I don’t use rewards for training!

June 30th, 2017

I recently have seen an increase in the use of the word “reward” when speaking/writing about training. One of the tenets of my teaching is the use of the correct terminology when speaking or writing about behavior and training. The science is clear about the correct term for a stimulus that increases or maintains behavior when delivered contingent on and contiguous with the behavior; it is reinforcer. By using this term one communicates clearly that the stimulus is proven to increase or maintain the behavior, this proof comes from previous presentations of the stimulus and the observed maintenance or increase in the behavior. The term “reward” is not a part of the lexicon of the science of behavior change, its definition is:

… a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.

“the holiday was a reward for 40 years’ service with the company”

synonyms: recompense, prize, award, honor, decoration, bonus, premium, bounty, present, gift, payment;

More: fair return for good or bad behavior.

“a slap on the face was his reward for his impudence

“a sum offered for the detection of a criminal, the restoration of lost property, or the giving of information.

synonyms: recompense, prize, award, honor, decoration, bonus, premium, bounty, present, gift, payment;

The important point to note is that a reward does not imply any change in the future behavior. However, with the term “reinforcer” the stimulus only gets that name if in the future the behavior it follows is maintained or increased.

An important part of behavior and training is communication, and communication only works when those communicating speak the same language. Learning and using the correct terminology is a part of being a good, effective trainer. It empowers the trainer to communicate clearly, and precisely, with their peers and leads to a better understanding of the behavior.

If you would like to learn more about training and behavior, register for the 14th Annual Raptor Handling Class. Register before June 12, 2017 to receive the benefit of our early-bird price.

Keep soaring,


14th Annual Raptor Handling Class

June 21st, 2017

The original motivation behind starting to teach this class was to raise the bar for those people working with raptors in public education. What I saw back then was that while driven by the best possible motives many, if not the majority, of those doing this work were unaware of the fact that the techniques being taught to them relied heavily upon the use of coercion and aversives. In fact, when viewed from a behavior science perspective the prevalent technique was that of flooding, with its fallout effect, learned helplessness.

When new birds came to a facility, often from either a rehabilitation facility or department, they were subjected to all kinds of stimuli that the birds were just supposed “to get used to.” The more benign technique was to enter the birds’ housing and sit for hours, reading a book. At the other end of the coercive scale was keeping birds in dark places until they ate in the presence of the “trainer.”

One example of such coercive training I remember witnessing was that of a Great Horned Owl, it was an exhibit and educational bird. I saw the handler enter the exhibit (in public view) and use a large butterfly-type net to capture the bird, equipment was placed on the bird while restrained, and then it was taken to do a program. Again, all of this in public view. When I asked the handler about the catching of the bird he said, “Oh he’s just stubborn, once he’s on the glove he’s fine, look how calm he is.” What I saw was a bird that was terrified and had just plain given up, he had no control over any outcome during this process, a classic example of learned helplessness.

So, here we are almost 15 years into these classes and the sad part for me is that while many facilities have made huge changes to the way they train and handle raptors for programs there still remains a way to go. Part of the issue is what I call the “Always done it that way and it works” attitude. For me it is important to remember that effectiveness alone is not enough. Our primary concern must be the welfare of the birds, their quality of life must be raised to the highest level. Indeed, they must not only survive in our care they should thrive.

I invite you to join us this summer in beautiful New Mexico, attend the 14th Annual Raptor Handling Class and raise the bar for the birds in your care. Please visit our web site for details and to register for the class. Act now and secure the early-bird discount.

Keep soaring,


Pavlov … always on your shoulder

June 9th, 2017

Just recently a very good friend who was visiting Europe brought back some of my favorite candy from England. I love Bassett’s Licorice Allsorts, and she was kind enough to bring back several one-pound boxes. In addition, she gave me a small notepad and pen.

So, what does this have to do with the title of this short blog and more specifically what has it to do with Dr Pavlov? Well that notepad and pen are the clue.

Many years ago I remember Dr Susan Friedman saying “Pavlov is always on your shoulder.” It is a phrase I have used in pretty much every class/workshop/seminar I have given. It is also a concept that many people have trouble seeing in their everyday training sessions, let alone in the regular daily lives.

Remember Pavlov discovered what has become known as classical or respondent conditioning. He paired a bell ringing with the presentation of food to a dog. After a few repetitions of the pairing found that ringing the bell alone elicited salivation from the dog.

Back to the Allsorts, when I see the bag on the kitchen counter I salivate and invariably reach over and take one, or two! What I have found is that catching a glimpse of the notepad, or even just the pen, on my office desk elicits the same response and, for the sake of my waistline, I must work hard not to go in search of the Allsorts bag.

This smart marketing campaign is a great example of respondent conditioning, Allsorts are easily recognized by their color, just seeing those colors in combination reminds me they are around and the salivation starts.

There are many examples in marketing of respondent conditioning … challenge yourself to find a few today!

Keep soaring,



Let’s End STEM

June 11th, 2015

It seems like not a day goes by that I don’t see an article published in all fields promoting the need for our education system to focus on Stem – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Teaching critical thinking is for sure something we must do and hopefully a good science and engineering education will do that.

However, I truly believe we need to forget STEM and concentrate on STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.

I can’t enumerate the number of technical graduates I have met in my long career who have a very narrow field of interests, mostly if not exclusively technology. Place them into a social setting and if the conversation doesn’t come around to technology they soon become silent. What I have found is that the most creative of technologists I have met are well rounded people with broad interests, studying the liberal arts not only makes them interesting people to be around it appears to boost their creativity in their highly technical fields.

So, let’s try to drop that extra letter “A” into STEM and go full STEAM ahead with the next generation of creative technologists.
Keep soaring … Sid.

Without a shadow of a doubt – really?

May 18th, 2015

“It’s a scientific fact, without a shadow of a doubt!”

Well how many times do you read that and think one of two things; “rock solid truth” or “really?” If you really understand what science is and how its practitioners work you should have answered “really?”

This may surprise some readers given that I am a really strong proponent of using a science based approach to teaching and training both our fellow humans and the animals we share our lives with. The strength of the scientific method is not that once a fact is proven it is incontrovertible and set in stone forever. It is this “set in stone” perception that I believe has caused many previous supporters of the scientific method to begin to question it. How many remember when scientists announced that eggs and butter were bad for our health only to later reverse that position? If one were in the camp that said scientific facts are set in stone I am sure it would rock (pun intended) one’s faith in science.

What science presents is the best knowledge to date on a particular subject. That knowledge is based upon carefully conducted experiments with methodical collection and analysis of the resultant data.

The scientific method depends upon several crucial points:

  1. Peer review of the testing process, results collection, and of the methods used to evaluate a hypothesis.
  2. Repeatability of the experiment by independent researchers.
  3. Ongoing openness of the participants and scientific community to challenging established “facts.”

The first two points act as a cross-check of not only the premise of the test scenario but also the methodology used to collect and analyze the results. There have been several cases in the popular press that demonstrate these two points in action, e.g. the attempt to link vaccination with autism.

However it is the third point that in my opinion truly drives knowledge forward. If once a theory was established it was set in stone there would be little progress towards new knowledge in the area covered by the theory. The major force for advancement of knowledge is a skeptical reader, someone who when they read a new theory asks themselves “really? Is that really all there is to it?”

It is this last point that I feel should be taught in our schools, all our schools from pre-K onward. In fact I feel so strongly about this being a driving force for our society’s future I believe it should be a prime objective of parents to instill a respectfully questioning mind in all our children.

You may be wondering why this subject popped up on a bird training blog? The fact is that I was inspired to write it while reading a bird related post online today where the writer used the “without a shadow of a doubt” phrase. It is becoming one of two pervasive approaches to information; either because a researcher establishes a position it is set in stone or science is always wrong so discard it. What we need in all aspects of our lives is, not surprisingly, somewhere between the two. What we need is “respectful skepticism.” This will lead to new discoveries and to growth of the human knowledge base.

Keep soaring,