Embed from Getty ImagesSydney recently started biting my finger. Not just putting his little beak on me or giving me a warning nibble, but offering me a full course (appetizer and dessert included) bite. It happens almost exclusively when I ask for a “step up” (a request for him to step onto my finger and perch there). This is so unlike the bird I had know prior to the last few weeks. He was usually always gentle and very willing to do what I asked when I needed him to. So why, I began to think, did this biddable little bird become Sir Chomps A Lot over the recent few weeks? A large part of the answer, I concluded, is relationship.
In the realm of working with animals and training them, a majority of the information that is shared revolves around the mechanics of teaching different behaviors and how to increase those behaviors and make them reliable. What isn’t touched upon enough is the fact that building a relationship is as important, if not more important, than the training process (and can help immeasurably with the latter concept). This is extremely necessaryu in the world of birds, as they often tend to be a bit more unforgiving than other species. When work requests are favored over a solid connection, many things can suffer. In Sydney’s case, trust fell away as I limited my time with him during recent, hectic weeks and became pretty adamant (instead of patient) about his stepping up in a timely manner. Trust is huge. When it erodes, it plays a large part in other things that suffer in the wake of a poor relationship. Predictability becomes shaky. This happens both for the animal and the human, as the human handler no longer is able to feel comfortable about what the animal is going to do, and the animal isn’t able to count on a routine or familiarity when it comes to what the human is doing. The latter is pretty important, as animals greatly rely on routines and the ability to predict outcomes. To them, oftentimes that is survival! Finally, as there is less joy and pleasure in a partnership, the animal’s willingness to interact can suffer, leading to non-behavior or worse, aggressive behavior in the wake of requests.
So what might sound like the bad news, for you pet owners and animal trainers out there, is that it’s imperative that you build time into your schedules to nurture relationships with your animals. The good new is…that’s the fun stuff!!! Walk your dog. Take your bird out and sing to it. Let your dog play fetch in the water. Let your bird sit on your computer chair while you turn it around. Yes, that last one really happens at our house. No one can ever accuse me of not trying. Here is a lovely video by one of my favorite bird trainers, Barbara Heidenreich, which talks about training parrots to do tricks (a great way to teach your parrot some useful behaviors and build a relationship with them). Outside of the presentation she gives on working with a bird, notice how she handles the bird’s decision to get on her hand and do some behaviors she hasn’t necessarily asked for. Her patience and enthusiasm, even in the face of “surprises,” allow the bird to remain at ease and willing to work with her!
So, the point here is, don’t be “all work and no play.” Your animal companion will greatly appreciate it, and his performance and interactions with you will reflect it in many positive ways!