Archive for the ‘Alternative Behavior’ Category

Behavior Serves A Purpose…

July 24, 2013 3 comments

Rocky's reaction to a change in the environment

Rocky’s reaction to a change in the environment

Behavior serves a purpose for the individual doing the behaving. If the behavior proves of no value for the individual, the animal or human will have no reason to perform or exhibit this behavior again. If behavior, whether desired or undesired by us exists, it is because this behavior serves a purpose for us or for the animal. If that behavior happens once, the animal learns from that behavior by the consequence giving that behavior serves for the animal. If that behavior happens twice or three times, that behavior is being reinforced. There is something that causes that behavior to maintain or increase and that ‘something’ is the reinforcer for this behavior.

Often times I hear “The behavior happens for no reason.” The behavior does happen for a reason or this behavior would not continue to exist for this animal. Once we can find why the behavior happens, then we can work with that consequence or reinforcer and begin working on changing that behavior. Why is the bird screaming? Why is the dog charging the door? Why is the owl flying off of the glove? When we can answer these questions, that is when we can accurately begin working on changing the behavior of the bird screaming, the dog charging the door, and the owl flying off the glove.

If the bird is screaming for attention, give it the attention when it does something that is more desirable. I do this with all screaming parrots. Screaming is a tough behavior to live with. If the dog is charging the door, find a reinforcer that is of higher value to deliver when it is staying calmly in a desired area when requested. If the owl is flying off the glove, figure out what purpose that serves for the owl and then arrange the environment so that purpose does not need to happen for the owl. Obviously there are several steps and different approaches that can be used in the above examples but for the purpose of this post, all behavior serves a purpose for the animal. If that behavior happens more than once, that behavior is being reinforced and exists because the consequence is of value for the animal. These behaviors can be changed or redirected.

I also commonly hear “I was hoping the animal would grow out of the undesired behavior.” Each time that undesired behavior happens, the more well-practiced it is and the stronger it is likely becoming. By no means does this mean that well-practiced behaviors cannot be changed, because they can. What it does mean is that the longer the behavior is practiced or reinforced, the longer it can take for us to change it. The longer a behavior happens or is being reinforced is called a history of reinforcement.

Rocky, my 13-year-old Moluccan Cockatoo has a long history of reinforcement of his screaming and his abnormal

Training Falka to not charge or bark at unknown objects or things at the door.

Training Falka to not charge or bark at unknown objects or things at the door.

repetitive behavior of doing a back-flip in his cage. Both behaviors of screaming and flipping used to happen consecutively every 3-5 seconds for at least two hours at a time. These two behaviors are well-practiced by Rocky and from my best observation over time, have had a long history of reinforcement. I say this because these two behaviors still exist today and Rocky has been with me and under my care for over five years. Before you get discouraged, please keep reading because rarely do these two behaviors exist together currently. Also based on how often the screaming used to happen, I can now happily say rarely does his behavior of screaming exist anymore. If I do hear him scream, it is because it is serving a purpose for him. When I hear it, I pay close attention to his environment, observe potential reinforcers for this behavior, and immediately take control of his environment to change the delivery of the reinforcer. I do all of the above so I can change the behavior and reinforcer for that behavior. When I can do this, I can change the behavior. Now if either of these behaviors happen, which is few and far between, they are indicators to me that this behavior is likely to begin to rear its head again at some time in the future if intervention does not happen. The longer the history of reinforcement is for a behavior, the more that behavior may happen in the future if key cues or indicators are ignored. The cues or indicators of Rocky screaming or doing back-flips in his cage are very obvious to me because I’ve paid so close attention to changing them. I now know what environments or environmental events will likely bring out either of these behaviors with Rocky. This gives me the opportunity to rearrange the environment for the undesired behaviors to not happen by giving a particular toy or object he prefers or incorporate positive reinforcers for alternate behaviors when the undesired is likely to happen. This is training. This is communication happening.

Target training Kwynn, the micro-mini pig at a consultation at The Animal Behavior Center.

Target training Kwynn, the micro-mini pig at a consultation at The Animal Behavior Center.

Whenever I see an undesired behavior happen or beginning to be practiced, the least I do is take note that it did happen. This is when I note to myself that this behavior could be a concern and lead to more intense behaviors. If I see this behavior happen again, I’ve probably already begun to think of how I can change it. I do not want to see undesired behaviors happen twice or a third time because I know each time it happens, the more well-practiced and purpose it has for the animal. For example, I recently had Kwynn, the micro-mini pig with me for training for a weekend about a month ago. I went to get her ready for bed for the evening. I set up her crate and when I turned for her she took off running and squealing. An eyebrow went up and I began laughing. The crate and time of night was an obvious cue for her that it was time to go to bed. I could have chased her around the room and by her behavior of running and squealing, I predicted the more I chased, the faster she would run and louder she would squeal. I didn’t feel like running nor did I want to associate her being with me and putting her to bed was a time to not look forward to. I knew Kwynn was already trained to touch her snout to a target stick. So when she ran and squealed, I turned for the target stick. The presence of the target stick has a long and strong history of reinforcement for Kwynn. When she saw it, she knew the opportunity for goodies to be delivered was high. She quickly came running to me instead of away from me. A few repetitions of her touching her snout to the target stick and she was easily guided inside her crate. Then I stood and reinforced periods of time of her sitting calmly inside her crate while I slowly turned down the light. She was quick to catch on and the following night she saw the opportunity for going to bed as a highly desired one.

I often tell people “When working with an undesired behavior that has a long history of reinforcement, you can pretty much bet it took a lot longer to train that undesired behavior than it will for us to change it.” That has been my experience in changing behaviors with animals. Often times undesired behaviors have been unknowingly trained for a long time. If the steps needed to take to change the behavior are broken down into small approximations, one will see the behavior changing fairly quickly. Unfortunately, many times by the time a person seeks professional advice to change behavior, if the behavior change doesn’t happen quickly, the animal is likely to lose its home, even though the undesired behavior probably took months or even years to get to this intensity. The importance in seeking professional behavior and training help is the key in helping keep animals in their homes and out of shelters.

We are always learning. Animals are always learning. Training is communication and we are always training. The key question is “What are we training?”

Lara Joseph is the owner of The Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania, Ohio. See her website at


Question on Behavior & Training: My African Grey Consistently Bites His Nails and Flaps His Wings When He is Nervous

July 5, 2011 13 comments

 Hi Lara,

I hope you can help us.  I have a two-year old male Congo African Grey.  He is a nail biter.  He’s been biting his nails for some time (over a year).  I’m sure at some point I must have reinforced this behavior and now it has become a habit.  He’s not biting his nails and hurting himself he just bites them enough so they remain dull and not shiny.  I know he does this when he is nervous or frustrated.

Like I said he’s been doing the nail-biting for some time.  As a matter of fact I cannot remember when he didn’t do it.  Here are a few examples:  

For the longest time he would bite his nails whenever he wanted to go from here to there but couldn’t because he was severely clipped (from the breeder).  So he would bite his nails and flap his wings until I would pick him up and take him where he wanted to go.  He still does both of these behaviors even though he is now fully flighted.  Why doesn’t he just fly to where he wants to go instead of biting his nails and flapping his wings?  Maybe he will figure this out one day. 

Very recently I moved the birds into a bird-room (I have three birds – Congo African Grey, Double Yellow Head Amazon, Red Fronted Macaw).  His nail-biting got worse when I first moved him in but has since gotten somewhat better now that he is more comfortable in the room.  If he is in the bird room and hears his favorite person come home he’ll start biting his nails.  Again even though he can fly he’ll start biting and flapping until he gets what he wants.  It also seems he is biting his nails whenever I mention the word “nite nite”.  For some reason he just gets all upset and nervous when it’s time for “nite nite”.  I’ll put him in his cage and he will frantically climb all over every inch of his cage.  Once I turn the lights out he takes his position on his swing and he’s good for the night.  I just don’t understand any of this.

Is there anything you can suggest I try to get him to stop? 


Houston, Texas

Hi Karen.

There are so many things I want to say, but first of all thank you for all of the great examples of when your grey shows the behavior of biting his nails. From what I can tell from your examples, I also agree that this may be a behavior he resorts to in correlation to times of also showing signs of nervousness or frustration. You have the behavior of him chewing on his nails, that is where we want to focus our attention and to the event or events happening right before he chews his nails and the event or events right after he chews his nails. When we look for the details in the environment right before and right after the behavior, we can usually start using these events to change the undesired behavior.

Before we go too much further, I’d also like to point out that your african grey is two years old. You mentioned he has been chewing his nails ever since you can remember. Your bird is still pretty young so we have a smaller time frame from which he’s had to practice this behavior. This is also called the ‘history of reinforcement’. What this means is if this behavior maintains or increases, it has been reinforced, not rewarded, but reinforced. Something in the environment has caused or is causing this behavior to maintain or increase, and whatever is causing that behavior to maintain is what is reinforcing the behavior. The amount of time the bird has had to practice or repeat this behavior is called the ‘history of reinforcement’. At two years of age, you are still working with a pretty young bird but by no means does that not mean the behavior isn’t strong. It only means he has had two or less years for this behavior to be reinforced. No matter how old the bird though, one can always work on modifying behaviors no matter how long the history of reinforcement. It may take longer or smaller steps for each individual bird, and the approach to each bird and each behavior is just that…individual and pertaining specifically to that bird. For more information on reinforcers and reinforcement, please read the following blog post:

You mentioned he bites his nails and flaps his wings when he wants to go to a different location. While he was badly clipped, this was his cue to you that he wanted moved to a different location. If you moved him when you saw him doing this, this became a clear line of communication between the two of you. That is training and the nail-biting and flapping where his cues to you. He communicated, you responded. If when he still does this, you still pick him up and transport him, it could be that he prefers this form of transportation over the flying. He could be doing this for several reasons. If he wants your attention, he may choose this type of transportation over flying on his own. If he doesn’t know how to fly well, he may not be comfortable with flying.

I don’t remember you saying whether your african grey flies or not. If he does, I still want to post this for other readers. Just because birds have wings and they are fully feathered doesn’t necessarily mean that they can fly or feel comfortable with flying. If he wasn’t allowed to fledge (a short and critical period after hatching where the bird learns how to fly) as a chick, he may not know how to fly. One of the hardest parts that I’ve observed in birds learning to fly, is learning how to land. If a bird doesn’t know how to land as an adult and each landing experience is uncomfortable for him, such as crashing into a wall or feeling out of control, this could easily result in the bird not wanting to fly because paired with each experience of flying comes a painful or fearful outcome. If the breeder from which you bought your african grey doesn’t know how to give a proper wing clip, the chances of them not knowing the importance in letting a bird fledge could be higher also.

If your bird doesn’t understand or fears flight, I would suggest teaching him to be comfortable with flight, and where we might start teaching may be teaching him how to land. There may be several approaches to this and one I recommend is have your bird perch on your arm about 2” over the top of the bed and ask him to hop off. Start from an area that the bird can easily accomplish. Once he hops off positively reinforce him with praise or a treat, whatever your bird values. When he’s doing this with ease and without hesitation, move to the next step and raise your arm an inch higher and request the same behavior. I wouldn’t suggest tossing him. Let him have a choice in this and when he makes the desired one, make it highly rewarding for him. Then move an inch higher, and higher, and higher without moving to the next step until the current one is well-practiced and he is very comfortable with giving the behaviors you are requesting. This will cause your bird to start spreading his wings for balance and control when he’s hopping down. Soon that hop will turn into a flap, then two flaps. I have several videos and several approaches in doing this. I will post them soon. For now, here is one video in a series of steps in which I used to encourage my Moluccan Cockatoo, Rocky, to fly.

Once your bird starts learning how to maneuver his wings, you can put his hops, jumps, or flights on cue such as saying “Come” or “Hop down”. Pair this cue with each time you request this of your bird. This way, when you are standing in the kitchen and you see him on his play stand in the living room and he looks like he might start biting his toes, cue him to “Come” or “Hop down” and make it easy for him to do. This way he is already familiar with the cue and knows what it means. You are going to try to prevent the behavior of nail-biting before it even has the opportunity to happen by watching his body language. For example if he starts moving his body in more rhythmic motions right before he begins biting his nails, that is your cue the nail-biting is getting ready to happen. Cue him to “hop down” or “come” before the nail-biting has the opportunity to even happen.

From reading your examples, you seem to know when the behavior of his nail-biting is getting ready to happen. Train him to do something else such as “go get your ball” “ring your bell” or “toss your ball”. Each of the three behaviors I just mentioned are behaviors that your african grey cannot do while he is biting his nails. This makes it impossible for him to bite his nails at the same time he is tossing his ball. If we train a bird to do a behavior that is incompatible with the behavior we want to eliminate, then there is no opportunity for the bird to practice the one we want to see disappear. Otherwise, the behavior of nail-biting is not being reinforced because it is physically impossible for him to bite his nails while he is ringing his bell.

So, when do we begin training the behavior of “getting the ball”, “ringing the bell” or “tossing the ball”? Now! Now, before the time comes when your grey’s favored person walks in the door. Now, before the opportunity happens for your grey to bite his nails and flap his wings because he wants moved from point A to point B. This way when five o’clock Monday afternoon comes, instead of your african grey immediately biting its nails when he sees your husband walking up the sidewalk, you can cue him to “go get your ball”. Positively reinforce your grey  with things that are of high value to him when he does do the things you are asking him to do. When he does go get that ball when the favored person walks in the door, the positive reinforcer at that time may be the praise and attention from the favored person. If the bird knows that the consequence in giving a requested behavior results in something of value to the bird, the more the bird will do the desired behaviors. This is how the world works and everyone and everything living in it. We all move toward things that bring about desired outcomes and move away from ones that do not. When animals are living with us under our care, many choices are taken away from them such as when they can fly, when they can get out of their cage, when they eat, and what they eat, etc. Positive reinforcement interaction provides a way to help increase the opportunity for choice back into their living environments.

When you moved your african grey into the bird room with the other two birds, some of his choices were taken away from him. Sometimes situations occur where we do have to take large steps like this. Well, let’s put some decision-making skills back in to his environment to give him more of a sense of control over his environment. There are several different approaches to this situation and one would be to introduce him to the new bird room slowly for an hour at a time, for example and only while you are in there with him. Them as you see him staying comfortable start leaving the room for periods of time, all the while positively reinforcing him for remaining calm in the room without you. Then move to leaving him in there a few hours at a time. Then leave him in the bird room most of the day with each day him still sleeping in the cage where he is used to. Provide the cage in the bird room with all of his favored toys. While leaving the other cage more undesirable than the one in the new room. Soon, leave him over night. Make the new cage and the new room more desirable than the old cage and the old room. As long as the new room is more desirable, and it is up to us to make it that way most of the time, then you are giving the choice back to your bird. You are arranging the environment for your bird to make the decision you want it to, but your bird is the one still having the opportunity of choice.

You mentioned that when he’s in the bird room he’ll start flapping his wings and chewing his nails until he gets what he wants. If this is the case, then you would be reinforcing this behavior if you are giving him what he wants. If he’s getting what he wants by flapping his wings and chewing his nails why would he do anything different? It is working for him. I would suggest teaching him other things that gives him what he wants. Positively reinforce, or reward, the other behavior while ignoring the behavior you want to see disappear. This will place value on the other behavior for your bird while the nail-biting eventually becomes of no value because it is no longer serving him a purpose.

You may be putting his nervousness in climbing all over the cage at night on cue by telling him “nite-nite”. If he seems nervous and agitated by climbing all over his cage at night, I would look for a way to extinguish this behavior. By extinguish I am referring to finding what is reinforcing the undesired behavior, and then stop the delivery of the reinforcer. You mentioned that once he’s on his perch and the lights are out, he’s quiet for the evening. Karen, here is exactly where I would start. It is his sleeping perch you want him on when it is time to go to retire for the evening, right? I would start training this during the day. Begin training him to go to his sleeping perch on cue and once he is there and only at that time do you give him a huge positive reinforcer, for example a huge piece of walnut or an almond in the shell. At that time and only when both feet are placed on that perch does he ever get an almond in the shell. This is called contingency….”if….then”. When a whole almond in the shell is given only when both feet are on this perch, then the mother load of positive reinforcers is delivered. This makes the almond in the shell of high value to the bird and the more likely the bird will give you the requested behavior and give it to you pretty quick. This is a behavior that will need to be trained but you can train that during the day. Take the cue or words “nite-nite” completely out of your vocabulary for now because right now they are being paired with something he does not like and seems to cause him to show nervousness and climbing all over the cage. I often use the word “perch” when I’m asking a bird to go to a particular spot in its cage. Watch for your bird to start finishing up his almond. Based on what you have said, once the lights are turned out he settles down quickly and the signs of nervousness stop. Right when he puts his foot down from eating the almond and before he has time to move, slowly switch off the light and gently shut the bird room door. This gives the behavior of climbing all over the cage no time to be reinforced. I would be very consistent with this every single night. Once you have been consistent with it and your grey knows the lights go off when his foot hits the perch, I would then start increasing the time between his foot hitting the perch and the time the lights go out if you wanted. Count one second then turn out the light. The next night count two seconds and then turn out the light, and so on. All the while, pay close attention in making sure he doesn’t move from the perch.

Happy training, Karen. Positive reinforcement training and interactions with our birds helps take the stress out of their environments and builds stronger relationships with the people who take care of them. Being our companions in our homes, they sure are worth it.

Take care Karen,

Lara Joseph

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