By Abbie Hubbard.
When I adopted my dog Minnow, I brought her home hoping that she could live peacefully with my two African Grey parrots. My parrots spend most of their day outside of the cage. While I planned to always supervise times when both my dog and birds would be together in the same room, I knew that this would not be possible if my dog was not safe with my birds.
Introducing a dog, even a puppy to our companion birds (from parrots to chickens) should be taken seriously. Dogs can come with predatory instincts. Dog behavior and bird behavior can clash in harmful and deadly ways. In fact, my first instinct is to guard against letting dogs and birds interact. In my case, my house was small and being able to have my dog and birds in the same area would improve their quality of life.
After adopting Minnow, I let her settle in for a few days and kept my birds in a separate room. I took this time to get a sense of Minnow’s body language, behavior and motivations. I watched what Minnow’s body looked like when she was content, when she was worried/fearful and when she was excited. Learning to understand Minnow’s body language would be key to a safe introduction. I also learned more about Minnow’s behavior. Having a sense of her personality would help guide the introduction. If Minnow saw my birds and became very forward, alert and excited in her behavior, I would need to reevaluate the possibility of a safe introduction, because it would be significantly different behavior than what I learned was Minnow’s norm: she tends to be fearful in new situations.
Since Minnow was newly adopted, I needed to teach her a cue that meant “turn your attention toward me”. That cue was her name! Once the day came for the introduction, I wanted to be able to call Minnow’s name and have her respond. I started by finding something that Minnow found motivating, something she liked and wanted. It could have been a toy or a yummy treat. Each dog is different, and it was my job to figure out what was motivating for Minnow. Most dogs love soft, smelly treats so I started there. It turns out, Minnow loves hummus! I started by calling Minnow’s name (only once) and if she looked at me, I gave her a lick of hummus. If she did not look, I put the spoon of hummus right by her nose and lured her head in the direction of my body. Once she followed, I gave her the treat! Over the course of a week, Minnow learned to pay attention the moment I called her name because it meant a delicious treat was coming!
When the time came to introduce Minnow to my birds, I had a friend come over to help. I explained to her some basic dog behavior and body language so she could be my second set of eyes! My birds have always been around dogs so I knew this would likely not be a stressful situation for them. Still, I made sure they were safely enclosed in their cage with their favorite treats to distract them from any excitement that might occur. Most birds that we keep as companions are prey animals and it is important to protect them physically and emotionally from danger and stress.
I brought Minnow into the room on a leash and let her have a sniff around. I tried to keep the leash very loose, but I did not allow her to run up to the cage. Before Minnow noticed the birds, I called her name and she looked for a treat. At that point, one of my birds made a noise and Minnow looked at them. I could tell she was curious because her ears moved forward a bit. Her eyes widened and her body was less relaxed than normal. She was also slightly fearful. She crouched down low and shifted her body weight from the front to the back of her body. I gave Minnow a couple seconds to take in the sight of the birds and then I called her name and she looked at me for her treat, almost relieved to look away from these new beings!
I decided to end our first introduction at that point. It was a positive encounter and we could continue building on our success! If Minnow had become overwhelmed or overexcited, we would have more work to do to get back on the right track. My motto tends to be, “short and sweet”!
If things had not gone well, for example if Minnow started to stare at the birds without being able to distract her; if she started to stalk the birds; or she became overly excited and aroused, I would have ended the introduction immediately and called for the help of a dog trainer or behaviorist (yes, even dog behaviorists need help from other behaviorists)! There is just no room for error when it comes to introducing a dog and birds. Their safety had to be my priority!
Over the next weeks, I continued introducing Minnow to my birds. I feel fortunate because Minnow has always respected them and their space. Since then, I have fostered a rooster and adopted three turkeys. My turkeys happen to enjoy living in the house, so we are truly an integrated family! Still, I never leave Minnow alone with the birds. Baby gates and fences are all important in our household. I cannot expect Minnow to know right from wrong. Dogs and birds speak very different languages. My parrots and turkeys peck at each other to establish social order. Sometimes they try to peck at Minnow too. In these moments I interrupt the behavior because I do not expect them to navigate confusing or frustrating interactions. Ultimately, I am responsible for everyone’s safety and welfare.