So What is This Positive Reinforcement Stuff, Anyway?

Since the goal of this blog is to talk about our parrot training efforts though the use of positive reinforcement, I should probably start out by explaining what “positive reinforcement” is.

Basically, it means that you do something that your parrot likes in response to him giving you a desired behavior.

If you think about it, positive reinforcement works in our every day lives.  Think about your social network.  Who do you hang out with?  Do you deliberately hang out with people that make you feel bad, who belittle you, or who just make you feel like an inferior slob? No, of course not.  When you were a kid, did you really want to spend time with your great-aunt Gertrude who smelled of cigarettes, pinched your face, and rubbed your hair the wrong way every time she visited?  No, you hated every second of it.

So who did you hang out with?  Maybe it was your favorite uncle who told you great stories and slipped candy into your pocket when your mother wasn’t looking.  Maybe it was your grandmother, who would always bake cookies for you when you came to visit, or crochet you funny-looking blankets that everybody else thought were ugly, but you loved dearly because she made them just for you.

Birds, being intelligent, social creatures will understand this currency.  If you behave like the birdie version of your great-aunt Gertrude, your bird won’t like you.  If you behave like your uncle or favorite grandmother, he will.

But of course getting desirable behavior from your bird isn’t all about whether or not he likes you.  It’s about communicating what it is that you want, and giving him things that he wants in exchange.  If your macaw goes crazy for a bite of apple, or your cockatoo will do anything for a head rub, then use those as treats.  When you give goodies to your bird as soon you see behaviors you like, it will encourage more of those behaviors.

Here’s an example:

Our Goffin’s Cockatoo, Static, doesn’t really like to hang out on the dining room table, which is precisely the spot we want to use for training.  If we put her there, she’ll immediately run to me or my wife, dash up an arm, and proceed to dance on the unsuspecting victim’s shoulder.  To get her to stay on the table, we need to make the table more fun than our shoulders.  If she stays on the table, she gets a treat.  If she is on someone’s shoulder, no treat.  After just a couple of sessions, she’s started to figure out that the table top isn’t such a bad place to hang out.  In other words, the more treats and good things that happen on the table, the more she wants to be there.

So the fundamental key to parrot training (and by the way, these techniques work equally well for cats, dogs, horses, monkeys and even fish) is to find something your companion really enjoys, and use it as a reward for desired behavior.  This is hugely powerful stuff, because not only can it be used to encourage desired behaviors, it can also be used to squelch undesirable ones.  If your bird is talking nicely (which you reward) then he won’t be screaming (which you don’t reward) because the two behaviors are mutually exclusive.  Likewise, if your dog is sitting nicely at the front door when the doorbell rings (which you reward) then he won’t be jumping all over your visitors.

Now there is one more thing to this positive reinforcement stuff that I’ll talk about in my next post: Positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.  Just because you think that something is the cat’s meow, doesn’t mean your parrot will agree. That’s something to keep in mind when you want to positively reinforce behavior.

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