Psyching Myself Out

Written By: B.D. Butler - Jun• 06•12

My Congo Grey Cooper, as some of you know, has been a bit of a challenge.  I have jokingly referred to him as Jaws and Cujo, for various legitimate reasons, and have racked my brain trying to find a solution for his biting.  Funny that everything should come to the light while I was watching a documentary about the man the character Tom Booker from the Horse Whisperer was loosely based.

You see I am pretty good at training animals, and I always have been. I actually come from a long line of animal trainers.  I have a cousin in Idaho that can ride a horse without any tack and she had a dog that would ride right along on top of the same horse.  Her mother always had the “gift”  of training and taught her dog to fetch slippers, or the mail right out of the mail box.  Now who wouldn’t find those things handy?  The training talents go way up the family tree.

My great grandfather couldn’t afford a horse for my grandmother when she was little, so he bought her a cow.  A cow?  Yes, I said a cow.  My grandmother trained her cow just like a horse, and not only could she ride him, but she could do trick riding on this cow.  By the way, the cow’s name was “Silver”, yes like the lone ranger’s horse.  I think people don’t necessarily believe me when I tell them the stories of growing up on my family farm, and how “country” I really am, but hey, these are the people I come from, and I couldn’t be prouder.


My grandma Betty, trick riding Silver.

Since I began my journey into aviculture I have had quite an assortment of steps forward and steps back.  I also managed to acquire a hang up about getting everything “right” and a sort of perfection complex.  The only thing that I have wanted is for my birds to have the best life possible, and in reality, don’t we all?

During my research into attempting to figure Cooper’s issues out, and just why he is so aggressive, I lost trust in my own abilities.  I was raised by the old school cowboy trainers, that taught us we needed to “break” a horse.  I have never been comfortable with that phrasing, and I just hate the idea of an animals spirit being broken.  I remember back and witnessed some things that brought me to tears as a kid, and still thinking about them at this age makes me sick at my stomach.  So in remembering this, I think that I went from the absolutely opposite end of the spectrum, and turned into a bit of a push over.



There are very various philosophies involved in training animals, some are more strict than others.  Some require a certain soft touch, and some require a certain alpha mentality.  Now when I say this, I don’t mean beating your animal into submission, I mean that some animals are pack animals, and as Cesar Milan says, you should be a good pack leader.  They look to you for a dominant mentality and energy.  Parrots are  flock animals, and don’t have an alpha presence, but they do have boundaries, and communicate with one another on a physical and mental level.

With Cooper, I have watched so many training videos and read so many books (from dog, horse, and parrot trainers), that I was a bit saturated with their tips. You may be asking why I would read about training dogs or watch a video about horses.  The answer is simple,  I also believe that horses and birds have similar qualities, by looking at them, you get to see pieces of yourself.  They both are prey animals, they both use their intuition to get a  sense of your mood, and will react according to, well just you.  Horses and birds develop trust and bond with humans, and if you have a trusted bond, there is just about nothing that either would not do for you.  There are many trainers that not only train parrots but other animals (horses, dogs, cats, dolphins etc.), and watching them interact with other animals, you get a sense of their touch, and how they control their energy when interacting with these animals.  I believe that we can all learn from various trainers from their methods, and interactions, not one way is necessarily going to work with every bird, horse, or dog.    You have to customize your training to suit the animal.  Like many other people I got so lost in the realm of training that I stopped listening to my own intuition and experience.  I became that person that was so worried about getting positive reinforcement perfectly, I forgot to relax.  I also psyched myself out worrying about when and where he was going to bite.

Click on Photo for Buck.

While I was watching the Buck Brannaman documentary  I noticed his confidence in everything he was doing, even when a horse trampled him into the dirt, he didn’t lose his cool, he let his goal persevere over the situation.  This is when I realized that I was not listening to my gut, and trusting my own intuition.  Because parrot’s are so smart, and they have the ability to enjoy the exciting and  dramatic scene so I began to ask myself, “If they are that smart, what is to say that they wouldn’t have the ability to sense when someone is afraid, and play off of that”.  I can just imagine Cooper saying ,”Dance puppet, dance!”.

After talking to some of my fellow bird people, including an amazing bird trainer, I realized that I was on to something.  If you react a certain way when you bird is doing something, and you do this every time, you in fact are conditioning them to act this way, so they can get the desired response.  So, in essence, you are being trained by your bird whether you like it or not.  They are truly being the puppeteer and you are merely the marionette.

Click on here for Marionettes.

This theory had been going through my head for a while, and me being me, researched online, and again read some parts that I had highlighted in some of my parrot behavior books.  Little did I know that I was going to be able to put these ideas into action, sooner that later.

I also realized that both Dexter and Cooper were very jealous of one another.   Both want my attention, and Dexter is a show off, and will break dance for a treat.  Cooper on the other hand, is a bit more willful, and very mindful.  He sits back and watches situations, and if he feels like it, then he will choose to participate.  Treat or no treat, he will not sit up like a show poodle, and I have respect for that.  However I  needed to establish myself as the authority, and the human that he was not going to bully.  I have plenty of scars from Cooper, and yes his biting hurts, but I was bit by a horse on the chest when I was seven, and still have the scar to prove it. That was the most physically painful thing that I have ever endured, and I survived just fine.   A few more bites from Cooper would not kill me, if it got my point across, and we could come to an equal respect for one another.


Then the day came, as usual, Cooper was on his play-gym and shredding whatever toy he could get his beak on.  I usually leave him there most of the day while I am working, and so he can get some time away from his cage.  There is such a variety of things for him to chew on, I think he really likes it.  I however had only left him there for a few short hours, but had to run some errands.  Silly me.  I picked him up on my hand and moved him over towards his cage.  He then pinned his eyes, and I knew what I was in for.  He ripped into my skin like paper, and then went in for round two, and eventually round three.  I had read on a parrot forum to pull your arm back and forth a bit to throw them off their balance , so they forget they are biting you.  “Well, did it work?”, not really.  Cooper flew off and glided onto the carpet.  There he was, and in usual form her was going to chase my feet.  It was then a switch flipped and I decided I was not going to allow this to keep happening.

I took a deep breath, and knew this was a small battle and the stakes were especially high.  I got down on the floor with him at his eye level, and leaned on my side.  He puffed up, and was coming right for me.  I remained calm, and stuck my hand out, and told him to step up.  He lunged at me, and instead of reacting with pain as he ripped through my skin, for some reason I just wasn’t affected.  I pulled my hand back a few inches, and then went back in for the “step up”.  He seemed puzzled at first, I wasn’t upset over his behavior, and to be honest, I didn’t care about the blood on the floor.  This was about principle.  I don’t want someone reading this to confuse principle with ego, this was not about ego at all.  This was a crossroads in our relationship, and I was not going to be bullied any longer.  I needed to show him that I was his human, and there are times when he will have to do things that he doesn’t necessarily want to do, but hey, he isn’t running the show.

It took only three tries to get him to step up, but he did it.  I got up, and took my time to get him back to his cage.  It was like a power struggle had ended, and we had a mutual agreement.  I had conquered my fear of him biting me, and he figured out that he couldn’t intimidate me anymore.  Surpassing this stepping stone, has brought a calm to our interactions.  I am absolutely sure that he was reacting to the vibe I brought to the table, and it just goes to show, for ever action, there is a reaction.

Do I think that Cooper will bite me again? Sure.  Do I think that Cooper is cured of his aggression issues? No.   We’re stepping in the right direction and with more work, I think Cooper is on his way to being a better behaved bird, and most importantly a happier bird.  Therefore that makes me a much happier bird owner.


” I’ve heard you help people with horse problems…Truth is, I help horses with people problems.” ~ The Horse Whisperer.


Maybe it’s just really helping a parrots with people problems?



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  1. debbie says:

    I’m glad you and Cooper have had “a reckonen”. That is what it takes is understanding the true motivation behind what you both are doing. The biggest lightbulb moment for me was learning to not care if they choose to ‘go crazy’. Once I figured that out, all went much smoother.

  2. Charlotte Carlile says:

    I am probably doing this all wrong. I have bled enough, didn’t flinch but he will still bite. He only bites when overexcited or stressed (read back in cage time). He also seems terrified of hands. So, when we have ‘together time’, I wear a long sleeved red tee shirt and cover my hands. He steps up like a pro as long as he can’t see my hands, and does not offer to bite. When it’s time to go back in the cage, I use a long side rung from a favorite and well chewed birdie ladder. He steps up on that and rides back into his cage willingly and gets a treat. (Cannot use a dowel or any other perch..only the beat up ladder side) And I don’t have to have bandages, neosporin or stitches 🙂 I think we are doing ok and still working on trust issues. I am working on myself too….slow down, no hurry Miss Aries….have patience and let him progress at his own pace. I am sure he is coming around. Now every afternoon, we sit in the recliner and he wants to be near my face, and I let him. He puts his beak agains my cheek and sleeps. I think thats a big step in trust. I love your articles and appreciate each one. Thanks and keep em comin’.
    Charlotte and Capt’n Jack

    • B.D. Butler says:

      Thanks Charlotte! Glad you liked it! I too am an aries who also struggle with patience and “slowing down”… I always try to take a deep breath before I interact with Cooper, so I can be in the right frame of mind. Since writing this article Cooper has only nipped me twice and both happened to be my fault for not recognizing his body language. It just came down to him not choosing to “participate” and I crossed the boundary a bit. Lessons learned. I hope that Cap’t Jack will eventually let you handle him without being covered. Thanks again for your comment!

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