Archive for the ‘Positive Reinforcement’ Category
Yesterday afternoon, Barbara Heidenreich posted the following status on her Facebook page:
Oh my. I think my parrot Delbert has said “That’s a Poo Poo” 400 times today. Ah yes, positive reinforcement does work : )
If one of my birds started repeating that phrase, I would surely have to stab myself.
Granted, the behavior is cute, once. You can see for yourself in the video Barbara posted on her YouTube channel:
So what do you think? Adorable or annoying?
If you have decided to train your bird with positive reinforcement techniques, you obviously have to find something that is reinforcing for your bird. As I wrote about in my earlier post, positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder, so what might work for some birds won’t work for others.
Here are just a few things that can serve as positive reinforcers:
- head scratches
A lot depends on your individual bird.
The first project that we’ve been working on is teaching the birds to target.
Targeting, for those unfamiliar, is simply teaching the bird to touch an object in order to get a reward. This can be used as the basis for other behaviors down the road, so it’s a useful thing to teach. For example, once your bird understands this, you can use a target to train her to come when called, and to go away when you ask.
When I attended Barbara Heidenreich’s Parrot Behavior and Training seminar last Saturday, something she said really jumped out at me*. She had said that positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder. At that moment in her presentation, she showed a photograph of small kid (I’m guessing he was maybe two years old) trying to kiss a pig on the snout through a wire fence.
My reaction, especially after getting a good look at the pig’s dirty nose was, “Ugh, who would want to kiss a pig?”
Obviously that kid sure wanted to, and that’s precisely the point. What is great for one person (or parrot) might not be so great for another.
Let’s take my two birds: Static loves it when you blow air in her face. Luna, on the other hand, detests it.
Now, how do I know that Static loves a reinforcer that Luna hates? I do this by carefully observing my birds’ behaviors.
I discovered Static liked to have air blown on her quite by accident. Shortly after she came to live with us, I was sitting at my desk, using my computer. She had been sitting on my shoulder, being very good, when suddenly she jammed her beak up my nose. She didn’t hurt me, but I found it annoying, and I instinctively blew air in her face, thinking she wouldn’t like it and it would make her stop.
Well, I was wrong. She thought it was the best thing ever, and started sticking her face in my face, and getting her beak right up by my mouth. I blew again. She bounced around in delight and stuck her beak right back in my field of view. I couldn’t very well work at my computer with a cockatoo in the way, so I blew again, this time realizing that she liked what I had done.
My attempt at a mild punishment had completely failed. Instead of disliking air being blown in her face, she wanted more of it. I learned pretty quickly that if I didn’t want a small cockatoo beak up my snoot, I’d better not blow air in her face for that behavior. Instead, I blew in her face when she did stuff I liked. Pretty soon, she even learned to beg for puffs of air. If she really wants to be blown on, she’ll make little huffing sounds as she puffs air in and out of her beak.
Luna, on the other hand, demonstrates her dislike of the air puff in several ways. First, she’ll emit a small growl, which she frequently does when you do something she doesn’t like. She’ll also shake her head in the air stream, and if I keep doing it, she’ll move her body away from me.
It’s pretty clear; Luna detests what Static loves.
Barbara was absolutely right when she said that positive reinforcement is in the eye of the beholder.
Yesterday morning, I combined air puffs with another thing Static really likes: sheets of paper towel.
In Static’s world, paper towel rules. If you give her a sheet, she will imediately start ripping it up into a million small pieces, throwing confetti everywhere. The only thing she likes better than paper towel or air puffs is paper towel and air puffs together. If I happen to offer both, she’ll rip off a piece, hold it in her open beak, and approach my face. I’ll respond by blowing a puff of air, which usually propels the paper out of her beak. Oftentimes, she’ll retrieve the bit of paper and do it again, or she’ll rip off another piece off of the sheet of paper towel, and start over.
So knowing that Static likes air blown in her face and bits of paper towel, how can I use them to obtain desirable behavior?
As I mentioned yesterday, I want Static to stay on the dining room table for training sessions. She, unfortunately, prefers to sit on my shoulder. If I want her to stay on the table, simply picking her up and putting her there isn’t going to work. As soon as I put her down, she’ll run back up my arm again. If I try to put her back, she might let me do it once or twice, but then she’ll indicate that she does not want to go to the table by grabbing my shirt in her talons and beak and refusing to come off.
I could force her, but that isn’t going to teach her to willingly go to the table. If she’s clenched on to my shirt and I try to forcibly remove her, she might give me a pinch for my trouble.
Here’s an important lesson I’ve learned in the ten years I’ve lived with companion parrots: if you don’t want to get bit, don’t force your bird to do something he doesn’t want to do.
Okay, so how did I get her onto the table yesterday morning? I made her want to be on the table, because that’s where all the paper towel shredding and air puffing happened.
Here’s how I did it:
- I sat down at the table with a sheet of paper towel in my hands. As soon as I picked up the paper, I had Static’s undivided attention.
- At first, I held the paper where she could reach it from my shoulder. She’d rip a piece off, wait for the puff, and rip off another piece.
- Slowly, I started to move the sheet of paper towel further and further away. At first, she just had to lean her body to rip off the sheet. Later on, she had to take a step down my arm. I kept slowly moving it away, encouraging her to move a little closer to the table each time.
- A couple of times, I noticed that Static wasn’t quite ready to go as far as I wanted her to go, so I moved the paper towel a little closer, so she could still get the reward of the paper towel and air puff. Eventually, she was running down onto my arm to grab the towel.
- Pretty soon, she jumped onto the table and stayed there, as I moved the paper further and further away.
- By the end, she was running across the length of the entire table to grab bits of paper towel.
So by the end of our session, the table was no longer a wooden, bird-killing surface. It had become a fun play pen, and I’m sure she’ll be a lot more willing to hang out there the next time we do birdie school.
* Well, the truth is, there were many somethings that jumped out at me, but this is the one I’m choosing to talk about right now.
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.