ProfNet Expert Spotlight: Animal Trainer Barbara Heidenreich

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Barbara Heidenreich

Meet Barbara Heidenreich, an animal-behavior expert on ProfNet

With summer’s arrival, many pet owners are planning to head outside with their four-legged and winged friends. Others are worried how their pet will handle the commotion of fireworks, cookouts, and other summertime celebrations.

Meet Barbara Heidenreich, an animal-behavior expert and exotic-animal trainer who consults with zoos, nature centers, and other animal facilities.

Heidenreich teaches learning theory as described by the science of behavior analysis. She also is passionate about teaching excellent animal training application skills. She has trained thousands of animals, from rats to rhinos, and volunteers her expertise to support conservation projects, The Kakapo Recovery Program and the Bird Endowment.

Heidenreich has lectured and/or presented shows at more than 40 facilities around the world. She also regularly lectures to the veterinary community and is an adjunct clinical instructor at Texas A&M University, Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences.

She took some time from her European lecture tour to answer a few questions. Journalists or bloggers interested in speaking with Heidenreich for a story can email Barb@GoodBirdInc.com or visit her site for additional contact info.

How did you get started in this field?

I was always interested in animals since I was a child and knew I wanted a career in the animal industry. Like many, I assumed I would become a veterinarian. However, after working in veterinary hospitals in high school, I quickly learned that path was not for me. I tried other animal-related jobs and ended up getting my degree in zoology from the University of California at Davis.

I realized what I enjoyed most about working with animals was the relationship one could have with an animal when treated kindly. This caused me to seek a career in a zoological park. It was there I learned about training animals using force-free methodology. I worked with free flighted birds. We used training strategies that enhanced the human animal bond and also produced amazing behaviors with flighted birds. This evolved into working with other species.

Today, I consult with zoos on animal training, working with all species. I also produce DVDs, books and workshops on animal training for people who own non-traditional companion animals, such as parrots, rabbits and guinea pigs. I am very proud to be part of the movement that is helping people have great relationships with the animals in their lives using kind and gentle training strategies.

What fact about animal behavior would surprise most people?

Most people think you need to discipline or punish animals for undesired behavior. My goal is for people to experience the amazing relationship you can have with animals. Using aversive experiences to punish bad behavior is not conducive to this. The good news is we have other options to address behavior problems without the use of unpleasant experiences.

The first step is to see if you can avoid putting the animal in the situation in which it might do the undesired behavior. If not, caregivers can teach their animal to do something else that is acceptable instead. This gives the animal a behavior to do that can be positively reinforced. For example, if you don’t like it when your dog puts his paws up on the counter when you are cooking, you can teach him to sit on his bed instead. By teaching your pet what to do via positive reinforcement, instead of punishing what you don’t like, you get to be the good guy in your animal’s life instead of the bad guy. This approach helps animals learn to be well-behaved and preserves the human-animal bond.

What has been your most exciting experience/adventure so far?

Last summer I quite enjoyed training a wild flock of pigeons in New York City. You can see a clip of the experience here.

However, my most exciting adventure was traveling to New Zealand to work with the conservation project The Kakapo Recovery Program. Kakapo are a very endangered parrot. There are only 128 alive in the entire world. They are an unusual parrot. They are nocturnal, flightless, solitary and quite large (about 3000 grams). Helping with the conservation of such a rare and unusual species has been one of the greatest rewards of my work.

Speaking of kakapo, I read about how you helped curb the, um, overly friendly ways of a certain rare parrot in New Zealand. Please tell us more. How did you do it, and how did it go? 

My work with the Kakapo Recovery Program started with Sirocco, who is a viral video star.

He is famous for his amorous encounter with the head of zoologist Mark Cawardine. Sirocco was hand-raised due to an illness when he was young, so has a special affinity for people. Although he roams the islands of New Zealand with other kakapo, he would ambush humans to mate with their heads.

This led to a serious injury to Sirocco when someone dislocated his leg trying to stop his relentless attempts to mate. I traveled to New Zealand to help address the problem.

We ended up training Sirocco to do some simple behaviors like touching a chopstick with his beak and standing on a stump when cued. Initially, we reinforced these behaviors with food treats.

The second part of the strategy was to train him to mate with something else. Climbing to people’s heads to mate always started with grabbing onto the person’s boot. We think this association caused Sirocco to quite like shoes. Therefore, we found it easy to transfer his mating behavior to a shoe.

When Sirocco was interested in mating with someone’s head, we could cue him to touch the chopstick or hop on the stump and reinforce this by offering the shoe. This gave us a way to manage his undesired behavior by asking for an acceptable one, and also provide him with the reinforcer he was seeking, sex. This was a very positive outcome for everyone.

At the moment, Sirocco is not important to the gene pool so there are no plans for him to be trained to mate with female kakapo. Instead he will continue his role as ambassador bird for the Kakapo Recovery Program. My work with him also involved helping to learn a few behaviors that help him in his role as spokesbird for the project.

Has there ever been an animal you haven’t been able to train?

Every animal has the potential to learn. It is important for survival. There may be limitations on what an animal can learn based on its natural history. For example, I can’t train a goldfish to fly, but animals are always learning, whether we are noticing how we are influencing behavior or not. Therefore all animals can be trained to some extent.

What are you working on now?

I will be heading back to New Zealand for more work with the Kakapo Recovery Program. Several chicks were hatched this year, and we intend to incorporate some training in their early stages of development to prepare them for health care in the future and some may follow Sirocco’s path of helping raise awareness for the project.

I am also producing more products for the companion animal community. I have a guinea-pig training DVD coming out soon (here is a sneak peek of my guinea pigs playing basketball), a few more parrot training DVDs started, and a book on its way that will appeal to many pet owners.

Of course, in between work on these projects, I am traveling around the world teaching animal training workshops, making appearances on radio and TV, and helping spread the word about the benefits of force-free animal training.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I regularly share my adventures in animal training on my social media, blog, and with my mailing list. If you are interested in animal training and behavior, I would greatly enjoy connecting with you.

Need a source for a story you’re working on? With a network of hundreds of thousands of experts and communicators, ProfNet connects journalists with sources on virtually any topic imaginable, whether experts or “regular people.” Submit a ProfNet query – it’s easy and free.

Maria Perez is Director of Online Community Relations and connects journalists with subject matter experts on ProfNet. You can find more of Maria’s writing on her ProfNet Connect blog.

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