Animal Training: What Happens When You Get Stumped?

Sam the Moluccan cockatoo male

Animal Training: What Happens When You Get Stumped?

Have you ever had a brain block when it comes to an animal training, behavior, or husbandry conundrum? Something cropped up or changed, you tried everything you could think of and got no answers or change? It happens to all of us, I think. Whether our mind skips over a logical path that might lead to a solution, perhaps in our anxiety, pride, or stress, we might miss some simple observations. Or perhaps we have so much learning history with certain solutions, we forget about other variables that are common issues for other individuals.


Vulture Freakout

I had a recent episode of brain block with our young yellow headed vulture, Huxley. Right as he was beginning to fledge, his appetite came to a screeching halt. Now, it is common for fledglings to go off their appetite and lighten up a bit to start flying. This behavior change is a phenomenon I am familiar to and expect. But his appetite change and precipitous drop in weight was alarming, and I was a bit jumpy with this precious vulture baby that I felt so responsible for. After three days of a low appetite, when he refused food one Sunday morning, I raced him to the vet for a full blood and fecal workup. Nothing remarkable showed up.

In fact, to make matters worse, in a flare for the dramatic, Huxley started limping on his foot that we

Huxley the baby yellow headed vulture

pulled blood from. As it would turn out, he was really fine, just a bit put off and stopped limping after a few days. I went to another vet, and still, we couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t eating. For about two weeks, I was gently talking him in to eating by offering him food right at his beak. I reached out to others who worked with vultures and birds of prey for insights, but everyone said he probably just wasn’t hungry. Still, I was silently panicking, certain that I was overlooking something horrible.


Lightbulb Moments…. Finally


Finally, I mentioned something to the breeder, and they asked what he was eating. Something clicked. I had only been feeding him mice. Then next morning when I offered him some rat, he gobbled up a few pieces voluntarily for the first time in weeks. The next day he ate more rat. And more the next. Huxley’s weight did drop a bit and stabilize. But what I had learned was that he was too high in weight and was picky about what he wanted to eat because he is a vulture. Vultures don’t need to eat every day, and Huxley was at a baby weight, not a fledging weight. He could afford to be picky with his dietary preferences, ergo rat > mouse (or anything for that matter).

If I had only stopped to think about it instead of panicking over his lack of appetite and possible dehydration, I would have been able to focus on the health and behavior benefits of offering him something different. I had earlier concerns over him eating larger bones and heavy casting material, but those concerns had passed their developmental expiration date. I was stuck in a thought vacuum that

Huxley the yellow headed vulture

something was physiologically wrong with my conservation ambassador.

Now, one could argue that there is never harm in taking a bird to the vet for a checkup, and that idea was presented to me. However, going to the vet can be stressful, particularly if the bird hasn’t been trained for medical procedures. At three months of age, Huxley has not. The blood draw was clearly stressful for him. And I hadn’t thought through all of the possibilities that could have easily been looked at, simple ones like offering a different food. To add more context to the picture, his behavior was perfectly normal, and he was full of energy, flapping and hopping all over the place. So while I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking an animal in need to the vet, there were just a few things to consider before I brought in Huxley. Twice.

Cockatoo Conundrum


So that might seem like a pretty silly brain block right? We all panic sometimes, and clearly, I was very emotionally tied up with this baby vulture. But let’s take a different example of an animal training brain block, one that happened about nine years ago. I had just moved in with my boyfriend, Andre. Our

Moluccan cockatoo aviary

Sam the cockatoo post brain block in a backyard aviary.

blended family included his pitbull, Bob, and my two cats and four cockatoos. Living in Southern California has its drawbacks in what is known is the sun tax: the high cost of living which leads to tight quarters. We were lucky that we found an older home with a bit more space, but the walls were thin, both inside and out, and the houses around us were close.

My triton cockatoo Henry has always shown a preference for men, so it was no surprise that he would be cooing over Andre and preening his hair right away. It was a bit of a surprise that my other male cockatoo, Sam, a Moluccan, would rather suddenly show the same level of interest. This led to a very precarious knot of a relationship between Henry, Sam, Andre, and me. And also rather suddenly, Sam’s baseline rate of noise went sky high.
No doubt that Moluccan cockatoos can be noisy. But at eight years old, Sam was one of the good ones, a bit noisy at predictable times, and manageable at other times. I had lived in apartments and duplexes with him and the other three cockatoos for the previous two years in San Diego with no complaints. And now he was cockatoo-screaming from sun up to sun down.
I had just come back from a conference on cockatoos and parrots with some of the most high profile bird behaviorists and trainers in the world. I was taking an online animal behavior and training course and had the ear of the professor. Yet putting together a reinforcement plan to try to teach him to do something other than scream when Andre was around would not realize results. What was more, he was showing dangerous behaviors toward me, flying at my face with his beak open whenever Andre would come within earshot even. Did we both have an animal training brain block?

A Different Way of Looking at the Problem

It was another emotional situation, as screaming parrot situations can be. Especially a screaming cockatoo. No one in the house was happy. It was tense and stressful, and I felt like a failure. And then I remembered that I had spoken to my friend in Australia about his observation about male cockatoos.

nest building cockatoo

When they find a nest hollow and mate in the wild, their baseline frequency of repetitive calling increases dramatically. Sam lived in an indoor walk-in aviary and had multiple nest-like opportunities. He had large paper bags and cardboard boxes for foraging and no cage grate, so he would hide under the newspaper in a big pink cockatoo puddle. Sometimes, I would open up the aviary door, and he would coming out from under the newspaper with beak open, lunging for me, scaring me in a way that only a male Moluccan cockatoo can.

I decided to move Sam into a traditional large parrot cage with a cage grate so that he could not get under or even access the newspaper. I replaced the large paper bags and cardboard boxes with other toys and smaller foraging items. His baseline of cockatoo screams went down by 70% overnight. I essentially controlled his access to sexy time as a potential reinforcer, and suddenly I had a different bird. No one that I talked to, except my friend in Australia, could believe it.
Sam and I still had some work to do, but it was much more manageable. The brain block was lifted, and I could get out from my emotional and prideful cluster of thoughts.

What to Do?

Now more than ever are we starting to see quality information get a foothold in the world of animal training and behavior for companion animal owners and professional animal trainers alike. The caveat to that is that it can also be even more easy for poor information to be misconstrued as progressive behavior  change techniques because words like positive reinforcement and operant conditioning are getting used more often. The prevalent they are in our culture is not an indication that they are being used accurately. So it’s easy to misrepresent a scientific process through misinformation or incomplete understanding. This article sums up this problem in the dog training world well.
There are tons of social media forums and groups and email lists where you can blast out your issue and get a different suggestion for every person that pipes up. I use a wonderful example of someone posing a question to their Instagram followers on my presentations, with around twenty-thrity well-intentioned but very different behavior explanations. While large social media groups can have their purpose, I can see a lot of frustration on the part of the animal and human building up when the person thinks they are opting for a tried-and-true solution to a behavior challenge that doesn’t work for them. When I run into issues, I look for a peer group or an authority I know that I can trust. Veterinarians, other trainers, small animal training-specific social media groups, and even one-on-one consults. While I might receive some different opinions on the matter, I know the background and experience level of the individual giving them.
There are many ways of looking at a problem, and in my case, ignoring the natural history of the animal, the ethological lens of an animal’s behavior, overlooked some very important behavior change explanations. That’s not always the magical answer. Asking questions of people who know differently of the world than I do has always helped me through an animal training brain block, sometimes even if I didn’t even know I had a brain block. There are so many lenses through which to observe behavior, and the beauty of the world that we live in is that the solutions are still unfolding around us.