Beware the Silver Bullet

Over the last few weeks I have come across several web sites and articles that offer parrot owners what seems like a real training “Silver Bullet”. They promise to solve all of your parrot’s behavioral issues in no time at all and all it takes is buying either a book or a DVD. Now I am all for making solving behavioral issues as simple and quick as possible, however as someone who studies behavior I find it fascinating and at the same time a little scary that people actually believe the claims being made and perhaps the scarier part that they believe the advice they are getting is in the best interests of both them and their parrots.

My distrust of these web sites was made even deeper when I recently listened to a webcast by one of these “lauded experts”. Not only was some of the advice being given guaranteed to not assist in building a better relationship with one’s bird, the speaker plainly did not understand even the rudimentary science that underpins all training. A friend commented that the speaker sounded like they had been to just one behavior workshop and fallen asleep part way through! Now I do accept that one doesn’t have to understand the science to be a trainer, maybe even a good trainer, however I do think anyone who is advising novices on how to train their birds needs a solid understanding of how training actually works, indeed why training works.

So what can the poor web surfer do to be sure they are getting good advice from a solid source? Science itself again provides us with the answer to that question … look for good references to back up the statements being made. You will note that whenever I write in this blog about some aspect of operant conditioning or applied behavioral analysis I try to give a link or two to some other sources that support what I am writing. I do that because I feel it is important to communicate that these techniques are not invented by me, much of what I write is based upon the teaching of well respected leaders in the fields of both behavior analysis and animal training. What I endeavor to do is to present ideas and approaches that are based upon sound science, I try to understand that unpinning science. Further more, because all science is a process I often discuss and question ideas in an open-minded and constructive way with my professional colleagues.

Also, animals are not appliances that can be fixed by following a simplistic, rigid guide; they are just like humans in that they are individuals, each with a unique history that has shaped how they behave and how they react to the world they experience. In order to “fix” behavioral problems one needs to understand this history before one can even begin to formulate a sound strategy.

In viewing these “Silver Bullet” web sites I was reminded of a fun video that Steve Martin includes in one of his training tapes. It is a spoof TV commercial for “Pete’s Parrot Palace and Wicker Furniture Emporium.” In the video a character (Pete) looking very much like Arnold Schwarzenegger explains how he can fix all your parrot behavior problems. He then proceeds to wrap a dummy bird in a towel and spin it around to demonstrate how you “teach” the bird to behave. While this is a rather extreme caricature of several training “gurus” that have come to light over the years it should remind us to treat such instant fixes with circumspection and also just because something is on the web or in a video does not make it the right approach or the thing to do.

The old adage “If it sounds too good to be true … it probably is” makes a good jumping off point for web surfing too!


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