History Revisited … again!

In an article “Primary Reinforcement and History Revisited” posted in April of this year I made the point that knowing the history of a bird was important.

“… the whole history of the bird is part of the antecedent package.”

“… the behavior we see today was shaped by the experiences of the bird in its past, its history.”

This point was taken up in a private email exchange with the writer taking issue with me about this. Their point was that my statements were discouraging to those who may be considering adopting one of the many older parrots looking for new homes. I thought long and hard about this because it certainly was not my intention. Why, you may ask, has this issue come back to the surface?

We recently adopted a dog (Emma) from the Albuquerque Shelter. She is a Border Collie mix who’s age is supposed to be around eight years although we believe she is probably closer to four or five years old. The staff at the shelter were excellent in their approach to our interest in Emma, she had been identified as a “fear-biter” and this together with her age and lack of interest from other adopters meant that she was less than an hour from being euthanized when we arrived to evaluate her. The shelter supervisor took a long time interviewing us and explaining the issues that Emma was believed to have. We had decided before arriving at the shelter that if a “meet and greet” with our other two dogs went well we would adopt Emma. That meeting went very well through the fence and Emma came home with us. I don’t propose to go through all the details of Emma’s first few weeks with us except to say that there were pretty uneventful in terms of seeing any aggression or biting. In fact we have seen no biting, having been so well briefed we have been able to help Emma adjust to her new life in hopefully the least invasive and stressful way. After less than two months it is like she has been here and a part of our pack all her life … we just don’t have baby pictures!

So in this short story, in my opinion, are all the elements that the best parrot rescues appear to apply and to which the majority should aspire. They first of all watch and observe the birds they take in, they may work these birds so that any fear responses and other behavioral issues are reduced and thereby biting is also placed onto a reducing trajectory. Perhaps most importantly they communicate with the potential adopters clearly and honestly what the issues are and how they need to be addressed. They also assess the level of understanding of the challenges being faced by the adopters. In so doing they fill in as honestly and fully as they can the history of the bird. Only by doing this can they not only raise the likelihood that the bird will adjust to its new life but they also set up the adopters for success.

I stand by my original statement that knowing the history of a bird is an important and valuable antecedent. Consider if Emma had come home and we knew nothing of her “fear-biting” history, I firmly believe that somebody could well have been bitten by taking the wrong approach.

In my opinion there is no truth to the age-old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Given enough time, skill, and motivation there are no lost causes when it comes to animal training. In the past I have trained wild injured birds for educational programs; is it quick and easy … not usually. Is it challenging … without a doubt. Is it highly rewarding .. again without a doubt.

The choice of whether one acquires a chick or adopts a mature bird is down to the individual person. It depends upon what their motivation is; are they looking to get quick (often not long term) results or are they looking to raise their own skills by taking on the challenge of an older bird. It is as always more about the trainer than the bird. Check out Carly Lu’s Flight Blog for a great success story and a demonstration of how an older bird got enriched and a growing trainer stretched their skills.


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