Archive for the ‘Dr Susan Friedman’ Category

Ethical training as a way of life

Monday, July 18th, 2011

The following was written as my “Letter from the President” in the current issue of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators Flyer member’s magazine. I received emails and even a phone call or two from my IAATE collegues who had found it useful and even inspirational. I believe it is worth publishing to the wider audience that reads my blog, I hope you also find it useful, informative, and maybe even inspirational … enjoy.

(First published in IAATE Flyer, Sumnmer 2010)

Recently my mind has been occupied with several training and behavior subjects. This has involved watching a little more closely not only how the subjects of the training session behave but also how their trainers behave in their interactions with other members of their team. Some of what I saw was perplexing and it took me on several thought paths and to more observation and reflection. The question that kept returning was, “if these folks are applying the current best techniques and getting good, sometimes excellent results with their animals, why are their teams and relationships with their colleagues in such disarray?”

Slowly I came to the conclusion that when interacting with colleagues and team members these otherwise gentle, least intrusive trainers were hooked on aversive stimuli in their management and leadership styles. “Attracted to aversive stimuli like a moth to a flame” was how it was summarized by Dr Susan Friedman in one of our recent conversations on this subject.  The often used adage “setting them up to succeed” simply wasn’t present. I have to admit it came as a bit of a surprise that when dealing with the human members of their teams many people forget, or at least set aside, all the lessons they have learned so well for their animals.

During my reflections I spoke to several trainers on the receiving end of this aversive attention. There appear to be two extremes of leadership style; both fail their subjects in several areas. First there is the micromanager who seems incapable of allowing their team members to make a move without having almost complete hands-on themselves. What they are doing is taking all control away from their team members; the team has no power to make any decisions, anything they do is heavily criticized, leading to apathy and resentment. None of these effects should be a surprise to the trainer who understands behavior science.

At the other extreme is the leader who believes they are giving their team complete freedom by not interfering or supporting at all. While this approach can be not nearly as destructive as the micromanager it does bring its own problems, perhaps stronger this time for the leader. Things that are important to the team leader may not be performed, individuals begin to formulate their own priorities and focus on them, tension may develop between team members as they compete for their own agendas. Plus, the team leader often ends up just taking care of what needs to be done rather than directing the team and thereby creates a twelve-hour workday for them self.

Both of these situations can be avoided relatively easily especially for people with the skills that good animal trainers possess. Making the switch from the traditional training techniques for the animal collection was not easy. From their earliest years many, many people have become highly proficient in the use of punishment to gain control over others. Fortunately that is changing, at least for the animals; what is needed now is for the expansion of the ethical training techniques to be extended to encompass the whole team; to our colleagues, our supervisors, and the facility interns … everyone.

Apart from making the effort to keep the ratio of reinforcement to punishment as high as possible perhaps the most important aspect of being a good team member/leader is clear communication of expectations and responsibilities. Imagine the interaction with your colleagues like a play in which you are all actors. The play simply will not work unless everyone on the stage has the same script. Becoming angry because something was not done by a colleague when they were unaware that they were expected to do it just won’t help; be clear about expectations; be clear about responsibilities. Ensure that when the team decides what to do it is also clear about who will do it and by when. In a nutshell use one of the most powerful tools of empowerment, communication.

At a time when the forms of communication available to us are expanding almost exponentially it is vital to focus not on the volume of communication but the quality. Listen to what your teammates are saying, read their email carefully, think about and consider their motivation, their expectations … then respond.

Keep soaring,


The Language We Use

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

The words we use as trainers to describe our actions and desires are wonderful indicators of our real training philosophy. This was brought back to me while reading an article in a popular bird magazine recently. I will paraphrase the actual text here:

“[These birds] need someone who is not afraid to make them step up.”

This one sentence embodies everything that is the antithesis of what I believe is the best training philosophy and it is an approach that is prevalent in our society. As I have mentioned before, the use of force and coercion is a “go to” tool for so very many people because it is how they themselves learned valuable lessons as a child. Force and Coercion work and therefore the person applying them is reinforced for their use. It is therefore not surprising that it continues to be widely used.

Much has been written about the side effects and fallout from coercion and if there is any doubt in your mind about this fallout I recommend reading
“Coercion and its Fallout” by Murray Sidman.

It is not sufficient to simply attempt to use the most positive least intrusive training methods as described by Dr Susan Friedman so elegantly in her article
“What’s wrong with this picture? Effectiveness is not enough”. In order to succeed one must think, speak, and live that way at all times. Sure, those of us attempting this fall off that track from time to time, however by making our goal a lifestyle applying this principle we can only improve our relationships with our pets, our coworkers, our friends, and everyone with whom we have contact.

Part of this lifestyle is to choose words carefully. Avoid talking about the “Step up command” and instead think and speak of the step up request. Don’t think of “making” your bird do anything, always think in terms of giving your bird choices to perform the behaviors you request. If your training and relationship with your bird are good then the request will fulfilled.


A Coercion-free New Year

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

First I wish a Happy and Prosperous New Year to you and your family. 2010 is almost behind us and a whole new year stretches in front of us. Traditionally this is a time for reflection so I would like to return to a subject that keeps surfacing as I travel around speaking to groups of other bird enthusiasts and also presenting our Free-flight shows. How poorly people treat … people.

As many of you know behavior science presents us with a chest full of tools and leaves the individual to choose the right tool for the job. I have written in the past about making the right ethical choice from the array of tools available to us and encouraged you to follow the principle encapsulated by Dr Susan Friedman … “Most Positive, Least Intrusive.”

The good news is that the number of people writing about and applying this principle with their animals is growing daily. I read articles across the spectrum of animal training and although their authors may not be using Dr Susan’s phrase in their writings the theme is there for all to see.  This is encouraging and reinforcing to see.

However, while human-animal relationships appear to be gaining ground in the application of this principle it appears that human-human relationships make little or no progress. It never ceases to surprise me to see one of my respected professional animal training colleagues apply this principle almost seamlessly with their animal collections and then moments later coerce a co-worker. Let us make 2011 the year we all apply the same coercion-free techniques to our animals and our friends, family, colleagues, and yes … the young woman at the checkout desk with 20 people in line!

Soar into 2011 and make your life a coercion free zone.


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!


Bird Tricks to Avoid

Friday, December 12th, 2008

In doing research online about bird training the visibility of several web sites seems to have rocketed over the last few weeks. Because I like to stay aware of who is doing, saying, and selling what into the companion bird community I often follow these links. What I found increasingly interesting was that many, in fact the majority, of search results led in one or two clicks to the same products, those sold by Bird Tricks. A company that promotes some of the poor training strategies that were the subject of my guest blog on the Best of Flock Parrot Blog last week. To be honest that wasn’t surprising to me, as I have said before I consider them company to be Internet marketing specialists and not bird trainers, so of course they should excel in their field of expertise. What did surprise me however was a more recent development in their marketing strategy.

As a part of my research on Bird Tricks marketing strategies I discovered that Womach Productions the owners of the Bird Tricks web site has in fact some 70+ Internet domain names (Internet locations) registered. This one fact alone explains in part how they have raised their Internet visibility. Now there is nothing wrong with this strategy; for anyone whose primary goal is a money making scheme using the Internet it is a great idea. The actual number of domain names registered to Womach Productions may well be even higher because as I researched various web sites I found a new trend, hiding access to the data records of who actually owns the site.


In the past this data has been openly available to anyone to access, one simply uses a free tool called “WhoIs”. Indeed if you go to Google and type “WhoIs” you will find the full data record available. It is my philosophy that “transparency”, the openness that reveals who owns what, is the ethical way to do business. As I have written in the past, do not trust information from “ducklover488”, if they hide their true identity how can you trust what they say. Not only is our own domain name data openly and freely available but also those of you who receive email about this blog or our Safari newsletter will notice at the bottom of each email there is full contact information. This is a requirement of the mailing company we use (Vertical Response) and one of the reasons we chose to use them. Once again it is the ethical way of doing business as far as I am concerned. Now, I do not know for sure that the hidden domain name records are owned by Womach Productions, however I do know that clicking on almost any link on those anonymous sites leads to … Bird Tricks.


Now let me reveal the most disturbing and ethically questionable part of this whole development. Some of these web sites appear to be lists of links to valuable training resources and writings by some of the leading bird trainers and companion parrot advocates in the USA. Amongst them are Barbara Heidenreich, Steve Martin, Dr Susan Friedman, and many others including me. What is ironic is that my article critical of training stategies on the Best of Flock Parrot Blog was referenced! The articles themselves are not available on the web sites, nor are links back to the sources. However if you are searching for these valuable articles you will probably arrive at one of these valueless web sites, just a click away from  … Bird Tricks! Now that really is a trick isn’t it?


From my perspective the use of my name, intellectual property, and reputation to drive traffic to these sites is completely unethical. I do not and will not support, recommend, or promote Bird Tricks or their products. In the past my approach has been to not mention them because that raises their Internet profile. However, from now on I will be actively mentioning them as I encourage each and every one of you to tell your friends to avoid Bird Tricks and their products. We can use the power of the Internet to protect the intellectual property of those professionals in the bird training world who are motivated to help you and your birds rather than line their own bank accounts using ethically questionable tactics.


This latest development once again highlights a subject that I have written about before, and that is separating the noise from the information on the Internet. Once again the golden rule of information validation is the one that should be applied … if the source of the claims made or the identity of the source is hidden then one should always question the information provided. Openness and transparency will always help in deciding what is worth pursuing and what is not.


Knowledge is power; so with your new knowledge of the strategies employed by Womach Productions and Bird Tricks you can decide for yourself if you wish to trust the valuable relationship between you and your birds to them and their products.


Finally, I encourage everyone to spread the word by sending a link to this blog to all of your friends and colleagues. Peer to peer, friend to friend, one link at a time we can keep the spotlight on these questionable tactics and hopefully reduce the reward that I am sure they get for their efforts. As people who understand the science of behavior we know that behaviors that are not reinforced will eventually go away … now wouldn’t that be an ironic turn of events, the science they obfuscate and ignore being their downfall!