Monday, October 9, 2017

Hello Chatty Trainer!

It’s kind of a no-brainer to say I am an animal lover. And anyone familiar with force free animal training knows just how much this approach enhances your relationship with creatures of all kinds.  That’s why I get a little spring in my step when I know it’s time to move out of the classroom and get on to the practical application portion of any consulting gig. Let’s face it. A good training session can be really fun.

When I work in the zoo community I often film training sessions to record our progress and what we may need to work on with a particular behavior goal. Sometimes that means I might even get a glimpse of myself doing a little training demonstration to get things started. In a recent session I watched myself working with a brown bear on a lie down behavior. Recording sessions are also a great opportunity to evaluate one’s own practical application skills. (I highly recommend it!)

This bear and session was most definitely giving me joy. And the way I expressed it was through my words. However, I knew those words of praise were really for my benefit and not the bear’s.  In general, I tend to be a quiet trainer. This is for several reasons. One reason is that some animals can get highly aroused by our excited vocalizations. High levels of arousal can lead to undesired behaviors such as aggressive behavior and sexual behavior (that’s another story involving a monkey I will share later.)  The other reason, is that I am quite aware that what is teaching my animal to give me desired behavior is delivery of the reinforcer. And if I can deliver that reinforcer in direct conjunction with the desired behavior, that is what is communicating to the animal what behavior should be repeated.
There are times when my words may be used to “bridge” behavior. Or a word may be used as a verbal cue. However, I am usually not very chatty when intentionally teaching/using a bridge or cue so that they will be salient. In this case, I knew any verbal cues would be changed (English is not the native language of the country where this bear lives.) I also knew I was right there to deliver the reinforcer and my hand moving forward quickly with the food would act as the bridging stimulus for the behavior. This was the only thing that really mattered…..the precise timing of the delivery of the reinforcers to communicate the desired behavior was presented.  And despite all my chit chat and lack of succinct auditory bridge, the bear did learn to lie down on a visual cue.  Overtime the cue can be made more subtle. But overall this was not bad for one session.  And the trainers were new to creating behaviors and putting them on cue.

So, should I have learned to pipe down a bit when training this bear? Here is my take on it. While I am no stranger to precise use of a bridging stimulus and giving clear verbal cues, I was fully aware of what was actually influencing the behavior…. delivery of the reinforcer. I knew the words were me expressing my enjoyment in the moment and pretty much had no significance to the bear. Eventually we chose a hand cue, so words did not matter for learning this behavior.  In fact, it is one of the cool things about reinforcement, it is a universal language. And yes, I think more importantly we (meaning bear and trainers) definitely had fun. I will certainly lighten up and let trainers enjoy their own verbal behavior when I have confidence it isn’t interfering with what we are trying to accomplish. Training should be fun and in reviewing the video of the last three weeks of consulting I hear lots of laughter and I see lots of behavior goals met. Mission accomplished this time, even through the chatter.

Barbara Heidenreich 
Copyright 2017

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Leave a Legacy

My butt started buzzing out of control. Zzzt. Zzzt. Zzzt. Hard to ignore. However, on that Sunday I was lecturing to a very attentive group of veterinary professionals devoted to making the lives of parrots better. At the break, I checked my phone to see what all the incessant messaging was about. It was the weekend of hurricane Harvey pummeling Texas, but the worst had passed already on this trip away from home and my town was spared. Turns out Harvey did have a sucker punch in store for me and the bird world after all.

Many people are familiar with the Blue-Throated Macaw, Blu Lu that resides with me. She came to live with me at the request of Laney Rickman. Laney was the founder of a parrot conservation organization called the Bird Endowment. This organization focuses on saving Blue-Throated Macaws by keeping a genetically diverse flock in Texas in the event the wild population were to go extinct. (There are only about 300 birds left in the wild.) The captive population is managed so that they are behaviorally as wild as possible in a captive setting. Blu Lu had been rejected by her parents and had to be hand raised. Behaviorally she was inappropriate for the group. I agreed to take her if we (Blu Lu and I) continued to raise awareness and funding for the conservation efforts of the organization in the wild.  The Bird Endowment also heavily focuses on supporting Blue-Throated Macaw conservation in the wild by partnering with Armonia to put up nest boxes to increase the population. This is the one thing that has proven to be successful in making a difference in helping these birds in the wild.

Some may think…”whateves, yet another conservation group.” Let me say up front. Conservation is political and controversial. Bottom line is, I am picky about where I place my support. I did not support the Bird Endowment because Blu Lu came into my life. Blu Lu came after I had already been a supporter of the Bird Endowment. I chose the Bird Endowment because of Laney.

I was at a companion parrot event and Laney was a guest speaker. Laney shared her story of being an ad executive making a hefty paycheck in Houston. She had a small companion parrot she enjoyed who inspired her to volunteer at the Houston Zoo. At that zoo, she had the pleasure of working with some Blue-Throated Macaws. It was at that zoo she learned of how unlikely it was this species would be around much longer in the wild. She also learned there really was no champion for their conservation efforts.  

Laney was also a huge fan of blues music, another interest we shared. She told the story of how she had seen an interview with Eric Clapton in which someone asked him why he was so interested in preserving the history of blues music and he said, “Well if I don’t do it, who will?” That one sentence was a game changer.

Laney pooled her savings from her ad exec career, her passion for parrots and the “if I don’t do it, who will?” attitude and instituted a full-fledged conservation program that actually made a difference.  Overhead was kept to a minimum and funds really went to helping birds.

What I loved most is that all this came from one woman’s passion to make a difference. And she did make a difference. Really made a difference.

Did I love that she named all the birds she cared for after blues artists…hell yeah! And I named Blu Lu after Blu Lu Barker an old obscure singer from the 1940’s.  I also loved that when I challenged people to put a little blue in their hair to raise awareness for Blue-Throated Macaws, Laney dyed her entire head of hair blue! And it looked great on her. She lived in a small conservative Texas town, the blue hair was a brave move she once told me.

That small town was hit by hurricane Harvey too leaving people scrambling and shorthanded. Laney wasn't getting the diagnosis, treatment, care and attention she needed for an obvious serious medical problem. She was sent home. And when the worst of hit, it was too late. 

Laney always talked about coming into Austin to see some music. She was one of the few who always liked my music posts on social media. I like to think she is attending the best blues concert ever right now with all her favorite artists.  She certainly deserves it.  There are lots of clichés that come to mind when we lose someone. Life is too short. Live the life you love, love the life you live. Make each moment count, etc., etc., etc. The lesson that comes to mind for me when I think of Laney is “Leave a legacy.” She most certainly did. The sky really is crying Laney. We do miss you. But you did what you set out to do. Thank you for showing us the impact ONE person can have on saving wildlife.

PS Many want to know what happens to the Bird Endowment without Laney. Nido Adoptivo will continue on for this next season as Laney would have wanted.

Barbara Heidenreich

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Raising Criteria Correctly

This summer I was very actively training a lot of birds every single day in preparation for a new free flight bird show. While this may sound like a dream job for some….and yes it can be, at times it can also be rather repetitive. That is because progressing through some behaviors can sometimes be monotonous. Some behaviors require repetition or very slight increases in criteria. And some behaviors may require relaxing of criteria. And some individuals may be working on the same behavior but be at a different place in the process. This means practicing the same things over and over for the trainer. This can be a good thing IF the trainer is paying attention. But one thing that can very easily happen is a trainer can become complacent and fall into a routine of automatically making changes in criteria without actually looking at the animal’s behavioral response.
For example, we were working on training a flock of Quaker parrots to carry a stick back to a nest. This behavior in its simplest form is really a retrieve . However, there are many components to consider. The components for various birds included holding onto the stick, taking the first stick offered, flying distances, flying without latency , flying with more than one bird, entering a crate for reinforcers, entering the crate with more than one bird at a time, flying to different people with sticks, flying though an opening, placing the stick in the right place, and so on.
As with any behavior it is helpful to have a picture in one’s mind as to what the final behavior goal is and what elements that includes so that each criterion can be added one by one as they are mastered. With multiple animals, that also means knowing where each animal is in that process.
An easy trap to fall into is going into autopilot and raising criteria without paying attention to how the bird did on the previous repetition. For example, I would sometimes see trainers ask for a rep, get a poor response and then automatically ask a bird to fly a farther distance. Uh oh! There’s that pesky autopilot turning on. My rule of thumb for raising criteria is if I get one or two perfect reps, then I will try increasing criteria. If the bird fails one or two times at the criteria I have set, then I relax my criteria to something at which the animal can be successful. This helps keep my animal wanting to participate in the session.
Another trap to watch out for is raising more than one criterion at a time. We had two birds learn to drop the first stick offered. This eventually turned into dropping many sticks before finally taking one to fly back to the nest. This behavior needed to be fixed before adding the criterion of flying distance to the nest could be added again. Working on more than one criterion at a time is tempting, but confusing to the animal. Get one aspect mastered before adding on another. 
I had to head back home before the Quakers finished their training for their new behavior. Here is just a peak at some of the work.  I hear they are doing well! Can’t wait to see the final routine once it is finished. In the meantime, practice raising one criterion at a time with your animals as well as making sure you are ready to raise criteria by paying close attention to your animal’s progress during a session.
~ Barbara
PS If you want to learn more about the basics of training parrots, try these resources
Train Your Parrot to Step Up
Flight Training for Companion Parrots
Stress Free Veterinary Care for Companion Parrots
Becoming a Better Parrot Trainer. Practical Application Skills That Make a Difference 

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2017

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Touched by an Orangutan

Many would consider training exotic animals a relatively extraordinary career, and certainly it is. However, elements of it become routine, just like any other job. There are things that are repetitive and routine that are essential components of most consultations. However, every once in a while unique opportunities present themselves that forever change you and your perception of the species you encounter in this profession.

Countries and cultures interact differently with animals and as a consultant I am adaptable so that I can be of help to the facilities that hire me.  This means I have sometimes found myself working free contact with species that some cultures would consider quite hands off.  It is very much a judgment call in that moment based on the situation. And many times I have recommended we work protected contact (with a barrier between people and the animal) if I felt the situation was not safe.  In this case, Eva the orangutan was only going to hurt me by melting my heart.

I have worked with a number of orangutans via protected contact. It is a different experience. It is fairly straight forward and easy to teach a great ape to present a number of behaviors on cue, one after another in a structured training session.  Usually behaviors that allow us to provide stress free medical care. Free contact is a different story.

Eva is part of a conservation education program. She presents natural behaviors and helps educate audiences about orangutan natural history and the challenges they are facing due to unsustainable palm oil farming in Indonesia. During training sessions Eva was free to roam the area and engage in all the wonderful activities and enrichment around her. This included other people, trees to climb, new things to explore and destroy. This meant coming back to people and leaving stage was sometimes a challenge. Think of letting your dog or child play in the park.  Your job, among other things, is to make yourself and what you would like your animal to do have more reinforcing value than those competing elements when it’s time to return to you. 

This also means thinking outside the box when it comes to reinforcers. Food isn’t always the “be all end all” reinforcer. Especially when it comes to an animal that is demonstrating to you that what it finds interesting, is engaging with its environment. For this reason, we made an effort to start gathering novel enrichment items whenever we were going to be working with Eva.

We also had to pay close attention to her body language. When was the exact moment she was ready to respond to us if we were to call her so that we could reinforce quick response to the cue? We also had to start under conditions in which she could be successful. This may mean cueing her when there were few distractions and when she was close to us initially.  Sound familiar? This is basic recall training. 

So while these elements of training overlap with what many trainers already know, every time I watch this snippet of video my heart still melts. It melts because I remember the feeling when she grabbed my hand to bring me with her to go play with the towel. The thought that this orangutan wanted me to join her makes my heart swell. Perhaps it is the very human like quality of orangutan behavior that touched me so much. But having an animal want you to participate is in my opinion, the highest compliment. She often sought me out and I found myself drawn to her as much as “I think” she was drawn to me. I kept wanting to visit her and have more sessions with her; and she would recognize me and immediately come to me. Maybe it was just about good training.  But I felt connected to this individual. I grew more concerned for her well-being which in turn made me think more and more about orangutans and their plight. And suddenly I found myself really wanting to know more about the destruction of forests in Indonesia for palm oil. These were things I thought I already knew about. But here I was in Indonesia working hands on with orangutans and now I felt like I really should know more.

The more I learned, the more I realized how dire the situation was. Beyond saving a species this was about helping a third world country find a sustainable way to feed its people, build its economy; so that the horrific things that were happening to orangutans (some stories too heartbreaking to share) would not be a choice a person needs to make in order to feed his or her family.  I also realized these are the kinds of issues that really deserve media attention. (Not the ones that currently seem to get so much focus. The issues that are about targeting excellent zoological institutions questioning their care about animals…..seriously? The biggest advocates I know for animal welfare and wildlife conservation are zoo professionals.)

Yes, working free contact with orangutans is not the norm, not without controversy, and there are many more aspects to discuss. However, the experience for me was life changing. Certainly an excellent lesson in real life application of learning theory principles, but most importantly the personal connection with an individual animal motivated me to a higher level of conservation action for a species on the brink of extinction.   

As a person who works in zoological parks we often speak of trying to help people connect and inspire conservation action. I work with many different animals frequently, and every once in a while have moments that are more moving than others.  I am still deeply impacted by that experience with Eva.  I am intrigued by coming up with more ways we can help others be equally moved in a way that is healthy, enriching and safe for both animals and people. This Xbox Kinect idea is just one that has potential in my opinion. 

I hope you too have the opportunity to connect deeply with some special animals and direct your energies into something that really needs your support.

Here are Some Organizations Working to Save Orangutans- Visit Their Sites for Ways to Help

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2016

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.