Archive for the ‘Reinforcement’ Category

Just ignore that screaming bird!

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Undesirable loud noises, typically referred to as “screaming” by parrot owners, is a common issue. So common that it inspired me to tailor a presentation for conferences and bird clubs called “The Accidental Trainer”. The basis of the presentation is that screaming and also biting, are so prevalent in companion parrots that they must be inherently “noisy biters.” It is not my intention to cover the ground that my presentation covers in a few hundred words of a blog, I encourage anyone interested to contact me so that I may bring the full presentation to their club. What I would like to discuss is the often advised strategy of behavior change called “extinction” as a solution to the noise issue. My point will be that extinction alone is not enough, indeed suggesting only extinction as a fix for a noisy bird may well be setting up the bird and the caretaker for failure.

First let’s take a quick look at exactly what we mean when we speak about extinction. The word itself and its common meaning sound like the right approach:

Extinction – Noun

1. The state or process of a species, family, or larger group being or becoming extinct.

2. The state or process of ceasing or causing something to cease to exist.

The first definition is obvious and is probably the one that people are most familiar with. The second definition is not surprising either and seems to be what we want with this noisy bird behavior, we want it to cease to exist, the behavior that is 😮

From a behavior science perspective we get a tighter definition, one that leads to how to apply the strategy:

1. When a behavior that has been previously reinforced no longer produces reinforcing consequences the behavior gradually stops occurring.

This also seems clear, we simply ensure that whatever consequence has been reinforcing the behavior is no longer available. Simple right? Well not so much. The first challenge in any attempt to reduce the frequency or strength of an undesired behavior is to try to discover two things. First what is the signal in the environment that informs the bird that if they vocalize loudly it will produce a desirable outcome? Second, what is that desirable outcome produced by the behavior of vocalizing loudly that is maintaining the behavior. Only once these two things are discovered and in our control do have the tools to enable an attempt to reduce the undesirable behavior.

If we are lucky we will discover and be able to control the event that is signaling the bird to begin the behavior. For example I have heard of a bird that was placed in a cage near a window and their caretaker discovered that each time a large hawk appeared on the bird table in the yard their bird would begin screaming very loudly. The caretaker would appear and talk to the bird or bring it treats to calm it. For this situation the owner chose to move the bird table into the rear garden, out of sight of the parrot … the screaming went away. The signal to the bird to scream had been removed.

More often the signal to scream is the caretaker leaving the bird alone by going to another room. In these cases not leaving the room is probably not an option. This is when many trainers advise the use of extinction, “Just DO NOT respond when the bird screams” becomes the mantra. This advice on its own is not setting up the bird or the caretaker for success. While extinction does work and has been proven to work through countless experiments it is just too hard to execute properly for most caretakers.

What the advice to use extinction is ignoring is the principle that all behavior has function. This means that the behavior of screaming is used by the bird to generate some desirable outcome. It is part of the bird’s control over its environment. A much more successful strategy asks the question, from the bird’s perspective, “What’s in it for me?” If we can figure out what the outcome the bird expects the screaming to deliver then perhaps we can work out a different, more acceptable way of the bird getting that outcome.

Many times the screaming escalated from initial much lower volume attempts by the bird to simply stay in contact with the caretaker when they left the room. If we have a bird trying to make contact then we can begin by heavily reinforcing an acceptable vocalization, while trying to ignore the loud stuff as much as possible. When the caretaker leaves the room they can reinforce the acceptable noises by responding and fulfill the function of the vocalization, assuming contact is the bird’s desired outcome.

However, there are times I hear of screaming birds that do not respond to this strategy, usually because the noise is about getting the caretaker to return to the room and not simply vocal contact. In such cases how can we replace the function of getting the caretaker to return? It may well be we cannot directly do that. Now the strategy becomes one of developing a degree of independence for the bird. This is where teaching your bird to interact with toys and also to forage for food may come to the rescue. A bird that is engaged in independent play is much less likely to “demand” the caretaker return to the room if just prior to leaving the caretaker refreshed the foraging toys or placed some other toy in the cage for their bird.

In closing I must say that this short blog is just an attempt to get caretakers to think about strategies that do not reply upon extinction alone. By just removing access to reinforcers that previously maintained a behavior we are likely setting the stage for escalating noise or other undesirable behaviors. Teaching our birds to forage and play independently will go a long way to reducing the likelihood of screaming for attention behaviors.


What is a Stimulus?

Monday, November 7th, 2011

In this short article I would like to address the definition of the behavior science term “stimulus.”

The term is defined in Webster’s as:

“… [S]omething that rouses or incites to activity … an agent (as an environmental change) that directly influences the activity of a living organism or one of its parts (as by exciting a sensory organ or evoking muscular contraction or glandular secretion)”

Not the easiest of definitions to understand, so let’s try the “student” definition, also from Webster’s Online:

1.       Something that rouses or stirs to action : INCENTIVE

2.       Something (as an environmental change) that acts to partly change bodily activity (as by exciting a sensory organ) <heat, light, and sound are common physical stimuli>

Basically a stimulus is some event or thing in the environment that elicits behavior or an event or thing that follows and has some effect upon behavior; something an animal reacts to.

I will limit the discussion in this article to those stimuli that occur immediately after a behavior and serve to either increase, maintain, or decrease the strength of the behavior.

A stimulus that follows a behavior and serves to increase or maintain the strength of that behavior is called a reinforcer. They are things that the animal/bird will work to gain.

A stimulus that follows a behavior and serves to reduce its strength is called a punisher. These stimuli are things the animal/bird will work to avoid.

The procedures of Reinforcement and Punishment will be covered in a future article.


Training and Behavior Terms Defined

Monday, October 17th, 2011

As with all aspects of life, clear communication between  caregivers, trainers, and behaviorists is vitally important if we are all to help each other solve behavior problems with our birds. One tenet of clear  communication is the vocabulary used for such communications. To foster clear  communication I will be posting a series of short articles here that define and examine some of the most used and abused terms of behavior science. This will  not be a complete list, merely an attempt to improve all of our communication skills and through that improved communication develop our relationships with our birds through better training.

All of the definitions used in these articles will be taken from “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance. Anyone who is interested in getting good solid information about behavior science should seriously consider purchasing a copy of this book.

I will begin the series with a term that many people feel they completely understand. However, one only needs to monitor a few of the many Internet lists and forums to realize it is often misused.


The procedure of  providing consequences for a behavior that increase or maintain the strength of that behavior.Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance.

This single sentence embodies several important concepts that many people appear to either gloss over or misunderstand. First and perhaps most misunderstood is that reinforcement is a procedure and not a tangible thing or object. One often hears people say “I offered reinforcement …” Reinforcement cannot be offered like a peanut. It is the process of giving the bird a peanut immediately after a behavior and seeing a future increase or maintenance of that behavior. This is the second important point in this sentence; the process followed by the trainer/caregiver is only defined as reinforcement if, after the consequence is provided, the behavior it follows actually is maintained or increased. No matter what our intention reinforcement has only been used when one is able to observe its effect on future behavior.

Closely related to reinforcement is “Reinforcer.” This is not a term directly defined by Chance in his book, however I will write about Reinforcers and Punishers in a future article that addresses the term “Stimulus.”

I hope you enjoy these short articles, if you have a term that you find confusing or would simply like better defined and explained
please feel free to email me.

Keep soaring,


More Training Secrets

Monday, July 18th, 2011

It seems that my (enable sarcasm) favorite internet bird trainers (sarcasm off … for now) have discovered two new and powerful techniques that we professionals have been hiding because we purposely use words they can’t understand, or more accurately that they claim the average parrot owner doesn’t understand. While this new “secret” is flawed on so many levels it does inspire me to write about variable reinforcement and jackpots, the two techniques revealed.

Before addressing the two techniques I want to speak to the claim that those of us who promote a science based approach to training do so by presenting complex and hard to understand terms. In fact what we present and promote is an almost profoundly simple foundation technique that goes by the name of functional analysis. I know it starts to sound like “they” are correct, it sounds really complicated. In truth it is quite simple, I agree that initially some of the terms may sound complicated but their meanings are clear. And that is the point really; behavior science enables trainers of all skill levels to communicate clearly using a common language. To learn more about this read my article “ABCs … a Training Tool“on the subject and also the articles that are referenced in it and discover the power of these techniques that have been researched and proven during the more than 100 year history of behavior science. These are not flashy phrases unique to one marketing focused outlet; they are the language of training spoken by true professionals in the human behavior science and animal training fields.

It never ceases to amuse me how these internet gurus have these mystery friends who stay in the shadows while feeding these illustrious trainers with all the secrets that the professionals don’t want you to know. This is in stark contrast to the true professionals who openly credit their sources; did I mention Dr Susan Friedman yet? Oh I guess not … but if I write about something that she taught me or that I read in one of her articles I promise I will. Anyway, back to a new strategy that is going to really change the way you train your birds … or maybe not. It is a new strategy that our gurus learned from a mystery marine mammal trainer. This new strategy is called “Random Rewards” and is the” rolls-off-your-tongue”, only used in one place name (we are told) for a technique called Variable Ratio Reinforcement Variety (VRRV) promoted by Sea World in several articles published online some time ago. The first mistake that our gurus make here is that there is nothing “random” about VRRV. There are a few variations of variable reinforcement strategies that have been studied and documented by behavior science however none of them have anything random about them at all. The second point is actually more important than a continuing misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the science and that is that for companion bird owners the best strategy is to use a one-to-one ratio of behavior to reinforcement. I say this because the strength of a behavior is directly related to the reinforcement it earns. Plus, why would you not reinforce the desired behavior? It is true that professional trainers sometimes “thin” the ratio of reinforcement as a means of getting a few more behavior repetitions in a session from an animal. However, I see no reason for a companion bird owner to need to do this and in doing so risk the behavior breaking down through poor execution of the reinforcement thinning.

The second strategy is the concept of the jackpot reinforcement and to my knowledge there is to date no solid research to support the assertion that jackpots are any more effective that “regular” reinforcement. There is certainly a belief by many animal trainers that jackpot reinforcement somehow strengthens the behavior it follows however, to date, there is no conclusive evidence or scientific study that supports this. Hopefully someday a researcher will get a research grant that permits this hypothesis to be tested rigorously in a scientific manner. Since we are talking science here I should clarify that “jackpot” in this context refers to the magnitude of the reinforcer being given. For example if you are delivering a small chip of almond as a reinforcer for a behavior and your bird does a really wonderful repetition of that behavior and you then give it half an almond, that is what is called a jackpot. It is said to be a “magnitude” reinforcer. Now, if instead of giving the bird half an almond you gave it a chip of its very favorite food, say a walnut, I suspect that would have an effect upon the future strength of the behavior, however this is not the generally accepted meaning of a jackpot.

So, once again the hype of newly invented or discovered strategies is really just reinvention, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation of the facts. The real principles of behavior and training are not difficult to understand and they are a common language for training professionals and companion animal owners alike. They are certainly not marketing hooks used only by the owners of the “secret sauce.”

If you would like your bird club or society to learn more aboout the ethical application of behavior science to bird training consider an introductory presentation. Take a look at my Behavior and Training web site for more information of write to me using the “speaking engagements” link at the top right of the page.


Punishment Revisited

Monday, July 18th, 2011

In my last blog article I wrote about the importance of using the terms of Operant Conditioning (OC) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) correctly and consistently. The article was inspired by what I considered to be a disappointing article published by Karen Pryor, in particular her discussion of Punishment. In response to my post I received a most excellent and well thought out email from Chris Shank, a well respected parrot trainer. Chris wrote:

I was quite interested in your response on Karen Pryor’s comments on punishment from her website. I’m currently reading Sidman’s, Coercion and its Fallout.’ Fascinating reading. In chapter 2, pg. 45, he says this about punishment:

‘But we define punishment without appealing to any behavioral effect; punishment occurs whenever an action is followed either by a loss of positive or a gain of negative reinforcers. This definition says nothing about the effect of a punisher on the action that produces it.

It says neither that punishment is the oppositie [sic] of reinforcement nor that punishment reduces the future likelihood of punished actions.’

This is indeed one area where Sidman appears to be at odds with almost all other contemporary behaviorists.

After receiving Chris’ email I did some additional research just to be sure that my understanding of this term was supportable. In addition to having a long conversation with Dr Susan Friedman on this subject I also referred to my copy of “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance.

What we have here is an example of how science works; ideas are postulated, discussed, and tested. Science is dynamic and the definition of Punishment is a wonderful example of how science progresses and changes as new ideas are presented, challenged, and tested. If science did not operate this way then behaviorists would not be thinking of Punishment at all since B. F. Skinner himself (the “father” of behavioral science) stated that from his experiments Punishment was ineffective. What those that have followed Skinner have discovered through challenge and experiment is that indeed Punishment does work and possibly the levels of aversives being used by Skinner were too low to be effective. The Chance book cites some excellent studies on Punishment and for those who wish to dig deeper into this subject I would highly recommend reading his chapter on Punishment.

The definition of Punishment I use is the one used by the majority of respected contemporary behaviorists and animal trainers:

“Punishment is a consequence delivered after a behavior that serves to reduce the frequency or intensity with which the behavior is exhibited,”  Susan Friedman – “The Facts About Punishment

“The procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that reduce the strength of that behavior,”  Paul Chance – Learning and Behavior

“The procedure of providing consequence for a response that reduces the frequency of that response” – International Marine Mammal Trainers’ Association – Glossary

“The procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that decrease the frequency of that behavior.” – University of South Florida Glossary of Behavior

The way that science tests these definitions is by challenging them with real behavioral examples; indeed this is what Sidman does in another article where he challenges the definition (The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations). He presents a number of test examples that he believes show that the above definition is wrong. For example he asks “When a parent ends a child’s eating between meals by hiding the cookie jar, has the child’s cookie eating been punished?” The answer is patently no, however I see this as comparing apples and oranges because what the parent did was to change the antecedents of behavior (hide the jar) and NOT apply a contingent consequence to reduce the behavior.

In reading the above article by Sidman it appears that his main argument against the contemporary definition of Punishment is two-fold. Firstly that it is not how Skinner defined it and secondly that the contemporary definition was simply adopted by behaviorists without the proper scientific discussion, debate, and challenge. In the light of the fact that Skinner stated that Punishment was ineffective one can only assume that any conclusions he drew about Punishment after this were flawed or at least based upon shaky ground. Since we now know that indeed Punishment does work we need an update to that part of the Skinnerian hypotheses; the contemporary definitions above provide that update. Secondly, in challenging the contemporary definition of Punishment Sidman is addressing the second part of his objection to the definition and it appears that the majority of contemporary behaviorists are meeting his challenge and successfully defending the definition I gave and those above. Therefore through his challenges he is actually encouraging contemporary behaviorists to fulfill the need for challenge, debate, and test of the definition. This is a good thing since to date those challenges have been answered.

So, I stand by my original article and its definition of Punishment, at least until through its continuing journey science brings a better way of expressing the concepts that we use to describe behavior. And that after all is what these terms are all about; building a common language that practitioners of behavior change (i.e. trainers) can use to communicate clearly with both peers and students.

Chris asked in her email if in the light of the writings of Sidman on this subject it was correct to say that Karen Pryor was “wrong” in her discussion of Punishment. Having read some more and talked with others about this I stand by the point of my article; the terminology of OC and ABA can be confusing even when used correctly, to mix historical and contemporary concepts can only lead to deeper confusion; especially when these concepts are held to be correct by the majority of contemporary behaviorists. I find this especially important in arena that Karen Pryor publishes her writings, the pet community. It is vitally important that those who have respect and reputation in that community communicate in a cohesive and accurate manner the principles and terminology of the science. I still feel that Karen Pryor’s article failed to meet those criteria and yes I believe she was wrong in her definition of Punishment.

My thanks go to Chris Shank for opening this discussion in such an interesting way.

In closing I would like to refer back to my previous articles about Primary and Secondary reinforcers. I was sent a clip from an internet posting that stated that my understanding of these terms was incorrect. I do not propose to reopen that discussion since I believe I clearly stated the correct definitions of those items in the original articles and that the poster of the message continues to be mistaken. I will simply refer anyone who is confused about the terms back to my original articles.