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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