying this behavior.
For example, last week I was relaxing in the aviary and reading a book. I wasn’t paying attention and Rocky moved from my lower arm and up to my shoulder. Rocky is never allowed on my shoulder because for whatever reason, when he is behind me and higher by my head, he tends to lunge and bite. Why? I have no clue, but the important thing is to notice that he does it and to prevent situations from letting it happen again. I’ve used target training to ask Rocky to move to different safe areas and the use of punishment was avoided. On this particular instance though, once I realized Rocky was on my shoulder I immediately became very concerned. I couldn’t target him back down my arm because I didn’t have a free hand to use to target because my hand was now up and covering my face. I moved in front of a window to see what Rocky’s body language looked like and he was showing the same body language he does when he’s getting ready to lunge and bite. I had a quick decision to make, take a severe bite to the face or drop my shoulder and shake him off. I chose the latter. I dropped my shoulder and Rocky flew to the ground. I punished the behavior of Rocky standing on my shoulder. By removing a place for him to perch, I was associated with the aversive. I chose to take this route and then work and focus on not letting this happen again to make sure this behavior is not being reinforced.
If Boo bites you, I would suggest removing your hand and work on a training strategy such as using positive reinforcement for asking Boo to step up. Find his favored treats and offer them to him only at the times in which you need him to step up. Remember, Boo is the one that decides what these rewards or positive reinforcers are, it is never us. Ask for the behavior and then when he does it, give him the treat. That may sound easier than what it is. In the beginning you may have to show him the treat when asking for the behavior. Offer your hand, ask Boo to step up and show him the reward. This is a behavior called “luring”. I often lure a bird in the beginning stages of training a behavior. Soon when the bird realizes that every time you ask a behavior of it and it does it, it knows there is something of value in it for him and the future rates of behavior increase….positive reinforcement. If you are unsure of using your hand to request the ‘step-ups’, try beginning training with a perch. At the same time you are doing this pay very close attention to the body language. You will begin to better read when Boo wants to do something and when he doesn’t. Don’t force him to do something when he doesn’t want to do it. This often brings on aggression. Instead find a different highly valued positive reinforcer of his.
Target training is another behavior I highly suggest you try. This puts you in a safe situation while better learning the bird’s body language. It also helps the bird better read yours. Target training is when you ask the bird to touch a certain body part to an object. It could be asking the bird to touch its toes to your finger or its beak to the end of a chopstick as shown in the video below. Positively reinforce the behavior you want to see increase all the while by paying close attention to not push the bird in giving behaviors such as lunging and biting that you don’t want to see.
In this video is a workshop I co-hosted showing Connie teaching an amazon to target its beak to the end of a chopstick. This could come handy to Connie if she found herself in a situation with this amazon where she couldn’t read the body language to tell if she was about to get bit or not. If the bird was already target trained she could ask the bird to touch its beak to the chopstick while she repositioned herself in a safer position.
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