Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Raising Criteria Correctly

This summer I was very actively training a lot of birds every single day in preparation for a new free flight bird show. While this may sound like a dream job for some….and yes it can be, at times it can also be rather repetitive. That is because progressing through some behaviors can sometimes be monotonous. Some behaviors require repetition or very slight increases in criteria. And some behaviors may require relaxing of criteria. And some individuals may be working on the same behavior but be at a different place in the process. This means practicing the same things over and over for the trainer. This can be a good thing IF the trainer is paying attention. But one thing that can very easily happen is a trainer can become complacent and fall into a routine of automatically making changes in criteria without actually looking at the animal’s behavioral response.
For example, we were working on training a flock of Quaker parrots to carry a stick back to a nest. This behavior in its simplest form is really a retrieve . However, there are many components to consider. The components for various birds included holding onto the stick, taking the first stick offered, flying distances, flying without latency , flying with more than one bird, entering a crate for reinforcers, entering the crate with more than one bird at a time, flying to different people with sticks, flying though an opening, placing the stick in the right place, and so on.
As with any behavior it is helpful to have a picture in one’s mind as to what the final behavior goal is and what elements that includes so that each criterion can be added one by one as they are mastered. With multiple animals, that also means knowing where each animal is in that process.
An easy trap to fall into is going into autopilot and raising criteria without paying attention to how the bird did on the previous repetition. For example, I would sometimes see trainers ask for a rep, get a poor response and then automatically ask a bird to fly a farther distance. Uh oh! There’s that pesky autopilot turning on. My rule of thumb for raising criteria is if I get one or two perfect reps, then I will try increasing criteria. If the bird fails one or two times at the criteria I have set, then I relax my criteria to something at which the animal can be successful. This helps keep my animal wanting to participate in the session.
Another trap to watch out for is raising more than one criterion at a time. We had two birds learn to drop the first stick offered. This eventually turned into dropping many sticks before finally taking one to fly back to the nest. This behavior needed to be fixed before adding the criterion of flying distance to the nest could be added again. Working on more than one criterion at a time is tempting, but confusing to the animal. Get one aspect mastered before adding on another. 
I had to head back home before the Quakers finished their training for their new behavior. Here is just a peak at some of the work.  I hear they are doing well! Can’t wait to see the final routine once it is finished. In the meantime, practice raising one criterion at a time with your animals as well as making sure you are ready to raise criteria by paying close attention to your animal’s progress during a session.
~ Barbara
PS If you want to learn more about the basics of training parrots, try these resources
Train Your Parrot to Step Up
Flight Training for Companion Parrots
Stress Free Veterinary Care for Companion Parrots
Becoming a Better Parrot Trainer. Practical Application Skills That Make a Difference 

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2017

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.

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