Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

The Right Bird for the Job – The Right Job for the Bird

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Just recently I closed a blog post with the following statement:

“Finally, choosing the right bird for the job or even the right job for the bird is probably the most important training decision we make.”

This statement triggered quite an active discussion on one Yahoo group and it was interesting to read the thread.

I also received one question directly about this:

“I would be interested to know more about how you know what bird is right for the job or what job is right for the bird and why?” – Curtis White.

I must admit that the statement was placed into the blog entry to see what reaction it would get, to stimulate discussion. This is why I have not posted any responses to the Yahoo group where it was being discussed, I wanted to observe the readers and gauge if they were able to apply the information that had preceded the statement. It was encouraging that the obvious answer was among the points of view expressed.

That obvious answer is that just like every other training issue we face our decision should be driven by two factors. Firstly the bird’s performance, evaluated using direct observation of the behavior being trained. How is the bird responding to the training sessions in changing environments? Is its focus on the training sessions improving as we work the bird? Combined with this we come back once again to the personal ethical position of the trainer. As I have stated previously motivation can certainly be raised by using deprivation (reducing diet, to reduce weight, to increase motivation). However, there comes a time for me when I am just not comfortable with reducing weight to increase the focus of a bird that is simply not comfortable doing what is being asked of it. In addition, as one increases food drive other less desirable behaviors begin to be presented. For example with a human raised bird these may include gross begging behaviors or with some species aggressive responses to the trainer and others in the presence of food. Before I reach this point it is time to re-evaluate if this is the right bird for the job or ask if the bird is better suited to a different behavior, in this way we find the right job for the bird.

Making the personal judgment call, and that is for sure what it is, requires the same skills that I keep repeating every good trainer needs. These skills include good observation and a high degree of empathy for the animal being trained.

The question was raised in one discussion thread as to how you know whether the poor response of a bird is due to an unsuitable bird or to the lack of skill on the part of the trainer. I would say that every trainer must accept full responsibility for the behavior of their birds and therefore on some level it always the trainer failing the bird. This is why I believe that anyone training animals needs to really study the science and also, perhaps most importantly, keep an open mind. Ultimately, regardless of whether the bird is not suited to the job or the trainer lacks the skill to train the desired behavior it is the responsibility of the trainer to recognize this.

It is worth reiterating that trainers should always keep challenging their own skill level. I mentioned the self-reinforcing dependence of novice trainers on weight management previously; if one is really interested in becoming a good trainer one simply has to let go of this apparent “silver bullet”, this will challenge your training skills and lead to being a better trainer with more engaged birds.

I remember very well a workshop given by Steve Martin for professional trainers where he encouraged everyone to work all non-raptor species without equipment attached. It had been almost standard practice in professional show situations to use falconry style equipment on corvids like crows and ravens. The “take-away” message from Steve for me was that by taking off the equipment the trainer was forced to increase the level of their skills, to make a greater effort to understand the nature of the bird and its behavior, and that by doing so they would become a better trainer. This was a life-changing moment for me and one training journey using this approach is documented in my 2006 IAATE presentation “Strong Foundations and Adjustments – Keys to Training Success.”

Releasing oneself from dependence upon weight management I see in a similar potentially life changing way for novice trainers. Let go of your preconceptions, accept full responsibility for your birds’ behavior, make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a trainer.


History Revisited … again!

Monday, July 18th, 2011

In an article “Primary Reinforcement and History Revisited” posted in April of this year I made the point that knowing the history of a bird was important.

“… the whole history of the bird is part of the antecedent package.”

“… the behavior we see today was shaped by the experiences of the bird in its past, its history.”

This point was taken up in a private email exchange with the writer taking issue with me about this. Their point was that my statements were discouraging to those who may be considering adopting one of the many older parrots looking for new homes. I thought long and hard about this because it certainly was not my intention. Why, you may ask, has this issue come back to the surface?

We recently adopted a dog (Emma) from the Albuquerque Shelter. She is a Border Collie mix who’s age is supposed to be around eight years although we believe she is probably closer to four or five years old. The staff at the shelter were excellent in their approach to our interest in Emma, she had been identified as a “fear-biter” and this together with her age and lack of interest from other adopters meant that she was less than an hour from being euthanized when we arrived to evaluate her. The shelter supervisor took a long time interviewing us and explaining the issues that Emma was believed to have. We had decided before arriving at the shelter that if a “meet and greet” with our other two dogs went well we would adopt Emma. That meeting went very well through the fence and Emma came home with us. I don’t propose to go through all the details of Emma’s first few weeks with us except to say that there were pretty uneventful in terms of seeing any aggression or biting. In fact we have seen no biting, having been so well briefed we have been able to help Emma adjust to her new life in hopefully the least invasive and stressful way. After less than two months it is like she has been here and a part of our pack all her life … we just don’t have baby pictures!

So in this short story, in my opinion, are all the elements that the best parrot rescues appear to apply and to which the majority should aspire. They first of all watch and observe the birds they take in, they may work these birds so that any fear responses and other behavioral issues are reduced and thereby biting is also placed onto a reducing trajectory. Perhaps most importantly they communicate with the potential adopters clearly and honestly what the issues are and how they need to be addressed. They also assess the level of understanding of the challenges being faced by the adopters. In so doing they fill in as honestly and fully as they can the history of the bird. Only by doing this can they not only raise the likelihood that the bird will adjust to its new life but they also set up the adopters for success.

I stand by my original statement that knowing the history of a bird is an important and valuable antecedent. Consider if Emma had come home and we knew nothing of her “fear-biting” history, I firmly believe that somebody could well have been bitten by taking the wrong approach.

In my opinion there is no truth to the age-old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Given enough time, skill, and motivation there are no lost causes when it comes to animal training. In the past I have trained wild injured birds for educational programs; is it quick and easy … not usually. Is it challenging … without a doubt. Is it highly rewarding .. again without a doubt.

The choice of whether one acquires a chick or adopts a mature bird is down to the individual person. It depends upon what their motivation is; are they looking to get quick (often not long term) results or are they looking to raise their own skills by taking on the challenge of an older bird. It is as always more about the trainer than the bird. Check out Carly Lu’s Flight Blog for a great success story and a demonstration of how an older bird got enriched and a growing trainer stretched their skills.


Why did he do that?

Monday, July 18th, 2011

I received the following question about the Steve Martin article “What’s in it for me?” I referenced in my welcome blog

… Steve mentions working with the Harris Hawk who was lazing [in] a tree too much. He said they decided to try increasing his weight instead of decreasing it, but gave no reason why. … Is there some reason why he would try increasing the weight first? Or is it implied that they had previously tried lowering the weight and it did not work? – Dr. Linda Rasmussen.

Before I address the question it is worth mentioning that when we are trying to evaluate behavior it is important to only consider what we can actually observe; the facts … just the facts. If we try to base our strategies on what we think the animal was thinking we are on the road to disappointment.

Also, the subject of weight or food management will be covered in more detail in a future Blog. Reducing weight should not be the first step any competent trainer takes.

When I received this question the first thing I did was to go back and read the article again, this time paying attention to the section about the Harris’ hawk and noting any behavioral observations that Steve reported. All that was mentioned was that the bird was “playing around in a tree” and “taking too much time.” In addition to noting the behavior one should also note what happened right before the behavior, unfortunately the article did not tell us that. Finally one should note the history of the bird’s behavior, once again not mentioned in the article. Given this lack of information (facts) the only recourse was to contact Steve and ask him if he could remember why he had chosen to raise the weight of the bird in this context.

While waiting to hear from Steve and being a curious person I pondered what might have been Steve’s reasoning. The example Steve used involved a raptor (Harris’ hawk) and raptors are highly food motivated. One scenario that came to mind was that if one increases food motivation too much the bird may start to look around for food itself. If the bird had exhibited hunting behaviors this may explain why it remained in the tree, waiting for prey to appear. Indeed this is what Steve reported to me; the bird was seen “bouncing around in the tree, biting at bark, and footing the branches”. Footing is the behavior of a raptor grasping very hard, the action it uses to kill or disable its prey. So it seems my hypothesis was close and raising the weight was an attempt to reduce the food motivation to see if this reduced the unwanted behaviors.

This is a good example of how trainers’ should approach a problem; one change at a time. Too often trainers apply the “shotgun” approach and change several things at the same time. The result being that they may never know the real reason they changed the behavior, and so next time they need to take the “shotgun” out again.

Thank you Dr. Linda Rasmussen,


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.


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.