There is one universal truth about any animal that is being trained: they will try to train their trainer at some point. And the smarter the animal is, the more they will push those boundaries. It’s not that they don’t want to do the action they’re being trained to do, they are merely exploring the dynamic relationship between themselves and their trainer or handler. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the smarter the animal, the more likely and frequently they will push those boundaries.
The difference between a good trainer and animal handler is recognizing when the animal is testing the waters and when your presence is a stressor. And the difference between a good trainer and an excellent trainer is not letting the animal get the upper hand. This is true of both domestic and wild animals, especially pack animals where dominance is a constantly shifting concept (such as dogs). Among raptors, it becomes less of a dominance issue and more of a “do you really want me to step up on that glove?” issue. And whenever giving a command to any animal, the outcome should always be obeying the command in order to get the reward. I could talk all about self-rewarding bad behavior with dogs, but this isn’t what I do daily…I talk raptors.
With raptors, training the bird can be anything as simple as stepping up to the glove to secure their jesses to performing more complicated acts, like those seen in flight shows. But even the most simple command “Step up” can receive raptor pushback. You see them looking at you and thinking “What can I do to end this session how I want it and with food?” Some of them will fly away when stepping to the glove, some of them will fly around their enclosure, others will fly to the ground. All of these behaviors are ones that tell someone like me “I want to see what you’ll do now”. And unless it’s a bird that is very clearly stressed by my presence, I don’t leave and I stay there until the behavior I want is exhibited.
Unfortunately, when working with non-animal people, with volunteers that are new or simply don’t know much about behavior, or even staff/volunteers that are overly senstive about the “feelings” of the birds (I will write about that sometime soon), they will do the wrong thing: they’ll leave. And in some cases they may actually leave the food for the bird because it’s the easiest thing to do. It may seem logical to them: “the bird was flying around the enclosure and was stressed by my presence so I just drop fed them and left”. Well now the bird has learned if they fly around, if they go to the ground, etc. that it is rewarded with food. And anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that for some reason a dog will learn a bad behavior after one time but take forever to learn a good behavior.
A bird will learn that if they fly to the ground, we leave because no one wants to make a bird step up from such a vulnerable position. They’ll learn to fly erratically around their enclosure or fly off the glove almost immediately because people believe they’re afraid of the person or that they don’t want to be on the glove. This is all wrong. A bird that has been manned to the glove is not overly stressed by the presence of humans and they are trying to train the trainer.
The reason I’m writing about it today is because I experienced this issue just today, with a
Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines are wicked smart, and we often get into Jets/Sharks rumbles about whether the Turkey Vulture is smarter than the Peregrine. Today while getting an older bird out for his weekly weighing, he exhibited a couple of these behaviors: flying off the glove and then going to the ground and staying there. He wasn’t stressed by my presence, he is a retired bird that had been used for years, no, he wanted me to do what I do every other day of the week: give him the food and leave. And when it was apparent this wasn’t going to happen, he started trying to play me.
Now, I don’t like to get a bird to the glove from the ground, but I damned well will do it when I have to. So I tried a few of my tricks: I stepped out of the door and closed it but watched, then I latched the door and waited. When that didn’t work, I went back in and stayed in a corner, out of his path and so I didn’t loom over him (because although he was trying to get out of stepping to the glove, it still isn’t fun to have a human towering over you). I was ready to leave the interaction without giving him any food when I merely took the food from the enclosure and returned inside. He stationed up to his normal perch for stepping up and let me secure his jesses.
That was a bird that was trying to train me. He wanted me to just leave the food and go on my merry way. I fortunately recognized that he was not stressed. I had done the right thing with this interaction–unfortunately I don’t know that many others would have.
The birds will try to train you. That was one of Laura’s first words of advice to me when I started down the path of handling raptors, and I consider that Rule #1 of training. She has given many others incredibly helpful nuggets of wisdom, learned from 25 years of handling raptors. And now she trusts me to train her raptors, not just her simple Red-tailed Hawks but birds that are more high strung and difficult like an Anatum sub-species of Peregrine or a Short-eared Owl. And keeping Rule #1 in my head the entire time, I don’t think I have made a mess of those birds, I have made them into educational birds that we can proudly use at any program.