Reinforcing Behavior With Attention & Petting

November 13, 2014 1 comment

Rocky's calm body language showing me it is ok to move in for a head scratch

Rocky’s calm body language showing me it is ok to move in for a head scratch

One of the hardest things I hear and observe animals owners and caretakers struggling with is identifying and using reinforcers. Reinforcers are all around us all day. It is the individual that decides their reinforcer. A reinforcer is something delivered after a behavior that causes the future rate of that behavior to maintain or increase. Reinforcers can change in a matter of seconds and believe it or not, so many reinforcers are not food or treats.

Identifying reinforcers or building a list of reinforcers can be more challenging with shelter animals or animals that have lost or continue to lose their homes. Here at The Animal Behavior Center, you cannot rely on food reinforcers alone, they run out or satiate too quickly and the environment changes rapidly around here with the different animals, people, and behavior histories.
Following is a video I took this afternoon using the opportunity for me to pet with Rocky, the moluccan cockatoo as a reinforcer. Rocky was a shelter animal and came to me with a small list of reinforcers for me to work with. I had to build that list of reinforcers. The behavior I want to see maintain or increase in this video is for Rocky to remain on the perch while I rearrange perches and toy placement in the cage. Another important note is that Rocky is in Rico’s (another bird that resides here) cage in this video as a way to change environments and increase enrichment and learning opportunity. Rocky has a very strong history of showing aggressive behaviors such as lunging, chasing, hissing, charging the cage bars, biting, and biting very hard and doing some serious damage to the one he bites. Because he is in a different environment (Rico’s cage) in this video I cannot assume he will show predictable behaviors as he does in his cage. This is why you see me petting the top of his head and keeping my fingers away from his beak. I don’t want to accidentally reinforce a bite. I move my hands toward a toy to rearrange and then reinforce him by petting him when he remains on the perch. You will then see me get down off of the ladder and move to another area of the cage to move a toy. You will hear me bridge or mark the desired behavior with the word ‘Good’ letting Rocky know ‘that’ particular behavior is the one that is earning him the reinforcer soon to be delivered, which is me petting him.
You will also see that I have ‘can I pet?’ on cue. I don’t just move in to pet him, I want to give him clear indication of what I am asking. When Rocky wants someone to pet him he puts his foot up to the underside of his beak and begins petting himself.
We’ve come so far with so many behavior issues with Rocky from the aggressive behaviors I listed above, him learning to land so we could increase his flying time, his learning to forage, severely decreasing his screaming and abnormal repetitive behaviors, his separation anxiety, and most of all we are now on his second year of him letting people other than me pick him up and interact with him. He now lets anyone pick him up and is eager to do so.
If you want to learn more about identifying reinforcers, using reinforcement, and using reinforcers to change behavior, take a look at our webinar schedule.

My Reinforcer For Training

November 1, 2014 1 comment

Milo stationing on his bucket

Milo stationing on his bucket

I was recently given the opportunity to give an extremely brief presentation on the type of work I do. It was optional for me to bring an animal. Of course I chose to do so. It’s one thing to talk about the work I do, and it’s another and so powerful to see the work in action. I chose to take Milo, the micro-mini pig that comes here to the Center for training.

Milo has only been in one presentation I have given and that was about a month ago to a group of sixty people and that was here at the Center. Milo is very familiar with everything here at the Center. Before this presentation on Tuesday night, Milo has never been in a presentation off-site. The pressure was on. Well, it was on for me and I did my hardest to make sure any nervousness was not transferred through me to Milo.

The night before the presentation I began our training. We tried a few different things. Some behaviors were taking more time to train than I had. We settled on a few behaviors and practiced them, their sequence, and what I was going to say the day of the presentation.

That evening we were on. The event was in a hotel conference room. I brought Milo into the hotel and practiced a few behaviors in the hallway prior to the event. He was hesitant on one of the behaviors and then I observed him stop giving another I had trained. Not what I wanted to see but more important, I didn’t want to push him past his comfort level. It wasn’t worth it and I definitely didn’t want that feeling paired with his first presentation.

A few minutes before our presentation we practiced again before we walked in. He was spot on. The doors opened and I asked Milo to step up and in my arms he went while I carried him in the conference room. I gave my presentation fairly smoothly and the best part of all, Milo did every behavior I requested of him without hesitation. I was so proud of him and I was extremely happy as I thanked everyone and walked off the stage with Milo. When I walked out of the conference room, I was on cloud nine. This was a new environment for him and this was a group of people I was nervous about presenting. Milo and I were a team on that stage. He complemented me and hopefully he found that I complemented him. We won the competition that evening.

An hour later we were in the car and on our way home. His crate was right behind the driver’s seat. He was grunting his comfort grunts. I laughed and glanced back at him. His head was poking out of his blanket and looking at me. I put my fingers in his crate as I drove and he rested his head in my hand. What an award that was to me. No competition could give me a better prize than that.

I walked him in the house and he followed willingly and without hesitation. That night I chose to pick him up and set him on

A thank you to those that were there supporting Milo and I.

A thank you to those that were there supporting Milo and I.

my chest as I lied on the couch. His feet tucked under his tiny body and that is where he fell asleep. What a connection we made with each other that evening. That is the connection made through the type of training I do and behavior I study. Whether we won the competition that night or not, I won regardless. Thank you Milo. Thank you for that experience.

Teach Your Bird to Forage

October 8, 2014 Leave a comment

Let me help show you a great way to keep your birds occupied while you are at work all day or away for long periods if time. Foraging is the behavior of looking for and attaining food or treats.

Foraging is a learned behavior of all birds who live in the wild and it occupies a major portion of their day. Let me show you how to replicate this behavior in your birds’ cages and environments. The birds in my care look forward to being returned to their cages for the opportunity to forage.

Join me, Lara Joseph, owner of The Animal Behavior Center tomorrow at 7:30pm EST for a live webinar that I will be hosting to an audience of limited seating. I will show you step-by-step instructions through video, live demonstrations, and photos I have taken with the foraging toys I have designed to teach my own birds how to forage.

This webinar will be an hour and a half in length. For $30 you can reserve your seat by clicking on the following link. Once I receive your payment, I will e-mail you a link to download and join me on your computer.

Click here to reserve your seat. I look forward to talking with you tomorrow in this webinar.

Categories: Uncategorized

When Does Training Cease?

March 29, 2014 Leave a comment

What is training anyway? Training is our primary form of communication with the animal(s) in our care. We are always training, the questions is….What are we training? If our animals can see or hear us, training is happening. When our training plans take an unexpected turn and the consequences are not what we intended, this doesn’t mean the training of the animal has ceased. Quite the contrary. If our animals are reacting or learning from our mistakes, they are learning from our lack of preparation. Once an animal learns a behavior, desired or undesired, it has experienced it. It cannot ‘un-experience’ the consequence of this interaction. The training has not stopped. The training is continuing, it is just not the training or communication we want. This is when undesired behaviors are being trained or communicated. When force is used to try to control behavior, what message are we communicating to the animal in which we are trying to build a relationship? If force is being used to communicate a message to the animal, coercion is being used. Coercion may work but not without its side effects. Coercion is “Do it or else!” Coercion has many side effects and reinforcing increased aggression from the animal is a powerful one and so is learned self helplessness. Is increase aggression what you want from your animal? Is a cowering animal what you want portrayed as your relationship with the animal in your care? When our training plans don’t have the outcomes we want, this doesn’t mean the learning from the animal has ceased. That animal is learning how to respond in future situations. As mentioned before, “What are we training?”

My blog entries can now be found on my website at: TheAnimalBehaviorCenter.Com.

If the animal is observing its environment, it is learning from its environment

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

What a Little Flight Can Do

March 16, 2013 12 comments

Rico on my head looking out into the aviary.

Rico on my head looking out into the aviary.

I’m sure many people are ready for this winter to be over. I’m a big lover of the snow and cold but this winter has been long enough and I’m ready for some warmer temperatures. The birds are also. I love the summer for them because they get the fresh air, the sun, and all of the benefits of their aviary. I’m a big advocate of aviaries for our birds because of all of the health benefits, mental stimulation, and physical stimulation it offers them. I like helping people visualize how they can incorporate aviaries for their birds whether they live on 20 acres, in a condominium, an apartment, or in a town house. Where there is an idea, there is an aviary!

Anyway, back to winter and being cooped up because of the temperatures. Each day I try to get each bird out for interaction with me, interaction with other things in their environment and just for a change in scenery.The other day I was working at my desk that overlooks the aviary and Rico was perched on his favorite perch, which happens to be my head. Whatever it was that I was working on, I noticed Rico began to bob up and down on my head. I opened my phone and flipped the view backwards so I could see where Rico was looking. He was bobbing up and down, holding his wings out, and looking out the window at the aviary. So much body language here and these signs all together gave me a hint that he may want to go out into the aviary. I put down what I was doing and out into the aviary we walked.

I sat Rico down on the banister in the aviary and ran to the other side. I called him to my hand and after a few struts on

Rico flying across the aviary. The windows are open letting in fresh air and natural sounds from the outdoors.

Rico flying across the aviary. The windows are open letting in fresh air and natural sounds from the outdoors.

the banister he was off in flight. Right to my hand he flew. All of that fresh air going into his air sacs, being distributed to his bones and organs. How healthy this is for him, how fun it is for him and for me to be a part of it.

Not all of my birds fly. One hasn’t flown in his life, which is my greenwing macaw, Murray who is about to turn 9 years old. Then I have one that is a beautiful flyer but doesn’t know how to land. This would be Rocky, my moluccan cockatoo who is a little over 13 years old. Let me correct myself…Rocky is still working on perfecting his landing. Myself and the volunteers here at the center are helping him work on his landings. When Rocky flies, he doesn’t know how to land and when he lands he has to crash into something to stop. I no longer encourage him to fly until we have his landing gear perfected. We have not clipped his wings, we just don’t encourage him to fly yet. He loves to run so we are encouraging him to run while we work on training him to land and use his wings, tail feathers and feet to stop. He’s getting pretty good at this. We hope to be posting photos and videos soon of Rocky’s flights through the aviary this summer.

So Rocky runs and in the meantime we are focusing on hanging vines in the aviary to give Murray more means of locomotion and choices in transportation through the aviary. When birds have more control in their environment, how to navigate it and choices in navigation, I see it having a huge impact on decreasing behavior issues such as screaming, feather destructive behaviors, and issues related to stress, aggression and anxiety.

Before I took Rico out of his cage and before he was on my head, I could tell he was up for a change in his environment, which was his cage. Keeping animals in the same space without changing that space or having different areas to move to, creates a stagnant environment. Objects and interactions in that environment become predictable and studies show that with predictability comes boredom. I could see Rico was getting bored and was in need for a change. If I didn’t provide change I could tell undesirable behaviors were about to happen such as screaming, hunkering down and flapping wings in anticipation which brings along signs of anxiety, and probably grabbing a toy and banging it on the side of the cage. I don’t like seeing any of these signs in my birds because of the stress I see that it brings out in them.

Rico flying over the 4 1/2' pit in the center of the aviary. His concentration increases while learning depth perception.

Rico flying over the 4 1/2′ pit in the center of the aviary. His concentration increases while learning depth perception.

After one flight across the aviary I could tell Rico was still interested in flying. Down into the pit I went and I called him to my hand from there. Rico has been showing signs of not understanding how to fly to my hand when I am down in the pit. I’m not sure what it is but he’s not used to flying to me when I call him from different elevations. We’ve slowly been working on this at his comfort level while slowly increasing the complexity in elevation when calling him. Sometimes I’ll go one or two steps down into the pit and call him. The pit is about 4 1/2′ below regular ground level. Then I bring out the ladder, walk up a few rungs and call him up to my hand. Each time I step down a step or up a rung allowing him the slow change and adaptability in depth or elevation. This is a process called shaping; reinforcing small approximations toward the target behavior, and in this instance the target behavior was him still flying to my hand and gradual changes in elevation. In working on this several times in the past, this time I ran into the pit and called him to my hand. He flew over the banister and down into the pit and on my hand like he’s done it a million times before. He yelled “Yahoo!” as soon as he landed on my hand and you bet I yelled it back to him. I love having this interaction with birds and especially with the ones under my care. His learning something new (depth perception) in his new flying environment is not only physically stimulating for him, it is also mentally stimulating. He is learning from changes in his environment. When I slowly integrate change at their pace, I see the birds in my care dealing with unforeseen changes very readily. I want this for them, for their health, and for their future.

Not everyone has room like this to fly their birds. I understand that. A few months ago I didn’t either. I lived in a small house with five parrots and a crow with a Barred Owl in a mew in my backyard. I know what small living quarters are like with birds. This didn’t stop me from getting birds out and flying them all over the house, increasing complexity by having learn to fly through doorways and up the stairs. Rocky played fetch by running all over the first floor. Murray would swing from a vine in the aviary. Molly would soak up the sun for hours in the aviary, obviously with the option to move into the shade. I noticed that if I were to get them out of their cages and get them running, flying, and/or flapping their wings, energy was being burnt off, behavior issues would decrease, and the more they seemed content with perching, sleeping, preening, and foraging for the next several hours.

My point in this post is to share how a few minutes of burning off energy in large amounts can greatly impact behavior

Five minutes of flight provides several hours of rest, relaxation, preening, foraging, and a decrease in behavior issues.

Five minutes of flight provides several hours of rest, relaxation, preening, foraging, and a decrease in behavior issues.

or the potential for undesired behavior issues not to happen. Less than five minutes of flying in the aviary for Rico in the photos above, and we went back into the Birdroom and Rico flew straight for one of the perches and rest and relaxation were in his near future and mine. Parrots are intelligent creatures that have a lot of energy to burn and they want to put that mind and body to use. This is why I train them. I like putting their minds to use. I like providing environments where they can continue to learn and manipulate that environment. When I provide environments like this and interactions like this, I see our relationships skyrocketing.

For more information or ideas on how to build aviaries or extended exercise areas in your house for your birds, take a look at the Enrichment and Aviary section on my website at I will be building more aviaries this summer and plan on sharing my plans on my website. For everyday quick tips and ideas on behavior change, training tips, and enrichment ideas, sign up to my Behavior, Training, & Enrichment page on Facebook. I hope to see you there. I’d love to see photos and videos of your enclosures and how you exercise your birds.

Beginning the New Year

January 21, 2013 8 comments

Rico and Rocky in their new aviary. Rico is on his favored perch, as usual.

Rico and Rocky in their new aviary. Rico is on his favored perch, as usual.

I love to write in my blog. I enjoy writing about my experiences and observations with the birds I have. Our recent move has kept me from doing this but it has also given me many things I could write about.

We are moved in, finally. It took quite a while. This move and the new center was quite a project for my husband and myself and it has probably aged the both of us. We are finally getting back to full nights of rest and we are loving our new home. I am up, ready and out in the center by the wee hours of the morning every morning. I love being out there and it is like home for me. The birds are settling in nicely for the most part. Rocky is showing signs of anxiety and stress that he hasn’t exhibited in quite a while. It isn’t in great amounts but the amounts they are in lets me know I need to be working on them and I have been. This issue I will save for a blog post on its own so I can write in detail on my training strategy and outcome.

The flock has grown by two. They were driven here by an animal trainer from Massachusetts. This is also another topic I will be writing about next on

Austin (volunteer) reinforcing desired behavior while cleaning cages.

Austin (volunteer) reinforcing desired behavior while cleaning cages.

my blog. I have a ton of photos, a story, and plenty of training videos to show.

There are a few people who have continuously dedicated their time, efforts, and thoughts in volunteering at the center. I have been so thankful to them for all of their help. This place isn’t just for me and my birds. It is a place I want to share with animals and animal lovers. I have many, many plans for the future.

I have less than a couple of months before I hit the road again. California, Massachusetts, and Chicago are all coming up this spring. I’m focusing on getting the birds ready and the caretakers of the birds ready. So far, I’m very pleased with what I am seeing and I will be writing about this also.

I am happy to say that Rocky is flourishing with all of the people coming through the center for visits, volunteering, and tours. It is so exciting to see all of the interaction he is getting. I love telling people “Sure, go ahead and walk in to Rocky’s cage and bring him out.” He’s come a long way, baby.

So if you have the opportunity to walk through the Birdroom door, make sure you look down at the message etched into the concrete. I hope that message and this center are here for years to come, even after I am gone. This is why we jumped in this project after all. Happy New Year to all.


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