Archive for July, 2011

Reducing behavior means punishment occurred – not!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

When there is a reduction in behavior punishment is always in play! Once again I saw this used in a discussion in an Internet group. The discussion centered around the reduction of unwanted behavior, in the particular case it was a free flying bird landing on strangers. I don’t intend to address the poor strategies suggested to resolve this or the much better alternate strategies suggested. Rather I want to talk about the argument put up that even when using the alternate strategy because the unwanted behavior is reduced punishment is still present.

Again, for those who may not be familiar with the use of the word punishment here, I use it in its technical, behavioral sense and that is a contingent consequence that reduces the future frequency of the behavior it follows.

Punishment is a process and not a single event. It is the process over time, by which a consequence reduces behavior. Note that punishment is not the only way to reduce behavior; it is one of several approaches that include differential reinforcement of an alternate or incompatible behavior, extinction, and establishing operations. And this is where the writer who said that even when a positive reinforcement approach is used to resolve the landing on strangers problem, if the landing reduces then it has been punished is wrong. Something completely different and at the totally opposite end of the intrusiveness spectrum is in play and no aversive events are required!

So, let’s think about this a bit. Remember that all behavior serves some function for the subject performing it. So, if a bird is landing on strangers we can hypothesize that social interaction is what is reinforcing (maintaining) the behavior. Rather than punishing the behavior, since this simply attempts to teach the bird what NOT to do; we can devise a training strategy that drains the value of social interaction when the bird is being flown.  This strategy was written about by Raz Rasmussen in her blog and also the basis of a presentation she gave at the recent IAATE conference in Albuquerque, NM. For these reasons I won’t go into the details of the strategy used here. What I wish to focus on is that while the unwanted behavior may have been reduced it was not punished. The principle involved here is an antecedent arrangement, technically an establishing operation that serves to reduce the value of the reinforcer that was maintaining the unwanted behavior. The bird chooses not to land on strangers because doing so would result in a now less valued reinforcer than those available from the trainer and/or elsewhere in the environment.

In our efforts to have the smallest set of simple rules to understand and influence behavior it is easy to grab hold of a rule and use it without thinking it through. I have been guilty of this myself in the past; however, I do pride myself on having a very inquisitive mind and an ability to analyze things pretty well. The simple statement that if a behavior is reduced then punishment is in play is one we must be wary of. It is similar to talking about consequences being reinforcing or punishing without the context of the behavior; we must be specific about context when evaluating if punishment is in play. Ask, was a contingent, contiguous stimulus presented or removed that caused the behavior reduction. Then you will know if the behavior was punished or if some other behavior principle is in play.

In this article I have used terms that are not explained in the text, all the terms used here have appeared and been defined in previous articles and I chose not to make this article even longer by explaining each one. Please browse back to these older articles.

ABCs … a training tool

Positive good … Negative bad

A special thank you goes out to Dr Susan Friedman for reviewing this article and contining to empower and encourage those willing to listen on this journey of learning.

Keep soaring,


Recognizing how not to do it!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Just recently there seems to have been a flood of experts available online to solve all kinds of parrot behavioral issues, it is also worthy of note that many of these experts seem to have tendrils back to a single source. That single source appears to be rather inexperienced in training in general and behavioral science for sure!

I am not going to mention any names or link to any web sites as on the internet the ranking of names and sites in Google and other search engines relies upon other sites’ links to each site. The more times a site is linked to the better its ranking. Besides which my philosophy is to educate people so that they are capable of recognizing who really understands their subject and who is simply selling snake-oil!

While browsing a Yahoo group this morning I saw a link to some information about parrot training, it was a video being promoted to demonstrate the skills of the expert, unabashed self promotion. Well I can’t argue with that, everyone who has a business knows the power of the reputation of the people involved in that business and what better way to illustrate one’s skills than a video on YouTube!

The video showed two segments of biting birds and how the behavior was fixed “in minutes”. I doubt it was actually fixed at all, but that isn’t the point of this article. The point of this article is to bring attention to the technique used and more importantly to use this to show the linkage between two things that I try to avoid. Firstly Negative Reinforcement and secondly aversives.

So, imagine a bird standing on a perch, a person approaches and immediately the bird begins to lunge towards the person. The person stops and (being directed by an of-camera voice) then steps back as a “click” is heard. This is repeated with the person approaching closer and closer and a “click” just as they step back. After some time (15 minutes according to the off-camera commentary) the person is able to allow the bird to nuzzle their hand without getting bitten.

What is going on here?

To understand one needs to break down the technique into two parts. First, the approach of the person is clearly an aversive from the bird’s perspective. As I said earlier I believe that aversives should be avoided, they do nothing to add to a positive, trusting relationship with the bird. Secondly, the person walking away appears to be reinforcing the fact that the bird did not bite (not that it really had the chance to; the person was way out of reach!). I certainly did not see any behavioral change that warranted a click and retreat. However, if we assume that the trainer perceived some behavior they liked then asking the person to walk away may have reinforced that behavior. So what we have here is Negative Reinforcement. Again, not a contributor to trust between trainer and bird.

I have read one comment that this technique is flooding. In my opinion that is not the case because the aversive (person too close to the bird) was removed. If this were flooding the person would simply have stood there, maybe even gotten closer until the bird stopped the lunging etc..

What this video shows, in addition to not being the best way to deal with a biting bird, is that typically Negative Reinforcement and the purposeful introduction of aversives are inseparable. In order to apply Negative Reinforcement (removing the person) the aversive (again the person) had to be introduced by the trainer.

Finally, just to drive home the point of what a great example of how not to deal with a biting bird this is let me ask you to think about this … was the bird ever positively reinforced? I certainly didn’t see it, once again nothing that happened in these training sessions worked towards establishing a positive, trusting relationship between trainer and bird.

Here is an article written by Dr Susan Friedman and Lee McGuire about biting. It was first published in one of the best resources for how to train companion birds the right way, Good Bird Magazine.


Primary Reinforcement and History Revisited

Monday, July 18th, 2011

I received the following question about Primary/Secondary reinforcement:

“… the delivery of the food from a human hand is something that must be learned (human hand delivering food is safe). So if the food is delivered from a human hand, does that then make it become a secondary reinforcer?” – Curtis White.

No, food is a primary reinforcer; what is happening with the above example is the bird is still being reinforced by the food, something it innately wanted. What the bird has learned is that the approaching hand may contain food; its motivation is to acquire the food, and the bird did not have to learn that the food was desirable. The approaching hand may, with some birds, become a secondary reinforcer as a result of being paired with the primary food reinforcer, but I think it is over-thinking the scenario to say that the “food in the hand” becomes a secondary reinforcer itself.

Also the following was received in response to the “Silver Bullet” article:

“I thought that the need to understand history is a concept based on the medical model. If behavior analysis is the study of the functional relations between behavior and environmental events (Chase, P; 1998), should we need to know the bird’s history to change the behavior?” – Cynthia Schutte.

Yes, my statement that one needs to know the history of the bird one is working with was based upon the fact that the behavior we see today was shaped by the experiences of the bird in its past, its history. Indeed a bird’s history is part of the set of antecedents of the behaviors we observe. While we may not always be able to arrange our training sessions to account for some of those particular antecedents there are many times when being able to do so will assist in changing the observed behavior.

For example, suppose that we are trying to train a newly adopted bird; without knowing at least some of the history of that bird how do we know where to start. Suppose, unknown to the trainer, the bird had previously been forced into and out of a transport crate, trying to train this behavior could be problematic. However, given this knowledge we can adjust our training strategy to desensitize the bird to crates.

It is unfortunate that when some trainers do behavior analysis they typically only consider the obvious antecedents, the ones in the immediate environment, forgetting that the whole history of the bird is part of the antecedent package.

It is important to remember that the consequences of a behavior either increase or decrease the likelihood that the behavior will be presented in the future. Those consequences become a part of the bird’s history and factor into the antecedents of future behavior too. If a bird has a history of getting rewarded for approaching the trainer then when the trainer cues the bird to step onto the hand that history will factor into the bird’s decision to make the step. History plays a very important role in an animal’s decision making and a good trainer needs to know as much history as possible to set their birds up for success.

Keep those questions and comments  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   coming and also don’t forget to join the email list so that you will get notifications of new posts to the blog.

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.