Home > Behavior, Empowerment > A Bit About Reinforcement

A Bit About Reinforcement

Reinforcers are anything that follows a behavior that causes that behavior to maintain or increase. For example, a bird steps up or flies to you when you ask and you give it an

Recalling Rico to the hand for a primary reinforcer

almond. If the behavior of stepping up maintains or increases more than likely the almond is a reinforcer for the behavior of the bird stepping up. In this instance the almond would be a positive reinforcer because it was something that was added to the environment that caused the behavior to maintain or increase. Positive reinforcers are always items of value to the one giving the behavior.

Also, the bird is always the one that determines the reinforcer. The reinforcer is never determined by us. If the bird is full, more than likely that almond is not going to be of high value to the bird. In other words, it’s not a fair trade.

Birds are individuals too. Imagine living life from their perspective. We ask them to step up. What’s in it for them? If they really don’t care to step up onto us because they are enjoying looking out the window instead, why would we expect them to step up onto us? Because we want them to? Nope, it doesn’t really work that way.

Positive reinforcers aren’t always food related either. Food related reinforcers are called primary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are those that are needed for survival such as food, water, shelter, and reproduction. Secondary reinforcers are everything else such as a head scratch, a toy, a “Good Boy!”.

Secondary reinforcers can be very strong also. Reserving a known positive reinforcer makes the value of that reinforcer more valuable to the bird, if it is correctly identified. For example, Rocky, my moluccan cockatoo loves to be scratched around the neck. He loves it so much he’ll actually pick your hand up and place it on his neck. “Bingo!” This is an identified very valued reinforcer of Rocky’s. So I use it and I may reserve it for when I need it.

If my goal is to ask Rocky to step up out of his cage and onto my arm with the intention of walking him through the house to his play station in the bird room, I better use the neck scratch wisely and accurately.

Rocky coming out of the cage could be reinforcer for him stepping onto my arm. The opportunity for him to be with me may also be the reinforcer or an additional reinforcer.

I ask Rocky to step up onto my hand from his cage. He does. I may say “Good Boy Rocky” and that may be a good enough reinforcer. I’ve identified that he wants to come out of the cage and I know time or attention from me is also a valued reinforcer. The “Good Boy Rocky” and the stepping onto my arm are both valued reinforcers to him. Now, if I walk through the house scratching the back of his neck, why would he want to step off of me and onto his play station when asked? Why would he want to step off of me when he’s getting that highly valued reinforcer of HIS when he’s on my arm?

So I walk through the house and deliver the “Good Boy Rocky” for him perching calmly on my arm. Perching calmly is a behavior I want to reward so I better not forget to reinforce it. Sometimes a “Good Boy Rocky” is a big enough reinforcer for keeping him perched calmly. If I see that it’s not working, I may deliver an occasional head scratch during my walk to the bird room.

When I get to the bird room and am standing in front of his play station, I then ask him to step up. If he hesitates, I show him the positive reinforcer that will be delivered when he does. That is a me moving my fingers in a position that shows him that I want to scratch him. Almost always, he steps up. Yes, this may be called luring. I showed him the reward for the behavior I’m requesting. He steps up. I deliver the head scratch. This is called contingency. I deliver the reinforcer only when the requested behavior is given. The delivery of the reinforcer is contingent on the behavior of stepping up. This helps keep the behavior of stepping off of me very strong.

In the times that he choses not to step up, I rely on a list of reinforcers I reserve for when I find myself in this situation. Rocky loves peanuts. Rocky loves pine nuts. I break out one of these primary reinforcers and put them in his foraging toys and there goes Rocky. He steps up onto the play station and goes running to the foraging toy. No force needed. The bird’s choice still remains and the desired outcomes are still paired with my requests which makes behaviors more likely to happen when requested in the future.

On the other hand, we can strongly reinforce a lunge from a bird every time we walk by. If every time we walk by a bird and it lunges, that lunge is being reinforced. The lunge is maintaining or increasing isn’t it? It’s being reinforced. If every time our cockatoo is on the floor, it chases our feet. The chasing is being reinforced. So what do we do in these instances? Train. Train the bird to do something else that is of desired behavior, like stepping up or going to a perch and when it does, that is when we deliver the highly valued positive reinforcers we are reserving for times like these. The reinforcer better be of more value to the bird for stepping up than it is for continuing to chase your feet. That’s where our work comes in.

There is so much proof in the power of positive reinforcement. This type of training helps build relationships with the animal and helps behaviors remain strong. The outcome of using positive reinforcement training is the positive reinforcer for me continuing to use it and share it. There are several reasons I love using it. First, it is the most ethical way I have seen in interacting with an animal because it gives choice the animal and reduces stress. Stress levels can be a major factor of working with birds under our care or any animal in any type of confinement. Second, it develops into a strong line of communication between the handler and the animal or bird. Third, it builds trust between the handler/caretaker and the bird. Fourth, it is so effective when working with a bird showing ‘frightened’ or ‘aggressive’ behaviors. Fifth, with consistent pairing in delivery of positive reinforcers and attention to body language, soon the handler/caretaker will see the reinforcers shift or grow. With consistency it doesn’t take long for the bird to choose the proximity to you or to be with you as a highly valued reinforcer. Creating stress-free and enriched environments is a goal of mine with every bird I encounter.

Just a bit of Saturday morning blogging. Next I’ll dive into the commonly misused term of ‘negative reinforcement’.

Video: Rocky stepping onto his play station for a head scratch. Real-time in how it works.

  1. Cathy R aka Paloma Perch
    October 22, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Lara….this was an EXCELLENT article. Since I do have 4 cockatoos….I feel EXACTLY what you’re describing here. And since they are the “neediest” of birds….I am glad you wrote this.

    I agree strongly with your description of positive (primary & secondary) enforcers. Because what the HUMAN may think would be a “reward”, may not necessarily be so for the bird….as you described. It’s all about understanding the bird at that moment. You have portrayed this beautifully in this article.

    Also….as far as Cockatoos…..they OFTEN are motivated MORE by “secondary” enforcers than primary. At least that’s been my experience. Cockatoos seem to me to be much MORE motivated by “flock-leader” type behaviors….such as attention, ie…scratch on the neck. Whereas, I believe a Macaw would be moreso motivated by a primary (a nut, etc).

    This was an EXC article Lara & I appreciate very much you sharing this. I get very much knowledge & inspiration from your posts & thoughts. Keep it up.

    Many thanks,

    Cathy aka Paloma Perch…in AZ 🙂

  2. Tricia
    October 22, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Great article, Lara!

    The concept of reinforcing positive behaviour is fairly straightforward (and I have a VERY food motivated IRN, so that helps!). My question is about negative behaviour. When something unwanted is happening (say, biting or lunging), I’m unsure of how to distract or offer an alternative without the “distraction” seeming like a reward, thereby reinforcing the negative behaviour.

    Any advice you have (or recommendations for online articles) would be much appreciated!

  3. October 23, 2011 at 4:51 am

    What a great question, Tricia. My advice to you is always ask yourself “What is the behavior you want to see?” Reward that behavior. That behavior is often exhibited before the undesirable behavior is exhibited.

    For example, your IRN is standing still before he lunges, correct? Reward him for staying still. That is the behavior you want to see, right? Reward that behavior before the lunging has the opportunity to happen.

    I just took a video of this with re-training my eclectus, Molly for the same behavior. First I needed to identify what was reinforcing the lunge. It wasn’t necessarily me walking by her cage that reinforced the lunge but rather it was the pace at which I would walk by. So I eliminated the reinforcer which was the faster pace at which I walked by her cage. When I would walk by slow, she would not lunge, that is when I needed to deliver the reinforcer.

    Attached is a video clip of me modifying this behavior. The video, for the most part is in real-time. I believe I edited one section out which was about a minute long because there was a long pause. Watch in the beginning when I first walk by her cage. She doesn’t lunge but she rocks back and forth real fast. This is often what she does when she’s ready to lunge. I then start to re-shape the behavior I want to see increase which is Molly perching calmly while I walk by her cage. I begin by walking slow and then by the end of the video clip I am walking by her cage at a normal pace while she is perched calmly.

  4. Tricia
    October 23, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Thank you so much, Lara. I’ll definitely work on new approaches to my training! Appreciate it!

  5. Diane
    October 24, 2011 at 11:49 am

    These really work, my nasty little timmeh is coming around great. Also my nervous congo is now allowing me to pet him. Thank you Lara.

    • October 25, 2011 at 6:50 am

      So good to hear, Diane. You are very welcome. Thank you for for what you do for your birds.

  6. November 30, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    My experience with parrots is that many problems are caused by “territorial issues” and sometimes these issues are hard for himans to understand.

    My BF amazon is a classic example. He will bite me if I try to get him in or out of his cage. ( Unless its dinner time and he is going back in)

    Take him out of the room, “his territory” and he never bites. LOL

    Other parrots, like my Congo grey, are not territorial at all.

    • November 30, 2011 at 9:05 pm

      Oh how I agree with you, Stanley. I see many birds show behaviors looking as thought they are protecting the cage they are in or other objects.

      I used to have an eclectus that showed these behaviors. Sometimes she still does. I do need to get her out and put her back in her cage. I see you’ve noticed a great positive reinforcer of your blue fronted amazaon, FOOD, and using that as the positive reinforcer for going back into the cage. I do the same with my eclectus and a blue front amazon. I use food as the positive reinforcers for going to and moving from places I need them to go with no biting.

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