Archive for the ‘Weight management’ 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.


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


The Misuse of Weight Management

Thursday, August 20th, 2009


I have written about Food and Weight Management before; they are valuable techniques when used correctly, carefully, and appropriately. In general, Weight Management is not something that a companion parrot owner even needs to consider. By careful management of the required daily diet of one’s birds an owner can usually achieve their training goals. So it was with great disappointment that I came across a blog article recently entitled “Are Pet Shop Birds Trainable?” It is a great example of what not to do.

The subject of the training was a Budgie or Parakeet. The concept of using Weight Management on such a tiny bird is just plain scary. What was even scarier was the extent to which this bird must have been deprived of food in order to achieve the writer’s goal. The writer noted that the bird had a “super stuffed full weight” of some 42grams. I have to assume that this weight was when the bird had free access to food with no rationing. There was also an “average” weight, I have no idea what that means since the weights and the number of samples were not published. However there were two more weights given; the first was the “training weight” and the second was a “too highly motivated” weight. Just the expression of a “training weight” shows how completely the writer misunderstands the proper use of weight management. If you refer back to my previous articles (links below) you will understand that there is no single training weight.

However that is not my biggest issue with this article. Let us examine the percentage weight reduction used to motivate this tiny bird (42 grams is about 1.4 ounces). If we consider the so-called training weight of 27grams we find that this represents a 35% drop in weight! Plus, the writer says that they learned the “proper” weight in a week. Can you imagine the extent of the food deprivation to reduce this bird’s weight by 35%? in a week The abuse does not end there because the writer notes a third weight, the “too highly motivated” weight; in this case the bird weighed 25grams, even less. As a percentage drop that is 40% below the highest weight reported, almost half its body weight in less than a week. Of course the bird was highly motivated … it was on the path to starvation. In my opinion this was clearly abuse of the bird.

These levels of weight reduction are simply not justified on so many grounds. The process described by the weights recorded by the writer of the article appears to take place over short time period, suggesting extreme food deprivation in order to motivate this bird.

Now who is the writer you may be asking? Well I am sure that you are all capable of using Google to track down the article, I do not propose to even mention their name I am so appalled that they did this and then had the complete lack of judgment to write about it as an achievement. I will note that the trail leads back to somewhere I think you will find enlightening, but perhaps not surprising.

I trust that everyone reading this will see the folly of what was described and tell everyone you know about the article.

See: Food and Weight Management and A follow Up




Trainers who use science are the best … maybe

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Seeing discussion of training in online groups is excellent, not only because it means that it raises the profile of training but also because it gives me an opportunity to understand better what this blog may bring to the community. What peaked my interest this morning was a discussion about trainers who use science and trust building.

I think everyone should be pretty much aware of my approach by this point in the life of my blog however just for the new readers let me say that I place trust and relationship building ahead of everything else when it comes to training. As I have previously said there are methods that can be employed that will override the lack of trust an animal may have in the trainer; their use however depends upon the ethical position of the trainer.

I noted one comment in the thread I was reading this morning that said:

“There is no morality or ethics attached to Operant Conditioning.”

Now I think I understand what the writer was saying but that sentence kind of upset me a little, it tweaked on an important subject, the ethics of trainers and how they affect the choices those trainers make. What I believe the writer was saying was that the science itself does not imply or apply any ethical or moral judgment. When we use the scientific term “punishment” it is simply describing a consequence of a behavior that is likely to reduce the presentation or frequency of that behavior in the future. As far as the science is concerned there is no judgment about the consequence. However, when we come to the application of the science we certainly do find ourselves needing to make ethical, even moral judgments in our choice of strategy.

This is especially true when it comes to the use of weight or food management in the training process. As I have written before, motivation is a balance and one can certainly tilt the balance in favor of an animal performing a requested behavior by reducing its weight through food withholding. The ethical question is whether it is the right thing to do before all other factors, including better trust/relationship building, have been exhausted. In my opinion it is not.

Also, the subject of the discussion, “Trainers who use science and trust building” I think missed a huge and important point. Even the strategies that are thought of as “bad” or inappropriate are using that same science. The use of aversives and punishers is also included in the science. Therefore even the trainer who towels a bird to “break” it, a horrible strategy that hopefully is now way behind us, is using the science (flooding). One simply can not claim that a trainer who uses Operant Conditioning and Applied Behavior Analysis is doing it the right way. It is the ethical choice of strategy made by that trainer that should define them.

One more point pops into my mind too. I keep reading people who say “we train only with positive reinforcement” like it somehow validates them and their strategy. Let us not forget about the ethical choices before we place these folks on a pedestal. For example, think about someone who makes this claim who uses weight management as their primary strategy, they have not built a strong trusting relationship they have simply built a food dependence. They can rightly claim to use positive reinforcement, that’s what they are doing, reward correct behavior with something that increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated. However, consider this; what if that same bird was capable of performing to the same level with only the smallest reduction in their diet and therefore their weight and that this level was achieved by the trainer taking the time to build trust, confidence, and a good relationship with the bird. By gradually presenting new environments to the bird so that its confidence grew. Which of these trainers would you think is the better trainer?

This same thread brought a couple of other points to mind that I am hoping to expand on in future articles. Right now with spring in the air it is time to go and work some birds.