Birds in Flight

Every year since 2009, I’ve attended the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. And, (nearly) every year, I’ve posted my notes from the conference on my blog. This year, I got a bit behind after the conference in February! I posted notes from Ken Ramirez’s talk and Bob Bailey’s talk, but then I got busy and never got around to posting my notes from the rest of the talks.

So, over the next handful of weeks, I’ll be sharing the rest of my notes from the 2015 conference. Some of these posts will be mainly just my notes from the talk, others will be a combination of my notes and reflections from the talk. In any case, I do hope you enjoy these posts. You can always find links to all of my conference notes on this page of my site. And, I do hope that you will consider joining us for the 2016 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. It is going to be awesome! I encourage you to visit the conference website for more info.

I always enjoy hearing Phung Luu talk and I’m bummed that he won’t be able to join us this coming year for our 2016 conference. Phung is a skilled shaper who has dedicated his life to training birds and I always find I learn something new from listening to his talks. Much of the work that Phung does is with free-flight birds and his talk at the 2015 conference centered around the training processes and strategies he uses to train his birds to fly. Although this talk was all about birds, there were also lots of important lessons for those of us who work with other species.

Start with trust

The Falconer at workThe first and most important step in Phung’s training process is to develop a trusting relationship between the bird and the trainer. Phung said that there should be a 100% positive association between the trainer and the bird. This is of utmost importance when training birds to fly. If the bird gets angry, scared, upset, or even just distracted, it could fly off and not come back. Or, fly off and go perch in a tree 30 feet in the air! So, it is very important to have a strong relationship built on trust and understanding.

With horses and dogs (and other animals without wings), I think we are often too dependent on lead ropes and leashes and other tools to physically control our animals. These are very good for safety and, in many places, leashes are also the law. However, they do influence the relationship we have with the animal and change the decisions we make during training.

Here’s just a theoretical question – how would you train your dog or horse differently and how would you interact with him differently, if you could never put a leash on him?

Build trust in the environment

The second part of trust that Phung discussed was establishing trust with the environment. Sometimes zoos try to be be protective of their birds and shelter them from potentially scary things. However, Phung discussed how birds (especially if they will be trained for free-flight programs) need to be gradually and purposefully exposed to lots and lots of different things in the environment, until they get to the point where new things in the environment do not bother or scare them.

If you work at all with dogs, this probably reminds you of puppy socialization! At least, that was the first thing that came to my mind when I heard Phung talking about this.

However, I found it very interesting that Phung talked about this in terms of teaching the birds to trust the environment. I hear a lot of dog trainers talk about socialization in terms of desensitizing the dog and teaching the dog that things aren’t scary. But, I think it is a shift in thinking to say that we are also going to teach the animal to trust the environment. Being able to trust the environment is a lot bigger requirement than just not being afraid of the environment.

The challenging part

It can be amazing to see free-flight birds performing in shows or educational demonstrations, flying back and forth, up in the air, or from trainer to trainer. One of my favorite childhood examples is bird show that bird trainer Steve Martin hosted for years at the State Fair of Texas and that focused on natural behavior and conservation. During one part of the show, they would release a bird from the top of the Texas Star Ferris Wheel, halfway across the fair grounds, and it would come sweeping down, across the top of the audience and to the stage. Pretty amazing!

During his talk, Phung remarked that training birds to fly is the easy part. Birds have been flying for millions of years. They don’t really need our help to learn how to fly. However, it’s the return that is the challenging part. This wasn’t something that Phung spent much time talking about, but I found it really interesting to think about.

Two macawsPhung showed some video of some of his own macaws, flying very high in the air with wild turkey vultures. During nice weather in the summer, he’ll often let the macaws fly for an hour or two at a time. However, Phung has spent hours and hours training these birds, building a relationship, and teaching cues. He knows and trusts that he will be able to get them to come back at the end of their time out.

But, this really got me thinking, when Phung said that the tendency is to think that the flying would be the difficult part. I think that what makes the return so challenging is that in order to keep the bird safe, the trainer needs to have a cue to get the bird to return that is pretty much 100% solid. Do you have behaviors like that for your own animals, where you need to know that the behavior is 100% solidly on cue?

Training incredible behaviors

During part of his talk, Phung Luu asked the audience — “What is your philosophy of teaching and learning?” He said that trainers often expect exceptional performance from their animals. I think this is especially true for animals that are trained to perform, compete, or work, but even pet owners often have high expectations for their pets.

Phung then said that input needs to equal output!

What he meant by this was that if you expect incredible behaviors and performance from your birds (or whatever species you work with), that you yourself must be willing to put in a similar level of effort.

The trainer must invest a high level of time, energy, and effort, if she wants to expect a high level of performance and behavioral output from her animals.

So, as you train your animals and work hard to teach them new behaviors, are you putting in as much effort as your animal is? As well, what are you doing to teach yourself new training skills and improve your own performance?

I really enjoyed this talk from Phung Luu. One of the best parts, which I am not able to share here, was that he had several magnificent video clips of birds flying that he shared during the talk. As well, I always find it so thought-provoking to listen to trainers who work with species that I don’t work with; I alway learn so much!

Art and Science of Animal Training Conference

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  • Tenacious Little Terrier

    It’s interesting hearing about other species training. It definitely adds a layer of difficulty when they can just fly away! I read about butterfly training recently which was really neat. Looking forward to hearing about the conference!

  • Amazing to see birds of prey responding to a handler. I guess I’ve never really thought about how in the world the handler gets the bird to fly, much less perform tricks where they tun around and fly back on cue. My father is a pigeon nut (which might make him just a nut, oh well!). He used to keep several different show varieties, including those bred to roll along the ground and others that were homing. They’d fly off and ALWAYS come back. I suppose whoever is responsible for those breeds did some serious 100% solid training back in the day. Fascinating stuff!

  • Wow, this is so cool. I always forget the capabilities of so many animals!

  • beaglesbargains

    Birds are such amazing creatures. I love learning about them, so thank you for sharing! I take after my grandpa and enjoy just watching them, but it’s definitely interesting to learn about training them too!

  • I work with horses. I love the comment here that the animal has to trust the environment, not just be desensitized to it. Done right, that’s the difference between having a horse that is dull to the environment, and one that pays attention, makes smart decisions, and checks in with the rider. Thanks for this report!

  • Katherine Hove

    AS ALWAYS I’m so impressed with the links between humans and animals- when it comes to shaping behavior and training. Yes, yes, yes, if you go outside and don’t strap your child into a stroller- what would happen? I know so many people who say their kid would run away— but why?! And how can we change this? If we can figure out how to establish relationships with BIRDS that encourage them to return even if this is not the most “natural” behavior for them, shouldn’t we have a common understanding of training/encouraging young humans to return to their parents when this _is_ a natural behavior. Love your blog, Mary!!

  • Carlos

    Whenever a trainer uses a leash to control behavior, means the behavior has fallen apart… Dog training has evolved incredibly over the years, but one of the reasons why i think exotic animal trainers get to develop better mechanics and understanding of how to get strong behavior is that you don’t have a leash to do the work for you.
    It is also true that dogs get to perform in more complex envionments than other animals do. I’m not trying to underestimate dog trainers! I work with dogs too!
    My point is that at least in Spain what I see is that dogs get acces and exposed to too many things too early, without being able to predict the outcome of such adventure. Socialization is often misinterpreted.
    How does it look like over there?

    • Hi Carlos,

      Thanks for the interesting comment!

      I agree with you on socialization.

      I think here in the US, when it comes to socialization, the emphasis is often on exposure, take your dog to this many places per week, let him meet this many new people, this many new dogs, etc.

      Owners try to meet these number goals, but don’t have the knowledge and skills to know whether their pup is having a positive experience or not.
      Best,

      Mary

  • Truly fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • You are welcome! Glad that you enjoyed it.

  • Cat Tree

    Really interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing! Jon (http://cattree.uk)