Have You Been Unknowingly Reinforcing Your Bird’s Negative Behavior?
By Lara Joseph
Reinforcement, it’s a
loaded term and a fascinating procedure to watch. It is easily over
looked, often misunderstood, and not one to be taken lightly. It happens
on a daily basis in all of our households and with all of our birds.
Reinforcement of behaviors happens knowingly, unknowingly, accidentally,
and naturally. Let me explain.
If I walk in the house from
being gone for a few hours and Peaches the cockatoo begins screaming, what
I do after that scream will have a big impact on the value of that scream
to Peaches. If I set down my belongings and say “Now, now Peaches. I’m
moving as fast as I can.” and then walk over and get Peaches out of his
cage, I may have just reinforced Peaches’ screaming. How will I know? I
will know if the rate of Peaches’ screaming maintains or increases the
next day and the next. If I walk in the door tomorrow and Peaches’ begins
screaming, it’s a pretty sure bet that my talking to him and walking over
and getting him out of the cage has put value to Peaches’ screaming. The
likelihood of Peaches screaming yet again tomorrow when I get home, is
pretty high. What could I have done to prevent reinforcing this screaming?
Many things and each household, along with each bird is different. One
instance could be when I walk in the door, Peaches begins to scream. First
I need to determine for what exactly is Peaches screaming? Once I have
that determined, the ball is now in my court. If it is my attention, then
when I deliver my attention is going to be key in encouraging or changing
this behavior. If I ignore Peaches’ screaming while I put away the
groceries and wait for Peaches to deliver another more appropriate sound
such as a whistle, then that is when I would deliver my attention to
Peaches. What this teaches Peaches is that it is the whistle that gets the
attention, not the scream. If I stop delivering the reinforcer (the
attention) while Peaches is exhibiting the undesirable behavior (the
scream), then likely Peaches is going to go through a series of behaviors
until he finds the one that works, which could very easily be the whistle
as long as we deliver the attention when he whistles. This same procedure
is often how the scream is reinforced. Peaches may be sitting there
whistling for our attention, but it may not get our attention. Peaches
then tries an ear piercing scream and look what just happened. You turned
around and looked at him and said “What’s the matter?” It is the scream
that Peaches now learns what to use that gets him what he wants.
Another popular behavior birds exhibit is lunging at the not so preferred people as they walk by the cage. If Gonzo the eclectus lunges at me every time I walk by the cage, then with each pass by his cage, I am reinforcing this lunge. With each pass by the cage, Gonzo is learning. He is learning to continue lunging and may learn to lunge faster and harder. It may very well be the speed at which I walk by the cage that reinforces this lunge. I may begin to change this behavior by walking by at a slow enough speed at which Gonzo doesn’t lunge. Then and only then would I reinforce Gonzo staying still and/or not showing any signs of unwanted behavior such as lunging, growling, or standing with an open beak. I would find an alternate reinforcer for an alternate behavior. The alternate behavior I would look for is the desired behavior, which would be Gonzo perching with no lunging, growling or open beak. The alternate reinforcer I would look for would be one that Gonzo really enjoys, such as an almond sliver. If Gonzo really enjoys almond slivers, then I would begin changing the undesired behavior of lunging to the desired behavior of perching without lunging. While training this new behavior, each time Gonzo stays perched without lunging, I would deliver an almond sliver. I would walk by Gonzo’s cage at a slow pace that did not cause him to lunge. If he doesn’t lunge, then ‘Bingo!’ Gonzo gets an almond sliver dropped in his food dish. The next time I walk by, I better be prepared with the almond sliver and pay attention to the pace in which I walk by his cage. If I walk by again and he doesn’t lunge, then ‘Bingo!’ I drop the almond sliver in his food dish again.
When working with undesirable behaviors that have been knowing or unknowingly reinforced for long periods of time in the past, it is very important to remain consistent in reinforcing an alternate behavior such as the behavior with Gonzo. One quick move by Gonzo’s cage could bring about another lunge or growl even after a day’s worth of working with him. Once Gonzo becomes consistent in waiting for you to drop the nut in his dish after you walk by, then and only then would I try experimenting with walking by his cage just a little faster. If he doesn’t lunge, then ‘Bingo!’ drop the almond sliver in his cage. It won’t be long and instead of Gonzo waiting to lunge at you with your passing of his cage, he will soon wait with patience and in anticipation of being rewarded for the behavior of patiently perching as you walk by his cage. Delivering something of value to the bird after he performs a behavior is called positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the technique we use when we deliver the almond sliver to Gonzo for staying still on his perch when we walk by the cage. Positive reinforcement is the technique we use when we give Peaches our attention for whistling. It works the same way with undesired behaviors. If it is our attention that Peaches wants when he screams and we give him the attention by telling him to ‘shhh’, then we have just positively reinforced that undesired behavior and Peaches will most likely continue to scream because it works for him.
The reinforcer is always determined by the bird. What is of value to the bird is determined by the bird, not by us. If it is the almond sliver that Gonzo desires, that can be delivered as a reward to Gonzo after he shows a desirable behavior. If Peaches the cockatoo does not like almond slivers, then I don’t think giving peaches this almond sliver will be very valuable to him when trying to reinforce an alternate behavior. Many people will ask their bird to step up and then don’t understand why the bird won’t step up when asked. Well, why should the bird step up? What’s in it for him? If he knows that when he steps up, it is very likely you are going to put him in the cage when he wants to be out with you, why would he want to step up? If you push your hand further into his chest to get him to step up and instead he lunges at your hand and you quickly withdraw your hand, you may have just helped him identify a reinforcer for you taking your hand away......the lunge. Our birds learn very quickly what works to get them what they want and what doesn’t.
If I know Peaches values
the neck scratches I give, I will keep this in the back of my mind to use
as a positive reinforcer throughout the day when I need Peaches to do
certain behaviors such as stepping up, stepping off, and maybe for playing
independently for periods of time. This neck scratch may only be one of
many reinforcers I can use throughout the day. Other reinforcers may be
the walnuts that Peaches shows he enjoys on a daily basis. Another may be
the verbal interaction of us whistling back and forth. Yet another may be
for him to hear what a good bird he is. The more reinforcers I have to
use, the easier it will be to make requests and receive the behavior in
which I am looking for from my bird. When I build histories of positive
reinforcement into my relationship with my bird, the quicker I will soon
see my bird responding to my requests. This type of interaction also
builds strong, and lasting relationships.
Lara has had a lifelong interest in communications and animal welfare which lead her to study biology in college and graduating with a degree in film with the intentions of aiding in the production of wildlife documentaries. Her passion has always been in the natural behaviors and observations of what reinforces behaviors in the animal’s native habitat. Through time and experience her focus has evolved to birds and in particular the reinforcers behind behaviors of our companion parrots. She has a focus for observing and working with animals that exhibit signs of aggression and abnormal repetitive behaviors, which she thinks is in abundance in the companion parrot society. Lara truly enjoys working with all birds, focusing on behavior and training of parrots and bird’s of prey. She dedicates her time and studies to bird behavior and behavior modification techniques using positive reinforcement interaction and what she has learned and continues to learn from applied behavior analysis.
Lara lives in Ohio where she shares her home with two cockatoos, a large macaw, an eclectus hen, and a program Screech Owl. She travels, lectures, consults, and presents workshops on behavior, positive reinforcement training, and enrichment. She is also the Director of Training and Enrichment for the bird of prey division at Nature’s Nursery, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Whitehouse, Ohio. She completed Dr. Friedman’s LLP and LLP TELE for Veterinarians and Professionals and Natural Encounters Foundation Skills and Refining Skills Workshops. Lara is professional member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, an active member of the Animal Behavior Management Alliance, and is currently continuing her education in behavior and applied behavior analysis. She is the founder of The Parrot Society of NW Ohio promoting positive reinforcement interaction and education for better welfare of companion parrots. Lara’s lectures have taken her many places including the Parrot Palooza, The Philadelphia Zoo, The Parrot Lover’s Cruise, Ara Ptero Training Workshops, and the Association for Avian Veterinarians. Her writings can be found on her blog at larajoseph.wordpress.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.