Archive for the ‘Questions’ Category

How can I stop my parrot (insert behavior)?

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked a question like the following:

How can I stop my parrot screaming?

How can I stop my parrot biting?

How can I stop my parrot (insert unwanted behavior)?

I am sure you see the pattern here; asking this kind of questions doesn’t lead to any kind of resolution, only frustration. Simply trying to reduce unwanted behavior somehow misses a couple of important points, not the least of which is that, typically, focusing on reducing behavior leads to the use of aversives, things the bird will work to avoid. Behavior science tells us that such techniques do not lead to a good working partnership with our birds. They in fact work against building trust.

The way to avoid this situation is through a different type of question, one that asks what you want the bird to do. For example if you have a bird that is biting your hands when you try to move him in and out of his cage ask yourself, what do I want him to do? Typically what is wanted is for the bird to step onto the hand without biting when requested. This is a behavior that can be built with patience and a large helping of positive reinforcement. Avoiding force and coercion to get the bird onto your hand gives the power of choice to the bird and through many repetitions of the behavior also builds the bird’s trust in you the trainer and the chances are the biting will be reduced.

My point here is not to teach how to train a particular behavior but to encourage you to ask questions that lead you to using the most positive least intrusive strategies for training. It is through the use of these strategies that you will build a trusting relationship with your bird.

Keep soaring,




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,


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.



Food and Weight Management – follow up

Friday, July 15th, 2011

My post about Food and Weight Management has drawn a few comments that I would like to address. Don’t forget that if you have any questions related to the articles posted here you are invited to use the email address  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   set up specifically to receive those questions. I can’t promise to address everything but I will read them all and do my very best to at least address the points you raise in a future article if at all possible.

One of the problems of blogging is that it is generally an unedited medium, by which I mean that most, if not all, of the posts people make to blogs are a stream of consciousness rather than a formal structured work that is ultimately edited by a third party. This means that sometimes a statement is made without the meaning or intent being completely clear to a reader. Great editors pick those mistakes up before they reach the reader. The Food/Weight Management article had a couple of those that a diligent reader picked up and rightly questioned. Also, I was asked “how do you decide if you need weight management rather than food management?” So, let’s get to it …

Let me address the last point first; how does a trainer make the decision to begin using Weight Management? The decision is really quite simple if one is always focused on behavior and that was one of the key points of the previous article. Let your observation of the behaviors you are training guide your training decisions. Also, don’t forget that adjusting diet is going to be the last tool you pull out of your toolbox. Be sure that you are setting up your bird for success by arranging the environment so that the bird is relaxed and comfortable. A critical aspect of starting out training is that the trainer and the bird have a history of positive interactions; don’t expect to bring home a new bird and start training a step up right away. It may take several days of walking by the cage and dropping treats into a bowl before one can even think about starting to train any specific behaviors. Always ask yourself “why should the bird interact with you?”, “what’s in it for the bird?” And remember that we want the bird to choose to be a partner in the training process.

So, back to the original question about when to use Weight Management; use it if the behavior you are training is just not shaping up the way you want, the response just isn’t there. However, only begin Weight Management after you have made sure that all of those things on the “will not perform” side of the motivational balance have been explored and if necessary corrected. Plus, be patient; do not withhold large amounts of food just to get the bird’s attention for training. I have heard of novices getting frustrated because their bird didn’t respond just the way they wanted so in their frustration they withhold a complete meal. This is just not necessary especially if the trainer is managing the food of the bird correctly. The need for gross changes in diet in my opinion are a reflection of the trainer’s lack of good diet management and rarely, if ever, justified or needed.

A phrase I used “relax the criteria” caused a little confusion. The context in which I used the phrase in the article was when a bird was in a new environment with lots of new potential distractions. Here I meant that I would relax my expectations of performance for the bird, e.g. if the behavior was a 20 foot flight to me I would start in this new environment just asking for a hop, then a flight of a few feet, gradually building the bird’s confidence in these new surroundings and for sure only raising my criteria as I observed good behaviorial responses. What I did not mean was that the trainer should continue to cue the behavior that was not working and accept the latency (delay to perform). Part of the process of generalization (performing behaviors regardless of environment) is to build the bird’s confidence not only in itself but also in the trainer. By setting the bird up to succeed (short hop and then short flights) the bird’s trust in the trainer is raised so that in the future in new environments this trust should increase the likelihood that the bird will perform the behaviors cued. Also, by relaxing the criteria and enabling the bird to perform a behavior we increase the number of times we are able to reward the bird, always a good thing! Repetition builds confidence – bird and trainer.

Another question related to how to remove some of the “will not perform” items from the motivational balance. As an example how do you train the bird to fly down from heights at a steep angle? Remember that we can always lower the weight of the bird and increase motivation to overcome the bird’s apprehension in making a steep downward flight. However, just because that works doesn’t make it the right choice for me. Reducing the weight again should be the last thing we think about doing. I will repeat a phrase here that should be one of the trainers’ mantras, set the bird up to succeed. First, before we placed our bird into an environment where it might have spooked up into that tall tree we should have trained it to fly down from high places. New trainers often forget that birds learn their flight skills through … flying. Therefore, in a safe environment we place our bird on higher and higher perches and allow them to learn to fly down. We train our bird to fly to places on cue and then send them into higher and higher tree branches (or meeting hall rafters!) and allow them to learn how to fly down. We set them up to succeed so that when they find themselves sitting high in a tree they already know how to fly down. The second part of the answer is for every trainer to observe and understand the limitations of their bird when it comes to its flight skills. No matter how much we fly our birds they never get as much “air time” as a wild bird, because of this their flight skills, while impressive, may never reach those of their wild cousins. Therefore we need to once again set them up to succeed by only asking them to perform behaviors we know they can perform. So, when your bird is high in a tree don’t stand right under the tree calling it down, move away from the tree and give your bird the “glide angle” it needs to make the flight.

Don’t forget:

  • Repetition builds confidence
  • Set your bird up to succeed
  • Ask yourself “What’s in it for the bird?”
  • Assume responsibility for all your bird’s behavior