Archive for the ‘Food management’ Category

The Right Bird for the Job – The Right Job for the Bird

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Just recently I closed a blog post with the following statement:

“Finally, choosing the right bird for the job or even the right job for the bird is probably the most important training decision we make.”

This statement triggered quite an active discussion on one Yahoo group and it was interesting to read the thread.

I also received one question directly about this:

“I would be interested to know more about how you know what bird is right for the job or what job is right for the bird and why?” – Curtis White.

I must admit that the statement was placed into the blog entry to see what reaction it would get, to stimulate discussion. This is why I have not posted any responses to the Yahoo group where it was being discussed, I wanted to observe the readers and gauge if they were able to apply the information that had preceded the statement. It was encouraging that the obvious answer was among the points of view expressed.

That obvious answer is that just like every other training issue we face our decision should be driven by two factors. Firstly the bird’s performance, evaluated using direct observation of the behavior being trained. How is the bird responding to the training sessions in changing environments? Is its focus on the training sessions improving as we work the bird? Combined with this we come back once again to the personal ethical position of the trainer. As I have stated previously motivation can certainly be raised by using deprivation (reducing diet, to reduce weight, to increase motivation). However, there comes a time for me when I am just not comfortable with reducing weight to increase the focus of a bird that is simply not comfortable doing what is being asked of it. In addition, as one increases food drive other less desirable behaviors begin to be presented. For example with a human raised bird these may include gross begging behaviors or with some species aggressive responses to the trainer and others in the presence of food. Before I reach this point it is time to re-evaluate if this is the right bird for the job or ask if the bird is better suited to a different behavior, in this way we find the right job for the bird.

Making the personal judgment call, and that is for sure what it is, requires the same skills that I keep repeating every good trainer needs. These skills include good observation and a high degree of empathy for the animal being trained.

The question was raised in one discussion thread as to how you know whether the poor response of a bird is due to an unsuitable bird or to the lack of skill on the part of the trainer. I would say that every trainer must accept full responsibility for the behavior of their birds and therefore on some level it always the trainer failing the bird. This is why I believe that anyone training animals needs to really study the science and also, perhaps most importantly, keep an open mind. Ultimately, regardless of whether the bird is not suited to the job or the trainer lacks the skill to train the desired behavior it is the responsibility of the trainer to recognize this.

It is worth reiterating that trainers should always keep challenging their own skill level. I mentioned the self-reinforcing dependence of novice trainers on weight management previously; if one is really interested in becoming a good trainer one simply has to let go of this apparent “silver bullet”, this will challenge your training skills and lead to being a better trainer with more engaged birds.

I remember very well a workshop given by Steve Martin for professional trainers where he encouraged everyone to work all non-raptor species without equipment attached. It had been almost standard practice in professional show situations to use falconry style equipment on corvids like crows and ravens. The “take-away” message from Steve for me was that by taking off the equipment the trainer was forced to increase the level of their skills, to make a greater effort to understand the nature of the bird and its behavior, and that by doing so they would become a better trainer. This was a life-changing moment for me and one training journey using this approach is documented in my 2006 IAATE presentation “Strong Foundations and Adjustments – Keys to Training Success.”

Releasing oneself from dependence upon weight management I see in a similar potentially life changing way for novice trainers. Let go of your preconceptions, accept full responsibility for your birds’ behavior, make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a trainer.


Food and Weight Management – follow up

Friday, July 15th, 2011

My post about Food and Weight Management has drawn a few comments that I would like to address. Don’t forget that if you have any questions related to the articles posted here you are invited to use the email address  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   set up specifically to receive those questions. I can’t promise to address everything but I will read them all and do my very best to at least address the points you raise in a future article if at all possible.

One of the problems of blogging is that it is generally an unedited medium, by which I mean that most, if not all, of the posts people make to blogs are a stream of consciousness rather than a formal structured work that is ultimately edited by a third party. This means that sometimes a statement is made without the meaning or intent being completely clear to a reader. Great editors pick those mistakes up before they reach the reader. The Food/Weight Management article had a couple of those that a diligent reader picked up and rightly questioned. Also, I was asked “how do you decide if you need weight management rather than food management?” So, let’s get to it …

Let me address the last point first; how does a trainer make the decision to begin using Weight Management? The decision is really quite simple if one is always focused on behavior and that was one of the key points of the previous article. Let your observation of the behaviors you are training guide your training decisions. Also, don’t forget that adjusting diet is going to be the last tool you pull out of your toolbox. Be sure that you are setting up your bird for success by arranging the environment so that the bird is relaxed and comfortable. A critical aspect of starting out training is that the trainer and the bird have a history of positive interactions; don’t expect to bring home a new bird and start training a step up right away. It may take several days of walking by the cage and dropping treats into a bowl before one can even think about starting to train any specific behaviors. Always ask yourself “why should the bird interact with you?”, “what’s in it for the bird?” And remember that we want the bird to choose to be a partner in the training process.

So, back to the original question about when to use Weight Management; use it if the behavior you are training is just not shaping up the way you want, the response just isn’t there. However, only begin Weight Management after you have made sure that all of those things on the “will not perform” side of the motivational balance have been explored and if necessary corrected. Plus, be patient; do not withhold large amounts of food just to get the bird’s attention for training. I have heard of novices getting frustrated because their bird didn’t respond just the way they wanted so in their frustration they withhold a complete meal. This is just not necessary especially if the trainer is managing the food of the bird correctly. The need for gross changes in diet in my opinion are a reflection of the trainer’s lack of good diet management and rarely, if ever, justified or needed.

A phrase I used “relax the criteria” caused a little confusion. The context in which I used the phrase in the article was when a bird was in a new environment with lots of new potential distractions. Here I meant that I would relax my expectations of performance for the bird, e.g. if the behavior was a 20 foot flight to me I would start in this new environment just asking for a hop, then a flight of a few feet, gradually building the bird’s confidence in these new surroundings and for sure only raising my criteria as I observed good behaviorial responses. What I did not mean was that the trainer should continue to cue the behavior that was not working and accept the latency (delay to perform). Part of the process of generalization (performing behaviors regardless of environment) is to build the bird’s confidence not only in itself but also in the trainer. By setting the bird up to succeed (short hop and then short flights) the bird’s trust in the trainer is raised so that in the future in new environments this trust should increase the likelihood that the bird will perform the behaviors cued. Also, by relaxing the criteria and enabling the bird to perform a behavior we increase the number of times we are able to reward the bird, always a good thing! Repetition builds confidence – bird and trainer.

Another question related to how to remove some of the “will not perform” items from the motivational balance. As an example how do you train the bird to fly down from heights at a steep angle? Remember that we can always lower the weight of the bird and increase motivation to overcome the bird’s apprehension in making a steep downward flight. However, just because that works doesn’t make it the right choice for me. Reducing the weight again should be the last thing we think about doing. I will repeat a phrase here that should be one of the trainers’ mantras, set the bird up to succeed. First, before we placed our bird into an environment where it might have spooked up into that tall tree we should have trained it to fly down from high places. New trainers often forget that birds learn their flight skills through … flying. Therefore, in a safe environment we place our bird on higher and higher perches and allow them to learn to fly down. We train our bird to fly to places on cue and then send them into higher and higher tree branches (or meeting hall rafters!) and allow them to learn how to fly down. We set them up to succeed so that when they find themselves sitting high in a tree they already know how to fly down. The second part of the answer is for every trainer to observe and understand the limitations of their bird when it comes to its flight skills. No matter how much we fly our birds they never get as much “air time” as a wild bird, because of this their flight skills, while impressive, may never reach those of their wild cousins. Therefore we need to once again set them up to succeed by only asking them to perform behaviors we know they can perform. So, when your bird is high in a tree don’t stand right under the tree calling it down, move away from the tree and give your bird the “glide angle” it needs to make the flight.

Don’t forget:

  • Repetition builds confidence
  • Set your bird up to succeed
  • Ask yourself “What’s in it for the bird?”
  • Assume responsibility for all your bird’s behavior


The Misuse of Weight Management

Thursday, August 20th, 2009


I have written about Food and Weight Management before; they are valuable techniques when used correctly, carefully, and appropriately. In general, Weight Management is not something that a companion parrot owner even needs to consider. By careful management of the required daily diet of one’s birds an owner can usually achieve their training goals. So it was with great disappointment that I came across a blog article recently entitled “Are Pet Shop Birds Trainable?” It is a great example of what not to do.

The subject of the training was a Budgie or Parakeet. The concept of using Weight Management on such a tiny bird is just plain scary. What was even scarier was the extent to which this bird must have been deprived of food in order to achieve the writer’s goal. The writer noted that the bird had a “super stuffed full weight” of some 42grams. I have to assume that this weight was when the bird had free access to food with no rationing. There was also an “average” weight, I have no idea what that means since the weights and the number of samples were not published. However there were two more weights given; the first was the “training weight” and the second was a “too highly motivated” weight. Just the expression of a “training weight” shows how completely the writer misunderstands the proper use of weight management. If you refer back to my previous articles (links below) you will understand that there is no single training weight.

However that is not my biggest issue with this article. Let us examine the percentage weight reduction used to motivate this tiny bird (42 grams is about 1.4 ounces). If we consider the so-called training weight of 27grams we find that this represents a 35% drop in weight! Plus, the writer says that they learned the “proper” weight in a week. Can you imagine the extent of the food deprivation to reduce this bird’s weight by 35%? in a week The abuse does not end there because the writer notes a third weight, the “too highly motivated” weight; in this case the bird weighed 25grams, even less. As a percentage drop that is 40% below the highest weight reported, almost half its body weight in less than a week. Of course the bird was highly motivated … it was on the path to starvation. In my opinion this was clearly abuse of the bird.

These levels of weight reduction are simply not justified on so many grounds. The process described by the weights recorded by the writer of the article appears to take place over short time period, suggesting extreme food deprivation in order to motivate this bird.

Now who is the writer you may be asking? Well I am sure that you are all capable of using Google to track down the article, I do not propose to even mention their name I am so appalled that they did this and then had the complete lack of judgment to write about it as an achievement. I will note that the trail leads back to somewhere I think you will find enlightening, but perhaps not surprising.

I trust that everyone reading this will see the folly of what was described and tell everyone you know about the article.

See: Food and Weight Management and A follow Up




Trainers who use science are the best … maybe

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Seeing discussion of training in online groups is excellent, not only because it means that it raises the profile of training but also because it gives me an opportunity to understand better what this blog may bring to the community. What peaked my interest this morning was a discussion about trainers who use science and trust building.

I think everyone should be pretty much aware of my approach by this point in the life of my blog however just for the new readers let me say that I place trust and relationship building ahead of everything else when it comes to training. As I have previously said there are methods that can be employed that will override the lack of trust an animal may have in the trainer; their use however depends upon the ethical position of the trainer.

I noted one comment in the thread I was reading this morning that said:

“There is no morality or ethics attached to Operant Conditioning.”

Now I think I understand what the writer was saying but that sentence kind of upset me a little, it tweaked on an important subject, the ethics of trainers and how they affect the choices those trainers make. What I believe the writer was saying was that the science itself does not imply or apply any ethical or moral judgment. When we use the scientific term “punishment” it is simply describing a consequence of a behavior that is likely to reduce the presentation or frequency of that behavior in the future. As far as the science is concerned there is no judgment about the consequence. However, when we come to the application of the science we certainly do find ourselves needing to make ethical, even moral judgments in our choice of strategy.

This is especially true when it comes to the use of weight or food management in the training process. As I have written before, motivation is a balance and one can certainly tilt the balance in favor of an animal performing a requested behavior by reducing its weight through food withholding. The ethical question is whether it is the right thing to do before all other factors, including better trust/relationship building, have been exhausted. In my opinion it is not.

Also, the subject of the discussion, “Trainers who use science and trust building” I think missed a huge and important point. Even the strategies that are thought of as “bad” or inappropriate are using that same science. The use of aversives and punishers is also included in the science. Therefore even the trainer who towels a bird to “break” it, a horrible strategy that hopefully is now way behind us, is using the science (flooding). One simply can not claim that a trainer who uses Operant Conditioning and Applied Behavior Analysis is doing it the right way. It is the ethical choice of strategy made by that trainer that should define them.

One more point pops into my mind too. I keep reading people who say “we train only with positive reinforcement” like it somehow validates them and their strategy. Let us not forget about the ethical choices before we place these folks on a pedestal. For example, think about someone who makes this claim who uses weight management as their primary strategy, they have not built a strong trusting relationship they have simply built a food dependence. They can rightly claim to use positive reinforcement, that’s what they are doing, reward correct behavior with something that increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated. However, consider this; what if that same bird was capable of performing to the same level with only the smallest reduction in their diet and therefore their weight and that this level was achieved by the trainer taking the time to build trust, confidence, and a good relationship with the bird. By gradually presenting new environments to the bird so that its confidence grew. Which of these trainers would you think is the better trainer?

This same thread brought a couple of other points to mind that I am hoping to expand on in future articles. Right now with spring in the air it is time to go and work some birds.


Food and weight management

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I returned from my trip to the IAATE conference in Holland to find a lively discussion going on in one of the yahoo groups for parrot training. The subject of the discussion is one that crops up from time-to-time and it always elicits lively, often polarized views. That subject is the use of food or weight management for training birds. It is also a subject that is often not fully understood by either the vehement supporters or detractors.

When training any animal one of the very first steps is for the trainer to figure out what the animal may find rewarding; this is what the trainer will use as a reinforcer for the behaviors being trained. If one is beginning with an animal that has no training history it is necessary to choose a primary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is one that does not require any learning on the part of the animal. Primary reinforcers include sleep, food, air, water, and, in the opinions of some, sex. When working with birds the primary reinforcer typically chosen is food. Once the subject understands the training process it may be possible to introduce secondary or conditioned reinforcers such as attention, verbal praise, or access to toys.

While food is a primary reinforcer not all types of food are reinforcing for all birds; just like people birds also have food preferences and an observant trainer can quickly learn the preferred food type of the subject. Once identified this preferred food item can be removed from the daily diet and only offered to the bird as a training reinforcer. This method of training is the one that many companion parrot owners try to begin training their birds and it is also the one that many find to be ineffective, “my bird just isn’t interested in food”.

However, what these trainers forget is that the value of any food item is dynamic, after a large meal even our own preferred food items are less desirable to us. Therefore when using food as a potential reinforcer we need to be sure that the items being offered have real value to the subject at the time they are offered. This does not necessarily mean that we have to reduce the total amount of food offered to the bird; it simply means that by controlling access to food we create the perception, from the bird’s perspective, that food may not be as abundant as it was. Rather than repeat here what has already been very well written on this subject I would like to direct you to a Barbara Heidenreich article on her Goodbird Magazine Yahoo site that goes into detail about the use of food as a training aid and also an article by Natural Encounters trainer Cassie Malina about “Psychological Appetite.” (See further reading below.)

What I have written about so far is food management; selection of preferred food types and control of access to food. The other technique used to create motivation to perform behavior is weight management. With this technique the total amount of food offered daily is reduced from the amount the animal would eat given free access to food. This results in an increased desire for the food and therefore an increase in the motivation to perform the requested behavior. When using weight management it is essential that the trainer monitor the weight of the bird very closely.

Weight management is a powerful tool for manipulating motivation and with its use comes a greater demand on the skill set of the trainer. Imagine a bird that is not responding to the cue to fly to the trainer. A novice or unskilled trainer may think they need to make the reinforcers being offered more valuable so they reduce the overall diet being offered to the bird, reducing its weight, and increasing its focus on the trainer. This will work, the hungrier the bird gets the more focused it becomes on the trainer and the trainer gets reinforced by the bird performing the requested behavior. This last point, the trainer getting reinforced for reducing the weight of the bird, is what makes weight management so attractive, maybe even addictive, a technique to novice trainers. Each time behavior falls short of expectations the weight is dropped a little more, the bird performs, the trainer is reinforced. As the weight is dropped the trainer should really be asking themselves how they feel ethically about using this degree of deprivation in order to achieve their goals. So, what can they do?

The first step is to not become over-focused on the scale and the weight of the bird, rather, focus sharply on the behavior and the antecedents of that behavior. Antecedents are those things that occur right before the behavior. The bird’s motivation by the perceived value of the potential reward for executing the behavior is only one antecedent in play.

Consider the situation as a balance with the motivation of the bird on one side and things that work against that motivation on the other. To get the bird to work well the trainer must have the motivating side of the balance out-weigh the non-motivating side.
Things that affect the motivation of the bird include not only its desire for food (its degree of hunger) but also:

  •  The reinforcement history of the bird.
    • Does the bird fully understand that the executing the cued behavior will result in a desired reward?
    • Has the trainer always been honest in their reinforcement of behavior in the past or for example was a large visible reward offered by the trainer to elicit a behavior switched out for a small treat when the behavior was completed?
  • What is the relationship like between the trainer and the bird?
    • Does the trainer have a history of positive rewarding experiences with the bird?  

These are just a couple of the things that contribute to the “will perform” side of the balance. Meanwhile on the other side of our imaginary balance are all the things that are telling the bird not to perform the behavior.

  • Is this a new or poorly trained behavior?
  • Is the bird physically capable of performing the behavior?
    • An example would be asking a bird to fly down from a high perch to the trainer at an acute angle.
  • Is the trainer being clear communicating what they are expecting of the bird?
    • Clear, concise, consistent cues are essential components of this clear communication.
  • Is the bird in good health and not exhausted by behaviors performed earlier in the training session?
  • Is the trainer asking for a downwind flight?
    • o Birds prefer to fly into the wind, using it to increase lift and assist in control. Think of aircraft taking off and landing into the wind!
  • Is the bird in a novel environment with new distracting noises and/or sights?
    • Generalization of behaviors in varied situations is an essential step in training any bird. When entering novel situations a trainer should relax their criteria for the behavior and build the bird’s confidence.

Once again this is not a complete list; however for each of these issues on the “may not perform” side of the balance the trainer who is not aware of them may have only weight reduction to resort to in order to get the required behavior.

By addressing the “may not perform” issues before reducing diet and therefore weight the trainer will find that the bird is willing and able to be flown at higher and higher weights. Indeed professional trainers making high demands on birds in complex show situations are finding that by paying primary attention to the “may not perform” side of the balance they are able to fly birds at weights that are near or even above those of the birds when being free fed, the so-called ad lib weight.

An essential part of training using weight management is the continual evaluation of the behavior of the bird. Novice and inexperienced trainers will often get fixated on a “flying weight”; the bird performs well at a particular weight and the trainer blindly maintains that weight. The training process should be to increase the weight of the bird and to carefully observe the behavior. A good trainer keeps increasing weight until they observe the early subtle signs of the behavior breaking down. By using this process the bird is flown at the highest weight possible.

In summary, food and/or weight management are used by professional trainers almost without exception. However, the decision to reduce diet in order to increase motivation is taken after all other factors have been considered and addressed. Indeed, sometimes the only ethical decision when trying to fly some birds in these situations is to choose not to fly them. It is true that almost any bird can be motivated to fly in pretty much any situation by using food/weight management; the question each trainer should ask is how far they are ethically prepared to go to achieve that goal.

Finally, choosing the right bird for the job or even the right job for the bird is probably the most important training decision we make.

Keep soaring,
Further reading: