Recognizing how not to do it!

Just recently there seems to have been a flood of experts available online to solve all kinds of parrot behavioral issues, it is also worthy of note that many of these experts seem to have tendrils back to a single source. That single source appears to be rather inexperienced in training in general and behavioral science for sure!

I am not going to mention any names or link to any web sites as on the internet the ranking of names and sites in Google and other search engines relies upon other sites’ links to each site. The more times a site is linked to the better its ranking. Besides which my philosophy is to educate people so that they are capable of recognizing who really understands their subject and who is simply selling snake-oil!

While browsing a Yahoo group this morning I saw a link to some information about parrot training, it was a video being promoted to demonstrate the skills of the expert, unabashed self promotion. Well I can’t argue with that, everyone who has a business knows the power of the reputation of the people involved in that business and what better way to illustrate one’s skills than a video on YouTube!

The video showed two segments of biting birds and how the behavior was fixed “in minutes”. I doubt it was actually fixed at all, but that isn’t the point of this article. The point of this article is to bring attention to the technique used and more importantly to use this to show the linkage between two things that I try to avoid. Firstly Negative Reinforcement and secondly aversives.

So, imagine a bird standing on a perch, a person approaches and immediately the bird begins to lunge towards the person. The person stops and (being directed by an of-camera voice) then steps back as a “click” is heard. This is repeated with the person approaching closer and closer and a “click” just as they step back. After some time (15 minutes according to the off-camera commentary) the person is able to allow the bird to nuzzle their hand without getting bitten.

What is going on here?

To understand one needs to break down the technique into two parts. First, the approach of the person is clearly an aversive from the bird’s perspective. As I said earlier I believe that aversives should be avoided, they do nothing to add to a positive, trusting relationship with the bird. Secondly, the person walking away appears to be reinforcing the fact that the bird did not bite (not that it really had the chance to; the person was way out of reach!). I certainly did not see any behavioral change that warranted a click and retreat. However, if we assume that the trainer perceived some behavior they liked then asking the person to walk away may have reinforced that behavior. So what we have here is Negative Reinforcement. Again, not a contributor to trust between trainer and bird.

I have read one comment that this technique is flooding. In my opinion that is not the case because the aversive (person too close to the bird) was removed. If this were flooding the person would simply have stood there, maybe even gotten closer until the bird stopped the lunging etc..

What this video shows, in addition to not being the best way to deal with a biting bird, is that typically Negative Reinforcement and the purposeful introduction of aversives are inseparable. In order to apply Negative Reinforcement (removing the person) the aversive (again the person) had to be introduced by the trainer.

Finally, just to drive home the point of what a great example of how not to deal with a biting bird this is let me ask you to think about this … was the bird ever positively reinforced? I certainly didn’t see it, once again nothing that happened in these training sessions worked towards establishing a positive, trusting relationship between trainer and bird.

Here is an article written by Dr Susan Friedman and Lee McGuire about biting. It was first published in one of the best resources for how to train companion birds the right way, Good Bird Magazine.


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