Sunday, February 21, 2016


On our first evening at NEI, we went around the room with introductions. Steve asked us to briefly introduce ourselves with name, where we were from and what our goal was for the week. He also added the fun option of naming the superpower we would choose if we could have one or telling about our favorite scar. I cringed a little at the scar because I have a big one but I never would have called it a favorite. However, when I heard that Steve refers to scars as “badges of insensitivity”, I knew it was appropriate. My own scar is from being kicked by a horse and it certainly was due to insensitivity on my part. It wasn’t a training incident or some cowboy move I tried to pull, simply a situation that arose while doing chores at a job I had fresh out of college. I also heard a great story about one of Susan Friedman’s scars, though it had nothing to do with animal training.

I said my hope for the week was that working with a new and completely unfamiliar specie would help me think outside the box. When I went through the Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner program, working that extensively with dogs really helped open my horizons to new ways to approach horse training. I was ready (or thought I was) to shake that up again.  

So when I found myself with a bird acting like a horse afraid to go near a trailer, I wanted to try the same methods. But Wouter knew I was there to learn something new and he gently redirected me, time and time again, to looking at things differently. I wanted to get the bird comfortable and relaxed; he wanted me to ignore that and focus on the behavior. An internal struggle ensued (in my head). I described it afterwards as having spent the first 2 1/2 days trying to put the bird in MY box, rather than being willing to step outside my box. I had little comparisons for everything from the cages being stalls and pastures to approaching that towel being just like putting a horse on a trailer. I have spent a lot of time in recent years taking the emotional signals of animals very seriously. After all, that was one of my favorite quotes of Susan’s: “Effectiveness is Not Enough”. Just because you can get the horse on the trailer or over the jump doesn’t mean it’s good training. I had new criteria and that was having the animal be comfortable and a willing partner through all training. It’s what choice was all about.

So when Wouter would point out the bird’s emotional signals and his “hesitancy” but at the same time kept me focusing “only on the behavior”, I was lost at sea. I struggled through that afternoon and it was late, late that night that I pulled out pen and notebook in my hotel room and the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. It all came back to the ABCs. 

antecedent -> behavior -> consequence

I’ve known the process for years, but being immersed, as we were, in Susan’s thorough coverage of boiling down complicated behaviors into the simplest form possible, I was able to shift gears. 

Previously, I had lumped physical behavior with emotional signals into the B of behavior. “Can you approach this scary tarp while keeping your head at wither’s height”. If so, then I determined that to mean the horse was “relaxed” enough to ask him to go a bit further. Wouter had me ignore the emotional signals as part of my criteria. If the bird moved, criteria was met, even if he then hastily retreated. The emotional signals the bird showed became, as I quoted Steve in a previous post, antecedents for the next behavior. It was part of the motivating operations. So I asked for less the next time, even if it meant we did not get as far. This was different from staying at one stage repeatedly until the animal’s emotional signals were showing comfort. I chalk this up to the capability of a horse being able to consume reinforcers for a long period of time compared to a bird who fills up in a matter of minutes. I’m not sure if that’s a fair analysis of the situation or not. I wanted to ask the bird to go to a certain point, reinforce, and then ask him to go back to a comfortable spot and do lots of easy behaviors to increase the ROR before asking him to approach the towel again. I’ve had great success with this tactic with horses. Wouter stressed that to do that would make the reinforcement history very strong at the starting point and that’s not where we wanted the reinforcement history to be. We wanted it closer to the towel. Either way, I had committed to letting go of what I wanted to do at this point and learning a new way. 

I targeted the bird toward the towel and watched the size and speed of the steps. If they were quick and large, I’d reinforce and ask for more. If they were small steps or latency between steps, I’d reinforce but not expect as much on my next request. There were many times when he’d get his reinforcer and then retreat. Previously I would have seen this as a failure in my training plan because I didn’t have the animal relaxed enough to stay. But I stayed with the new plan and we started making progress toward the towel. 

Wouter had a saying “the success is in the back end” which does correlate nicely with my horse training experience. The point is to observe where the animal retreats to, or is comfortable retreating to. Initially, this bird would hustle all the way back to the far end of the perch. As we progressed, he might still retreat quickly after getting his reinforcer but each time, he retreated less until he was retreating to points which had initially been difficult for him to even get to. 

The perch was a natural tree limb so I used the various knots and twists in it to mark how far we’d made it. Both the bird and I exhibited superstitious behaviors. There was one knot which seemed to function as a bit of a wall he had trouble passing (my superstitious assumption). When he did finally pass it, he did so by crossing his right foot over his left very slowly, rather than shuffling sideways. I immediately marked it, reinforced, and he shuffled his way quickly back down the perch. We did that again. Again, he changed his foot pattern when he got to that knot and again I reinforced because he made it past the knot. For the rest of our training days, he changed his foot pattern there, whether because it was easier or felt safer; or because I had reinforced it, I’ll never know.  

Carefully watching his feet- that is a good sized step!

This photo shows how close the bird was able to get to the towel at the end of several training sessions. At this point, both Wouter and I noticed that the bird seemed to shy away from my hand as I reached up to give the treat. I tried to move slowly and he hadn’t shown any concern previously so it was a puzzle until we both realized that it was my hand passing the towel that made him pull back. He was so worried (there I go again, talking about emotions), that my hand near the towel made him even more concerned. I tried touching the towel and then feeding but it was close to the end of the session so I only did a few reps.

The final morning we swapped the towel out for a washcloth to see if the smaller size would make a difference but it didn’t. I picked up the washcloth and tucked it into my sleeve with only a tiny piece (less than an inch) protruding in an effort to desensitize him. But when my hand approached to treat, he scampered away rather than taking it. I asked Wouter if he’d have that reaction if I just had a white shirt poking out of my sweatshirt and he said no. The bird had watched me tuck the washcloth up there, and he was not about to be tricked. 

The final afternoon we were all free to wander and watch each other train. Since the towel had been placed on the perch near the front of the cage, I did not feel that we would make any progress with all the activity near the towel (people walking back and forth). At that point, I took Wouter up on the offer to do some nail/claw trimming with the Dremel. Both the bird and I redeemed ourselves by progressing rapidly in this behavior. I started by capturing his foot on the wire, used the running Dremel as the cue for him to put his foot there and proceeded to buff each toe on the left foot, then the right. I’m sure he’d had it done before but Wouter said the Dremel as cue was probably new. In any case, it was a nice place to end our training. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

NEI Training Projects

We were told we could pick any behavior to train for the remainder of the week. That was a bit of a challenge since I had no idea what one could train a bird to do! I decided to train a husbandry behavior and asked about nail trimming (I still don’t know if those are nails or claws or what on a bird). Wouter said that was pretty easy and suggested I do “toweling” and then maybe some nail trimming too. One of my teammates, Meg, who is a dog trainer, chose crate training. Birds are transported in crates just like dogs when they have to be moved, so it made sense to train a bird to be comfortable in one. My other two teammates, Tricia and Blake, both chose tricks. Tricia wanted to do something fun and also wanted help with her timing. She actually played with a couple fun behaviors over the week. Blake is a fish trainer at Disney and had been working on training a ray to swim out to a marker and back to him. He wanted a little help working through that process so he trained his bird to climb a rope up…and then come back down. The coming back down was the challenging part because birds like going up, and they want to keep going up to where there are some lovely high perches way up in the tops of the flights. So Blake got a lot of work with markers too, since that was how he  indicated to the bird “that’s far enough, now come back for your treat!”.

This shows the beginning of Blake's training for climbing the rope. You can see the bird trying to figure out how to climb this new thing (they climb up the cages and on the perches all the times) and how to find his balance by using his wings. Blake is marking and reinforcing the very first attempts as Wouter coaches.

I was lucky to get this early video and then on the last afternoon, I got another of the project as he was finishing it up. It's a great example of before and after of a nice training job.

So for those of us who had no idea what toweling is: birds are sometimes wrapped in towels for certain procedures to restrain them and protect the people working with them. Just as we teach horses and dogs to be comfortable with husbandry practices, birds can be trained to be more comfortable with the toweling procedure. A bird who has had an unpleasant experience with being wrapped up will be that much more uncomfortable and potentially difficult to work with in the future. To quote Steve Martin, “past consequences become current antecedents”.  Just how uncomfortable the towel could be was about to become very apparent to me. 

There are several methods trainers use to acclimate a bird to the toweling procedure. One which I saw done very successfully in the flight next to us, consisted of training a bird to go through a large (6-8”?) PVC pipe, maybe a foot long, by targeting him through gradually. When he was comfortable with that, a towel was laid over the pipe, just as environment. The next step was to have the towel hanging over the end of the pipe a little so the bird brushed it as he exited the pipe. This was gradually increased until the final behavior which I saw was a bird entering the pipe at one end and pushing his way out through towel which extended about foot beyond the end of the pipe. No human to bird contact was made the entire time so the bird was choosing to do this all on his own and becoming comfortable with the towel contact, the lack of visibility and the feeling of minor confinement.

There are times in our animal’s lives when we need to do something uncomfortable and we don’t have time to do the training ahead of time. I can tell a story to myself about how this must have been the case with the bird I worked with because we didn’t get anywhere near that progress. “Does why matter?” in relation to why an animal exhibits a particular behavior is a question that has dogged me for many years and I swing back and forth on the pendulum to answer it. Sometimes we don’t know our animals’ pasts, sometimes we do. How much does that matter in our training? Certainly if it helps pinpoint a particularly troublesome stimulus in an environment, we can focus in on desensitization with that stimulus. But during the week at NEI, Wouter repeatedly said to us, “doesn’t matter, this is about behavior”. Any time we slipped up and mentioned an emotion or a guess as to why a bird was doing something, the response was “doesn’t matter, focus on the behavior”. 

After initially observing the bird I was working with fly away rather than be on the table with the towel, we moved to a location with a high history of reinforcement: the long perch we’d worked on the previous day. The behavior I observed here was a hesitancy on the bird’s part to be within 8 feet of the towel, which we had folded narrowly on the far end to minimize the apparent size of it. I define hesitancy by comparing his response when I asked him to target toward my hand without the towel present to his behavior when I asked him to target toward my hand (between him and the towel) with the towel present. I could measure his hesitancy in both the size of the steps he took and the speed with which he took them. Without the towel, he would approach my target hand with steps measuring an inch or more each and in a steady rhythm of about 2 steps per second (I did not actually take this data; these are estimates). When the towel was present, his steps, when he took them at all, were about a quarter of an inch in size, barely enough room to put the next foot down and sometimes he only took one step before stopping or rapidly retreating.  

In our projects, we were always given choices along with great coaching. Wouter said I could try something else but this felt like something I should be able to accomplish. It didn’t seem any different than trying to get a horse into a trailer or to approach a scary object. I felt like I had the skills to achieve this and I said I didn’t care about the conclusion of the project (getting him under a towel); I wanted to work through it. 

Next up: Breakthrough

Thursday, February 18, 2016

NEI Workshop: Introductory Training

On the first day of the workshop, we were told to capture or shape three behaviors on our Macaw. This helped those of us who had minimal or no experience with birds get a feel for their offered behaviors, their style and speed of learning, learn a little about our individual bird and see what it felt like to feed a treat to a bird! I had zero experience with birds except for farm chickens. I was in awe. 

These first sessions were done in protected contact (meaning the bird was in a cage and we were outside it and feeding treats through the wire). I came to think of the enclosures the Macaws were in as comparable to horse keeping. There was a large “flight” they all shared, probably 20’ x 80’ and also 20’ or 30’ high. I thought of these as horse pastures. There were four or five birds “turned out” together when we weren’t training them.
Using his foot to hold the seed while eating

Inside that flight, there were a couple smaller cages probably 5’ by 5’ and 12’ high which were kind of like run in sheds. 2 or 3  birds were put in each to be out of the way when we were training. There was also a smaller cage on wheels, more stall sized, where the bird I worked with was put when others were training because “he didn’t play well with others”. He was out with all of them when we weren’t training, but the smaller confines must have brought out the same sort of behavior that one sees when horses are bunched together in a small area.

After that first protected contact session, we needed some more basics. Because we had not yet learned how to “lead” a bird (again, I revert to horse terminology), when we were ready to train out of protected contact, Wouter (pronounced Vowter) brought each bird out for us. The first afternoon he placed the birds onto a perch which was about eye level in the corner of the flight. The birds had the option to fly off into their “pasture” so it was only because they chose to stay that allowed us to work with them (and there were the occasional fly offs but not often and they came back pretty easily). We taught them to turn around on this perch and also to station on a piece of wood nailed to the perch. That became a high value place to be for the rest of the week. 

The next morning we learned how to cue the bird to fly to our hand and how to return them to the perch in a manner that they felt safe and comfortable. In Susan’s LLA class, she frequently uses the behavior of a bird “stepping up” onto a hand as an example. Last week the clarity of that term hit me. The birds truly do prefer stepping UP to stepping over or down. So when we returned a bird to a perch, we had to place the bird a little lower than the perch for him to be comfortable stepping up onto it, rather than dumping the bird out of our hands. We were taught to have them fly to our hands before stepping onto our hands because it’s easier for the bird.

Stepping up
Having the birds step up was an example of the choice that these birds are given. Traditionally, I guess people kind of press their hands into the birds chest to knock them off their balance so they have to step onto the hand. At NEI, the birds are offered a cue of right hand up which means the bird has a choice. If he chooses to step up, he picks his foot up in, I’m sorry but the cutest little darn posture you could ask for. It reminded me of a toddler reaching up a tiny hand in that trusting way that you will offer yours back to help them. In any case, when they pick up that foot, then you offer your left hand in front of them and they step on (and if you are Wouter, you accompany that offering with “did you call for an Uber?”).  

I had no idea what to expect when this bird flew to me but what I found was that he was very light (compared to a broiler chicken!) and the little feet are very gentle.  There were more mechanics to learn so we could turn this bird who was now facing us around so he could step back up onto the perch. All this needed to be done smoothly to keep the bird comfortable or he’d take to his wings. 

There was, of course, relationship to build. When I think of building a relationship with an animal, I tend to think of long term such as months at least. Here we were asking the birds to trust us in just a matter of days. I’m not a fan of flying myself, so it would have taken me a lot longer to trust someone if I was going to fly over and land on their hand. It also made me think about what we offer to an animal that we are asking to trust us. Certainly my teammates and I had the best of intentions for these birds. But we needed to quickly build our skills so we could offer clear communication in addition to our good intentions. This was obvious when comparing us to Wouter. He no longer worked at NEI and did not necessarily know these individual birds, but they responded to his cues quickly and comfortably. He had the body language, if you will, that they understood. I think that’s an important point to think about regardless of the animals we work with. So many people have great intentions with their animals but they just don’t have the education to understand that the human way they are communicating with them is not received with the emotion that it is given. Something as simple as stroking or patting may be done to an animal to convey appreciation or love, and yet it could be very aversive to the animal.
Next up: Training Projects

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Natural Encounters Workshop 2016: Overview

Last week I attended the Natural Encounters Workshop in Winter Haven, Florida. It was a full five days of education with some wonderful instructors, headed up by Steve Martin and Dr. Susan Friedman. I had heard about the workshop while taking Susan’s Living and Learning with Animals (LLA) online course. I recommend that course and this workshop for anyone wishing to learn more about the science of behavior.

It’s always interesting to see how clinics and workshops are set up and experience different styles of teaching and presenting. I felt this workshop was a wonderful balance of lecture/presentation, demonstrations, sharing, and hands-on training. Attending any event which is based in positive reinforcement methods is a joy: Clicker Expo, clinics with Alexandra Kurland, and others really make one appreciate how different it feels to be with other positive reinforcement trainers. 

The daily schedule began with a wonderful spread of breakfast options with which to fill our plates before we sat down in the classroom. We were encouraged throughout to eat, drink and be merry. Steve is an amazing host who welcomed each of us onto his ranch, into his home, and into the lives and training of his birds. When telling anyone who I was going to be learning from, I would say, “Steve Martin, not the comedian”. But I have to revise that because Steve is not only warm and welcoming but pretty funny in his own right. 

After we had our breakfast and coffee laid out around our notebooks (fat binders we were handed on arrival with printouts of all power point slides as well as a resource section), either Susan or Steve would present a power point. Susan’s were as meaty as in her LLA course; they were filled with gem quotes, thought provoking slides, and video clips to illustrate various points. This was my third time hearing some of this information (having taken advantage of the opportunity to re-take the LLA course for free after the first time through) but I still found myself listening intently, scribbling notes, and having new “ahas”.  

Steve’s presentations included amazing videos, slides and stories of training animals all over the world. He’s been a consultant for zoos on many continents, travels regularly for enjoyment and photography (Africa and the Far East to name a few places), and has influenced the lives of many animals for the better. He has watched the evolution of training over the decades and is a treasure trove of training history up to the present moment as Natural Encounters has shows at Disney World and two (I believe) that travel around the country. He is dedicated to the absolute best welfare that he and his trainers and staff can provide. 

After the morning presentation, Steve would outline our training plans for the day. We were broken down into teams for the week of four participants assigned to a team leader, most of whom were NEI trainers. The participants were a wonderful blend of zookeepers, animal trainers (including dog trainers), companion bird owners, and other professionals. If you think Disney World is all about Mickey Mouse and the rides, let me tell you there is a whole subculture of incredible animal trainers as well.  I considered myself very fortunate to have Wouter Stellaard as team leader. Currently the head trainer at Columbus Zoo, Wouter had previously been a trainer and VP at NEI. He was an excellent coach with a wonderful sense of humor. 

When we headed to the birds, Steve began by demonstrating our training plan for that session. We had each been assigned a Macaw to train for the week, and each team had been assigned a Corvid. After watching the demonstration we broke into our teams and moved on to our own birds, taking turns with the Corvid day to day, and taking turns with our team leader’s attention with our Macaws. 

After the morning training, we returned to the classroom for a hearty lunch and a few minutes to share stories with each other. The afternoon repeated the morning schedule of lecture, demo and training. Each day ended with more food (this time crackers and cheese and vegetables and more, along with quite a variety of wine, beer and other beverages) and a “talk down” where participants and team leaders alike shared thoughts from their day. All the team leaders were confident, friendly and encouraging which I believe is a testament to Steve’s work. 
next up: Introductory Training
Viper, the Pied Crow our team worked with