Sunday, April 6, 2008

Parrots and Punishment

The last blog generated an email response, if I read it correctly, in regard to being careful about teaching the application of punishment with parrots. Let me see if I can elaborate on my previous post a bit.

Some may be familiar with the hierarchy of behavioral procedures. This is essentially the order in which we apply the principles of behavioral analysis to address a behavior....typically this list is quite helpful when trying to change a parrot's problem behavior.

1.Make sure Medical, Nutritional, Physical are met.

2.Antecedents Arrangement - Can you change the situation or environment to increase success?

3.Train what you want with Positive Reinforcement.

4.Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior - reinforce a different behavior that is acceptable.

5.Negative Punishment - there it is....the time out from positive reinforcement.

6.Negative Reinforcement - another method to increase behavior, but usually involves an aversive.

7.Extinction - this is discontinuing to reinforce a behavior that was previously reinforced. This can be quite frustrating for an animal when used by itself.

8.Positive Punishment- waaaay at the bottom of the list. The addition of an aversive experience to decrease behavior.

For me, as this list recommends, positive punishment is a last resort. There is a lot of fallout from using positive punishment that can be very damaging to the relationship between the parrot and caregiver. Susan Friedman's article "The Facts about Punishment" go into this well, as does the book "Coercion and its Fallout" by Murray Sidman.

I think it is good for parrot owners to know what positive punishment is though. And here is why. Too often it is the first place people go to when they are faced with a problem behavior they want to stop. When the list shows us we have 7 other steps to consider before positive punishment. And I can say from experience the process works.

Going back to my Pooping on Cue example. If the problem behavior is "my bird poops on me when on my shoulder" I can change that by going through the steps.

Step 1. Make sure the bird is healthy and not pooping inappropriately due to a medical condition.

Step 2. One way to avoid having the bird poop on me, is to not place him on my shoulder. (antecedent change)

Step 3 I could train the bird to poop on cue for positive reinforcement prior to getting on my shoulder.

Step 4 I could also train him to leave my shoulder to go poop in acceptable areas when he needs to go. This is a different but acceptable behavior I could reinforce.

Step 5. I could immediately remove him from my shoulder when he does poop on me. If he enjoys my companionship this would act a negative punisher (AKA time out from positive reinforcement.)

And in reality I don't need to go to the other steps. By this point I have solved the problem in a whole myriad of ways. I did use punishment, but it was negative punishment. Here is where sometimes feathers get ruffled. I believe we are sensitive to the word "punishment." Keep in mind it is just a principle that means to decrease behavior. What we need to watch for is if the methods suggested involve negative punishment or positive punishment. Therefore I do teach application of negative punishment. However I also teach parrot owners to use steps 1-4 first. I also teach that the time out from positive reinforcement is most effective when paired with reinforcing the desired behavior. And that the time out really need be only a few seconds. This way a parrot learns what works and what doesn't.

Some examples: A parrot screams for attention- the care giver walks away (negative punishment). The exact moment the bird offers something else that is acceptable, the care giver walks to the bird to shower him with attention (positive reinforcement for that behavior.)

A parrot who usually steps to the hand, lunges at it. The hand is withdrawn as is some preferred treats (negative punishment). Seconds later the hand is offered again and the bird steps up. Treats are delivered immediately (positive reinforcement) To me this is much kinder than forcing ones hand on a bird and allow it to bite until it gives in and steps up onto the hand. There is a video clip on my website (from DVD 1 clip #4 on training step up) that shows the application of a time out and pairing it with positive reinforcement to get a lunging parrot to look forward to stepping up. It can be found at this link It is one of my favorites because you can watch the macaw's body language go from lunging so hard he almost knocks the perch over, to pulling my hand in closer so he can hop onto it. It only took two twenty minutes training sessions. And, no, I did not get bit. This was because the bird learned his slightest indication of aggressive behavior resulted in a short time out.

Hope that helps to clarify some questions!


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