Archive for the ‘Steve Martin’ Category

Beware the Silver Bullet

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Over the last few weeks I have come across several web sites and articles that offer parrot owners what seems like a real training “Silver Bullet”. They promise to solve all of your parrot’s behavioral issues in no time at all and all it takes is buying either a book or a DVD. Now I am all for making solving behavioral issues as simple and quick as possible, however as someone who studies behavior I find it fascinating and at the same time a little scary that people actually believe the claims being made and perhaps the scarier part that they believe the advice they are getting is in the best interests of both them and their parrots.

My distrust of these web sites was made even deeper when I recently listened to a webcast by one of these “lauded experts”. Not only was some of the advice being given guaranteed to not assist in building a better relationship with one’s bird, the speaker plainly did not understand even the rudimentary science that underpins all training. A friend commented that the speaker sounded like they had been to just one behavior workshop and fallen asleep part way through! Now I do accept that one doesn’t have to understand the science to be a trainer, maybe even a good trainer, however I do think anyone who is advising novices on how to train their birds needs a solid understanding of how training actually works, indeed why training works.

So what can the poor web surfer do to be sure they are getting good advice from a solid source? Science itself again provides us with the answer to that question … look for good references to back up the statements being made. You will note that whenever I write in this blog about some aspect of operant conditioning or applied behavioral analysis I try to give a link or two to some other sources that support what I am writing. I do that because I feel it is important to communicate that these techniques are not invented by me, much of what I write is based upon the teaching of well respected leaders in the fields of both behavior analysis and animal training. What I endeavor to do is to present ideas and approaches that are based upon sound science, I try to understand that unpinning science. Further more, because all science is a process I often discuss and question ideas in an open-minded and constructive way with my professional colleagues.

Also, animals are not appliances that can be fixed by following a simplistic, rigid guide; they are just like humans in that they are individuals, each with a unique history that has shaped how they behave and how they react to the world they experience. In order to “fix” behavioral problems one needs to understand this history before one can even begin to formulate a sound strategy.

In viewing these “Silver Bullet” web sites I was reminded of a fun video that Steve Martin includes in one of his training tapes. It is a spoof TV commercial for “Pete’s Parrot Palace and Wicker Furniture Emporium.” In the video a character (Pete) looking very much like Arnold Schwarzenegger explains how he can fix all your parrot behavior problems. He then proceeds to wrap a dummy bird in a towel and spin it around to demonstrate how you “teach” the bird to behave. While this is a rather extreme caricature of several training “gurus” that have come to light over the years it should remind us to treat such instant fixes with circumspection and also just because something is on the web or in a video does not make it the right approach or the thing to do.

The old adage “If it sounds too good to be true … it probably is” makes a good jumping off point for web surfing too!


Food and weight management

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I returned from my trip to the IAATE conference in Holland to find a lively discussion going on in one of the yahoo groups for parrot training. The subject of the discussion is one that crops up from time-to-time and it always elicits lively, often polarized views. That subject is the use of food or weight management for training birds. It is also a subject that is often not fully understood by either the vehement supporters or detractors.

When training any animal one of the very first steps is for the trainer to figure out what the animal may find rewarding; this is what the trainer will use as a reinforcer for the behaviors being trained. If one is beginning with an animal that has no training history it is necessary to choose a primary reinforcer. A primary reinforcer is one that does not require any learning on the part of the animal. Primary reinforcers include sleep, food, air, water, and, in the opinions of some, sex. When working with birds the primary reinforcer typically chosen is food. Once the subject understands the training process it may be possible to introduce secondary or conditioned reinforcers such as attention, verbal praise, or access to toys.

While food is a primary reinforcer not all types of food are reinforcing for all birds; just like people birds also have food preferences and an observant trainer can quickly learn the preferred food type of the subject. Once identified this preferred food item can be removed from the daily diet and only offered to the bird as a training reinforcer. This method of training is the one that many companion parrot owners try to begin training their birds and it is also the one that many find to be ineffective, “my bird just isn’t interested in food”.

However, what these trainers forget is that the value of any food item is dynamic, after a large meal even our own preferred food items are less desirable to us. Therefore when using food as a potential reinforcer we need to be sure that the items being offered have real value to the subject at the time they are offered. This does not necessarily mean that we have to reduce the total amount of food offered to the bird; it simply means that by controlling access to food we create the perception, from the bird’s perspective, that food may not be as abundant as it was. Rather than repeat here what has already been very well written on this subject I would like to direct you to a Barbara Heidenreich article on her Goodbird Magazine Yahoo site that goes into detail about the use of food as a training aid and also an article by Natural Encounters trainer Cassie Malina about “Psychological Appetite.” (See further reading below.)

What I have written about so far is food management; selection of preferred food types and control of access to food. The other technique used to create motivation to perform behavior is weight management. With this technique the total amount of food offered daily is reduced from the amount the animal would eat given free access to food. This results in an increased desire for the food and therefore an increase in the motivation to perform the requested behavior. When using weight management it is essential that the trainer monitor the weight of the bird very closely.

Weight management is a powerful tool for manipulating motivation and with its use comes a greater demand on the skill set of the trainer. Imagine a bird that is not responding to the cue to fly to the trainer. A novice or unskilled trainer may think they need to make the reinforcers being offered more valuable so they reduce the overall diet being offered to the bird, reducing its weight, and increasing its focus on the trainer. This will work, the hungrier the bird gets the more focused it becomes on the trainer and the trainer gets reinforced by the bird performing the requested behavior. This last point, the trainer getting reinforced for reducing the weight of the bird, is what makes weight management so attractive, maybe even addictive, a technique to novice trainers. Each time behavior falls short of expectations the weight is dropped a little more, the bird performs, the trainer is reinforced. As the weight is dropped the trainer should really be asking themselves how they feel ethically about using this degree of deprivation in order to achieve their goals. So, what can they do?

The first step is to not become over-focused on the scale and the weight of the bird, rather, focus sharply on the behavior and the antecedents of that behavior. Antecedents are those things that occur right before the behavior. The bird’s motivation by the perceived value of the potential reward for executing the behavior is only one antecedent in play.

Consider the situation as a balance with the motivation of the bird on one side and things that work against that motivation on the other. To get the bird to work well the trainer must have the motivating side of the balance out-weigh the non-motivating side.
Things that affect the motivation of the bird include not only its desire for food (its degree of hunger) but also:

  •  The reinforcement history of the bird.
    • Does the bird fully understand that the executing the cued behavior will result in a desired reward?
    • Has the trainer always been honest in their reinforcement of behavior in the past or for example was a large visible reward offered by the trainer to elicit a behavior switched out for a small treat when the behavior was completed?
  • What is the relationship like between the trainer and the bird?
    • Does the trainer have a history of positive rewarding experiences with the bird?  

These are just a couple of the things that contribute to the “will perform” side of the balance. Meanwhile on the other side of our imaginary balance are all the things that are telling the bird not to perform the behavior.

  • Is this a new or poorly trained behavior?
  • Is the bird physically capable of performing the behavior?
    • An example would be asking a bird to fly down from a high perch to the trainer at an acute angle.
  • Is the trainer being clear communicating what they are expecting of the bird?
    • Clear, concise, consistent cues are essential components of this clear communication.
  • Is the bird in good health and not exhausted by behaviors performed earlier in the training session?
  • Is the trainer asking for a downwind flight?
    • o Birds prefer to fly into the wind, using it to increase lift and assist in control. Think of aircraft taking off and landing into the wind!
  • Is the bird in a novel environment with new distracting noises and/or sights?
    • Generalization of behaviors in varied situations is an essential step in training any bird. When entering novel situations a trainer should relax their criteria for the behavior and build the bird’s confidence.

Once again this is not a complete list; however for each of these issues on the “may not perform” side of the balance the trainer who is not aware of them may have only weight reduction to resort to in order to get the required behavior.

By addressing the “may not perform” issues before reducing diet and therefore weight the trainer will find that the bird is willing and able to be flown at higher and higher weights. Indeed professional trainers making high demands on birds in complex show situations are finding that by paying primary attention to the “may not perform” side of the balance they are able to fly birds at weights that are near or even above those of the birds when being free fed, the so-called ad lib weight.

An essential part of training using weight management is the continual evaluation of the behavior of the bird. Novice and inexperienced trainers will often get fixated on a “flying weight”; the bird performs well at a particular weight and the trainer blindly maintains that weight. The training process should be to increase the weight of the bird and to carefully observe the behavior. A good trainer keeps increasing weight until they observe the early subtle signs of the behavior breaking down. By using this process the bird is flown at the highest weight possible.

In summary, food and/or weight management are used by professional trainers almost without exception. However, the decision to reduce diet in order to increase motivation is taken after all other factors have been considered and addressed. Indeed, sometimes the only ethical decision when trying to fly some birds in these situations is to choose not to fly them. It is true that almost any bird can be motivated to fly in pretty much any situation by using food/weight management; the question each trainer should ask is how far they are ethically prepared to go to achieve that goal.

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.

Keep soaring,
Further reading:

Welcome to the Bird Training Blog

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

Welcome to the blog; the idea of this blog is to have a place where I can answer questions about training in general and bird training in particular. You will see that this blog does not display comments on the posts. This is by design; the blog is where you read my training philosophy and my understanding of Operant Conditioning and Applied Behavior Analysis.
I have set up an email address  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   where questions about OC and ABA may be posted. As and when time permits my idea is to select a question and answer it in the blog. Hopefully the blog will become a good gathering place for some of the concepts of OC and ABA and at the same time looking at the questions will enable me keep on top of the subject too.
There are several documents that I consider as prerequisites for training and I ask that everyone read them before posing a question. They are:

  1. The ABCs of Behavior – Dr. Susan Friedman PhD
  2. First published in 2001 this paper gives a really good practical outline to the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis. It is on my list of prerequisites because the first step in being able to address training and behavioral issues and goals is to be able to describe the training goal or behavior problem in a way that is precise and therefore more widely understood.

  3. Training Animals – The Art of Science – Steve Martin (Natural Encounters Inc.) & Dr. Susan Friedman PhD.
  4. This paper was first published in 2004 at the Animal Behavior Management Alliance Conference and I include it because it is essential for trainers to realize that although the sciences of Operant Conditioning and Applied Behavior Analysis appear to provide a very well defined set of rules that govern behavior modification they are only the start of a life-long journey of learning how to apply the science, in other words the “art” of training.

  5. What’s in it for me? – Steve Martin (Natural Encounters Inc.)
  6. This is perhaps the most important question a trainer can ask on behalf of any animal they are training.
    The writings of Dr. Susan Friedman, Steve Martin, and the staff of Natural Encounters provide a wealth of information and I encourage you to visit the web sites and read as much as you can.

I have one more short article that I wrote for Good Bird Magazine (itself a great resource) called “Science and Art in Training“, it outlines by background and my training and teaching philosophy.

So, read and enjoy and email  (TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom)   your training questions to TrainingBlogatAvianAmbassadorsdotcom.