Consent has been a bit of a buzz word in the world of us humans for a while. It has been applied to human interactions, working with children, and more recently with other animal species such as dogs.
It comes as no surprise that consent is also very important when we are working closely with our parrots. This can be at home or professionally with training, bonding or even something as simple as getting them back in the cage.
Parrots are exceptionally intelligent animals, with cognitive problem solving abilities that rival many of the other smartest animal species on the planet. They can learn tricks, mimic, problem solve complex puzzles, but also pick up bad habits and recall negative experiences clearly.
They remember negative experiences and can sometimes develop habits and behaviours to prevent them such as biting. It’s also true with the opposite, linking positive experiences with certain behaviours and habits such as performing a spin for a treat.
It can be easy to become frustrated when working with our parrots, especially when we have high expectations based on just how smart they can be. We want them to learn that amazing trick, we want them to step up, and we want them to go back in the cage quickly so we can answer the door.
The common thread in all those examples is ‘we want!’.
Because of what we want and expect, we can sometimes force our parrots to do things they may be reluctant or not ready to do yet. We rush them, we get impatient and pressure them into things, then get surprised when they react irritably or fly away.
Some old schools of parrot training though even emphasise this kind of thinking. Pushing on a parrot’s chest to make them step up, forced restraint for returning them to the cage, punishment for biting, or the myth of them trying to dominate us, so we have to dominate them first!
Sadly, none of this helps to build a positive or good relationship with our birds and often leads to the exact opposite. This is where consent comes in and becomes such a useful thing to keep in the back of our minds during training and bonding.
When we are, for example, step up training, we can offer the opportunity to step up and see if our parrot wants to; if they do, great. If not, maybe we need to do more training, maybe we need more reinforcement, or maybe there’s something else going on which is causing that reluctance.
The first reason is usually due to lack of reinforcement or motivation. This is usually provided by us in the form of our parrot’s favourite treat. If we fail to reinforce for behaviours we want, our parrots will be less inclined to perform them. After all, who likes working for free?!
There could be something scary going on in the environment that’s preventing the behaviour. It could even be the way we offer our hand or give the cue that’s causing the issues.
Regardless of success or failure in behaviour, allowing our parrots the choice is important. It gives them agency over their own actions which in turn helps build trust with us. Our parrot knows we won’t be forcing them to do anything. It allows us time to observe their body language and see if there are any reasons behind the failure in performing the desired behaviour.
But, most importantly, it allows them the opportunity to fail. Like with us humans, being able to fail teaches us so many valuable lessons. Our parrots begin trying to work out why they haven’t been given the tasty treat, why interactions have stopped for a short time and why they are still where they are.
Most of the time, after being given the opportunity to work out what’s happened, our parrots will try again with the desire to earn a treat (assuming their treat motivation is high enough) and will learn much quicker than if they were just forced.
They will often work harder purely because they have been given the opportunity to do what they want to do rather than being forced. Sometimes they may decide to fly away and not participate, and that should be okay. We can wait a while, fetch them back and try again, keeping in mind all the things that could be having an impact on our training. Allowing them that choice is such a powerful tool for us when interacting with our parrots.