The New Dog Adventures, Part II: Training Plan

It’s been around a month since my last post, partially because I was sick for two weeks and have a hand injury that has significantly dampened my desire to type.  But here we are.

My illness disrupted our training progress, but progress we have made nonetheless.  So below is a summary of what we’re working on and where we are at in our training plan:


RESOURCE GUARDING: Shortly after my last entry, we discovered that Brie has a stronger resource guarding response to certain stimuli than we expected.  I had noticed that she would get bristly and snarly at Mo when both dogs were trying to get attention from me at the same time, or around particularly valuable food items, but nothing overly alarming.  It was merely something I wanted to work on, nothing more.  But then one day we bought a new bag of dog food and forgot to put it away, leaving it on the floor.  Mo wandered over and started sniffing the bag, and a flip switched in Brie.  Hackles raised, tail high, head down, teeth bared, she started stalking Mo around the house.  Mo was giving her every submissive signal in the book and scooting away from her with every calming signal she could muster, but Brie kept pursuing.  We could not call Brie off; we could not distract her with treats; she was on a mission.  I finally had to force her to lay down and keep her there until she calmed down and started responding to me again.  Alarming for sure.

So, we’ve been working on counterconditioning.  This means changing a learner’s underlying emotional response to a stimulus that they currently find aversive.  We do this by pairing the stimulus with something highly reinforcing.  At first, that meant just petting Brie whenever Mo approached me, and stop petting her when Mo walked away.  Over time, I started to see a change in her reaction to Mo when they were both approaching me .  Instead of curling her lip and trying to push Mo away, she started wagging her tail more and pushing even closer to me.  She still wants to be in front and get The Most Attention Of All, but at least now she gets excited when Mo participates in petting time rather than trying to chase her away.

I’ve also started giving her a bone or treat whenever Mo had a bone or treat, so that Mo getting food treats becomes a predictor of Brie getting food treats.  Sure enough, Brie has started not only accepting that Mo has treats, but she has started carrying bones and toys over to Mo, laying down, and letting Mo chew on one side while she chews on the other.  That’s right: she is proactively sharing food treats with Mo.

I’ve also seen a change in the way they play together.  Whereas before she was really focused on a lot of dominating body language – fully erect tail, climbing on top of Mo, play biting at her neck – lately she has been playing much more like a companion: partially erect tail, side-by-side play and “doggie bumper cars” with their side bodies, face licking, and trotting around cheek to cheek.

The next step in the training plan is to reintroduce the main stimulus, the dog food bag, and gradually get them counterconditioned to being closer and closer to it:

First, place the bag where they can both see it but neither can reach it, and reinforce Brie for her and Mo being in the same room with it.  Then, gradually moving them both closer to it, reinforcing them for each step.  Finally, reinforcing Brie for both her and Mo smelling and touching the bag.  I’ll let you know how things progress.

FADING THE PROMPT: As I mentioned in the last entry, Brie had a habit of only sitting or lying down when she was prompted with a treat.  So I’ve been working on improving stimulus control and fading the prompt so that she will respond when cued, without needing to see “what’s in it for her” before she responds.  We’re also working on getting her to respond to the cue more quickly.   Rather than letting her think about it for a few minutes before she finally decides to do it, she’s learning that she has about a 3 second window to respond, and if she doesn’t, she loses the opportunity for reinforcement.  She’s doing pretty good so far.  I’ve put sit on the hand cue that we use for Copper, and she has been doing so without the prompt for a few days now.  She’s also responding more quickly than before, although she isn’t as consistent as I’d like her to be yet.

The next step is getting that response more consistently fast, and then we’re going to start to generalize the behavior to other locations.  We do our training sessions in the hallway where there are few distractions, so after she’s consistently responding as soon as I cue her, we’ll work on doing it in the living room and kitchen, then in the living room and kitchen with the other dogs around, and then out in the backyard, and then in the front yard, and eventually away from the house.

CRATING:  Brie had been trained at Dogtown to load into her crate to eat her meals, but when she got here she had inexplicably decided that crates were scary and to be avoided.  This happens sometimes: learned behaviors fall apart in a new environment.  So we started by just putting her bowl in the crate right at the entrance and letting her eat from outside of it, then gradually moving the bowl farther and farther back until she was going fully inside the crate to eat.  Then, when she started loading into the crate before we placed the bowl in there, we started closing the door.  At first, we’d open it and let her out as soon as she was done eating.  But we’ve gradually left her in the crate for increased periods of time.  A few days ago, we fed the dogs and both fell asleep before letting her out of the crate.  I woke up four hours later and she was calmly lounging in her crate.

The next step is to leave her in the crate while Chuck and I walk outside for a few seconds.  We’ll leave a kong filled with frozen canned pumpkin in it before we leave to keep her occupied.  Then we’ll step outside for gradually increasing periods of time.  Then we’ll turn on the car and turn it back off and come back in.  Then we’ll back the car down the driveway, bring it back up, and come back in.  Then we’ll drive the car around the neighborhood.  Then go do something for a few minutes.  Then we’ll be gone for longer periods of time until eventually we can leave Brie in her crate  while we go on errands for a few hours.

TARGETING: Targeting is getting an animal to walk to an object and touch with their nose/beak/chin.  It’s a foundation behavior that is extremely useful for teaching a variety of other behaviors.  It’s my preferred method for teaching a dog to come when called, among other things.  Since Brie’s recall is kind of, “Meh…if I feel like it,” I’m going to use targeting to teach her to WANT to come, every time we call, with gusto.  I have to say, of all the animals I’ve taught to target, Brie is probably the cutest at trying to figure it out.  We’ve only just started working on targeting, and watching the wheels turn in her head while she tries to figure out what it’s all about is adorable: ears perked, forehead wrinkled, eyes questioning.  We started by just placing an open palm, face up, so that my fingertips were just about an inch from her nose.  She did what most dogs do: sniffed my fingertips, her nose touching the end of my middle finger.  I bridged and reinforced her for it, and she looked up at me like, “Really?  That’s all I had to do?”

After two sessions, she is still only targeting a few inches.  To put it in perspective, most of the animals I’ve taught to target have learned how to walk or fly clear across a room or even around a corner in the first session or two.  I don’t think Brie’s relative slowness to learn the behavior is because she’s dumb.  To the contrary, she has proven herself to be an incredibly intelligent dog.  It seems like she’s overthinking it.  It is bad science to guess what an animal is thinking or feeling, and to make assumptions about their mental processes.  But for the purposes of amusement, I imagine that she’s looking at me going, “…Really?  This is all I have to do?  There has to be some kind of catch.  It’s too easy.”  Every time I offer the cue, she looks at me with that wrinkled forehead and puzzled expression, then after a few seconds she tentatively touches my fingertips, then looks quizzically at me again.  Who knows what she’s actually thinking, but she sure is stinkin’ cute!

The next step is, obviously, to get her targeting at farther distances, and then in other rooms, and then around corners where she can’t see me.  Eventually, just like sitting, in other locations, as well.  Once she has learned targeting, I’ll starting pairing it with a recall cue so she can learn to come when called.  I can also start using targeting for other behaviors, such as lying down, standing still for an exam, agility, etc.  The sky is the limit.

For now, we’re just focusing on the basics.  When we’re done with those, we’ll start training plans for some more advanced behaviors.



TARGETING: The biggest hurdle to overcome with Mo is getting her to walk up to us whenever we are and then stay near us.  Although she is a lot more comfortable around us and will let me pet her with both hands, pet her back, rub her belly, and even touch her legs and tail, she still paces a lot and runs away if we aren’t standing or sitting in very specific ways.

Mo learned the concept of targeting right away.  In our very first training session when we first brought her home, she was targeting to my hand from several feet away.  But the catch was that I had to be sitting on the sofa, and I couldn’t move anything other than my arm.  Since then we have made much progress.  I can sit on the floor; I can stand by the sofa where I usually sit, and can even now stand a few feet away from the sofa.  And whereas before she used to run away if we bent over (which made it difficult to pet her, because she’d walk up to us for attention but then would run away when we’d actually bend over to pet her), she will now target when I bend over and place my fingertips very near the ground.  So by targeting to the ground she has become desensitized to me bending over… in the context of a training session.

The next step is to continue moving farther and farther away from the sofa so that she will target to me no matter where I am.  And then I need to increase the period of time between when she targets and when she gets reinforced, so that she will sit or stand still in front of us.  What she does now is paces around the house, comes up to target when I cue her, takes her reinforcer, does another lap around the house, comes back for the next target cue, and repeat.  I need her to learn to sit still long enough to be able to work on other behaviors.  But in order to get there, we need to strengthen and generalize that targeting behavior.

HOUSETRAINING: Targeting is also going to really help us with housetraining her, because as it is right now, we can’t let her outside.  She gets out there and runs away from us and doesn’t want to come back.  With 1.5 acres to roam, you can imagine the challenge that presents.  She does like to potty outside – in fact I think she prefers it – but doesn’t do so on her harness, and in fact she finds the harness aversive.  So getting a strong targeting behavior going means that I can let her outside more often and trust that she’ll come back to me.  It also means that I can train her to voluntarily target into her harness and then systematically desensitize her to wearing it.  Training her to enjoy her harness means that I can start taking her out for even more training opportunities.

For now, she has a very odd and stringent set of rules regarding elimination.  She prefers to eliminate on puppy pads, but only if there are exactly two out.  If there is only one out, she will defecate on the pad and urinate on the floor.  If there are more than two puppy pads out, she won’t eliminate on any of them and will do all of her business on the floor.   And a puppy pad is only good as long as it is completely clean.  It’s good for one elimination only.  That means that she will defecate on one and urinate on the other, and if one of them has even a drop of urine on one corner, it is no longer any good and she will use the floor instead.  So keeping up with her elimination habits is quite a challenge.  Needless to say, we are both eager for her target training to progress.  :)

Given the nature of her behaviors, that’s all we’re working on right now.  Just getting her targeting reliably and staying put is a big enough challenge.  When we’ve gotten those under good stimulus control, we’ll start working on some other basic behaviors, and then eventually maybe we’ll have time to work on more advanced ones.  Baby steps.  :)


So that’s the update!  Working with these dogs is a blast, and I love seeing them make progress and come out of their shells.  Animal training is just about the best job in the world!

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The New Dog Adventures, Part 1

It’s been just over 5 months since we moved here from Austin, and of course much has happened in that time.  The most salient event to this entry is that Copper got lonely.

In Austin, we lived in a duplex with a shared backyard, and Copper became best buds with the neighbor dogs.  They’d come to our house to play; he’d go over to theirs to play.  They were the Three Musketeers.

Fast forward to last month, and we both noticed that Copper was showing signs of loneliness: he was restless, needier than usual, wanting to play but getting bored quickly when we tried to play with him, etc.  He’d also get really interested in the TV whenever we watched anything with dogs in it.  And he was very attached to his toys:

Sleepy Copper

So one day I got a Facebook message from The Boyfriend.  The entire contents of the message were a series of links to petfinder profiles for four dogs from Best Friends.  “So, I take it this is your way of telling me you’d like to adopt a friend for Copper?” I asked.  Chuck shrugged, “We might as well do it now.  Why wait?”

Because we don’t have any of the same days off, we went up to meet the dogs separately.  Chuck went first, met the four of them, then brought Copper up to meet the four candidates to see how he got along with them.  Although he got along with all of them, he bonded hardcore with a Catahoula mix named Brie.  They were instantly inseparable BFFs.

Although we liked Brie and two of the other candidates and thought they were all cute as heck, we both were strongly leaning towards a little Shar Pug named Miss Missouri.  She came from a puppy mill situation and had a lot of fear issues.  Chuck and I both have a soft spot for dogs with fear issues, and since Copper also had several of his own to overcome when we first met him, we thought that he could be a good role model for her.  Because dogs like her frequently get passed over in shelters, we also figured that we could give her a chance that most people wouldn’t give her, whereas the other three candidates were all highly adoptable.

When I went up to meet the dogs, our adoption coordinator and all the caregivers were enthusiastically praising Copper, telling me what a perfect dog he was, and how well he behaved during his visit.  They told me how well he bonded with Brie, but that they were all hoping we’d pick Miss MO, since her issues had historically scared potential adopters away.  When I met her, she was pacing nervously, not letting us touch her, and only approaching the caregiver.  I wanted her. SO. BADLY.  All I could see were all the things I could train her, the lovely little personality inside just begging to come out, all of her potential.

Nevertheless, we decided to start with Brie for our first sleepover, since she and Copper were so clearly connected, and also because that way we could keep MO for longer afterward.  The other two dogs were also adorable as sin and super sweet, but already had lots of adoption interest, so we decided to let other people go for them.

So we brought Brie home for a sleepover.  This was her on her car ride home:


She had the most perfect car manners: she jumped right in the back seat and stayed back there, quiet and calm, the entire trip home.  When Chuck came to pick me up from work and the two of them were waiting for a few minutes, she just curled up and took a nap.  Great start!

At home, she continued to impress.  She settled right in as if she’d always been here, was interested in the birds but not TOO interested, showed more nervousness than aggression around the cats, followed us from room to room and came when called, and of course, got along famously with Copper.  She still needs some work on her sit, and will only do so when prompted with a treat.  And she doesn’t really understand boundaries: she jumps over the back of the sofa right on top of us, she tries to take food straight out of our hands, etc.  But overall, she really fit in with our family.

So happy together...

So happy together…



We live on 2.5 acres, 1.5 of which are a fenced in “pasture” (I use that word facetiously, because as you can see we have no grass, only the red dusty soil of the high desert), which we jokingly refer to as “The Back Nine”.  From the moment we brought Brie home, this became their playground.  They chase each other around, play catch, tug o’ war, and even hide and seek.  While Copper always wanted to play with us back there, we weren’t nearly as fun because we couldn’t even remotely keep up with him.  But Brie is perfectly, evenly matched.  They are the same size, same build, have the same energy level and speed.  They can race each other to exhaustion.

By the next morning, Brie was snuggling with my cat Lola.  So not only did she fit in well here, she also learned quickly.  After reinforcing her for calm behavior around Lola just a few times, she went from raised hackles and lowered tail, backing away slowly while growling whenever she would see Lola, to curling up butt to butt with her as if they’d always been buddies.

We dropped Brie back off at Dogtown and picked up Mo.  Due to her fear issues, they let us do a longer sleepover to give her time to settle in.  They also put a GPS tracker on her collar and told us not to let her out of the house without her harness and leash – not even the backyard – because she was a flight risk.  So we brought her home and gave her some time to get used to us.

She was very nervous at first, constantly pacing around like a shark, flinching at every noise and sudden movement.  She wanted attention, but when we’d reach down to pet her, she’d run away.  She would walk up to us and stare intently, but if we looked back at her, she’d turn her head and walk away.  Finally, after a few hours, she came up and let me pet her head and neck.  I got a picture:

Miss MissouriThe cuteness!  Oh, the cuteness.

She was great with the birds and the cats, and got along well with Copper, but it became immediately apparent exactly how much work she needed.  As with most puppy mill dogs, she had no concept of housetraining.  She’d just pop a squat wherever she happened to be, whenever the mood struck.  We should buy stock in paper towels and Nature’s Miracle, with the amount we’ve gone through.  She also had difficulty relaxing.  When she would eventually lie down, she’d spring back up again as soon as either of us would get up or walk around.  And she is a super destructive chew monster, getting her cute little flappy lips around whatever she could reach.  If it was on the floor, it was fair game.  She chewed my phone while I was charging it, my shoes because they (used to) live on the floor by the front door, untold numbers of items that were on the coffee table, in the doggie toy box, or on the book shelves.  After coming home one day after running errands for just a couple of hours, we found her lounging on the Ultimate Sack looking innocent:

"It was like this when I got here!  I swear!"

“It was like this when I got here! I swear!”

Rather than put us off her, though, those behaviors just made us more determined to help her.  She is so wonderful, and her behaviors are so “fix-able”.

The one small hitch in our plan to adopt her, though, was that she and Copper just really weren’t bonding.  They like each other.  But they mostly ignore each other.  They’d play sometimes.  But Mo, being a Shar Pug, would tap out after 5 minutes, and Copper would look at her like, “What?  But we’re just getting started!”  If the whole point of this adventure was to get a friend for Copper, we had to be honest with ourselves and admit that Mo just wasn’t a good match.

But by that point we realized that Mo needed a home environment, and we were invested in her.  She had us wrapped around her little velvety paw.  The life skills that Mo needed to learn, she could never learn in a shelter environment–even in a really, really ridiculously good one like Dogtown.  To learn home skills, Mo needs to be in an actual home.

What to do?  Neither of us really wanted three dogs.  We already have 6 parrots, 2 cats, and a Copper.  Adding one dog to our menagerie would be chaotic enough.  But after sitting on it for a few days and discussing it at length, we came up with a solution:  we would bring Mo and Copper back up to Dogtown and let them meet up with Brie to see how the three of them got along.  If they had a good group dynamic, we’d adopt Brie and apply to long-term foster Mo.  That way, Copper could have his best friend, but we wouldn’t feel like we were abandoning this sweet little girl who needed us.  We can work on Mo’s issues, get her more adoptable, and hopefully find the perfect family to take her straight from our home to theirs.

Dogtown approved our plan, and a couple of weeks ago, Chuck took them both up to meet Brie.  When Copper and Brie were still several yards away from each other, they both started pulling on their leashes, reaching towards each other.  The reunion, I was told later by everyone who witnessed it, was epic.  They were clearly ecstatic to be together again.  And the two of them got along with Mo just fine.  So Chuck signed the papers and brought the three of them home.

We couldn’t be happier with our decision.  Brie and Copper are inseparable, and they both also really get along with Mo and play with her, too, when she’s in the mood.  Brie is also incredibly loving and affectionate towards us, and she and I have bonded much harder and more quickly than I anticipated.  She follows me around everywhere and loves to cuddle between Copper and me on the sofa.  She also loves to sit on my lap like a 40 lb puppy, and sleeps pressed up against my side every night.  I tease Chuck that he really got her for me as an early Valentine’s Day present.  He feigns jealousy when she curls up next to me.  It’s fun.  And Mo?  She is blossoming and coming out of her shell more and more every day.  Every day we see progress.  Every day she becomes more confident and trusting and calm.  And she is happy.

Of course, as we all know, happily ever afters don’t come so easily in real life.  We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.  As it turns out, Brie isn’t perfectly housetrained, either, and has her own destructive streak.  We dared to go out to dinner one night and came home to this:

And this is just a fraction of it.

And this is just a fraction of it.

And she also has demonstrated some mild resource guarding issues that need some work.  And we need to wean her off prompts so that she’ll follow cues any time we ask, not just when we’re waving treats in front of her face.  But!  It just so happens that I love training animals!  So these aren’t terrible problems; they’re fun projects!

Over the next few… I don’t know… weeks? Months? Years?  I’ll be updating this blog on our progress.  The next entry will be training plans and goals.  It will be fun to look back and see what we’ve accomplished as time goes on.

But for now, I’m off to feed these beasts dinner, run some errands, and find out what new and creative ways they’ve found to destroy things in the home during our absence.  ;-)

More later!

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Hello from Utah

I know, I know, I’m a bad blogger.  I haven’t updated this site since I moved here.   But I will.  Soon.  I have some cute doggie news to share.

Also, there isn’t enough time in the day.  Just sayin’.

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Parrot MythBusters #1: The Inevitable Bite

I’ve decided to start a series called “Parrot MythBusters”, wherein common and pervasive myths about parrots will be addressed and discussed.  While the idea has been percolating for several months now, the impetus to actually start with this first one today came from one version of a meme that gets circulated every few weeks or so.


Anyone with a parrot and internet access has probably seen this meme, or one of the many like it:

Reasons a Parrot Will Bite


Memes like this one exist for a reason.  Many people get bitten by their bird and take it as a personal attack.  They label their bird as “mean” or “unhandleable” or “wild” or “dominant”.  They assume their bird does not like them.  None of these things are true.   Birds bite because in the past they have learned that biting works.  Or, in some cases, they accidentally bite because they don’t understand that the mole is attached to your skin, or they have lost their balance and are merely trying to find some stabilization.  These memes attempt to let people know that bird ownership opens you up to the possibility of getting bitten—-even accidentally, just as you might accidentally get scratched or bitten by any other companion animal.


That’s fine.  That’s important.  However, in some ways I feel it’s counterproductive.  Why?  Because, it sends the message that your bird is going to bite you, and that’s ok.  So what’s wrong with that?  Well, simply because most people don’t realize – but desperately need to realize – that it is not only possible, but preferable, to create a relationship with your bird where s/he doesn’t feel the need to bite you.


When people find out that I am a behavior consultant, one of the most frequent comments that I hear is, “Oh, I bet you get bitten a lot!”  They are always surprised to learn that, actually, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been bitten.


The reason that most trainers and behavior consultants don’t get bitten very often is because the basis, the very foundation, of effective, humane animal training is the ability to listen to and respect what an animal is saying.  Training – which includes “passive” training that happens every time you interact with your bird – requires that you first of all understand your bird’s body language, and secondly that you listen to it.  To educate yourself about bird language, I highly recommend Barbara Heidenreich’s DVD “Understanding Parrot Body Language”, which can be found here.   Avoiding a bite can be as simple as observing their body language and removing your hand or arm *before* the bite–when they are still as the stage of displaying warning body language.


Of course, it gets a lot more complicated than that in real life.  Sometimes the bird is already on us when they bite.  Sometimes the bird flies across the room and attacks when we aren’t looking at them.  Sometimes the “bite” isn’t aggression at all, but as mentioned above, it’s merely stabilization or exploration.  Sometimes, a bird’s warning body language has been punished, suppressed, or ignored for so long that they learn to just skip with the formalities of warning signs and go straight to the bite.  In these birds, people say their birds just “‘bite out of nowhere, without warning.”  Whatever the situation, there is always a way to train that bird to not perform those highly undesirable behaviors.


It starts, however, with paying attention to their body language, knowing their habits, and figuring out how to avoid putting them in a situation where they have the opportunity to bite in the first place.  If they’re obsessing over something on your body, remove it or cover it up before you handle them.  If they bite you every time you put your hand in their cage, train them to voluntarily come out of their cage before asking them to step up.  If they start to display aggressive body language when you offer your hand or arm, remove your hand/arm, wait for them to display calmer body language, then reinforce them for the calm body language.  If they are like my high energy Red Bellied Parrot and will cathartically nibble just to get rid of excess energy, have them fly a few laps around the room before asking them to step up, or otherwise provide exercise before expecting them to behave calmly.  A tired bird is a good bird.  :)  These are all just very basic examples of the ways to avoid and prevent biting, but the goal here is not to solve everyone’s individual biting bird problems in one fell swoop, but rather to raise awareness to the fact that it IS possible to teach a bird that biting is really ineffective and there are so many other options that produce more desirable results.  The one thing to remember, though, is that the less frequently a bird bites, the less it will choose biting as its first option in the future.  So, the best way to teach your bird not to bite is to avoid situations where the bird has the opportunity to bite.   You know the old adage: if you don’t use it, you lose it.


This is food for thought, but to some extent it requires training, skill, and experience to troubleshoot some individual issues.  For this reason, I highly recommend that if you have a biting issue that you can’t figure out how to solve on your own, seek professional help from an avian behavior consultant.  You can find a list of consultants at and   You can also get good, free, but somewhat limited advice from professionals at the Facebook group “Training birds” here.  You can also get free one-on-one help as well as mini lessons about behavior at Dr. Susan Friedman’s yahoo group here.   And I do offer behavior consults as well, although if at all possible it’s best to get help in person from someone who come meet you in your home and work with you and your bird in the flesh.


In summary: yes, it’s highly likely that you will get bitten by your bird at some point in your relationship with them.  But your (very attainable) goal should be to get to a point with your bird where they never want or need to bite you at all.  It CAN be done.  It is done every day, with every species of animal in captivity, from every background—even with animals who have a history of severe aggression.  Your bird is not beyond help or hope or rehabilitation.  You *can* live a life with your bird where you are rarely, or even never, bitten again.

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We’re not (going to be) in Austin anymore, Toto.

Ok, so I wrote this to/for Austin Parrot Society, but it applies equally to clients and friends of From Beaks To Barks.  I’m not leaving this earth, just Austin.  I’ll still be around.  I just won’t be available in-person to folks in Austin anymore.  I’d write more, but I’ve already spent the afternoon on the computer playing catch-up, and I have less than a week to pack my whole house and move!  I need to get a move on!

We’re not (going to be) in Austin anymore, Toto..

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Austin in Austin

I know I haven’t blogged in a while.  In my defense, I’ve started several blog topics but haven’t finished them yet for one reason or another, and I’ve also been consumed with some pretty exciting life event stuff which I can’t announce yet but very much hope to be able to announce at the end of the August.  It has been consuming every spare moment of my time, though, so blogging has fallen by the wayside.

I also recently stayed busy building a new website for Austin Parrot Society, so check it out!  And I’ve also been busy preparing for APS’s booth and my presentation at Austin Pet Expo.  That’s going down at Palmer Events Center this coming Saturday, August 3rd, from 10a-6p, so come on down and say hello!

The most exciting and wonderful news, however, is that I have a new feathered friend who came to stay with me this past Thursday.  He is a Congo African Grey whose name in his previous life was Austin.  I haven’t decided yet whether or not to keep the name.  I am waiting to see how he relates to the name: if he self identifies and seems to like his name, we’ll keep it.  If he doesn’t seem to have any particular attachment to it, we’ll probably start looking for a new name together.  For now, though, for convenience’s sake, we’ll call him Austin.

Austin is 14 years old and is one of those rare birds who has lived in the same home since he was weaned.  The problem is that his home was a veterinary clinic.  His owner did everything she could to provide him with the best life possible, with a good diet, lots of enrichment, and lots of attention, but being in a vet clinic was setting both her and Austin up to fail.  She tried many things to work on his behavior and make him happier and better adjusted, but the deck was stacked against her, being in a vet clinic environment, and finally she decided to send him to a more stable environment to give him a better chance at a calm, stable, happy life.

I don’t know yet whether my home is that place for him.  He may not like living with 5 other birds in a bird room.  He may prefer being an only bird in a quieter home, or living with just one other birdie companion.  I may just be a halfway home, rehabilitating him as much as I need to before finding him a permanent solution that may work better for him.  But so far, I have to say, he is adjusting remarkably well here.  In just 3 days so far he has started taking nuts from my fingers, eats chop with gusto, eats his pellets with decidedly less gusto (but eats them nonetheless), and has started to explore his cage.  I have caught him playing with the ladder by one of his perches a few times, and shredding some of the paper towels I tied to the cage bars.

His former owner told me that he has a fear of stainless steel, which was a problem because the bowls in his cage are stainless steel, and the bowl holders are too small for his ceramic bowls.  I put his ceramic bowls on the floor of his cage with food and water in them, but also put food and water in the SS bowls in their holders.  For the first two days he hadn’t touched either the SS or ceramic pellet or water bowls, so yesterday I tried wrapping the SS bowls in paper towels.  It worked.  Immediately after I put the bowls back in his cage, Austin walked over to them, started shredding the paper towels, tapped on the stainless steel a few times, then started eating his pellets.  Hence the paper towels tied to his cage bars: I know he likes shredding them, so that’s the first step in getting him to play, and eventually forage, in his new cage.

But for now, the sole focus is just getting him comfortable in his cage first.  Every day he tentatively explores a little more of it.  When he’s explored the whole thing and has made himself at home, we’ll start introducing the foraging.

Another sign that he’s already getting more comfortable here is that he has gradually started vocalizing.  It started yesterday, with some tentative, quiet, brief whistles.  Both Chuck and I would respond any time he’d whistle, so last night he started whistling a little louder.  This morning, he started with two note whistles while I was feeding him breakfast, which I also responded to.  Then, this afternoon, when I went in to check on everyone, he whistled a little tune!  I tried to imitate it as best as possible, and then, as I was leaving, he whistled an entire song!  I don’t know what he was trying to sing or if he just made it up, but it was at least 8 bars long.  So cute!  I can’t wait until he starts talking.  His former owner told me that he talks a lot, and when she was packing up his stuff he looked at her and said, “Poor bird.  Poor, poor bird.”  So he’s obviously a clever boy who uses language in context.  It will be thrilling to hear him when he gets to that stage!

Here’s a picture of him with chop beak:

chop beak 072713Isn’t he cute??  It’s hard to tell here but he’s plucked all his contour feathers off his chest and abdomen, leaving only the down.  He’s also plucked and barbered over his wings and back, too.  I’m curious to see whether he’ll let his feathers grow back in after he’s settled in here.  I must confess, I’m kind of hoping he wants to stay here.  At first I was neutral, fully content to either foster or permanently adopt, but now… I can feel my little heart tendrils curling around him.   <3


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Pellets v. a Fresh Diet: The Great Pet Food Debate

There is a recurring discussion in one of the online parrot groups that I moderate about whether or not pellets should be fed to parrots.  Well, actually, to be more accurate, the pellet v. fresh food debate recurs throughout aviculture, on the regular.  It’s an ongoing thing.  But recently, in the aforementioned group, one woman posted the following:

I just had a vet tell me that I am feeding my parrots too many fresh vegetables and that pellets should make up 60% of their diet.  I’m not sure what to think about that…

Harrison's Pellets

What followed was a barrage of comments, many of which were people telling her that her vet was wrong and stupid and that she should stop going to him immediately, and that vets probably only recommend pellets because they get kick-backs from the pet food companies or are conspiring with them to make money off their unsuspecting victim-clients.  But there were also people who were taking the opposite stance: telling her that vets know best and that pellets are more nutritionally balanced than fresh food, so yeah, just feed pellets, or mostly pellets, anyway!


My response was long and rambling and not particularly brilliant, but I decided to re-post it here, because I feel like what this debate is frequently missing is someone who has had both the veterinary and gen. pop. perspective.  People have a tendency to be either “Science=Pellets!” or “Nature Good; Doctors Bad!”  Both sides are handicapped by their limited point of view.  What they see is only one facet of companion animal care, and that myopic viewpoint warps their opinions on the subject.  It’s like the classic fable of the three blind men encountering an elephant for the first time and asked to describe it:

The first grabbed the elephant’s trunk and said, “Elephants are a kind of snake!”  The second grabbed the elephant’s leg and said, “No, they are like a tree trunk!”  The third grabbed the elephant’s tail and said, “You are both wrong!  They are like a rope!”  None of them were wrong or right; they simply were experiencing different facets of an elephant.

elephant perspective

Through no virtue of my own, I’ve had the privilege of stumbling through life all Mr. Magoo-style and ending up with a wide variety of perspectives: as a pet owner, in many types of veterinary hospitals as kennel tech, receptionist, and veterinary technician, in a mobile veterinary practice, in barns, in an aviary, in rescue groups, in wildlife rehab facilities, as a pet sitter, and as a behavior consultant.  Few people have the opportunity to see the issues from as many perspectives as I have been able to.  So, with that in mind, this was my response:

Inre: vets getting kickbacks from or being in collusion with pelleted food companies: absolutely false. Those vets who sell Harrison’s, or any other pellet, for that matter, do so because they believe in the product and believe in offering their clients the very best options. In fact, most vets make lower profit margins off of the foods they sell than pet stores do, because they buy in smaller quantities (smaller quantities=fresher ingredients) and charge less than pet stores. 

Veterinarians are not stupid; neither are they infallible. Like all of us, they establish their beliefs based on a combination of what they have been taught and what they have experienced directly. That means that they are as susceptible as any of us to misinformation and/or flawed logic; however, they have also been trained to approach every concept through the scientific method: data-based, peer-reviewed information. 

We also have to remember that the field of medicine is vast, seemingly infinite. No veterinarian can be an expert in every field. ALL vets – and human doctors, for that matter – select one or a few specific fields, focus on and specialize in those fields, and then rely on the recommendations of their peers as well as whatever generalized training and education they got in every other field outside of their specialty. That means that a vet may be at the top of their game in, say, infectious disease, but really know jack squat about nutrition beyond what is widely recommended by the mainstream medical opinion of their time. All medical professionals rely on the work of others to fill in their own information gaps–as they must. No one could possibly be an expert in everything.  And even the experts know a far cry from everything.  What we know is only the merest fraction of what remains to be known about the universe, or even just about nutrition.

In other words, just because a vet makes a nutritional recommendation that doesn’t necessarily make sense to you doesn’t mean that they are a bad vet, nor does it mean that their advice should just be dismissed out of hand. It ALSO does not mean that you should just blindly follow your vet’s advice, because they ALSO have the potential of being mistaken. It simply means that, if they tell you something that doesn’t feel right in your gut, you should look for second, third, fourth however many additional opinions you need to feel like you have a recommendation that sits well with you and seems to work for you and your birds. Mainstream medical opinion, after all, isn’t always right.

So what is wrong with the mainstream medical opinion about nutrition? Well, to answer that, we need to start with what’s right about it: as someone said above, the medical community makes decisions based on hard, cold data, rather than conjecture, feelings, impressions, or hearsay. Data collection takes time–a lot of time. It is meticulous work to do research and perform studies, eliminating as many variables as possible in order to isolate the effects of just one piece of the puzzle. What’s good about this is that they have solid evidence of the truth of something before they can agree, as a community, that it is true. What’s bad about this is that the scientific community is VERY slow to make changes–so what many of us feel to be true by looking at anecdotal evidence or using common sense may take the scientific community decades to agree with and stand behind. What’s ALSO bad about it is that the medical community is made of up humans, who are as fallible as the rest of us. Many studies that actually make it into peer-reviewed journals and become the foundation of many scientific theories turn out to be flawed by the omission or misinterpretation of data, ignorance of additional variables that were unknown to scientists at the time the study was performed but that actually made a huge difference to the outcome, or, worst of all, by the purposeful manipulation of the data to skew the study towards the funding organization’s agenda. After years of reading countless research findings and peer-reviewed studies, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to bash my head against the wall in sheer frustration by some obvious flaws that sneak past the peer review boards. BUT! What’s great about the scientific method is that its meticulous nature and requisite transparency means that eventually, most such flaws are caught and corrected by the scientific community. What’s bad about the scientific method is that those changes and corrections can take a long time to occur.

So blahblahblah. Why am I talking about all of this?  Because: there is A LOT that we still don’t understand about nutrition. Avian veterinary nutritionists are acutely aware of this. However, they are manufacturing pellets that meet all of the *average*, *most basic* known nutritional requirements of birds *in general*. They know the system isn’t perfect; however, it’s a lot better and more precise than just flying by the seat of our pants. THAT is why many veterinarians recommend an all- or mostly-pelleted diet.

The formulas in these pellets meet specific ratio requirements that are based on the most up-to-date information that we believe most parrot species need. If you start adding in more than 20% fresh foods, you throw off those ratios, and therefore aren’t really offering a balanced diet anymore. So let’s say that the ratio is 33% protein, 33% fat, and 33% carbohydrates (it isn’t, but this is just an example for simplicity’s sake). If you add in a 50% fruit and vegetable diet on top of the pellets, you have just added in a lot more carbohydrates but not an equal amount of fat and protein. Uh-oh. So that perfectly-balanced diet that they just formulated for optimum health is now off. Now it’s, say, 20% protein, 20% fat, and 60% carbohydrates. And that’s just talking about macronutrients. That’s not even talking about micronutrients, which get exponentially more complicated.

So pellets are the safest, most scientifically established way to feed a bird. Most vets, by virtue of being part of the scientific community but not necessarily well versed enough in nutrition to be able to make their own nutritional recommendations, are going to tell their clients to feed their birds the “safe” route. But here’s the thing: we don’t live in a 100% guaranteed safe world. There’s no way to feed a parrot a diet that’s 100% perfect and 100% guaranteed, and as many people have pointed out in this thread, there are many, MANY birds who do really poorly on an all- or mostly-pelleted diet. Feeding a diet that is a combination of fresh and pelleted foods, or feeding a diet that is ALL fresh foods and no pellets, are methods that are higher risk, but also higher reward. There is absolutely the potential to make your birds healthier and happier by feeding a fresh, varied diet–but there’s also the potential to cause massive malnutrition, illness, or even death that way.

I want to talk a little bit about Jean Pattison [Jean “the African Queen” Pattison is a bird breeder who used to feed her birds a fresh diet and then switched to a 100% pelleted diet, and all of her birds became healthier, had better feather quality, bred more frequently and more successfully, and her baby birds became healthier.  One of the commenters brought her up as an example of why birds should be on a pellet-only diet.], and I’m glad she was brought up, because she is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. When she was feeding a fresh diet, she was feeding mostly a combination of fruits and vegetables. That is not a balanced diet for most parrot species, and very few parrots would do well on that diet. Additionally, she breeds African species, and mostly Poicephalus species. Being savannah and/or arid mountain species, most Poicephalus naturally would eat a much higher ratio of grass seeds/grains than species of parrots who inhabit rainforests, like Eclectus or Macaws, who primarily would have access to fresh leaves, flowers, nuts, and insects. So a Poicephalus has a higher chance of success on an all-pelleted diet – made primarily of grain – than on a fresh fruit and vegetable diet. And we also need to take into consideration that her birds are breeding birds, who need far more fat and simple sugars as well as a higher overall caloric intake than companion parrots. If I feed a diet of predominantly Harrison’s pellets with a smaller ratio of chop to my Red Belly, as Jean Pattison feeds her breeder Red Bellied Parrots, she instantly turns into a hyperactive, super-agitated, nesty little horndog. That’s great for a breeder who wants her birds to be hormonal and nesty, but TERRIBLE for me as a companion parrot owner who does NOT want a hormonal, nesty bird.

So, in summary, vets are not stupid, nor are they maniacal, nor are they greedy, for recommending an all- or mostly-pelleted diet to their clients. That is certainly one way to feed birds that does work for some birds, and is a far cry better than what most of their clients feed their birds, which is crap. Vets, knowing that most of their clients have no interest in busting their asses to laboriously make their birds’ meals, would rather have their clients feed a relatively safe, balanced diet. They believe that is the lesser of two evils. But that does not mean that you *have to* or even necessarily *should* feed your bird that way. Nor does it mean that you have to quit going to your vet if you disagree with them about how you feed your birds. It is up to each of us to figure out what works best for us and our birds, and to make that decision based on the *results* of that diet rather than some emotional or ideological attachment to that diet. We must all be aware that EVERY SINGLE FEEDING METHOD has pros and cons, risks and rewards, and that what might be working for our birds during this phase of their life may not be what they need in 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 10 years, whatever. We need to be willing to modify their diets as needed based on what is currently happening in their bodies, instead of stubbornly feeding them based on what we *believe* is right or what *used* to work for them. We also need to be completely honest with our vets about what we are feeding them, whether or not our vet agrees with our feeding methods. If our birds get sick on the diets we feed them, maybe it’s time to listen to veterinary recommendations. If our birds do awesome on the diets we feed them, maybe we will contribute to changing our vets’ minds about what works and what doesn’t. But calling our vets stupid or nefarious and dismissing what they have to say simply because we disagree with them isn’t going to do anyone any good.

Photo of a severely obese Budgie due to a poor diet, courtesy of

Photo of a severely obese Budgie due to a poor diet, courtesy of

This conversation was about birds, but the topic is relevant to every species of companion animal.  We might as well be talking about raw and home-cooked whole food diets for dogs and cats.  It’s the exact same issue.

When I worked in vet clinics alone, I used to be completely against raw feeding.  Why?  Because the only raw fed animals we saw in the veterinary setting were the ones who were sick or dying.  We saw all the failures of a raw diet, and none of the successes.  It wasn’t until I got out of the veterinary setting and started doing pet sits and behavior consults, going into people’s homes and talking to them as someone who wasn’t representing the veterinary community, that I got to see all the success stories.  Without fail and without exception, when a raw diet was properly balanced and implemented, I got to see animals with a whole host of health and/or behavioral issues miraculously recover, becoming completely new and different creatures.

raw dog food

So why the major discrepancy?  It turns out that most raw feeders have learned the hard way that most vets are radically against raw feeding, so they either lie to their vet, don’t take their pets to a vet, or find a vet who does support a raw diet.  That’s all fine and good for them, but the result is that the veterinary community isn’t allowed to gain another perspective.  They continue to only see the cases that don’t work and don’t get to see the cases that do.  So the polarization continues, and feeds itself in a vicious cycle.  Neither side is wrong; they just see different facets of the issue.

So I guess my point is this: as long as we continue to draw lines and take sides, as long as we continue to view the issue as vets/science v. pet owners/nature, as long as we continue to royally suck at communicating openly and honestly with each other, sharing our experiences with each other, and trying to see each other’s point of view, we are going to continue to thwart our own efforts to understand and learn more about nutrition and provide optimum nutrition for our companion animals.  So let’s all get down off our high horses, check our egos at the door, and start being willing to learn from and listen to each other, mkay?  I never in a million years thought I’d ever be saying this, but maybe we should heed Vanilla Ice’s advice: stop, collaborate, and listen!  Har har har!  Ohhhh, when I start busting out the cheesy jokes it’s time to stop…

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