THE NEUTRAL ROOM
by Sally Blanchard
A Distraction-free Comfortable Place
Many companion parrots become territorial around their cages. This means that they may defend the area from perceived intruders. It also means that many parrots are generally more threatened by new situations or objects in their cage or in the area around their cage but may react totally differently to a new situation away from their cages. This is often shown in the fact that many companion parrots show better behavior when they go to the vet or go with their caregivers to visit friends. Because of this, people who have had little or no success working with their aggressive parrots around their cages, often find it much easier to work with their birds in a neutral room. This usually is the best place to interact with any biting or territorially aggressive parrot.
It is an area that is not familiar to the parrot and therefore, he has not established any territorial imperatives. The parrot’s cage or playgym should not be visible from the neutral room. There should be no distractions, such as the television, other people, or pets in the room. If the bird is strongly bonded to one person and a less favored person is trying to work with him, only that person should be in the room. Even the sound of the preferred person’s voice should be excluded from the scenario. In this area, the bird has no agenda to defend anyone or anything. Consequently, the person in the room with the parrot becomes the most familiar person/thing in an unfamiliar area.
The purpose of the neutral room is NOT based on creating a rescue scenario where the parrot becomes afraid and the person rescues the parrot from a negative situation. However, the less favored person may also provide a sense of security for the parrot in an unfamiliar place. Your presence may provide the parrot with a familiar face and added security but the parrot shouldn’t feel as if he needs to be rescued.
Most importantly, it is critical that the neutral room should be a mutually comfortable place and not a place where the parrot feels intimidated or threatened. Working with a parrot who is in, on, or near his cage often results in aggression; however, the same bird can become quite docile with being in an unfamiliar area. It is important for people who have been apprehensive about handling their parrot to trust the fact that their bird will be far less likely to be aggressive in the neutral room. If people can’t relax enough to present fearless and non-aggressive confidence with their parrots, the same patterns established in the cage territory can become established in the neutral room. It is also important that the person works with the parrot in a focused, confident and calm manner. Just as human beings are, parrots are creatures of habit. Behaviors that are slowly and calmly repeated over and over become patterned and once they become a pattern, these behaviors are repeated in an automatic manner without much thought directing them. A neutral room with minimal distractions is an excellent place to start patterning positive behaviors. Repeating positive and rewardable behavioral patterns is not only good patterning for the parrot, but it also develops consistency in the person. When people are consistent in the way they approach and handle their parrots, the birds know what is expected of them and are much less likely to become confused. Mixed messages and/or inconsistent interaction can create enough confusion in parrots that they may use aggression to get the inconsistent person to go away.
The neutral room should be a place where both the person and the parrot will be comfortable and relaxed. I recommend a bedroom or den with a couch rather than the cold floor of a bathroom or hall. Years ago a lot of people advised using the bathroom floor for training or taming mostly because the bird could be 'trapped' in the area ... not a good idea for building trust. Plan ahead and set up the “tools” you need before you bring your parrot into the neutral room. These include a T-stand, special behavioral reward treats, a few favorite toys, a big fluffy light-colored towel, a dowel or stick for stick training. Prepare the room by setting the T-stand near where you can sit, spreading the towel on the bed or couch and placing the items on the towel.
Approaching the bird with decisive confidence is essential for the neutral room to work. Smile, talk softly and make friendly eye contact. Parrots generally do not bite if you are looking at them, but this doesn't mean that you look at the parrot with a direct or intense glare. Your eyes should be gentle and soft. Smile and exude a friendly demeanor. Place the bird on the back of a chair or a T-stand at just below eye level and start by placing your fingers close to his lower belly and say “UP.” If he doesn’t step on your finger, gently pick up his toes one at a time until he is sitting on your hand. Slowly transfer him to the other hand saying a friendly “UP” again. Do this 3 or 4 times and then say a friendly “down” and put him back on the stand. Smile and praise him — “What a good bird!” Repeat the process several times until he accepts and obeys the command. Stay friendly and if he starts to become antsy after a few short sessions, put him back on the stand with the “Down” command, praise him and give him a treat before he gets too grouchy.
Once he is patterned to step on your hand, you can try to start handling him in the same decisive manner out of the neutral room. Once two people are comfortable handling their parrot separately in the neutral room, they can work together there to accustom the parrot to being handled by both of them together. Playing the game of “warm potato” by slowly passing their bird from person to person will pattern him to go from one to the other. Each person should have the parrot on his or her hand for a minute or so and provide the parrot with a positive experience: praise him, skritch him, sing to him, give him a treat, or whatever helps him be comfortable and then the other person can reach for him using the “UP” command and share a few enjoyable minutes with him. If the parrot becomes aggressive with one of the people, that person should put him down rather than have the other person become a 'rescuer.' This could end up teaching the bird to bite one person to get to go to the other.
The neutral room is also a very helpful place to introduce your parrot to new people in his life. Some parrots can be threatened by strangers approaching them too close to their cage. Most parrots are far more threatened by an unfamiliar situation, person, or thing being too close to their cage. The same situation, person, or thing can usually be successfully introduced in a neutral room without trauma. With neo-phobic parrots (those that are fearful with new things) who are wary of new toys in their cage, if those toys are introduced first in the neutral room, once the bird accepts them, they can be put in the cage.
It is also important to remember that if your normally well-behaved parrot begins to forget his good manners and patterning, the neutral room can always be used for friendly re-patterning him to behave in a more positive manner. Often a parrot loses tameness when he or she is not handled for a period of time and focused attention in the neutral room often restores trust again.