Home > Behavior > A Quick Example of How Positive Reinforcement Can Help in Preventing an Undesired Behavior

A Quick Example of How Positive Reinforcement Can Help in Preventing an Undesired Behavior

I’d like to make this a quick post, but I know how that goes. I would also like to add photos and videos to this today as I try and repeat some of this interaction with my bird to better explain the detail.

I have a little dilemma in my household right now. Rico, my Umbrella Cockatoo is showing more nesting behaviors than I’ve ever seen him exhibit. This hasn’t been much of a problem, but I do see how it could quickly turn into a problem if I stop paying attention to detail. He is showing many behaviors some people could and would label as ‘hormonal’. Is he hormonal? Well, he’s maturing and showing signs of what is described as nesting behaviors. This is by no means a reason for me to stop interacting with him, stop working with him, and blow off behaviors and label them as “Oh, he’s just being hormonal.” This would cause me to stop paying attention to detail and give way for the opportunity for some behaviors to become aggressive. I work with these changing behaviors and continue to live and grow with my 4 maturing parrots. I redirect nesting behaviors by reinforcing alternative behaviors such as flight, play, wing flaps, etc. Very recently, every time I walk Rico through my kitchen, he glances up at the top of the cupboards. Well, there are open spaces between our kitchen cupboards and the ceiling. If you have a broody bird, this may be very evident to you in how a bird may see this or how they may react to it. Rico sees this closed in space and flies to it almost immediately. So what’s the big deal? He’s wanting to chew the edges of the cupboards. Yea, white streamlined cupboards, this will be extremely obvious especially when are wanting to sell the house.

Without getting too involved in that issue, my point is that I’ve been walking him through the kitchen and rewarding him for staying perched on my arm as we walk by the mother load of kitchen cupboard nest boxes. He’ll stay on my hand and will remain perched. I ask him to touch my finger and when he does, I’ll reward him. This allows me the opportunity to reward him for something I want him to do vs chasing him and having to grab him from the tops of the cupboards. He now pays attention to my finger and waits to touch it to receive his reward. This is a perfect example of how target training is beneficial. We use this same tactic with a Turkey Vulture who will lunge in certain instances. If I delay in asking Rico to touch my finger and rewarding him in staying put on my arm as we walk through the kitchen, he’ll be in flight.

Once a bird learns a behavior, they learn it. Once Rico learns there are lovely potential nest box areas on top of the cupboard, I can’t un-teach that. I can teach him other things and this is what I am doing until I can put my plan in place of how to prevent the chewing of the cupboards. I want to try and prevent him continually flying up there because with each flight up there, this behavior is being reinforced. The continuation of this builds for stronger reinforcement for flying up there. Does that make sense? The less opportunity I give him to practice this, the less reinforcement is being delivered for the behavior. His reinforcement for flying up there is the opportunity to chew and whatever else is going through his mind. So through the kitchen and by the cupboards we walk as I ask him to “touch” and reward, “touch” and reward until we walk by the cupboards. No need to restrain him. I just need to pay close attention to the shape of his eye, watch where his eyes are focused, and the change in stance. It works wonderfully.

Today it was raining outside. I don’t have my plan for the kitchen cupboards ready yet, so we couldn’t hang out on the main floor of the house. Hmmm, only two other areas and the basement was out. So up the stairs to the bedroom we headed.

The bedroom is a large open space resembling a loft. Birds are not what we had in mind when we designed it, but oh how cool of a place it has turned out for them to be. Lots of room for flight, for different perch placement, for running, and for having fun. Before I took him up there, I thought of the few things that may be laying out that I don’t want him getting into. Some of these things can not be moved, such as the electrical outlets. He can easily fly to the vanity tops and reach the electrical outlets. He also can easily reach whatever is plugged into them. He can also fly on top of the shower door and eat the plastic molding which keeps the water from coming out of the shower. There is an open cupboard that resembles an oh so lovely nest box too. He could find all kinds of areas where I don’t want him to be. A little forethought can be your best friend when it comes to rewarding desirable behaviors so you don’t have to punish undesirable ones. Pre plan in setting the environment up for success and working with your bird’s reinforcers. Reward the good. Birds tend to work towards whatever brings them desirable results. The key is to identify them, use them, and not over saturate them so these rewards quickly lose value to your bird.

So up the stairs we continued to walk as the layout of the bedroom was flying through my mind. Rico was still perched on my left hand with eyes forward and body language showing me he couldn’t wait to reach the top of the stairs. I was running through my mental grab bag of goodies to use to positively reinforce the behaviors of Rico’s play in order to avoid areas in which I didn’t want him to go.

I have a little stash in a cupboard next to my sink in the bedroom. In this stash I keep potential objects or toys that I run across on a daily basis, that might be intriguing to a bird about to get into something I don’t want him to. My husband and I always save our plastic dental floss containers when we are done with them. He throws them in my stash and that is where they sit until I need them. Well, today I remembered that stash as I was walking up the stairs. (Note: I pull out the metal tear strip in the dental floss box before giving to them. This prevents metal toxicosis and an opportunity for the bird to cut himself.)

I sat Rico on the counter top. I watched what he was watching and he immediately looked at my husband’s side of the sink. All kinds of goodies stashed near the sink including the remote control to the TV. I saw him look and I spun on my heals to the stash. I pulled out the empty dental floss container and said “Look what I found.” Well guess what nosey bird turned to look to see what I had? I knew he would look, just as I knew he would look for things I didn’t want him to get into. I prevented the potential for having to grab him from reaching all the objects I didn’t want him to. Many times by reaching and pulling an animal away from things we don’t want them to have, only teaches them how to get it more quickly next time. What frustration this must build in the animal.

Rico hadn’t played with a dental floss container in quite a while, so you can imagine how much value this was to him. I was pretty sure this would work too. I handed him the container. Bada Bing, Bada Bang he had the little window taken out of the front of the container, the box was open, and the plastic wheel was now spinning by the force of his tongue between his top and bottom beak as he stared at me as if to say “Now what?” Little turd. It’s so hard to keep one step ahead of an intelligent creature, as most parrots are. I quickly put the whole thing back together again. He looked at me and quickly disassembled it. I thought “Huh, time to increase the level of complexity.” I glanced across the room at the bed. It is about 25′ – 30′ away. I said “Do you see this?” as I held up the reassembled dental floss container. His eyes told me he saw it. I said “One. Two. Three!” as I gave it a huge toss to hopefully land on the bed. Rico was in flight in that direction before the dental floss container was half way there. This bought me some time. I wanted to change my clothes and wash my face while I was up there.

After throwing the dental floss container, he had to now fly to the bed and disassemble it. The flat surface of the bed was a different surface for him to stand. It took him longer to take the container apart. I used that time to do what I needed to do. I turned and washed my face. By the time he was done disassembling, I was done washing my face. Bingo! He stood there on the bed with the opened container in his beak. I cued him to come back to my arm. He dropped the dental floss container and flew across the room to my hand. I sat him on the cupboard and headed over to grab the container. I put it back together as I was walking back to him. I showed it to him again and did a toss. Bam! He went right after it. While he was disassembling it, I changed my clothes while encouraging him to keep destroying the container. As I was changing my clothes, I was delivering verbal reinforcers to keep his attention focused on the container vs flying to me while changing. I said things like “Get it Rico!” and “Look at you!” If you could see him, these words have an obvious effect on his behavior. He’ll do whatever it is that is rewarding him with those words and do it more dramatically. Clothes were changed. I went back over to the vanity and cued him to my hand while the dental floss container was in his beak. He turned and looked at me and flew to my hand with it in his beak. This may sound dumb, but I was so excited to see him fly with an object in his mouth. This is new to him and he is realizing not only is his flight a mode a transportation for him, but it is a mode of transporting objects he wants. For me, this is so absolutely cool to watch because I’m watching him learn and he’s thriving from his learning.

I put the container back together and had Rico on my left hand while the dental floss container was in my right. I threw it. He flew after it. He landed and ran up to it. He grabbed it and I immediately cued him back to my hand. He flew back to my hand. I tossed it again. He went after it. Once he had it in his beak I cued him. He flew to my hand with it in his beak. I threw it once again to see if I had a retrieve being trained. Boom! Went right after it, picked it up, turned and looked at me, this time I didn’t verbally cue him to my hand. I just raised my hand for a place to perch. That was his cue and he was on it quicker than a beak can touch an electrical outlet. I was so excited and I think ever bird in the house could hear this. The one standing on my hand with crest up, head bobbing, and yelling “Woooo, Wooooo, Wooooo!” was the one I was interested in showing how excited I was. My excitement over his actions are such a HUGE and VALUABLE reinforcer for him.

We must have played this game for about 10 minutes. I had trained a retrieve without pre planning. What I was more impressed with was the fact that we were upstairs all around these things that Rico would love to explore and destroy yet he never once went after any of them. His attention was all about the dental floss container, the interaction with me, his flight, his new-found retrieve, and his disassembling the container. These were all reinforcers for him in the environment of being upstairs. These reinforcers could and would quickly change as I changed environments, for example, going outside. Because I was able to identify a reinforcer for alternative behaviors (dental floss container), and use this according to his attention span, I was able to keep his attention completely focused on rewarding desirable behavior. I never once had to punish a behavior by telling him “No” or by pulling him away from something. Both of those instances have undesirable  consequences of which many people are unaware.

“Oh look!” I said to Rico. “It’s not raining anymore! Want to go outside and fly?” Usually I say “Let’s go put our wings on!” but regardless, he knows ‘wings’ and he knows ‘fly’. He responded with the head bob and the “Woooo Woooo Wooooo” and down the stairs, through the kitchen and out the back door we went.

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  1. Kelly Reed
    July 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Another great installment in your blog, Lara! I think many struggle with how to live happily and peacefully with a fully flighted bird and you have given us all an important concrete example of how to manage a flighted bird’s behavior in the household in a positive, trust-building and fun way. Love it!

    Regarding the retrieve…talk about capturing a behavior! Good job!

    • July 14, 2010 at 8:47 pm

      Thanks Kelly. I just wanted to take a snip it of every day life to share with those interested, how it works. I went in and edited this post a bit this morning as I was falling asleep last night on the couch with the computer and wanted to add more step by step detail.
      Hey, I learned from you how to play “hide and seek” with a flighted bird. Man, talk about having to pick inconspicuous spots. I love it. So do the birds!!!

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