Being the Boss Backfires by Bev Penny

Being the Boss Backfires

Beverley Penny, Owner DebRan Bird Toys

Originally published in Good Bird Magazine

Volume 3-4, Winter 2007, Page 71

What is it about human beings that compel us to use force with each other and with the animals we deem beneath us in intelligence? That intelligence is questionable when I see the way parrots are treated by a very large number of those supposedly intelligent humans but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can all learn a new way, a positive way and a better way to live with our companion parrots. You just need the right tools to do it. And those tools are BAS or behaviour analysis solutions. A complex set of words for a very simple program.

All of us make decisions on a daily basis, what to wear, what to eat, where to eat, should we bring our lunch, etc. etc., so why should it be any different for our birds. They are intelligent, thinking and feeling animals. So much is taken from them but it is in our power to give back. I was one of those people who thought I had to be the boss. You know being the boss is not all that much fun. It means you might end up with a bird that is afraid of you, may bite you, and may scream incessantly because their needs are not being met. More importantly, it means a bird may only do things because you force them to do it. Think about this, do you like someone forcing you to do things such as where to go, when to eat, etc. Isn’t it much nicer when you are asked what you would like to do or when you choose to do something because the payback will be worth it. That payback is the consequence. We all behave to get consequences of value and our parrots are no different. When this happens, if I do this, then I get that and to be effective, “that’ is something that has value to me. I am pretty sure that when you show me a new bird toy, my eyes pin because “that” is something that has great value to me if, of course, I don’t already have it. Are you keeping up? (Bit of Canadian humour here)

Get it? I digress; this is supposed to be about Sally and positive punishment. It is a nice way of saying I added (positive) an event (putting her in the shower when she did not want a shower) that had the consequence of decreasing (punishment) her wanting to go in the shower in the future. Fancy words for I am an idiot!!!

Sally was 5 & ½ months when I got her and what made her transition into my home go so smoothly was the fact that Alex Z stayed with us for a week. Every morning Alex would take Sally into the shower. Then Alex went home and Sally got to come into the shower with me. Sally loved it!! How do I know she loved it or how can I show you she loved it so you can see what I saw? Love is a construct 1 or a label. It is really a word for many behaviors displayed in particular contexts. I can operationalize 2 “love”. She would spread her wings and run up and down the length of the tub, move in and out of the shower spray, and make all sorts of grey sounds. Now do you know what behavior I mean when I say that she loved it? One day I took Sally in the shower and I guess she didn’t want a shower that day. We all have our days and I had read in a book by a noted grey expert that a shower was non-negotiable and I “made” Sally have a shower. Looking back, it shames me to the core that I did this because from that day forward, Sally “hated” having a shower. Operationalize “hated”. She would avoid the spray from the shower and she growled at me and at the water when it hit her back. As wonderful as “loving” it was, the “hating” was horrible. That was in 2002 and up until recently, she still “hated” being in the shower. That one act of not allowing her to choose has impacted Sally’s life in a negative way because we all know that bathing is important to birds. I turned something she “loved” into something she “hated” because I did not give her the right to choose. I should have respected that and brought her back out to her cage. That would have been the most positive, least intrusive thing I could have done and I’m telling you now, it definitely would have been a lot smarter than what I did, all in the name of being the boss. A 160 pound human forcing a 400 gram grey to take a shower, now isn’t that something to be proud of?

A couple of years ago, I decided to do something about Sally’s hatred of having a shower. We’ve had a few delays in that time but now we are back on track. The first step was getting her to like the feel of water again so I bought a water bottle with a battery operated mister. I started this in the summer of 2005, taking advantage of the sun shining and window fan blowing. Sally would be on top of Zazu’s cage and I would show her the bottle, then I would spray myself and act like I was having the best time in the world, ( I was when I was having a hot flash) then I would turn the bottle towards her, and when she lifted her wings, I gave a short spray of mist and a pine nut. Over time, this has improved to the point where now she moves in front of the bottle. Wings are lifted, body feathers relaxed, and I spray her until she moves away from the water. Pine nuts are the primary reinforcer I use and she does not get them at any other time so as to increase their value to her and make them worth working for. Personally, I think they should call them “P” nuts because that’s what they smell like. (There’s that Canadian humour again!)

Then last week (September 2007) I took a chance and took Sally in the shower with me. She stayed at one end of the tub. The new ABA Bev thought that this was her choice and her right. At the end of the shower, I sat down with the water spraying off the top of my head. I held out my hand and Sally moved towards my hand and then stepped up. I held her away from direct water. For a few seconds, she moved towards the spray. It was heaven. I thought my heart would explode with the joy of seeing my beautiful grey girl moving towards the water. I took her in the shower again yesterday. No movement towards the water but she didn’t move away from it either. As far as I’m concerned, we are on the right track and one day I just might write a follow up story about my water skiing grey. (Just kidding)

What I am trying to say is that before you decide to do something with or to your bird, always ask “is this a positive or negative thing” and base your choice not on what you think but by what your bird’s body language shows. Sally clearly “showed” me that day in 2002 that she did not want a shower. I didn’t listen. Oh and by the way, that boss is gone. She has been replaced with the new Bev. One who observes and listens to what her birds “tell” her with their body language, eyes, feather placement, etc. Just try it and you will be amazed at how wonderful it feels to let go of the reigns of boss and don the garb of caregiver.

To the pioneers in LLP, especially Dr. Susan Friedman and Lee McGuire, the threadleaders from the PBAS list and to Barb Heidenreich, thank you for what you are doing for animals everywhere and for what you have brought to me personally. I am forever in your debt.

Respectfully submitted,

Bev Penny

Owner: DebRan’s Bird Toys

1 In psychology, a construct is a concept used to describe a class of observable behaviors which is then hypothesized to be the underlying cause or mental process that accounts for the observable behaviour. Constructs usually describe what people think a bird is, rather than what it does such as, “my bird is spoiled, is aggressive, or is confident.” The problem with attributing causal status to constructs lies in the very definition of them. How can a concept or abstraction cause behaviour? Source: Dr. Susan Friedman, September 2003. LLP Lecture I

2 To operationalize a construct is to describe the observable operations the animal is doing, i.e., the behaviors that can be observed with our senses and measured. Source: Dr. Susan Friedman

Permission given to repost by Bev Penny March 23, 2011

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