Tani Robar shared with BIRD TALK how she got her start in training animals, as well how she comes up with great bird tricks in “Meet Tani Robar” (October 2008 issue). BirdChannel.com shares more about Tani from BIRD TALK’S exclusive interview.
BT: How did you get your start in training performing animals?
TR:I started out working with animals when I was very young, probably 6 or 7. The first animals I trained were two bantam hens. They were allowed to run free in our fenced in back yard. I taught them to come when I called, then I would pick them up and bring them in the house. I taught them to look for a spider or something. After the chickens, my next pet was a small, wire-haired fox terrier. I was probably about 8. I taught it the usual dog tricks. One day I heard there was going to be a pet show in town. Without telling my parents, I packed up my dog on the back of my bike and rode to the show. I entered and won! Teaching my dog tricks had just come naturally, and so I had taught my dog every trick I had ever seen a dog do, or that I could think up.
When I was in junior high we moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to a house that had a stable and corral in the back. I got my first horse there. Soon I was teaching it tricks, like shaking hands, bowing, the stretch position, rearing, etc. One day, a friend gave me a young filly they couldn’t keep that was not yet broken. I never put a bit in her mouth and just used a hackamore. I used knee pressure to guide her for turns, stops, etc. I got my dad to build some jumps and soon I had both horses jumping and doing other simple gymkhana exercises. I entered my first gymkhana horse show , and, though I didn’t win, I learned a lot about showing and performing. I didn’t have the money to spend on the “correct” clothes or fancy saddles and equipment. I had to ride my horse to every event, as I didn’t have a horse trailer, so I and my horse were usually pretty tired by the time we got back home.
I went to Stanford University and got my degree in psychology. I had to sell my horses as I had no money to keep them or time to ride them. I then moved to Seattle and enrolled at the University of Washington for some advanced training and eventually met my first husband. He was allergic to horses, so my dream of training horses again came to an abrupt halt.
I got my first large dog, a collie, and was soon obedience training her. I joined an obedience training club, but the methods they advocated were certainly not what I would use now. No P&R (praise and rewards) like I use now, strictly collar-and-leash and instant obedience demand. I got all three obedience degrees (novice, open and utility) and then the Canadian equivalent, in record time and was soon teaching classes for my club. But my dog had no spirit, no life, she was like automation. I vowed I would never train like that again. Eventually I went into tracking, schutzend training, and finally guard-dog training. But when I had to have my last German shepherd put to sleep because of a degenerative nerve disease, I decided no more dogs for awhile.
BT: What trick has proved to be the most challenging?
TR:Many tricks seem hard to teach when I do them for the first time. I have to try one way, then if that doesn’t work approach it from another way. But after teaching one bird, successive birds are much easier to teach. I can teach almost any bird my three beginning tricks of wave, shake hand and turnaround in the first half hour.
The bicycle was very hard at first until I got the idea of placing it on a stand so it didn’t move. The bird just had to learn to pedal with not having to push on the pedals to make the bike move. After the bird learned to just make the pedals go up and down, placing the bike on the table and having the pedals need a little bit of force was comparatively easy.
Oh yes, the slide was perhaps the most difficult since it didn’t relate to anything the birds had done before. And it seemed to scare them somewhat. For that trick it took three slides of different heights. My first slide was small without much slope. I had to start the bird near the bottom and hold her as she slid a few inches. When that was mastered and some fear overcome, I had a little bit bigger slide made. Again I started with the bird near the bottom and only increased the distance I asked her to slide as her confidence (and mine) grew. Finally I went back to my “plastics maker” (the one I use to make all my plastic props) and asked him to build me still another slide bigger and steeper yet. My husband practically refuses to build me more props because I am always asking for changes as the trick progresses, but then I don’t always know what the proper size, shape, etc. a prop should be until I try it out. That is the fun and curse of always being the first to try out new ideas, you have nothing to cop.
BT: Can any bird learn tricks?
TR: It seems at this time that some parrots either don’t care about learning tricks or perhaps are not able to. With so many parrots being only one or two generations from the wild, and many of them not hand-raised, it is hard to pinpoint their motivation. Some species do not seem to make as good pets as others, but how much is due to our lack of knowledge about them? We know all birds can learn, but whether they all want to learn tricks for the P&R we can give them is really debatable.
BT: What is the No. 1 a great animal trainer needs?
TR: Patience, lots of it. Being very observant would come next. When you watch your pet carefully enough you begin to almost feel what they will do next, how they will react and whether they understand what you want. The ability to repeat an action time and again, and figure out how to approach the same issue in many different ways if the first way doesn’t seem to be working; these are what a natural trainer does automatically.
BT: What was your most memorable show?
TR: There have been many exciting times at shows, but one that stands out was the show I did for The National Parrot Rescue and Preservation Foundation (NPRRF) held in Houston each year. I used three birds for the one-hour show, and they did an almost perfect job. At the end I received a standing ovation. Boy did that feel good. These were all bird people who knew their birds and so understood the amount of work that had gone into their training.
Oh, I forgot, probably even better was when I won first place in my segment on Animal Planet’s “Pet Star.” I was asked to come back and won $2,500 first place in the wild card segment and so was also automatically in the finals.
BT: What has working with birds taught you?
TR: Also I learned that being there first has its advantages. With training dogs and horses, others had done it all before me, but with birds, I was one of the first to teach even little birds to do many things never before seen.
Learn more about Tani Robar, check out the October 2008 issue of BIRD TALK magazine.