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How to not fear your Pet Parrot

Earlier I discussed why it’s not usually helpful to work with a parrot when he’s is in a state of anxiety or fear because he’s likely to associate you with those feelings and take longer to trust you.

While few people think that intentionally causing fear is a good thing to do, there are some common training techniques that can make a parrot feel very anxious, or worse. It’s thought that fear is an unavoidable aspect of training, and in order to make headway, you have to push through it. Sometimes using a more aggressive method is appropriate, but sometimes it’s not.

There’s an alternative. Even a totally “wild” bird can be trained without freaking out every time he sees you. It requires patience and understanding, but these are traits that serve you well if you have parrots.

Many animal training techniques are “borrowed” from human therapy methods. Helping a person overcome fear of pubic speaking (or spiders, heights, clowns, whatever) and helping a parrot get used to being petted isn’t all that different.

We may express fear differently from parrots--people don’t usually bite—but the Stress Response is similar. Think about the last time you were upset and had that out-of-control, panicked feeling. Would you want to spare your parrot that feeling if you had a choice?

How would you rather handle something that makes you anxious? Take it on all at once and be forced to “just deal with it”, or work with the issue a bit at a time as you learn to relax and gain confidence? The latter method, known as desensitization, is an effective therapy/training method that keeps stress to a minimum so that it doesn’t take over the situation.

While not everyone may be keen on taking this route (it’s slow and can seem like it takes forever to get anywhere), some research suggests that it’s more successful than other methods of exposure training. A bonus: If you’re a softy and it breaks your heart to see an animal afraid and upset, you don’t have to put him in that state. That’s less anxiety for you, too.

The process is simple: You help your bird get used to something gradually, progressing towards more and more exposure to the feared situation until he’s comfortable. Confident behavior is reinforced with treats, praise or anything the bird likes.

Signs of nervousness and fear show that you need to back off a bit, so go back to a point where the bird feels better. Sessions can be very brief, less than a minute if that’s what it takes. Since progress over time is what’s important, don’t worry if each session isn’t ground-breaking. And don’t freak out if the bird has some off days. Setbacks are normal. Adopt a low-key, we’ll-get-there-when-we-get-there attitude.

Desensitization works whether you’re training your parrot to accept a new toy or trying to get a new parrot used to you. It’s especially useful in rescue situations. You can rebuild the bird’s associations with people by replacing the bad with good. Parrots that have been teased or abused, or those that weren’t properly socialized, may need to start from scratch—The Ground Floor, so to speak.

If you’ve got a parrot that trembles or tosses himself around at the very sight of you, probably the least stress-inducing way to start is to work on being near the cage. I like to think of this as “Level One” interaction. Pull up a chair or stand just close enough that the bird notices you, but doesn’t seem too bothered.

At this point in your relationship, treats and praise may mean very little to him as rewards. It’s possible that as far as he’s concerned the best reward is you leaving him alone. That’s fine for now. Remember the point is to keep him as calm as you can.

You will be able to move closer and closer and move up in “levels” of contact. When he no longer sees you as a threat, you’ll be able to work on stepping up, and so on. Parrots, for all their wild animal instincts, are social animals, and tend to crave companionship. You can become that companion without scaring your parrot, so have no fear!

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