Posts Tagged ‘parrot training’

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.


Most Positive Least Intrusive Trainers

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Using only positive reinforcement seems like the right thing to do, however telling anyone that is what they should do is possibly setting them up for failure by taking tools off the table that in some circumstances may be required. The world is just not built that way; nor are animals “wired” to operate that way. Aversive stimuli abound in nature and all animals encounter them and learn to avoid them. What I would like to discuss here is a more practical, more achievable goal that will yield results without significantly adversely affecting the relationship between you and your bird.

If you visit my Behavior and Training web site you will notice that the banner for each page has a subtitle – “Where least intrusive becomes most effective,” that subtitle is so much more than simply a way to catch your attention, it is a reference to the most ethical way of choosing the strategy used for behavior change and training. The maxim “least intrusive” embodies important principles that as animal caretakers we should follow as closely as possible. Just as in the field of medicine the Hippocratic principle of doing no harm is the basis for the decisions our doctors make when they plan an intervention to correct health issues, we as animal caretakers should adopt a similar principle, that of choosing the least intrusive strategy for behavior change and training.

Those who have read my articles before may look at this proposed principle and recognize a construct. I can hear the questions now, “What does least intrusive look like?” If you are asking that question then you are well on the way to understanding behavior science. However, constructs are useful provided that they are defined and well understood by those who use them, so let’s take a closer look at our adage “least intrusive.”

Dr Susan Friedman published an article in GoodBird magazine in December 2009 that defined intrusiveness by these two criteria:

  1. The level of social acceptability.
  2. The degree to which the learner maintains control while the intervention is in effect.

While the level of social acceptability is a highly personal, ethical judgment, research shows that not only psychologists but also teachers, parents, and children place positive reinforcement strategies ahead of punishment based procedures when considering acceptability. In addition, punishment-based procedures have considerable fall-out, the subject of a future article.

Research into the effects of a learner’s control of outcomes shows that when control is removed and the ability to escape aversive stimuli is removed they give up trying to escape. This effect, known as learned helplessness, has been observed in a wide range of species and it often persists even when control is returned.  To the greatest extent possible we must empower our birds to be able to use their behavior to control outcomes.  This is the function of behavior, to operate on the environment to affect outcomes. A failure to recognize this and the removal of such control may result in one or more undesirable behaviors such as feather picking, unacceptable vocalizations, etc.

I hope that by reading the definition of least intrusive you will recognize that the effectiveness of a strategy is simply not enough. The intrusiveness of the procedure must also be considered. To guide us and to set a standard by which we can judge our techniques Dr Susan Friedman has proposed a hierarchy of procedural alternatives. Below you will see a graphic that shows the strategy hierarchy proposed by Dr Friedman in an article that was first published in GoodBird magazine (Vol 4-1; Winter 2009) that this article is based upon and rather than repeat or paraphrase her information here I strongly encourage you all to read “What’s wrong with this picture? Effectiveness is not enough.

Intervention Hierarchy - Copyright Friedman 2008

To return to the original theme of this article, the statement that only positive reinforcement should be used, I would like to change this. Rather than adopting what may well prove to be an impossible or even impractical goal we should set ourselves up for success with our birds with the goal of maintaining the highest possible ratio of positive reinforcement strategies to other more intrusive strategies. Certainly, when considering a strategy for behavior change we should start at the top of the above hierarchy and only proceed to a lower level when we have exhausted the options at the current level. Also note that before we begin to consider positive reinforcement strategies we have two levels of intervention available to us. Attempting to apply a positive reinforcement strategy to address a behavioral issue that has medical/physical roots does not make sense, nor does it address the needs of the bird.

In applying the least invasive strategy we will begin to build what Steve Martin calls a “trust account” with our birds in his article “It’s about relationships.” Our goal is to make the maximum number of deposits into that trust account using the strategies from the top of the hierarchy down to positive reinforcement. By keeping these deposits high in number our occasional need and application of lower level strategies will make withdrawals from that account but should nowhere near deplete the account. So let’s not be “Positive Reinforcement Trainers” let’s be “Most Positive, Least Intrusive Trainers.” Our birds will really appreciate it!


Train your Parrot to Scream

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

While  the title of this article is a little “tongue-in-check” I do want to discuss how people train their birds to scream and also how at least one internet marketer suggests you do that … although they actually claimed the method would stop screaming, “… in a few days” of course.


I received a number of free “training” newsletters from an internet source this last week. One of them offered a way to stop your parrot screaming. Loud vocalizations are indeed a common behavioral issue for companion parrot owners so I read with interest. The advice started out quite well by suggesting one keeps a journal to indentify the times when the bird was vocalizing loudly. This is good advice and is for sure the first step in any attempt to modify that behavior. However, having started out so well and identified that the example bird screamed when someone was in the kitchen the following advice was then offered:


To solve this problem you can keep the pet near the kitchen and when he starts to scream throw a little bit[e to] him and keep him happy.


Hmm, now let me see what just happened; the bird started making noise so the owner gave him some food … sounds like the potential for positive reinforcement to me and that means that the probable future behavior is that the bird will scream when the owner is in the kitchen. So, if you want to train your bird to scream I think this is a very good technique.


Now, my guess is that the reason you are reading this is because what you really want is to have your bird not scream loudly, too much. I say too much because it is a fact that parrots can be loud, all parrots can be loud. It is simply a part of their nature and from time to time even the quietest bird may get a little “out of control” vocally. To get started trying to control this, just like the example above, we need to identify when the noise occurs. For example, if it is when you leave the room the noise may be your bird making a contact call. This is the function of the behavior; the need to make contact with the rest of the flock. Stopping this behavior is one of the most difficult things to do and can take a very long time. In fact if your goal is to stop the contact call you may be wasting your time trying! Probably not what you wanted to read right? However there is hope …


As I said the behavior has a function (making contact) so the best strategy is to try to replace the loud noises with a more acceptable vocalization for the function of contact. This is not something that can be done overnight, it takes time and patience on the part of the owner. Start by choosing a vocalization already used by your bird, one that is not so loud or high energy as the scream. Every time you hear the chosen vocalization reinforce it by responding in kind if you are out of the room or by offering a treat if you are near your bird. When the loud noise occurs ignore it, do not respond and for sure do not enter the room. What we are trying to do is to make the new sound more rewarding than the old sound. The old sound may never go away; indeed it may resurge from time to time, however by keeping the reinforcement for the “good” sound high we can hopefully keep it at the top of your bird’s preferred list of contact calls.


As you can imagine when we bring home a new young bird it is very important that we are aware of how we may easily train him to be a loud, obnoxious adult. Should your new bird start making a loud noise be careful how you respond.


Tossing a treat may well make him go quiet at that moment … however when he sees you near the treat jar …


When you are on the phone and he makes noise … hand over a treat and the phone may become the cue for making noise in the future.


By ignoring these loud vocalizations when the bird is young and by reinforcing acceptable communication we can hopefully avoid some of the really loud vocalizations in the future. The reinforcement of acceptable noises is really important; we need to give the bird a means of fulfilling the function of contact. If we simply try to stop the contact calls we are probably setting ourselves and our birds up for failure.