Training and Behavior Terms – Punishment

October 22nd, 2011

Welcome to the second in this series of short articles about training terminology. If you missed the first installment you can find it here.

All of the definitions used in this series are taken from “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance. Anyone who is interested in getting good solid information about behavior science should seriously consider purchasing a copy of this book.

Let’s take a look at one of the most emotive of all the behavior science terms and one that is probably the most misunderstood and sadly among the most common of strategies used for behavior change in our society.


The procedure of  providing consequences for a behavior that reduce the strength of that  behavior.
Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance.

Once again, like reinforcement, punishment is a procedure and not a tangible object or thing. It is the process of applying or removing a stimulus immediately after a behavior and observing that behavior reduce in strength or frequency in the future. What punishment is not is something the bird deserved or “had coming.” There is no judgment involved in punishment from the behavior perspective.

I have seen it written that if behavior reduces then punishment must be the procedure being used. This is not absolutely true and in a future article we will discover other procedures that while they may reduce a behavior they do not involve the use of punishment.

It is worth noting here that using punishment is a strategy that brings a number of unwanted side effects. These side effects not only undermine the relationship between bird and caregiver they also may have profound effects upon the bird and its future behavior.  In our hierarchy of choices of strategies for behavior change punishment falls well below reinforcement.

I hope you enjoy these short articles, if you have a term that you find confusing or would simply like better defined and explained please feel free to email me.

Keep soaring,

Training and Behavior Terms Defined

October 17th, 2011

As with all aspects of life, clear communication between  caregivers, trainers, and behaviorists is vitally important if we are all to help each other solve behavior problems with our birds. One tenet of clear  communication is the vocabulary used for such communications. To foster clear  communication I will be posting a series of short articles here that define and examine some of the most used and abused terms of behavior science. This will  not be a complete list, merely an attempt to improve all of our communication skills and through that improved communication develop our relationships with our birds through better training.

All of the definitions used in these articles will be taken from “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance. Anyone who is interested in getting good solid information about behavior science should seriously consider purchasing a copy of this book.

I will begin the series with a term that many people feel they completely understand. However, one only needs to monitor a few of the many Internet lists and forums to realize it is often misused.


The procedure of  providing consequences for a behavior that increase or maintain the strength of that behavior.Learning and Behavior, Paul Chance.

This single sentence embodies several important concepts that many people appear to either gloss over or misunderstand. First and perhaps most misunderstood is that reinforcement is a procedure and not a tangible thing or object. One often hears people say “I offered reinforcement …” Reinforcement cannot be offered like a peanut. It is the process of giving the bird a peanut immediately after a behavior and seeing a future increase or maintenance of that behavior. This is the second important point in this sentence; the process followed by the trainer/caregiver is only defined as reinforcement if, after the consequence is provided, the behavior it follows actually is maintained or increased. No matter what our intention reinforcement has only been used when one is able to observe its effect on future behavior.

Closely related to reinforcement is “Reinforcer.” This is not a term directly defined by Chance in his book, however I will write about Reinforcers and Punishers in a future article that addresses the term “Stimulus.”

I hope you enjoy these short articles, if you have a term that you find confusing or would simply like better defined and explained
please feel free to email me.

Keep soaring,


How can I stop my parrot (insert behavior)?

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,




Getting your Training Perspective Right

September 15th, 2011

Our upbringing and socialization are responsible for the way we approach pretty much everything in life and training is no different. I have written before about the language we use when we speak about training. While watching a PBS program about wild horse management in the western USA I saw an interview with Ginger Kathrens of the Cloud Foundation. She made one very simple and yet poignant statement that I paraphrase here:

 “We don’t have to teach a horse to trust us, we have to demonstrate we are worthy of trust.”

Trust as an important factor in all our training endeavors and we should not forget that it is earned. It is our responsibility to earn the trust of our birds through empowerment and consistency.


Free Flying Companion Parrots

August 26th, 2011

There is a growing interest in the companion parrot world in keeping birds fully flighted, i.e. not clipping wings. As someone who keeps fully flighted birds and flies them in many varied locations for the public there is a part of me that really thinks this is the only way to go. However, I also know from experience how much time and effort it takes training my birds to fly in strange locations, almost every show we do is in a different venue. I am speaking not only about initial training but also the maintenance of the behaviors trained. During the show season these birds are worked every day, regardless of there being a show or not. The thought of someone who has the pressures of a full time job and perhaps a spouse and family to be engaged with undertaking this quite honestly scares me.

It is probably worthwhile making clear exactly what free flight is. Free flight, also called “at liberty” flying, involves releasing the birds outdoors and allowing them complete choice as to where they go and how long they fly. This is quite different to what most professional bird trainers, including myself, typically do with their birds. The requirements of most shows preclude this particular form of flying in order to be able to keep the shows with some pace and direction. Having said that several professional trainers I know do fly small flocks of birds in a similar manner for show opening and closing sequences. They have five to ten birds fly out and circle the audience until the birds are ready to land on the stage or return to their housing. In fact I am presently working with a facility that will fly a flock of Macaws around their grounds, not part of a scripted show.

It is my contention that if the bird is not to be placed at risk this style of flight demands a much higher level of training for the bird and skill from the trainer. It is also my position that the typical, i.e. majority, of companion parrot owners do not have the knowledge, time, or focus required to achieve this level of training. Further I feel it unethical and professionally irresponsible for professional trainers to promote free flying companion parrots without making the demands of this pursuit clear to all.

This is not to suggest that I am opposed to keeping fully flighted birds, quite the opposite as I wrote in my blog article about clipping.

There are individuals who have proven that a companion bird can be flown free; they may have begun doing this through trial and error rather than formal training knowledge; however they were all dedicated to it, spending large amounts of time and effort on the venture. Most have had scary hours/days when birds have flown away, beyond the recall distance. Some have lost birds.

My position is simple I do not think that flying parrots outdoors is an activity that the majority of companion parrot owners should undertake.