Being clear about our intentions – and how it makes life easier for animals

Everyone who knows me also knows that i am an advocate (to say the least) of teaching animals various husbandry behaviors, such as taking medicine from syringes, voluntary nail trims, and similar behaviors, using force free training techniques. I want to do anything and everything possible to reduce potential stress.

So, what’s the next best thing? Say if, for some reason, i would have to forcefully restrain an animal, maybe one that isn’t tame yet, for example to administer life-saving medicine one time a day for two weeks. I first have to catch the parrot in a towel and then force it to swallow potentially very bad tasting liquids. There is no way getting around that this will be an extremely stressful and unpleasant experience, and likely also one that will damage the relationship i have with that bird. But there are more layers to this story, and things we can do to lessen the damaging effects in every day life.

Animals, like this white peacock, are generally very good at communicating their intentions. We humans have a lot to learn there!

Animals, like this white peacock, are generally very good at communicating their intentions. We humans have a lot to learn there!

One way of doing this is to always be very clear about what we are going to do with/around our parrots, and communicate our intentions in a way they will understand.
Most people actually do the opposite when i comes to things the birds don’t like: we mask our intentions for example to make capturing the animal easier, with the intention of reducing stress in capturing. But this has some seriously negative effects on their well-fare as it reduces predictability.

There are quite a number of studies available that show lack of predictability of aversive events play a huge part in chronic stress. A lot of experiments have also shown that stress responses can be reduced significantly if we make these aversive events more predictable to our animals*.
So why is this? Well, for one thing, imagine if you lived with someone who held you down and forced bad tasting fluids into your mouth sometimes. You never really know when, just that it might happen. You’d likely be very stressed around this person at all times. Not very pleasant if you also happen to live with them.

How do we know if this greenwing macaw intended to bite, or just to cuddle? Communication! In this case, very clear body language with fluffed up head feathers and a relaxed posture. Photo by Inge Norberg

How do we know if this greenwing macaw intended to bite, or just to cuddle? Communication! In this case, very clear body language with fluffed up head feathers and a relaxed posture. Photo by Inge Norberg

I remember a story i heard at a workshop i think, about how increased predictability was used to reduce stress for a corvid that was very scared of people. This bird lived in an aviary that was passed by people all day long, and the bird freaked out every time. The bird was absolutely terrified of people entering the aviary to clean, which of course had to happen now and then. Any time someone walked by, there was a possibility of them entering the aviary, so the bird became extremely stressed. What they did to reduce stress was simple. The person that was going to enter the aviary always wore the same red cap. This was a clear signal to the bird that they were going to enter, and so the lack of this red cap on other people became a signal that they would not be entering. This, as i recall it, dramatically decreased the fear responses to people passing the aviary.

This is something we absolutely can implement with our birds at home. It is in no way a substitute for training husbandry behaviors and reducing the amount of aversive events we put them through in the first place, but it is very valuable to always keep in mind on those rare occasions when we don’t have an option.

Many times when i work on training behaviors that involve me doing something to the birds, like touching them, lifting a wing etc, i make sure to incorporate this in the training as well. It is a way to give bird even more control on the training process, and therefore make it more pleasant. For example, being touched without warning can be scary, even i think that. Clearly stating where i intend to touch the bird before i do so is one way to make it more predictable. But we can take it even further by making this into a question rather than a statement, and letting the bird answer with a yes or no.

Fluffy head feathers = cuddle approval!

Fluffy head feathers = cuddle approval!

When i taught one of my greys to let me lift his wings, i did just this. I taught him than when i ask “wing?”, touching a target (my finger) meant “yes”, which led to me touching the wing, and him earning a treat. Basically i told him what i wanted to do, asked for permission and did it only when he said yes. This gave me so much valuable feedback and made the training more fun for him. For one thing, if he didn’t answer “yes” as quickly, that was an indicator to me that i probably took it to far the last touch, which in turn made me able to take a step back, and he again increased the speed with which he answered gave me his approval. Again, it’s all about two-way communication!

So, to sum it up: always be clear about your intentions. It will increase predictability of potentially scary/aversive events, make life easier and less stressful for your companions, and give you a lot of information about what your animals are feeling and experiencing.

* An abstract of one of many studies of predictbility and well-fare:
http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591%2806%2900197-3/abstract

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