Rocky is a Moluccan Cockatoo who belongs to my friend, Lara. Before I met Rocky I had a fairly healthy fear of large birds. Those beaks and feet seem pretty dangerous to me. They move fast and I have no idea what any of their body language means. Are they happy, excited, annoyed, feeling homicidal? I have no clue.
After 25 years working with dogs I feel pretty confident that I can read canine body language quite accurately. After years of close observation I see all those subtle signs that many others miss. That slightly lowered head or ear flick screams out to me. But birds? Not so much.
Over the last several years I’ve had a handful of opportunities to work directly with Rocky. I still have a very healthy respect for the power these birds possess. And also for the fast changes in attitude and emotion they can display.
I’m learning that what I do so naturally with dogs can be the exact wrong thing to do with a bird. My rapid fire marking & treating can make them nervous. Quick movements put them on edge. Simply figuring out the safest and most efficient way to present treats can be complicated.
I’m also learning that these animals are brilliant. Not just smart, scary smart. My ridiculous training plans are no match for their cognitive skills. I need to up my game.
I regularly tell my students to keep their training sessions short and stop before the dog wants to stop. And I think that’s very good advice, in general. The idea of keeping sessions short and interesting is a valid one.
But here’s what I learned from Rocky…
Arbitrarily ending a session when the animal is highly engaged is punishing. No matter what I think, if my animal is enjoying the session and wants to continue working I should respect that desire.
The last two times I worked with Rocky things were going well and I decided it was time for a break. When I went back to begin a new session Rocky said “no thanks”. He said it by sitting in a high perch and ignoring my offer to interact. His behavior was clear.
Being a rather clueless primate it took this happening not once, but twice, for me to realize what was going on. To anthropomorphize a bit, I was rude to Rocky. I basically walked away in the middle of a conversation with him, then came back later and expected him to pick up again just because I was there. That was definitely not in line with my desire for cooperative training. To my credit at least it only took two of these experiences, highly aversive to me, until I figured it out.
The next time I worked with Rocky I decided to keep going until he showed signs of wanting the session to end. I was working on teaching him to target a block of wood attached to the side of his cage with his foot. I broke the behavior down and worked first on orienting his body to the block. Then I started working on foot movement. Within a few minutes he was regularly raising his left foot. Then he stopped, turned towards me, slowly raised his foot and held it there while staring intently at me, for at least 30 seconds.
If you look closely at this photo you will see his raised left foot.
He stopped taking his pine nuts out of his dish (I provided his reinforcer by dropping them in a bowl) and just stood there, foot raised. And I just stood there, staring back at him. Never have I wished so much that an animal and I could share the same language, just for a minute or so. Even though we were working so well together, the divide between us was so vast. I felt like he was showing me “yes, I get that it’s the foot, now what?” And I wanted so much to be able to say “touch the block of wood”. How easy would that be?
But animal training is never that easy. It’s always challenging to communicate with another species. Heck, it’s challenging enough to communicate with the same species! As I stared at Rocky in that moment I was at a loss. He asked me a question and I had no answer. I don’t remember an animal ever clearly asking me a question before. I wonder if he thinks I’m stupid.
Here’s one of my early meetings with Rocky. He’s a fun loving guy!
After spending time with the birds, and some other species as well, I’ve concluded that dogs are so incredibly easy to train. They are still fun and challenging, but they are typically fairly straightforward and cooperative. We don’t appreciate them nearly enough for meeting us more than halfway in our training efforts.
I have to thank my friend and fellow training geek Lara Joseph, owner of The Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania Ohio. She has a wonderful facility and has been very generous in allowing me the opportunity to learn from her and work with her animals.
You can learn more about what Lara has to offer at: