I had the immense pleasure of attending the IAABC conference in Los Angeles this April 7 and 8 2017. That’s the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. I’ve been a member for a few (5?) years.

At this conference they had a main lecture hall for the entire group, and then four smaller lecture halls where we could split into our core learning focuses: Dog, Cat, Bird and Horse. I spent the majority of my time in Bird, but had some wonderful lectures with the Dog people as well. Also offered was a set of business focus (how to be a consultant, set up a website etc). We even had a Genetics and Cocktails lecture, which was a HUGE hit.

I met some wonderful colleagues and made great contacts. Everyone I met was passionate about their focus, and leaders in using LIMA principles. (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive). I was fortunate enough to have some great conversations with some of the speakers, and greatly value their teachings and insights. All in all, it was a supremely wonderful and educational weekend.

If you would like to know more about each of the lectures I attended, read on! If you’d like the “readers digest” version, or the TL:DR version, here you go: Awesome people, gifted genius speakers, wonderful camaraderie and just enough fun. I was both a fan girl and a behaviour nerd all weekend, as was in good company. Definitely going back next year!

The speakers I attended were (in order of appearance): Ann Brooks from the Phoenix Foundation, Dr. Scott Echols DVM from University of Utah, Dr. Susan Friedman professor emeritus from Utah State, Brian Burton and Sarah Fraser, Dr. Elinor Karlson from the Darwin’s Dog project, Dr. Christopher Pachel DVM, Adria Karlson, Jill Hourihan. Whew. They are all amazing and leaders in their fields.


The first lecture was “The Learning Planet” by Dr. Susan Friedman. It was for the entire conference, and focused on learning theory and how it applies to us all. A great way to open the conference, as we are all ABA and behaviour nerds. And anytime I get to listed to Dr. Friedman speak, I melt into a puddle of goo.

The next lecture was “Preparing Parrots for Life in Multiple Homes” by Ann Brooks from the Phoenix Foundation, a well recognized rescue in the United States. She has helped the Phoenix Foundation re-home over 2700 parrots in the last 10+ years. The number of successful cases are astounding. She is a very open and down-to-earth individual, and seems to take the stressors of life in rescue in stride. Being very much a realist, she wanted to focus on getting attainable, suitable homes, to commit for 5 years to their parrot, instead of putting in a “forever” statute. She noted that this increased potential adopters who would then take in birds, and most would be in that home more than 5 years as they are committed to their birds once they have them. But it removed that initial barrier of entry. What are any of us doing 25 years from now? 10 years even? She wants to change some of the language around rescue and re-homing. By using some gentler language, we increase acceptance within the community and remove the pressure and potential guilt associated with parrot ownership. There is also a strong focus on education, and they run several classes year round with a few day-long workshops as well. There are incredibly popular, and this speaks to the commitment of their adopters. The Phoenix Foundation is willing to help any rescue, re-homing or humane society anywhere in the world with their experience and knowledge, and will even share their class formats. Kudos to Ann and the Phoenix Foundation!

The next speaker was Dr. Scott Echols speaking about the “Grey Parrot Anatomy Project”. I have never, in my life, been so astounded and amazed by the accomplishments of a single individual. It was so amazing it has taken me over a week to process and digest all that was presented. It was such a pivotal talk that the conference organizers asked Dr. Echols to present it again, for the entire conference, during our lunch on the second day, and move all other speakers around it. Truly astounding. It actually not only left me speachless but I caught myself with my jaw literally hanging open at least twice. I stoped taking pictures of the lecture slides I was so distracted by the magnificence. OK, so it was great. But why am I so jazzed about an anatomy project? Because of the brilliance.

Dr. Echols is an advanced veterinarian specializing in exotics. He found that they didn’t even have common names for bones, muscles or nerves when describing a surgery from one DVM to another. He set out to name all the anatomy of the parrot, and chose the Grey parrot. What he COULD have done was acquired several deceased Greys and several grad students and set about some dissections. But no, this is not how Dr. Echols thinks. He is never the one to be satisfied with “enough”. He set out to get some 3D scans of greys in a micro CT scan. Then, after discovering the contrast dye they used was extremely toxic, developed and ENTIRELY NEW contrast dye, in his kitchen no less, which was harmless, easily disposable, and could even be used in live subjects. BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. Now that he had live, 3D CT scans of parrots, he partnered with the engineers and computer people to digitally scan, and therefore manipulate and analyze, all kinds of wonderful details from those CT scans. He so far has discovered new organs and vessels that were previously unknown.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. Upon working with multiple species, he was discovering some issues with bone density. The best way to get bones to scan is via Xray. It looked like osteoporosis, but he couldn’t be sure due to the inherently poor grey-scales in Xrays. How do you know it’s darker from a bone density, or darker because the machine was ‘having a dark day’? And forget matching x-rays from different machines. Well, in true Dr. Echols form he solved that little problem too. He created a gradient bar, with progressivly lighter markers, to be put in while the Xray is bring performed. This makes a comparison possible, because now they can match colour gradients. And not just match them, compare them between machine. AND not just compare them, digitally scan them. Now you have digital, matched, xrays which can clearly show the bone density of your exotic. You’re welcome world. In this, he was able to determine that a vast majority of exotic species in indoor situations are indeed osteoporotic. He notes that the spine of a parrot who does not fly nor walk much is almost clear on xray, meaning hardly any bone density at all. His hope is that this will allow for better diagnosis and treatment of our exotics in the future.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE. (Did I mention my jaw hung open several times?). Who cares about this stuff? How about NASA, working on bone density for future trips to Mars. How about an un-named party, interested in the contrast dye for looking into full-body concussive forces (like bomb blasts) which affect the arteries of the body, and this new dye/CT/computer analysis created the clearest most accurate scans to date. What about zoos all over the world who can now send their x-rays to another location and actually have them mean something? How about the Xray machine companies themselves, who previously had no way to actually check the efficacy of their systems, and this new gradient bar can test the system (to which at least one machine has been sent back and replaced by the manufacturer)? How crazy is all that to be fit into a 90 minute lecture? No, he didn’t just dissect a bunch of Grey parrots (but he did have some grad students doing that as well, you know, to actually name all the structures, which will be published in the coming year). Thank you, Dr. Echols, for all you have done, and all you continue to do, for all of us on this earth.

So. Deep breath. We’re not done day 1.

The next lecture was “Shaping without the burst: a contemporary approach” by Dr. Susan Friedman. It was about shaping, and how we sometimes will withold the click/treat to extinguish one behaviour, hoping for a jump to a new behaviour which will b bigger and better, and we can click that. She suggests this can actually create a bunch of frustration in the learner. Because behaviour is ever changing anyways, one cannot behave exactly the same way twice, and it would be more advantagious to click each small variation in order to create the new behaviour, rather than witholding and waiting for the big jump. I’m sure Dr. Friedman said it better. I could listen to her speak all day.

The next lecture was “Animal welfare science – what’s the measure of ‘good for the animal’?” by Brian Burton and Sarah Fraser. In this lecture they explored the measures of how we can determine if an animal is ‘happy’, or ‘relaxed’ in their environment. This is especially of concern for the animals in unnatural situations, like lab mice, or poultry chickens. If we want to keep them well, and we should, we need to determine what that animal needs, and how it can be provided to lessen their stressors. Does providing the lab mouse with a hidy hole increase or decrease cortisol levels? How can we measure that? It was an interesting look at the science between the cracks of “doing what’s best for the animal” on a moral and heart level. Interesting!

The next lecture was over dinner. WE had appetizers and drinks… yes drinks. A few. The lecture was “Genetics and Cocktails” by Dr Elinor Karlsson. This was one of my favorite lectures, as we were all engaged, learning, and drinking. As this was a lecture for the entire conference, we had about 230 people getting up out of their chairs to organize themselves via heterozygous dominant, homozygous, or heterozygous recessive. Too much fun. Lots of drinking. Something magical happens when genetics and alcohol mix. Also, Dr ¬†Karlsson has an amazing project called “Darwins Dogs” where she is sequencing the entire dog genome. She hopes to identify genetic traits, like OCD in Dobermans, and be able to offer some insight. Those in the united states can also contact her for a kit where you swab your own dogs mouth and send it to her for analysis. She will add everyone’s date to her ever growing pool of analysis. Great work!


Well, that was the end of Day ! and I was thoroughly exhausted. I sure slept well.

Day 2 started with a phenomenal lecture from Dr. Chris Pachel “More than good recommendations: Client Compliance and Implementation Strategies”. It focused around giving achievable recommendations for each situation. Everyone is different and every situation is different. I learned several tools to help my client be successful when implementing a behaviour change strategy.

The next lecture was “ABA in practice” by Adria Karlsson. I love LOVE ABA (applied behaviour analysis). So much so I have additional certificates in just that. This lecture just tickled my ABA bone in a way that made me happy. For some in the room, it was their first introduction. Hooray! It was so nice to hear the great strategies ABA gives us, ABC and functional analysis really help simmer the problem into manageable chunks for us to analyze. Then when we make recommendations, we can also chart the change.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Business lectures. There were several awesome talks. “Building an Online Presence for your Business” Mychelle Blake (awesome, i learned about wordpress, SEOS, hiring companies, all the good stuff), “You can Build a Consulting Business” Jill Hourihan (Goal setting, SWOTs, getting the phone to ring, custom marketing strategies all kinds of useful and practical business stuff from the animal consulting viewpoint), “From Inquiry to customer” Sarah Fraser and “From Customer to Follow up” Brian Burton (strategies to build loyalty and cool programs for online booking and tracking who needs a follow up when. Great tools!)

The last lecture was “Building your contribution” by Dr. Susan Friedman. She was extoling the benefits of building a tribe, not building an empire. Do good, and good will follow you. If in doubt, be generous. I loved that this was how the community felt about our training. The idea that we should charge for our services, absolutely, but in a kindness and inclusive way. She creates wonderful images on her site behaviourworks.org and gives them freely for use anywhere. And encourages their use. She isn’t hoarding them, she’s offering them. Spreading the knowledge and supporting the education. I really loved how she presented this. Well, I could listen to her talk all day. But you already knew that.


After the closing of the conference, we all went downstairs for dinner. We took over the hotel dining room and made the grandest table possible. We all, attendees, speakers, organizers, sat around one big, long, table and ate together. Sharing stories. Exchanging business cards. Living in the moment of the wonders of the IAABC conference. I met so many new faces, and some were connected to names I’ve read about for years. I learned, I laughed. I felt so included as this little Parrot Trainer from Canada that I was part of the team.

The first night I arrived to the conference, I was sitting beside a table of IAABC execs and speakers. I only wanted to eavesdrop, as I knew the conference started the next day. Marjie (the exec director) took one look at me and exclaimed “You’re one of us. Now get over here and join us!”. It was that kind of experience all weekend. And I hope IAABC knows what kind of Tribe they are building, because it’s strong, and it’s +R, and it’s inclusive, and it’s educated, and I can’t wait to share.







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