Charlie is my 21 year old White Fronted Amazon. I have written about Charlie before so you may remember that I adopted him last year from a parrot rescue. I knew that Charlie "preferred" men, but since he didn't seem to hate women, I decided to adopt him. Charlie had lived with a man for 15 years and was very attached, so it was not too much of a surprise when he saw Rick for the first time and immediately fell in love with him. My husband is not very comfortable with birds but ended up developing a very close relationship with Charlie just because this bird is so in love with him.
We adopted Charlie one year ago and he has made great strides. I stick trained him so I can now easily transport him around without any force or pressure. In addition, Charlie has indicated several times that he would like to step up for me and he has. However, I was wanting to do more with that and try to work on getting Charlie even more comfortable with stepping up for me and feeling comfortable with that. I tried several different food reinforcers, even his favorites, but it just didn't seem to be reinforcing enough for him. After giving it some thought, I decided to use his most favorite and high value reinforcer.....Rick.
The plan was that I would give him access to Rick if he stepped up for me. I brought Rick into the room, but had him stand by the door and ignore Charlie and I. Charlie immediately started indicating that he wanted to go to Rick. I asked him to step up, but he kept looking and leaning towards Rick, who was still across the room still ignoring Charlie. I asked Charlie again and then, I asked Rick to ask Charlie to step up, from across the room. Then, I asked Rick to continue to encourage Charlie. Rick said, "It's okay Charlie, step up" and he did! I immediately transported Charlie to Rick who asked him to step up off of me onto him, which of course he did readily. We repeated this the next day. On day three, Rick was in the other room and Charlie was on his stand next to me, looking like he wanted some attention. He looked like he wanted to be picked up, so I offered my hand and asked, "Do you want to step up?" and to my surprise and delight, he did! I was so excited and called for Rick to come in so that I could reinforce it by handing him to Rick.
The day after that, I was sitting in my office at my desk and Charlie looked like he wanted attention, so I reached over and scritched his neck and head. He still looked eager so I offered my hand and asked, "Do you want to step up?" and he did. I kept my hand there, but he chose not to step back off of me. I moved him towards me and away from his stand and he was content on my hand. I offered him an almond and he chose to stay on me and eat it on my hand, rather than asking to go back to his cage or stand to eat it. After that, he sat on my hand, just relaxing and looking around the room. After a while I asked if he wanted to go back to his cage and I was surprised when he chose to hang out with me a little longer! This is amazingly huge progress for Charlie and I am so happy and very proud of him.
This is an example of the Premack Principle in which one behavior can reinforce another behavior. The low probability behavior (stepping up for me) is reinforced by a high probability behavior (stepping up for Rick).
I want to point out that while I am using access to Rick as a reinforcer for stepping up for me I am always carefully measuring Charlie's body language and making sure that he is not stressed. I would not deprive him of access to Rick altogether or allow him to get distressed just so that I could hold him. It took under a minute for him to choose to step up for me to get to Rick. In addition to that, I have spent a year building a relationship and bond with Charlie based on trust, respect and cooperation.