Home > Behavior, Empowerment > Incorporating Choice in Animal Environments

Incorporating Choice in Animal Environments

This is a quick follow-up post to my former entry of “Ah, so it’s going to be one of those days.” Greta made a comment on this post in regards to how she incorporates choice into her dog’s environment by asking to pet. I thought this was exciting because I do the same with my birds. It’s something so easy to incorporate and it empowers the animal in their environment. Empowering our animal’s with choice usually has an obvious effect on our relationship with them. What I notice is the more choices we give them, even in giving them room to escape or move away from us, usually results in them wanting or seeking more interaction with us. In this video you will see me give a hand signal, which all of my birds are familiar, while verbally asking if I can pet. You’ll see Rocky, my Moluccan Cockatoo moving in to let me know this is what he wants.

I have another example I’d like to share showing how incorporating choice into the environment of training a Harris Hawk has resulted in him wanting more interaction with us. I shot these videos for a presentation I’ll be giving this November, but want to share them now based on what we are discussing. There are 3 trainers I’m training at a wildlife rehabilitation center. We were standing outside of the Harris Hawk’s enclosure trying to figure out a training plan in getting closer to the bird and figuring out a way to allow him choice in his environment. There are a few common perches in his enclosure that he often flew to and he would fly randomly as soon as we opened the door. What we decided to do was putting meaning to three of his different perches. Every time he flew to the perch on the far left, we left the enclosure. We would wait outside the enclosure and say “perch”. We wanted to put meaning to the blue perch on the right. When he would fly to the blue perch on the right, we would walk in the enclosure. If he stepped off the blue perch and onto the perch between what we ended up calling the “get out” perch on the far left, we would simply stop moving. So, we gave 3 different perches 3 different meanings. The one on the far left was the “get out” perch. Every time he flew to it, no matter what, we stopped what we were doing and left and shut the door. The blue perch on the right meant “come in”. The perch in between the two meant “stay in but stop what you are doing”. The middle perch is one of my favorites because I call it his “observation perch”. We’ve given him control over his environment and when he flies to this perch, it let’s us know we are moving too fast for his comfort level. He doesn’t want us to leave, but he’s not comfortable with something we are doing. By making all of these perches contingent on our behavior, we quickly saw a change in his behavior. It was and still is nothing short of FASCINATING. What we saw was how quick he learned what each of these perches meant. Also what we saw was him flying to the blue perch (the come in perch) more often. From the best we could tell, he was obviously enriched through his new-found control over his environment. He worked for no food in any of our interactions with him, at least not while we were there training him or the other birds. The best that I could tell, his reinforcer for continuing the behavior of flying to the different perches, was his control over his environment.

This video shows a few times after we’ve implemented the meaning to each perch. You’ll clearly see Inyo, the Harris Hawk choosing to fly to perches that have meaning and you’ll see Joan, the trainer, reacting to Inyo’s choice in perching.

Joan, the trainer shown in the video, is Inyo’s preferred trainer. Here are a few videos of how we introduced Inyo, the Harris Hawk, to a new trainer, Andy. Andy first opened the door and Inyo immediately flies to the “get out” perch. You hear me say “perfect” in the video because our intention is to let Inyo know that Andy also understands the meaning of the perches. So on to our next move in our training plan of introducing Inyo to a new trainer. We knew that Inyo had a great working relationship with Joan, the trainer in the former video. So, we used Joan’s presence as the reinforcer for introducing Andy, the new trainer. I’ll show 2 videos so you can clearly see the difference. The time in training between the first and second video is about 5 minutes. In those 5 minutes, we also had a few seconds of pre training planning strategies before the 2 trainers walked in.

Andy (new trainer) walking into Inyo’s enclosure.

Here’s another video showing Inyo making choices on how fast the approach of the new trainer. I love this video because it shows show much communication from the bird, and so much communication of the trainers back to the bird. A relationship is building.

Joan (Inyo’s preferred trainer) reinforcing Inyo with her presence in introducing Inyo to Andy, the new trainer. Watch how both trainers pay close attention to Inyo’s body language and act quickly on Inyo’s perch placement. Their behavior of  acting quickly to Inyo’s choice in perch placement helps put value to the meaning of the perches, which in turn gives Inyo control over his environment. Watch Inyo’s behavior of quickly observing advancement and behaviors of both trainers. Inyo stays on the blue perch (the it’s ok for you to stay perch) the whole time.

Inyo now vocalizes for trainers to come into his enclosure. He is a true joy to interact with and from the best we can tell, he enjoys the interaction. The power of positive reinforcement training is beyond words. Giving choice back to the animal has such an obvious and positive effect on their behavior. It has such an obvious and powerful effect on the relationship with the trainer. With each interaction we have with the animal, they are learning and training is taking place. It’s up to us in how we use it.

  1. June 12, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    Awesome stuff Lara! Or should I say “perfect”?
    I like to think of letting the animal’s behavior to be our guide to teaching them. “Just let the behavior be your guide!” to make a spoof off of Jimmeny Cricket.

    I’ve adapted to my legally blind cockatiel by “asking” if she is ready to step up. I ask her “ready?” before the step up cue, and if her reaction is good I proceed with the process. If she hisses or lunges then it is an obvious “No!” and she lunges at the air. She has become so willing and confident now that she can’t wait to step up and often grasps at the air with her foot in anticipation! How is that for trust in a BLIND-ish bird?

    Caitlin N.

    • June 13, 2010 at 8:23 am

      Awesome Caitlin! I often ask birds if they are ready before I begin interacting with them too, and like you, I too see the bird reacting in a way in which it looks as if they can’t wait to get started and often start before the cue. How lucky your cockatiel to have a caretaker so enriching. 😉

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