Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

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.


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,


We are all trainers … all the time.

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

I saw the following post on Facebook recently and it reminded me of something that I believe every animal owner is apt to forget, and that is that we are ALL trainers ALL the time

I’ve had birds all my life, though admittedly no parrots larger than a cockatiel. I tend to be permissive and I don’t think in terms of training birds so much as learning to read their body language and making friends with them. I think it’s very hard to make a bird do anything…rather, you win it over with gentleness, consistency and rewards. – Cathy Kendall

At the time I read the above quote I commented that is was a wonderful description of training; in it Cathy expresses the essence of what I strive for in my classes, workshops, seminars, and training. I have written about this previously in the article “Ethical Training as a Way of Life.”

Every time we are in the presence of another sentient being we will make some change in the behavior of that being, albeit often times a subtle one. Therefore if we wish to have a good relationship with any animal, and I include Homo sapiens here, we need to be conscious of our interactions at all times. We have all heard of living “La Vida Loca”, now is the time to live “La vida ética.”


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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!