Archive for April, 2008

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.


Beware the Silver Bullet

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Over the last few weeks I have come across several web sites and articles that offer parrot owners what seems like a real training “Silver Bullet”. They promise to solve all of your parrot’s behavioral issues in no time at all and all it takes is buying either a book or a DVD. Now I am all for making solving behavioral issues as simple and quick as possible, however as someone who studies behavior I find it fascinating and at the same time a little scary that people actually believe the claims being made and perhaps the scarier part that they believe the advice they are getting is in the best interests of both them and their parrots.

My distrust of these web sites was made even deeper when I recently listened to a webcast by one of these “lauded experts”. Not only was some of the advice being given guaranteed to not assist in building a better relationship with one’s bird, the speaker plainly did not understand even the rudimentary science that underpins all training. A friend commented that the speaker sounded like they had been to just one behavior workshop and fallen asleep part way through! Now I do accept that one doesn’t have to understand the science to be a trainer, maybe even a good trainer, however I do think anyone who is advising novices on how to train their birds needs a solid understanding of how training actually works, indeed why training works.

So what can the poor web surfer do to be sure they are getting good advice from a solid source? Science itself again provides us with the answer to that question … look for good references to back up the statements being made. You will note that whenever I write in this blog about some aspect of operant conditioning or applied behavioral analysis I try to give a link or two to some other sources that support what I am writing. I do that because I feel it is important to communicate that these techniques are not invented by me, much of what I write is based upon the teaching of well respected leaders in the fields of both behavior analysis and animal training. What I endeavor to do is to present ideas and approaches that are based upon sound science, I try to understand that unpinning science. Further more, because all science is a process I often discuss and question ideas in an open-minded and constructive way with my professional colleagues.

Also, animals are not appliances that can be fixed by following a simplistic, rigid guide; they are just like humans in that they are individuals, each with a unique history that has shaped how they behave and how they react to the world they experience. In order to “fix” behavioral problems one needs to understand this history before one can even begin to formulate a sound strategy.

In viewing these “Silver Bullet” web sites I was reminded of a fun video that Steve Martin includes in one of his training tapes. It is a spoof TV commercial for “Pete’s Parrot Palace and Wicker Furniture Emporium.” In the video a character (Pete) looking very much like Arnold Schwarzenegger explains how he can fix all your parrot behavior problems. He then proceeds to wrap a dummy bird in a towel and spin it around to demonstrate how you “teach” the bird to behave. While this is a rather extreme caricature of several training “gurus” that have come to light over the years it should remind us to treat such instant fixes with circumspection and also just because something is on the web or in a video does not make it the right approach or the thing to do.

The old adage “If it sounds too good to be true … it probably is” makes a good jumping off point for web surfing too!