Rehab for a Reactive Parrot
Max is a Maximilian (Scaly-headed) Pionus parrot. He's 20 years old and I'm his 4th home.
When he first came to me, boy was he a biter. He would bite you if you touched the cage, or asked him to step up from inside the cage. He would bite to tell you you were too close, too pushy, or walking too fast. He bit hands because they were scary, and faces too because they are also scary. And if he's on the floor, you'd better watch your toes because surely you would like to keep all of those.
And parrots, friends, can be the very embodiment of displaced aggression. Too windy? Bite. Door slam? Bite. Someone sneezes in the next room? Bite. Excited about dinnertime? Bite. That last one isn't even displacement, it's just over-arousal. I'm not gonna lie that he made me cry many, many times. Luckily, in the past few years it's been mostly over hurt feelings rather than hurt body parts.
Max had other issues too. Screaming. Depression. Fear. Separation anxiety. Permanent chest/wing muscle atrophy. Didn't know how to play with toys. Didn't preen himself. His only words were yelling "NO!" and "BAD BIRD!". You can imagine how many times I had to explain that little feature to friends and family.
He's much better now, but we'll always have to be careful, and he'll never be a bird that I would put anywhere near my face. Just the other week I made the mistake of changing his water bowl without watching him very closely, and he poked a hole in my favorite tee-shirt. But it wasn't a hole in me, so things have definitely improved.
Bamba is a white-capped pionus, which you can see from the white cap. On the left, Bamba demonstrates the desired response to an incoming hand: basically any relaxed behavior, including standing there and ignoring my weird hand. On the right, Max shows his response, which is tense. He got a click and treat for letting me put my hand near him because that's him doing his best, and over time his best gets better and better as he learns that it's a game and not that he's about to get smacked or poked.
I use a clicker for rehabilitation exercises because I like the precision timing and the consistent sound that indicates a reward. FYI, I recommend the PetSafe Clik-R Trainer for sensitive pets because it's quieter and less startling than other clickers. It also helps to use a different-sounding clicker than the one you use with your dog (if you have one) in order to help your pooch understand that his services are not required at this time.
Even up to recently, the common knowledge around working with parrots was to use force (like jamming your hand into the legs to get a step-up). Perhaps the worst of these techniques is "laddering". That's where you force your parrot to step up several times, one hand over another, as a punishment for biting. This is such bad advice in so many ways. First, let's discuss the reasons that parrots bite:
3) learning that biting makes pushy, handsy, unwelcome humans go away
4) checking to see if your hand is stable enough to step up on
Well-practiced parrot biters can remove a whole fingernail in an instant, pierce a finger, or even break a finger (for the larger parrots). You shouldn't need an advanced degree in animal behavior to figure out why laddering (aka punishing) an aggressive parrot is not going to work. No one would suggest to the owner of an aggressive dog that they just "ignore the biting" and keep sticking their hand in the dog's face, which is essentially the same thing as laddering. You can imagine that this would not only allow the animal to rehearse and refine a dreadful behavior, but it also damages the bond between the human and their animal.
Instead, for bitey parrots, reward tiny steps toward desired behavior. For Max, it's giving him a way to communicate "no thank you" by moving away and not biting and respecting his request. Above at the right, I ask Max if he wants to step up. He doesn't (because he wants to continue training), so he simply moves away. That's totally fine, it's not personal. Being on my hand isn't as rewarding as being on the training perch right now. If I really needed him to step up, I could move away and stop training, and then my hand would be much more interesting by comparison.
Above, both Bamba and Max get a click and treat for being the bravest birds they can possibly be---as individuals. Bamba gets a snack for interacting with the novel object, while Max gets a snack for moving away politely without becoming aggressive. I'm not worried about "rewarding" a fear state of mind. Here Max is making a choice, not just reacting, which is what I want to reinforce.
Over time, Max will allow novel objects to come closer. After several years of practice, he will now stand right next to the birdy harness, and even touch it with his beak! Sometimes he'll even put his head through the hole for a seed, although not all the time. Certainly not with a scary camera pointed at him! It'll be a cold day in heck before he lets me put the harness on, but parrots live a long time so you never know.
Hands-off tricks are great for bitey parrots. Below, you can watch Max touch a chopstick to get a treat. This is a great tool for getting your bitey pal to move somewhere, like out of the cage. He will travel quite some distance to touch the stick!
If you're a regular reader of my articles, you'll know that I want every parrot to learn how to "wave". That's because it's delightful and endearing, while respecting the parrot's space. With the exception of some cockatoos, most parrots want to get to know a person before they have any physical contact. Who can blame them? We're the same way with other people, but then feel like we're entitled to get all handsy with every animal right away---it's just human nature to want to touch different textures, and for many, rub and pet little animals.
So instead, teach your parrot to wave. Just look at these two little critters. If you aren't utterly delighted, I'm afraid I can't help you.
Of course, what works for Max isn't what works or what's best for every pet. Every pet, owner, and situation is different.
You'll be pleased to know that Max now knows how to preen and play, and he never tells us what a bad boy he is anymore. Now he says "Good boy Max!" and "Hello!" and "Step up" and other proper parrot phrases. He even has a great big laugh!
So if you think positive reinforcement doesn't work, you're doing something wrong. Get some help to do it right. And think about what your pet would be repeating, if he or she could talk.