Home > Uncategorized > Work With That Reinforcer. Can You Identify it? Oops, It Just Changed.

Work With That Reinforcer. Can You Identify it? Oops, It Just Changed.

Umm, mmmm, mmmm, how I love observing and working with reinforcers and observing, applying, and changing their behavioral procedures. They are obvious, they are not obvious, they can be tricky, and they can change so quickly. I love working with a bird’s reinforcers and as surprising or not surprising as it can be, sometimes I’m just not part of it. I often find myself booted out of the reinforcer arena quickly grabbing at things in the bird’s environment to pull myself back in. Just as quick as I’m bucked off that bull, it is just as fun to stand up, dust myself off, and jump back on the next time those reinforcement horns go speeding by me.

It may be easy to confuse a reinforcer with a reward. When we reward a desired behavior, we offer something of value to the animal, child, bird, dog, etc. When we reinforce a behavior, it may not necessarily be a behavior we desire to see again in the future but we unknowingly reinforce it which is why behaviors such as a screaming bird, a barking dog, or a nagging child exist. They exist due to them being reinforced and most time unknowingly to the one doing the reinforcing. Whenever I use the word reinforcer, I don’t use it lightly and try and always explain the term. All of our world’s are based around reinforcers and reinforcement procedures whether we are aware of it or not. This is no different for our birds, our children, our dogs, or our workplace. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you ask “Why am I doing this?” or “Why am I here?” Well, I guarantee you there is a reinforcer behind it.

A reinforcer is any event that follows a behavior and maintains or increases the rate of that behavior. Think about this. I’ve often thought about this many times throughout my life but never knew they were called reinforcers. I’ve often found myself in life trying to find “no reason” behind any action I make. As far as I know, you can’t. There is a reason behind every thing we do, and this is true for our birds’ behaviors too. Behind every desirable or undesirable behavior our bird makes, there is a reinforcer. The key is finding it because if you can find it, you now have the tools to change that behavior if it needs changed. The bigger key is, can you work with it to make your birds behavior desirable instead of undesirable? You bet you can. Reinforcers keep us doing the things we do. They keep our birds doing the things they do too. They also change and when they change, you’ll find your bird’s behavior changing to do what it has to do to maintain or earn that now changing reinforcer. What I find fun is keeping up with your bird’s changing reinforcers to continue or maintain the desired behavior. It is literally like laying down the yellow brick road so Dorothy has something to follow before falling off. Lay those bricks, identify those changing reinforcers, and you’ll keep her on that trail to Oz and Oz is where you need her to go to find that balance. If you find that balance, you find the happy balance of living life and the life of loving the one in which you share it with and vice versa.

A couple of examples. You are in the grocery store. Your standing in line at the check out counter and it’s pretty deep. Your line is the shortest though so you stay there. Because your line is the shortest and you don’t look forward to spending mass amounts of time in the grocery store, that line being the shortest is your reason for staying in it. That short line is reinforcing you to stay in the one you are in. Let me go a little further. Right in front of you is a very tired mom with two children. Young Johnnie in the cart and his older brother who is big enough to see and identify that candy right next to the counter. The kid next to the candy taps his mom on the shoulder and says “Mom. Mom. Mom.” The mom doesn’t respond because she’s wiping the snot from Johnnie’s nose. The older brother once again says “Mom!” a little louder and puts a little more force behind that tap. This catches mom’s attention and she turns and yells “WHAT?” Oh ho ho, did she just reinforce big brother’s behavior changing from tapping three times on the shoulder to now tapping harder and yelling louder? What did the kid want? If he wanted his mom’s attention, he got it. The three “Mom’s” didn’t get it but the harder contact and the louder voice did. Mom just reinforced that behavior because it worked. It worked for big brother. Big brother got what he wanted. He wanted her attention. He now says “Can I have this pack of gum?” She yells, “Fine!” and grabs it and throws it on the counter. Oh dear. She just reinforced that behavior by giving in and escaping the kid’s annoying persistence. Johnnie still has snot running down his nose so mom reaches for another tissue. “Mom!” along with another hard tap at this time comes from big brother next to the candy isle. Mom just wants to clean up all this snot. “For Pete’s sake get it before it gets all over the place.” she’s thinking. “MOM!” the kid now screams louder accompanied by an even harder tap. Nada from mom, she’s still focused on secreting bodily fluids. “MOM! MOM! MOM!” and now a light punch to see if that works and a heavy tug on mom’s shirt. “WHAT!!!!” mom now says. Even mom’s voice has increased in intensity with big brother’s punching mom next to the candy counter. Ah ha, guess what mom has just now reinforced by giving big brother her attention? You got it Mr. Impatience (you) picking the shortest line. Mom just showed big brother that the first yelling of “Mom” three times in a row and a harder tap is what no longer gets the attention, but the screaming and the light punch now acts as a reinforcer for getting her attention. Mom just reinforced all of that extremely undesirable attention. Look at poor Johnnie in the cart. He just wants his nose wiped. You are standing there reading your Starr Magazine, actually you are not. You’re holding it and starring in amazement at the brat in line in front of you. Mom has unknowingly reinforced all of that. Hey, it works for the big brother. He’s only doing what gets him what he wants. You now place your magazine back on the shelf and are finding the longer line full of quiet on-lookers mighty desirable. The peace and quiet of the other line would be your reinforcer for moving. You better hurry though because mom is now busy bending over with the candy and Johnnie’s reaching for your sleeve.

That was an example of reinforcing undesirable behaviors, most of which occur frequently and unknowingly to the one doing the reinforcing. Not reinforcing undesirable behaviors are just as important as reinforcing desirable ones. Let me move to the incident that made me want to sit and write this post today.

Rico, my parrot, my Umbrella Cockatoo is or was in much need of a shower. He’s all white, well mostly white so any dirt shows more on him. Evidence of make up face snuggles were on his feathers. Evidence of running on top of dusty cupboards was also evident on his tail feathers. Sometimes Rico likes showers and some days I can tell, he’d prefer to be done with my thought and move on to dirtier things. So, this morning I decided once I was done working on a project, Rico and I were doing a little shower time. I knew the chances of him wanting to take a shower were probably stacked up against me. I also know Rico loves spending time with me and loves, loves wing pit scratches, loves preening, and will do anything for attention. So, I stuffed those into my bag of reinforcement tips to save them for the shower and I was careful not to over use them and wear out their welcome before we headed for the shower. Rico is fully-flighted and can take off of my hand anytime he wants. I don’t restrict him. I just make it very rewarding for him to stay there or return to it so I opened that bag of positive reinforcers on our way upstairs.

He loves to fly around upstairs. I love to see him enjoying himself. Off my hand he went and out came that first reinforcer. “Yahoo!” I yelled. Rico loves attention. Reinforcing what? Reinforcing his flight. Reinforcing him having safe fun. How do I know my “Yahoo” is a reinforcer? Because in has an effect on his next his fun and his take off. His take off’s increase and the things he does in between seem to be very exciting to him. He landed on the bed and turned and looked at me. “WOW!” I yelled. Rico started hopping up and down, up and down, up and down, on the bed. I pulled the shower perch from the cupboard and stuck it to the inside of the shower. He knows what this means. He loves to spend time with me, remember? Reinforcer! We hadn’t spent much time with each other today up until this point. “Yahoo!” I yelled as I stuck my hand up for his cue to fly to me. “Wow” he screamed as he leaped off the bed and flew his dirty tail feathers to my hand. “Good job.” I said to him as I lifted his crest feathers and gave him a big, fat, smooch right on the back of the neck. He loves to be petted, remember? My smooch is a reinforcer for him staying on my hand. There he perched on my hand until I took him into the shower and put my hand in front of his shower perch and tapped the perch and asked him to step up. He did. Do you know why he did? He stepped up onto the perch because if he did, there sat another big reward or reinforcer for him….wing pit scratches. I probably didn’t even need to give them to him because being with me was a big enough reinforcer for him to step onto the perch. Boy, if my sister reads this, she sure is going to have fun with that comment. Anyway, on went the shower and in I went. Now I need to get Rico wet. I can’t just spray him because he does not like that in the least. Sure if I were to do that, getting him into the shower next time would be a task for sure. Out came that bag of reinforcers again.

Rico likes attention. Rico likes to hear how good he is. Rico also likes to show off. I know, imagine that. Rico likes high-pitched happy yelling. Okee dokee, here we go. Up went my arms as the cue for wing flaps as I said “Show me your wings, Rico” in a high pitched voice. This is a behavior that has worked as a reinforcer in the past as maintaining behavior of Rico flapping his wings. In this instance, I am using it as a cue but it will quickly turn into a reinforcer here within seconds. You know how I can tell? Because as soon as I said it Rico’s body posture began to change. So did the shape of his eyes. His eyes get big and round when attention is lavishly thrown at his feet. Boom! Out went the wings. “Good Boy.” I said. Reinforcer and a mighty positive one I must say. Remember, he loves hearing how good he is. When the wings go out, I flatten both hands and raise them above my head for the shower water to hit them. This casts off a spray that I can direct in Rico’s direction. When his wings are out, the spray is directed towards him. I may get a flap or five but when Rico pulls his wings back in, I stop the shower spray. I do this to give Rico control over his environment. I always like to give animals control over their environment because the more control they have and the more positive reinforcers are used, the more I see them chose to do the behaviors I’m asking of them. Plus I see it make for a more confident bird.

“Show me your wings!” I cued again with my arms. Out went the wings and out went the shower spray. “Yahoo!” I yelled. Another reinforcer because it’s more lavish attention being thrown at the feet of the almighty, white, feathered, Greek god Rico VonSqueekelton. Bam! I out went the wings. Bam! out went the wings even more. Bam my bird was getting nice and soaked and you know what I saw? I saw reinforcers changing. After a few minutes, I get pretty tired. Rico was just going to town flapping those wings and I noticed his reinforcers changing. I wanted the behavior of Rico flapping his wings to maintain and it was fine with me if that flapping increased. I wasn’t delivering the reinforcer of “Good Boy!” or “Yahoo” as much. I saw him doing it for something else. Something else was now increasing his wing flapping. It was the water or the act of getting wet. The reinforcers for increasing his behavior has just been handed off from me to the water. I welcomed it, my voice was getting hoarse.

Did I mention how loud our house is? Have I ever mentioned most of the noise comes from me? I love this interaction with the birds and the behaviors it encourages in my birds. Also, who’s going to complain about the noisy birds when it’s the crazy lady running through the aviary in her back yard screaming “Show me your wings!” as she’s getting ready to take off?

I wanted to show this video. This could be and I think it is, a reinforcer for Rico taking a shower. He loves to be blown dry by the blow dryer. Blow drying Rico is an event that follows the behavior of Rico showering. If the blow drying increases or maintains the behavior of Rico taking a shower, than it is a reinforcer for taking a shower. It’s not an immediate reinforcer, because Rico and I take a shower for about 20 minutes. I didn’t blow dry Rico after this shower. It was hot outside so I took him outside to dry in the sun. If he shows resistance to wanting to take a shower next time, it could help clarify that the blow drying is an actual reinforcer. Does this make sense? If you take away a possible reinforcer, and the behavior decreases, it could help clarify that the event or item you took away was an actual reinforcer. Introduce the blow dryer next time. If the behavior of taking a shower increases, then you can pretty much claim blow drying as a reinforcer.

Here’s a video showing how much Rico loves the blow dryer. Watch the volume because you’ll hear the high-pitched yell I have which is a reinforcer for Rico gettin’ down with the blow dryer. Enjoy!

Here are the photos of Rico after the actual shower above. He seems pretty excited with his wet wings outside in the aviary. My guess is going to be that he’ll be just as excited as the next shower. We’ll see.




So, if you’ve made it this far through the post, you’ll see how everything in the behavioral repertoire of Rico’s shower experience has turned out well, but what about Snot Nose Johnnie and the Punk Candy Bandit? How could that scenario have turned out differently by identifying good (positive) reinforcers and desired behaviors? As you may have noticed, Johnnie’s behavior was never undesirable. He can’t help his snotty nose. Mom should have and could have positively reinforced Johnnie’s desire behavior of sitting calmly in the cart by giving him a Cheezit or an M&M. Who decides the reinforcer? Johnnie decides the reinforcer, the trainer or teacher doesn’t. As far as big brother, it may be obvious that some prior experience has already been reinforced before this incident in the grocery store line. I would have started prior to this. I would have started when big brother was in the desirable situation as Snot Nose Johnnie and reinforced good behavior there. But in this instance that I’ve laid out in this post, I would have ignored all of big brother’s “Mom!”‘s Just flat out ignored it and continued wiping Johnnie’s face until I saw or heard that particular moment where big brother stopped and was quiet for a few seconds. I would have then turned and looked at him and said something like “You are being so good and well-behaved. Do you know how proud that makes me?” Most children look for attention from their parents. They’ll take the bad just as well as the good, so I will make sure I deliver the good and complimenting comments. There is a huge possibility that this compliment to big brother’s desired behavior will have a big impact in his decision of what works next time. If he were to yell “MOM!” in the next instance, I would simply ignore it. I bet he’ll fish for whatever works and try remaining quiet for a second, because it got him what he wanted before. I wait until I hear that and then I turn and say “You continue to make me proud. You’re such a good boy.” and give him what he wants, and at this time, it is his attention. Be alert to any other things in his environment that could work as positive reinforcers and use them wisely and sparingly. He’ll work harder for them.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 27, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    What a well written post Lara. Lucky for me I get to work as a cashier in a grocery store with “Johnnie’s big brother.” This candy situation happens all the time, along with kids pressing debit machine buttons, and kids grabbing pens to draw on the checkout counter. I know I don’t have time to teach the parents (nor the authority) about basic behavior, but when I see a little trouble-maker looking at the candy or about to grab his sisters Sally’s hair to gain some attention, I engage the child before anything bad happens. “Hey kid, can you do any tricks?” After they give me a confused look I prompt them with a high-five, if they do that I ask for a low-five, and then a sideways-five. This works like magic and for the rest of the order the kid is always keeping an eye on me and I reinforce that with smiles back or light conversation about things they like. Before they leave I’ll give them a coloring book (provided by our store, thank god) to keep them occupied and quiet on the way home.

    It is great thing to know the science of behavior, especially when you can actually DO something about changing it. Otherwise it just drives you mad when you can’t.

    Great job with Rico Lara!

    • June 27, 2010 at 7:34 pm

      Oh how cool you do this with the kid’s in the checkout line. Once you start working with the positive reinforcers, don’t you find it so much easier (not to mention the learning experience for the kids) to work with than punishers? Kudos to you on your fine work and wit in recognizing the possibility of undesirable behavior and paving that road to learning. So awesome to read your response. Great job right back to you.

      Do the parents ever comment on how you interact with the children? Do they send you a check in the mail as a thank you for the quiet ride home? 😉

      One of the many reinforcers for me in continuing to work and train in the way that I do, is when I see the behavior change in the bird who is used to positive reinforcement, having it consistently taken away. Wow what an eye opener that is. That’s enough to make you stay on track. I remember one time I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to ask Rocky, my Moluccan, to step up onto his play system. I instead forced him to by giving a little nudge and lifting his foot. He was completely confused. That made my day and stopped me dead in my tracks and made me re-think my pre planning in making time to head out the door. A few more times of forcing Rocky and I’m sure I could have trained a few undesirable behaviors I’d rather not see.

  2. Julie Williams
    June 27, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Great post La!
    As Steve and I just bought home a new guy – who has many a screaming issue – this ( and all your ) posts are going to be even more valuable to us as we try to work out how to “fix” Nicolas.
    We are still trying to understand what his reinforcers are and how to not overstimulate him at the same time as he gets quite aggressive, so every bit of inof help, thanks la

  3. June 28, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Oh thanks Julie. You have a newbie at home? It sounds like he was in need of a good home. You two will do well, I’m sure. Working with a screaming bird can be trying but the behavior can definitely be changed. The thing is about ‘fixing’ Nicolas, is that it is probably working for him and obviously has value to him. The value has probably be unknowingly reinforced which is why it still exists. If the behavior served no purpose, it wouldn’t exist. The key is to change the behavior, keep the bird.
    I’ll post again soon and keep you guys in mind. 😉 I have many people in mind in future posts. I had to say that or I’ll get a dagger thrown at me for sure as I’ve been promising posts.

  4. June 6, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Pretty informative looking frontward to coming back.

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