I just came across some books by Dr. Patricia McConnell, an applied animal behaviorist, that are very intriguing. One is called The Other End of the Leash: Why we do what we do around dogs. She discusses human-canine communication and reading each others’ body language. It seems to me it could have some great insights for parrot behavior as well, especially regarding what we humans do around our birds. I don’t know how many times I’ve had conversations — including with very experienced trainers — where one of us was wondering with frustration what kind of body language we might be sending out that inadvertently reinforces or punishes something our bird does that we don’t intend to. Here are some of the first sections in the book:
- Little movements have big effects
- Hey Human! I’m trying to tell you something!
- Humans as Random Signal Generators
I’ve just ordered it, but thought I’d pass along the title and link to her blog: The Other End of the Leash, which also has some interesting posts.
Patricia is not of the Millan persuasion, and in other books debunks the “dominance” theory. She is from an ethology (biological and genetic basis of behavior) background, but her training methods appear to be entirely based in applied behavior analysis and positive reinforcement.
Another book recommendation I have that is more species specific but still has lots of insights worth sharing is a book called Cat vs Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat, by Pam Johnson-Bennett. A friend sent it to me (thanks Russ mommy!) when I was dealing with the prospect of getting my old kitten used to a new kitten, and then “rehoming” my older cat back into our household after he’d gone AWOL because the old kitten was just wearing him out. I think many of the ideas in here are useful in thinking about working with a multi-parrot household as well.
The concepts are grounded in ABA also, including suggestions for using positive reinforcement to make certain behaviors worthwhile (such as being in the same room together!), using very small approximations to work toward an end behavior, and using “diversionary tactics” (reinforcing alternative behaviors) to prevent unwanted situations. (And I just noticed one of her books is recommended on Dr. McConnell’s web site! Small world of animal behavior.) The recommendations appear to be working. We went from hissing and growling in all directions to this in about a week:
Pam also has a blog and web site with great behavioral tips, many of which can be translated into Parrot. For example, on her blog is this wonderful post about the dangers of falling into constructs like attributing behavior to anger or spite, instead of relying on what we can actually see:
Carly and Piper were home in their cage during the 7.2 quake near the California-Mexico border, while I was off eating bunny cake, and it’s been interesting seeing how they have behaved since then. When I got home they were a bit jumpy, but nothing too serious. In San Diego, about 100 miles away from the epicenter, it was definitely the strongest one I’ve been in having lived in California for 33 years. (I missed Northridge, though I lived right at the epicenter of that one for several years). But it was mainly rattly, a few small things fell over, nothing violent. The oddest thing was that it lasted so long — about 60 seconds — and got stronger at the end.
Whenever there was a large aftershock (over magnitude 4.5 or so), if Piper or Shiera were sitting on a solid perch they would fly off (Shiera with a loud call) and be jittery afterwards. If they were sitting on a rope swing or net, they weren’t bothered; probably you can’t feel the shaking when suspended like that. Shiera normally hangs out in part of the kitchen where her cage stands open, with a gym, ladders, and a boing around it. After the quake she did not want to go in or on the cage, and just started to go back there today. It’s quite rattly when it’s bumped. She had flown onto the big rope net in the other room when I arrived home after the quake.
Piper had a big night spook at 4 am when we had a 5.1 aftershock. That’s just a small rumble here, but he went flying all around in the dark and crashed in the bathroom. Then he wouldn’t sit on anything high up. He slept the rest of the night sitting on the bathroom counter, even though there was a boing and his normal sleep perch nearby. Carly didn’t move from the sleep perch during his scare.
I really didn’t see Carly react to any of the aftershocks at all, though she appeared a little tense that first evening (tense muscles, reacting quickly to sounds). But when I went to put them in their cage this morning, two days later, the first time since the quake, neither Carly nor Piper would have any of it. It took me almost 45 minutes to coax them in. (Brought out the heavy guns — peanut butter — and even that took some coaxing.) It didn’t even occur to me at first why they might be reluctant to get in today, since they normally have to be battled off while I put their foraging food in the cage. Piper was especially reluctant.
Very unfortunate that they were inside the cage when the quake happened. At least Shiera was able to fly away from the shaking metal. But I think they have enough positive associations with it from all the foraging and toys that they should get back to normal quickly. Providing we don’t have a big aftershock today! (Below: the 1,064 earthquakes we’ve had in this area in the last week. 46 of them were before the big one, the rest after.)
It has been a bit over a year since I started my plan to improve Carly’s outdoor flying behavior when we are confronted with many competing reinforcers. As you may recall, the main problem was her extreme sociability and tendency to fly to other people to visit, sometimes far down the beach out of sight. She had a special attraction to men with reddish hair, to the point that for a while I resorted to scanning the beach to make sure there weren’t any up ahead. She would become so distracted that all she would do is sit on them and literally stare at their faces, and fly back immediately if I took her away.
Carly giving Roelant Jonker (reddish hair under cap) “the Gaze.”
I first set up the plan described in Carly’s Training Plan: Super-Generalizing Recall Training in January 2009. Here’s a recap of the elements I started with, some of which were part of our original training routine, and some of which were new:
- Daily A-B recall practice indoors or outdoors.
- Keep weight at lower end of normal range (450-455 g) and fly before meals.
- Train an “emergency recall” using a referee-type whistle that can be heard far away, signaling a jackpot treat.
- Use extremely favored treats (like peanut butter, gingerbread) interspersed with normal treats (nuts, seeds)
- Give a large end-of-session bonus treat.
- Fly only at the beach when there are few people, initially.
- Incorporate A-B recall games into our beach flying routine
- Add socialization outings to our weekly routine to decrease the value of flying to visit people.
- Be more sensitive to body language indicating a preference to stay at home rather than accompany me to work. Be more sensitive to providing choice in general.
- Increase foraging enrichment at home to decrease value of exploring trees, etc. (just in case that was part of the problem, as well as to help with more time on her own)
Now, a year later, let’s see which of these I have found the most important. First I’ll look at the ones that were part of our original training routine, or new element added, numbers 1-3. The emergency recall whistle was a helpful addition. (See blog post here.) The noise at the beach is considerable with waves and people, and my voice doesn’t carry that well. When she starts to fly fast in one direction she is down the beach before I know it. The whistle is tricky however, because you can’t use it very often without it losing it’s “specialness.” I find prevention of exploration flights is a better strategy, so the whistle isn’t overused.
Daily indoor recall practice is not as important as I thought it would be. I don’t want to discourage this because at the beginning lots and lots and lots of practice is essential to build confidence and habit. Later on it’s essential to keep indoor recall practice fun with various flying games, but I find it’s difficult to compete with freeflight where they can work up speed and really stretch their wings. Indoors I often do other types of recall, like challenging climbing/targeting games.
Food and weight management has been an interesting experience. Flying before instead of after meals is essential in order for food to have much value at all. I remember Barbara Heidenreich saying she doesn’t use weight as a training criteria, but only relies on the birds behavior and responsiveness at the beginning of a session. I honestly thought that was impossible, until I realized I was doing just that. I can tell much more about how Carly is going to behave flying outside by watching her behavior inside — responsiveness to food, interest in chewing and nesting, desire to be right with me or on me — than I can by checking her weight. She has bad days outside with low weights and good days with high weights. It’s just not that helpful. Again, I don’t recommend this at first, and if I were introducing a new behavior or very new environment I would probably make sure her weight was on the lower end of her normal range just as extra insurance. But for our normal routine I can tell much more by just observing her carefully inside and on her first flight outdoors.
The next items I tried all had to do with the recall reward, or in terms of behavior analysis, working with the consequence: what does she get for returning to me (numbers 4-5)? I always use super-treats now, mixed in with normal ones. Her interest in food rewards is noticeably higher then, so why not? However, that alone isn’t enough, as she will still get distracted socially unless we deal with….
Antecedents. I think as a culture we are so used to thinking in terms of consequences — rewards and punishments, paychecks, fines, praise, criticism — that it’s hard to even see antecedents. But for me that’s been the key to working with Carly outdoors. Antecedents are the things in the environment that precede an animal’s behavior, both distant and near in time. Let’s look at ours, numbers 6-9.
A simple antecedent is this: lots of people at the beach. When there are lots of people at the beach (Antecedent), Carly flies to people to visit (Behavior) and people hold her and talk to her (Consequence). She finds that consequence reinforcing, as shown by the fact that she repeats the behavior over and over again. It’s not possible to change the consequence, since it depends on the actions of strangers, but it another way to change behavior is to change the antecedent. Fly on the beach when there aren’t any people! Hmmm. Good in theory. But never happens. Certainly fewer people mean fewer temptations, but when she is determined to socialize it only takes a few.
Figuring out other antecedents was tricky. I wracked my brain trying to figure out WHY she insisted on visiting people. But it’s really so obvious: it’s reinforcing! In other words, she likes it. So what to do? One way you can change antecedents is to set up the environment to decrease the value of a reinforcer. Feed me lots of cake for dinner, and I probably won’t choose it for dessert. I realized I had been giving her fewer socializing opportunities since we began freeflying, thinking that our outings were enough activity to keep her enriched. But with her it’s not just activity and exercise that are required, it’s socialization. Regularly including social activities in our routine is probably the most important factor in her behavior outdoors. We go to coffee shops, pet stores, outdoor markets, patio restaurants, anywhere she can meet and greet. If she hasn’t been doing that there is a very good chance she will go visiting when we’re out flying. By not keeping that part of the routine, I was making people on the beach a highly valuable reinforcer. Incorporating “people games” into our beach routine also created a way for her to socialize in an acceptable and safe way — flying to others on cue and returning for a treat. (She can do this for half an hour at a time.)
People games: A-B recall with beach visitors.
At the same time, Carly was coming with me to work almost every day, with Piper. I just assumed this was a good thing. But when I started paying attention, it was clear that she did not always want to be picked up to go, or be put in and out of the car. She would not offer her foot to step up, or be very slow about the process. I was learning more about environmental enrichment and foraging then also, and she would often be very eager to get into her cage when all the foraging items were there. To the point that she would try to sneak in early, and wouldn’t even notice as I left. (See foraging posts here.) When I let her stay home 2-3 days per week she steps up more readily, wants to be on my shoulder or sitting next to me more, and …. stays closer when we’re out flying. (Providing she’s also getting enough socializing!) You could think of this as changing the antecedent to increase the value of me as a reinforcer. Face it, you can get too much of just about anyone. I also had to realize that when it’s hectic and stressful at work, our interactions are not the most positive — we bother each other! — and it actually helps the relationship to have our separate places for those hours.
Sometimes her little house is more interesting than the office.
Carly will still fly to visit people if we have not been socializing very much, and I have to watch her body language carefully when she is doing a lot of nesting behaviors indoors, as that seems to be a predictor of long exploration flights outside. (Warning signs: shredding and digging inside, sight focused at long distance outside and scanning horizon.) It’s a constant process of learning and observing. But when our routine is in place, she rarely notices guys with red hair anymore, and it quite happy to play the A-B recall games on the beach.
In the end, I think much of this can be summed up by Susan Friedman’s message, empowerment through choice. Giving her a choice of opportunities to socialize reduces her need to use beach outings for that purpose. Giving her choice in our daily routine reduces the likelihood of her seeing me as someone who is forcing her to do things — i.e., someone to get away from. Barbara Heidenreich’s “no force” approach to training husbandry and other behaviors is based on the same principles: create opportunities for the bird to choose the right behavior and be rewarded for it. The more that can be done in daily life, the more our relationship with our bird is partnership, not ownership. I’m more confident of a partner returning to me on the beach than a possession.
UPDATE: Simultaneous blogging! See Sid Price’s entry today for more about using antecedents instead of punishment to reduce behavior: Reducing behavior means punishment occurred… not!
Beach photos by Grace Innemee, CityParrots.org
Back from the IAATE mega-road trip and easing back into the blog life…. Here are a couple of great quotes I saw as people’s signature lines today:
Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. — Bill Gates
A learning experience is one of those things that says, “You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.” – Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Yeah, success is sure fun, but it doesn’t always teach you everything you need to know.
Susan Friedman gave an excellent talk at the IAATE meeting in Albuquerque this month, and one of my favorite lines was how you don’t need to be a chemist to be a gourmet cook, or be a scientist to be a good trainer. But the science of applied behavior analysis is what you use “when the souffle doesn’t rise.” I actually used that in my talk a couple days later, because that’s what ABA has been for me, and why I have written blog posts like Beyond the How-To. The basic training recipes are great and should be learned and practiced. But even the best trainers know things can and do go wrong. That’s when it pays to know some of the science behind behavior and to try to use it to think through your own unique situation, the one that’s not covered in the cookbook. And in daily life with our birds, there is a lot that’s not in the cookbook!
The talks at the meeting were consistently excellent. On the subject of learning from failures, Jeff Ewalt from the Beartooth Nature Center (Red Lodge, Montana) gave a hilarious account of using these experiences to make oneself a better trainer, called, “Relax, It Will be Funny One Day.” It’s great when we can all share in these and get a laugh as well as learn from someone else’s experiences. But the main message was: relax, things happen to everyone. The important thing is to use that information to change your future behavior. Hey, sounds like applied behavior analysis! And reminds me of another favorite:
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. — Albert Einstein
Yet how many times do we just keep doing the same thing interacting with our birds because that’s the way we’ve always done it, then put the burden on our animal to figure out what it is we want? Expecting them to change a behavior that is apparently reinforcing to them, for no reason they can possibly recognize? Fortunately there are those infamous learning experiences where something comes along and smacks us over the head hard enough that we finally realize, “hey, that thing I just did….” The cool thing about studying behavior however is that you start to train yourself to question methods that aren’t getting results before the big smack on the head comes. Sometimes.
Since I wasn’t able to prepare the presentation until after the deadline for the conference CD, here is a link to the slides online.
The last segment of the talk is a short video, from very raw footage that Pablo Anchante is putting together as a story called Wind and Whispers. Sneak preview!
I’ll be posting more on some of my favorite talks which were about falconry, and interesting similarities between very old and new approaches. The highlight for me was Steven Bodio’s keynote address about hunting with eagles and large, lanky sight hounds, including his experiences in Central Asia. Here’s a sneak peak of that, a blog about Lauren McGough (below, second from right), who is learning to become the first female “berkutchi,” (Kazakh eagle hunter) in Mongolia, on a Fubright Foundation scholarship. (Click on image to go to web site.)
My traveling partners on the road trip were Carly, Piper and Peter Topping. Critters came because I’ve been so busy the last couple months I really didn’t want to board them for a week, so all they had was a few days in Albuquerque at an avian vet’s office where I could visit. Peter now has more bird trainer friends than any 15 year old alive, and I’m hooked on Lada Gaga.
Cassie and Helen train Peter on the latest techniques for getting birds out of trees
All in all it was a fantastic meeting and learning experience. Sid Price and Nance were unsurpassable hosts. I hope they are taking a well-deserved rest now!