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An Everyday Training Example Here at The Animal Behavior Center

June 14, 2015 4 comments

I took this video the other day while at the Center. This is everyday behavior, function,

Keeping my hand stable and comfortable for Rocky as I bring him down to my level.

Keeping my hand stable and comfortable for Rocky as I bring him down to my level.

and training. This is a loaded video and by that I mean, there is so much going on as far as training. I could easily use force but don’t want nor need to. I’m reinforcing behaviors I want to see increase and I wanted to write this blog post to point out all that is going on that could easily be overlooked. It’s the details which makes this whole video look so simple and smooth.

Here’s the link to the YouTube upload. For whatever reason, WordPress would not accept this video format. So, read the following and at the same time play the video and pause it as I walk you through it. Rewind and play again. 

Rocky, the Moluccan cockatoo is on a playstation that hangs from the ceiling in the animal room. The playstation towers above our heads so we can easily walk underneath it and not have to walk into it. I ask Rocky to step onto my hand from way above my head. My cue is showing him my hand. I also ask him if he is ready, but I’m not sure he knows what this means. He steps onto my hand and you can hear me holding my breath as I am pulling him out and then down from the playstation. I’m holding my breath because I’m focusing on making sure his tail doesn’t bump the playstation. This is extremely important for me to pay attention to because most birds do not like their tail bumped while stepping off of perches. A tail bump could knock them forward and knock them off balance. I should have used a step ladder to get him down to make it all easier and less room for error. Since this video, I have started using the ladder.

The next step, I am struggling to make sure he does not lose his balance while I lower him to my level. I do not want to pair any part of him being off balance with stepping onto my hand, stepping off of this playstation, or being on me. If I begin pairing the above, I could easily and would likely punish the future behavior of him stepping onto me off of this playstation or any perch.

As I am walking him back to his cage, I am trying to identify a reinforcer. A reinforcer for what? For a few things. Based on his body language (fluffy beak, relaxed eyes, loose feather placement) I am guessing that attention might be a reinforcer. I am looking for a reinforcer to make sure I withhold while on my arm because I’m getting ready to ask him to step up into his cage and off of me. I don’t want to deliver a valuable reinforcer at this point while he is on my arm because I need to deliver it when he gives me the behavior of stepping off of my arm.

2

Bridging Milo for stationing on or near his X while I walk into Rocky’s cage.

After I walk into Rocky’s cage, I turn to look where Milo the pig is standing. He’s standing on his X. The X is for him to stand on or near while cage doors are open. The importance of this segment is the bridge. A bridge is a sound or signal that tells the animal that particular behavior is what is earning you your reinforcer. Bridging is so extremely important and you can see its use here. I turn and look at him and deliver the bridge, which is the word ‘good’. I deliver the bridge and walk away because I need to get Rocky to step off of my hand before I can deliver a reinforcer for Milo, because I don’t have an extra hand to deliver it. I have a bird on one arm and a camera in the other. The importance of the bridge, once the animal understands it, is that Milo knows the reinforcer is coming.

I walk Rocky back to his perch and cue him to step off of me. He doesn’t so I

Showing Rocky the reinforcer (petting had signal) for stepping on the perch.

Showing Rocky the reinforcer (petting had signal) for stepping on the perch.

show him the cue for petting with the finger movement from the fingers on the arm he is standing on. I am luring him. The lure is my finger movement. I’m showing him what he will get if he steps off of me. I then give a small whistle that I usually make when I’m petting him.

I turn and look to see where the mammals are. They are right where I want them to be so I bridge again to help keep them there. I then turn again and put the camera in front of the perch where I want Rocky to step up. I give him a small pet on the head as an additional lure and he steps off of me immediately. I move in and deliver the reinforcer which is the head scratch. I deliver in a large enough amount to keep him there while I turn and bridge and reinforce awesome behaviors happening behind me with the mammals.

Mammals stationing outside of the cage vs walking into the cage.

Mammals stationing outside of the cage vs walking into the cage.

The door to the cage is wide open and yet I have two well trained animals not entering and staying near the target, which is the X on the floor. I grab some of Rocky’s food from his dish and reinforce the mammals. This is where it gets tricky and I bet most people may not have caught this. I am dropping the food into Quincy, the Rottweiler’s mouth. I drop because I don’t want mammal saliva on my hands which could cross contaminate from mammal to bird. Quincy’s food drops to the floor next to the pig. The pig is trained to not rush for food when dropped on the floor because if he does there could be a Rottweiler and a pig charging after the same piece of food. Quincy and Levi (deaf bulldog) are also trained to not reach for food that wasn’t dropped for them. Milo clearly looks at the food and remains in position. There were several previous training sessions to train this and for this particular purpose.

Length of time delivering a reinforcer may have an impact on the reinforcement. I asked Rocky to step off of me and I petted for a few seconds and walked away. I guarantee you that if I asked him to step off again for a small period of time in preening his feathers, he wouldn’t step off of me again. It isn’t worth it to him. This is why I turn and walk back into the cage, ask him if I can pet giving him the choice and empowering him, and then he moves in to accept more reinforcement.

Using attention and length of attention as a reinforcer for stepping onto his perch when requested.

Using attention and length of attention as a reinforcer for stepping onto his perch when requested.

There was no need to force any animal to do anything. I didn’t have to stick a leg out to keep the dog or the pig out of the cage. All behavior was willing given to me because I have a history of delivering the animal’s reinforcers when they give me a behavior I request. Not a command….a request. A pleasant way for all to live and reasons for everyone to want to continue giving desirable and requested behaviors. 😉 Happy Living! Happy Training!

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Preparing our animals for success with social encounters and new environments

February 5, 2015 1 comment

Quincy sitting at the checkout line of a pet store. She received both treats and attention as a reinforcer for this desired behavior.

Quincy sitting at the checkout line of a pet store. She received both treats and attention as a reinforcer for this desired behavior.

Does the undesired behavior of your animals prevent you from taking them on social outings or to new environments? This can be changed. So many times I see people restricting themselves from leaving the house or taking animals with them on outings because they don’t feel they can keep their animal under control or keep from being embarrassed about their behavior. This makes me sad for the animal and for the person both. I love seeing happy animals and I love seeing people who are proud of their animals, especially in public. Let me share with you an experience I had yesterday with my dog, Quincy.

We’ve been pretty busy here at the center through the winter with behavior consults, on-line classes, consultations, etc. Many of these consultations are for behavior concerns people want to change now so they can take their animals out for socialization, therapy, etc when the weather warms. I was talking to the other trainer here at the center yesterday and letting her know I wanted to get some of our animals out for more socialization through the winter. There are plenty of places you can take your animals for exposure to people and changing surroundings during the cold months. Yesterday I picked a pet store.

Quincy hasn’t been to a pet store in months. I was careful in picking the store, the time of day, and the weather. I wanted to set Quincy up for success for the behavior I was expecting from her, being able to reinforce the desired behavior, and not pushing her past her comfort level. This began with me getting her out of the back of the Jeep. There are a lot of scents, visual enrichment and distractions, sounds, animals, and potential for people wanting to interact with her. For a dog that hasn’t been to a pet store in months, this is a lot of information for her to take in and be comfortable with. I picked an outing at Quincy’s comfort level and I chose to go on a day that was snowing heavily, early afternoon, and during the week. I picked this day and this time in hopes that my encounters with other people and animals would be low because I need to control as much of Quincy’s environment as possible to make sure this outing is a success. It was but I also recognized behaviors that needed addressing and training.

We got out of the Jeep and immediately saw a woman with a puppy. Quincy gave a small bark. I asked her to sit as the puppy approached. That puppy’s future is just as important to me as Quincy’s. Quincy is a big dog and not all puppies are comfortable with big dogs approaching them. I don’t know how the woman is training her dog and it is not fair for me to decide if it is ok for us to approach her dog. The woman did not ask me if it was ok for an encounter so I reinforced Quincy for sitting until the puppy got in the car.

Within seconds of walking into the store, I could tell this was the jackpot of sensory information for Quincy. She kept stopping and smelling everything. I let her continue to sniff when we entered the store. She is a dog after all and this is enrichment and information to them. Keeping in mind this was her first time in a pet store in months, I relaxed the criteria of what I was asking from her. As we continued to walk through the store she began pulling on the leash. Ahhh, I can work with this. Why is she pulling on the leash? Because she wants to get to the next scent. I identified the reinforcer behind a behavior I did not want to see increase so I used it to our advantage in training. When she pulled, nothing happened on my end. When she relaxed on the leash and looked back at me, I told her “Good” and motioned for her to go and get the scent. As I continued to do this she understood that she was going to be able smell the goodies and that was contingent on a loose leash.

We saw another dog that surprised us walking around an isle. I immediately saw Quincy’s ears rise. The dog was galloping towards us. The person on the other end of the leash was looking at the toys in the isle and not at us or his dog. Since he wasn’t watching what his dog was watching, I redirected Quincy’s attention by asking her to follow me and we walked quickly toward the rabbit isle, an isle I thought the person might be less likely to walk down. I reinforced the heck out of the behavior of Quincy giving me the behavior I asked. I reinforced with an exaggerated “Good girl” and kneeling down in front of her for a neck scratch and a kiss.

After about five minutes we headed to the checkout counter. This outing was successful so far so I wanted to keep it short. There was no one in front of us which was what I was hoping for by picking a day where I thought people were less likely to visit a store. Within a minute someone walked up behind us. She asked if she could pet Quincy and I kindly told her, “Please don’t” and then explained to her my intention. I told her Quincy hadn’t been in a pet store in a while and this was a training exercise for her. I told the woman that I didn’t want Quincy to learn that every time she sees a person that she can run up to them expecting to be petted. The woman clearly understood. As Quincy sat next to me during checkout, I put her goodies in a bag and turned to the woman and asked if she was ok petting Quincy after I told Quincy to go greet her. The woman was obviously happy to do so. Before I told Quincy to go greet the woman, I told her “Good” gave her a treat and asked her if she wanted to go greet the woman. This was something I could tell Quincy clearly wanted to do, so I used it as a reinforcer for her behavior of sitting next to me until I was finished at the check-out line. I was very proud of Quincy. I saw some things we needed to work on so I knew we could work on these behaviors after we returned to the center.

On the way out the door I saw the display isle. I knew Quincy would want to sniff it so I let her sniff the base of it as a reinforcer for walking next to me on a loose leash until we got there. I told her to “Go ahead” as I motioned to the isle.

Dogs have such a great sense of smell. To be in a pet store and not be able to gather information from those smells would be cruel for me to ask. Quincy and I make a team. I enjoy spending time with her and I want her to enjoy her outings with me. Our training makes it beneficial to both of us. If you want to learn more about working with behavior concerns or training desired behaviors you and your animal will look forward to, take a look at our Webinars and our On-Line Consultations.

Here is a video I think might be helpful to people wanting to better understand what your dog gathers through its nose and how it impacts behavior and information gathering. Enjoy and as always, contact us if you have questions.

How do dogs “see” with their noses? by Alexandra Horowitz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7fXa2Occ_U&feature=youtu.be

When Does Training Cease?

January 30, 2015 1 comment

Training is the best form of communication we have with our animals. If an animal is still observing or hearing elements in its environment, training is still happening. Do you understand what you are training?

Training is the best form of communication we have with our animals. If an animal is still observing or hearing elements in its environment, training is still happening. Do you understand what you are training?

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?”

For more information visit TheAnimalBehaviorCenter.com.

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.

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 theanimalbehaviorcenter.com.

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