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The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Discuss the methods and techniques of clicker training, target training and bonding. These are usually the first steps in training a young parrot.

The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Michael » Tue Nov 16, 2010 10:49 pm

I see so many (namely recent) training publications worshiping positive reinforcement training. Also I come across trainers or animal acts that brand themselves to exclusively use positive reinforcement for training. The concept of positive reinforcement is being exploited as a make of excellence or a moral standard. There is definitely a holier than thou attitude going around about using positive reinforcement. Many training products and agendas are built on this thing they call positive reinforcement.

However, there is nothing inherently "positive" about positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement simple means adding something that increases behavior but it does not necessarily imply that this thing is good. For example petting your parrot may be a positive experience (in the sense of good) but it is not necessarily positive reinforcement unless it is used as a consequence to a specific behavior that increases likelihood of that behavior reoccurring.

I don't believe it is even conceivably possible to use exclusively positive reinforcement and not use other operant methods all the same. The trainer may not even realize that punishment or negative reinforcement is being implemented but just through being around the animal these things are bound to happen. If an animal wants to receive attention from the trainer but on occasion bites the trainer which sends him crying to the bathroom, this may inadvertently negatively punish the parrot for biting by losing attention.

Yet, the false impression of exclusive use of positive reinforcement is not even the greatest matter to focus on. In order for a given reward to be positively reinforcing, there must inherently exist a previous state of deprivation. When a parrot has a nut in its beak, you cannot positively reinforce it for doing something by giving a nut. Now I am by no means trying to demerit the effectiveness of positive reinforcement, however, I raise the question if it is really any more moral and deserving special compliments and recognition as some flaunt their shows/training/products? Is it really fair to say that a trainer who claims to use only positive reinforcement is superior to one that does not?

The great caveat of positive reinforcement training is that it requires the trainer to deprive the animal of certain needs/desires in order to concentrate the animal on receiving them during training. It is possible to condition secondary reinforcers such as praise, clicking, etc, however, without maintenance of primary reinforcers, these would eventually go extinct. Some of the deprivation required for positive reinforcement based training can certainly be natural such as morning hunger or excitement to see the owner after a long day apart. Yet, to create a moral undertone around the use of positive reinforcement draws focus away from the fact that good cannot exist without evil. Who is to say that a trainer that brutally starves an animal into training submission (positive reinforcement) is morally any superior than another trainer that beats an animal instead (punishment)? I would like to reiterate that simple the use of positive reinforcement does not automatically guarantee animal welfare or happiness.

Is all of this hype about positive reinforcement merely a marketing ploy? Do you believe that negative reinforcement and punishment also have a place in animal training? Are you more likely to support a book, trainer, show, or product on the basis of them claiming to use positive reinforcement? Do you see any flaws, dangers, or malices in the use of positive reinforcement? Is a parrot better off being trained with a healthy balance of positive/negative reinforcement/punishment rather than positive reinforcement extremism? What other pitfalls do you see in positive reinforcement based training?
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby ptuga72 » Wed Nov 17, 2010 1:59 am

Michael, I actually come across this a lot, but in the context of behavior modification for children with special needs (specifically autism). I think that positive reinforcement is vital to increasing desired behaviors, but by no means is it the ONLY way to do this. I have come across kiddos that actually do not respond well to positive reinforcement and I have to use other behavior modification techniques. I think the same can be true for birds. Our fosters are feral, and giving them something (anything) I think would actually decrease the occurrence of a desired behavior. But negative reinforcement (read: getting the hell out of the room) seems to be the ticket for them.

I think that these pro trainers are really just over-using the term positive reinforcement to sell more stuff. There probably just trying to distance themselves from positive punishment, which I am not a fan of. But, negative punishment? you bet your ass I use that (with kids mainly). But I doubt a trainer who is trying to sell stuff is going to explain to you the differences between positive/negative punishment and positive/negative reinforcement.

If anyone really wants to know more, I would suggest researching ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and how it is applied to behavior modification. Being trained in ABA therapy has really helped me work with the kiddos at my job, as well my birdies.
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby captwest » Wed Nov 17, 2010 10:14 am

Michael wrote:I see so many (namely recent) training publications worshiping positive reinforcement training. Also I come across trainers or animal acts that brand themselves to exclusively use positive reinforcement for training. The concept of positive reinforcement is being exploited as a make of excellence or a moral standard. There is definitely a holier than thou attitude going around about using positive reinforcement. Many training products and agendas are built on this thing they call positive reinforcement.


I have to be very careful when trying to express myself on some of these very polarizing issues. i will try to be brief which means that i may not explain myself well enough and be misunderstood. I hope that dosn't happen because i find this forum to be very fair and tolerate of different views. This is the only forum that has a real mix of members and i'm not attacked for being a breeder. I think that is important because ther's a place for breeders, rehomers and behaviorist/trainers in the best interest /well being of companion birds,
Many of thetrainers/behavoirist need to sound very authorative to add credability to their products, ie; they don't have PhD or Dr. to add to their name., no formal schooling in parrot behavior. I'm not implying that they don't how what they're talking about or that their products are bogus, it's just that to market themselfs this is a necessary practice. The positive reenforcement training sounds appealling to the same public as the rehoming industry/busness caters to and they have alighned themselves together; pay my rehomimg fee for this abused bird and with this fool proof DVD you can a loving companion parrot. But because the breeder is in direct competion with this team the breeders are now scum/the bad guys, don't buy a baby when you can save these abused adults.It's too bad, because there's a place for all three and for the good all companion birds if we could all work together, I hope this isn't to far off topic and apologize if this sounds like a rant or attack on anyone. Peace, Richard
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby ptuga72 » Wed Nov 17, 2010 11:12 am

Many of thetrainers/behavoirist need to sound very authorative to add credability to their products, ie; they don't have PhD or Dr. to add to their name., no formal schooling in parrot behavior. I'm not implying that they don't how what they're talking about or that their products are bogus, it's just that to market themselfs this is a necessary practice.


Exactly. But the problem I see in this is that they do not explore the other techniques of behavior modification, to a fault. Or they use them, but do not explain them as such. Positive reinforcement is excellent for training, but it is by no means the only way of reinforcing, and if not implemented correctly it will cause more problems [by inadvertently reinforcing undesirable behaviors etc.].

...that to market themselfs this is a necessary practice. The positive reenforcement training sounds appealling to the same public as the rehoming industry/busness caters to and they have alighned themselves together; pay my rehomimg fee for this abused bird and with this fool proof DVD you can a loving companion parrot.


In all honesty I do not see how these are related. I actually find that it is harder to rehome a bird with problems than a fresh, cute, problem free baby. Most parrots have a behavior problem sometime in their long lives, but there is a higher probability of a rehome needing the services of a trainer. In my brief experiences with rescues I have not found that they have aligned themselves with any sort of training program. Yes, they may encourage positive reinforcement, but not any specific trainer or training program (except may be clicker/target training).
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You remain responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby entrancedbymyGCC » Wed Nov 17, 2010 1:18 pm

I agree with Micheal here to a large extent. The concept of "humane" or even "kind" seems to have become passe and everything has to be positive. There is a sense that somehow using reward only means that the animal is performing more "of its own free will" than otherwise might be the case, but if the animal has been starved to make it motivated, it really doesn't have that much choice. So the labeling of the method alone is no guarantee of kind handling.

I run into something similar with horses, but it is negative reinforcement that is the big thing there. At least one well known commercial trainer is fond of saying that horses are "negative reinforcement animals". This is B.S. All animals respond to all forms of reinforcement and punishment, the real question is what is most likely to have the desired effect in a specific situation, and what can be safely used with given species. With horses, positive reinforcement is tricky -- 1200lbs of animal that really wants the treats in your pocket is a challenge and they can easily decide to just take them if you haven't done the conditioning very carefully. Plus, when riding, negative reinforcement is kind of natural.

Bottom line is that I don't think any form of training inherently has the moral highground. One could even use positive reinforcement to train an anaimal to do something that endangered its life. It's not the method you use, it is HOW you use the method and what your overall goals are that really affects the welfare of the animal. That and all the husbandry that occurs in between training sessions and shows.
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Mona » Wed Nov 17, 2010 1:50 pm

Hi Michael:

As you know, I could write a treatise (grin) but don't have time....A few quick thoughts.

1) I believe that when discussions become political, they end up hindering training and usually end up bad for the bird. When discussing training, the more you can avoid political discourse, the better. When I say "politics" - I don't mean who you voted for in the last election....I mean discussions that are meant to manipulate the opinions of the reader for outside agendas rather than to enhance the relationship between the trainer and the bird. Writing is not a perfect mode of communication. It misses about 90% of what needs to be effectively conveyed. It's also really easy to sit on the outside and be "the critic". For example, I don't have children. My sister has two teenagers. I find that I ALWAYS KNOW what she needs to do to solve problems with her kids and I am more than happy to tell her. Is this EVER a productive conversation? No....It just aggravates her, hurts her feelings, hurts her self-esteem and makes her mad at me. No good comes of it. Same when we criticize people who are trying to do the right thing with their birds. When you tell somebody that they are NOT using positive reinforcement but are in fact punishing and doing all sorts of negative things to their bird, you are criticizing them. If you have any sense of empathy for other people at all, you know that. You can't ignore that.

2) The science of behavior is simply a science of probabilities. The facts of the matter are that persuasion and coaxing will ALWAYS make future behavior more probable (but never certain). Coercion and force may get you the behavior for the short term, but it is also probable that it will decrease the likelihood of future behavior. Having said that, my parrots are my family. Our daily interactions aren't always about increasing behavior.....there are times and days when you just have to decrease behavior. I am 100% certain that this is true for everybody who lives with an active parrot....unless the animal is stuffed, sick, or so traumatized they are almost inanimate. Anybody who says that they ALWAYS use positive reinforcement when interacting with their parrot....or with other people....is either flat out lying or completely unaware of what they are doing.

3) The problem I have with theories of operational conditioning is that they don't factor "intent" into the equation. Personally, I am always trying to understand intent...either from my perspective as a trainer or from the animal's perspective. We may not always KNOW our birds' intent but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Those who have a long history with their birds, probably have a really, really good idea what the animal's intent is. If you don't take the animal's intent into account, you are objectifying them on some level. That's okay if the animal isn't a member of your family but my parrots are family. If I wanted an object, I'd choose car collecting for a hobby. The great philosophers and philosophies do look at intent.

4) You get what you focus on. One problem I have seen with people who really like talking about Operational Conditioning is that they often focus on the wrong issue. Behavior is not discreet. It happens in streams. While one side of a behaviorial equation can be defined as positive, a good thinker can turn it right around and see the "negative" side to the same equation. There is too much that happens with any behavior and people who really don't know any thing about what is going on really like to "recreate" the behaviorial stream after the fact, similar to the way a movie producer will retell the story. It seldom has basis in reality. It may help the "trainer" find clues to help them improve performance in the future, but if the critic isn't there, in the moment....the critic really doesn't have enough information to make judgments.....

People who understand the theory THINK that they understand the behavior....Honestly, I don't see that. I think the only way you understand the behavior is from experience...period. People who have the experience and use the theory for explanation.....they are going to be worth listening to as LONG AS THEY ARE NOT USING IT TO PROMOTE AN OUTSIDE AGENDA. In otherwords, those teachers need to have empathy for BOTH THE BIRD and THE TRAINER....

Operational Conditioning, Positive Reinforcement, etc.....It's good to learn and understand, but it's only one tool in a great big toolbox. Really, the most important tool is ALWAYS experience.

Okay...Gotta go...Thanks Michael and Good luck.

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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby jonperry » Wed Nov 17, 2010 2:30 pm

The benefits of over using positive reinforcement
I agree that people are missing out by focusing only on positive reinforcement but I also think that's okay, especially for beginners. We are all used to dealing with children and with dogs, both of which respond extremely well to punishment. Birds don't respond nearly as well and many people get carried away with punishment when emotions run high.

Most people think of their birds as if they are people or dogs who should understand the rules & want to obey their masters, or parents, simply for the sake of obeying. Parrots don't have "servant/master" social systems like apes (including humans), elephants, or dogs. They do not seem to understand the concept of obedience for obedience' sake.

This is frustrating for bird owners who don't understand this. They naturally assume that if punishment isn't working, they need to use stronger punishment. What was originally intended to be a simple scold can quickly turn into violent abuse. People like Barbara Heidenreich are trying to get us to rethink behavior by making us focus only on positive reinforcement. She's helping prevent abuse and frustration.

Many parrot species have a "pecking order" within their communities but the lower birds don't obey or serve the higher birds. They simply stay out of their way in fear of a beating. Having your bird want to stay out of your way is not good for the training relationship.

The Power of Food Reward
As I said, parrots don't seem to understand obedience for obedience sake but they will obey when food is involved and this is natural. When a wild bird is hungry, he understands that he must be creative and perform certain tasks to get food: search for food, gather food, open shells, avoid predators, and so on. Parrot brains evolved for problem solving while foraging. Hunger stimulates brain activity. By training with food rewards we simply tap into that creative brain power and make it work for us.

Certain kinds of punishment work well with parrots
I'm fine with instructors focusing only on positive reinforcement for beginners but It would be nice to see Barbara and others incorporate punishment into lessons for more advanced trainers. I have found that certain kinds of punishment work very well for my Sun Conure.

Physical Block and challenge - If Apollo is chewing on something he shouldn't, I like to go put my hand between him and the object. It can cause a little fight and I have to use my other hand to block him from biting the first hand. I may have to hold the upper mandible of his beak to prevent him from biting but if I stand my ground he will quickly accept his loss and fly away.

If I were cleaver I could keep a chew toy with me at all times and distract him with it instead of challenging him. Unfortunately this isn't always practical.

The shoulder shake - When Apollo won't get off my shoulder, a simple shake sends the message. At first I had to literally shake him off but now he understands at the first little twitch that I'd rather he perch some place else. He knows from experience that he can't argue. If at the first twitch he hangs on, I will shake relentlessly until he gives in.

Note: This of course only works with flighted birds. Clipped birds could be seriously injured.

The threatening lunge - While scratching Apollo's neck I noticed that if I hit a pin feather wrong and it hurts him, he will lunge as if to bite me (but he won't bite) and he will let out an angry but quick squawk. Then he will immediately open his feathers for me to continue preening him. As soon as I stop touching the painful pin feather, I am immediately forgiven.

I've realized that he uses this to tell me I'm doing something wrong. I can communicate to him in the same way. When he is perched in a bad place, chewing on something he shouldn't, or is acting like he's about to attack someone, I can lunge and squawk (I don't actually squawk but I say "NO" in fast aggressive tone). Usually this is enough to make him stop. If not, I follow up the threat with physical blocking as described above.

Note: Apollo only understands these scolds when I catch him in the act. Showing him a chewed up door that he chewed yesterday and then scolding him won't make any sense.

Some good things are too risky to teach without getting sued
Apollo is very territorial of me and can get aggressive. When Apollo attacks someone, I have learned that I can grab him and hold him securely (not tight but secure) in my hands until he calms down. I hold him close to my face and I talk to him softly as I feel the tension leave his body. This would be hard to teach because it requires a potentially dangerous grab that could injure a bird. If done wrong the bird could suffocate or suffer broken bones. It also requires a strong bond between you and the bird in order to work without you getting bitten.

Beak flicking and even quick neck pinching are other techniques I see people use a lot. They simulate how birds interact with each other and may be useful but if done wrong they can injure a bird. No trainer in their right mind would ever sell such techniques. The risk of a lawsuit is too high and there are other ways to control a bird.

My final thoughts
In conclusion I think that even though punishment is valuable and can be done in a careful humane manner, instructors are justified in ignoring it and even warning against it in beginner classes. I just wish they'd make it clear to students from the start that punishment is a valid form of behavior modification for advanced trainers. People are smart, there's no point in hiding things from them.
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Michael » Wed Nov 17, 2010 3:59 pm

For example, the description for one of Barbara Heidenreich’s DVDs states that "Positive reinforcement training is a kind and gentle method."

While I agree that the application of positive reinforcement she teaches may be "kind and gentle," I think it is a bit ridiculous to try to glorify positive reinforcement as an ethically kinder means of training.

I am not denying that positive reinforcement is a very effective means of training. I'm not even advocating the use of punishment. Although I have found some applications of punishment to be effective, you will find that for the most part I caution parrot owners not to use it. However, this does not mean that I will go around demonizing punishment and treating people who effectively apply it as substandard or cruel.

In my training and writing, I like to talk about what is effective. Talking about what training means are moral or cruel though becomes very arbitrary. Who sets the standards? Who is to say that dropping a parrot is cruel but locking it away in a cage is not? It is up to each parrot owner to look into their own hearts and behave in ways that they feel moral in their own realm. But when it comes to training, only results can judge effectiveness. The terms positive reinforcement and negative punishment are direct observations on the behavioral impact and not a judgment on the morality of the methods used.

Punishment is the reduction of behavior. In training, punishment does not imply something bad although something bad could be done to punish. Generally the issue with punishment is not that it is ineffective but rather that it is too effective. A punished parrot will learn to avoid the punisher all together rather than simply the behavior being punished. The reasons we should be stressing to avoid punishment is because it is often ineffective at achieving what we want and not because of the moral reasons.

I don't think there exists any judgment or moral implication between punishment or reinforcement. I believe that these are simply an observation of behavior rather than a moral standing. Parrots modify their behavior in response to punishment/reinforcement as necessary. They don't question why they are punished or rewarded, so I do not see how the morals are anything but human projection.

Moral arguments can be used in regards to hurtful actions. However, there is no direct implication that punishment must be hurtful and that positive reinforcement cannot be. We do need to seek to train our parrots with maximum effect and minimal hurt. However, to say without doubt that positive reinforcement is the only way or the kindest way is absurd.

Heidenreich and others will have you believe that their training/products are morally superior to others because they use "positive reinforcement." This is quite catchy because "positive reinforcement" has the word positive in it and that sounds like something good. Certainly as a marketing ploy it is fantastic, but is it fair to misinform people for profit? While there is a need for a moral filter of some sort in parrot training, it must not be bound absolutely to one operant method. Instead, training methods should be judged be effectiveness and then either used or rejected based on harm/morals.

Image

What's so good about positive reinforcement if it is hurtful to the animal? For example, what if the parrot's owner gets very worked up when the parrot begins feather plucking? This attention could positively reinforce the parrot to pluck even more. In this case you would want to punish feather plucking (I don't mean hit the bird when it plucks) to save the parrot from destroying itself. For example taking away attention at the beginning of feather plucking, screaming, biting, or other undesired behaviors could be used to punish - that is reduce - those behaviors. In this example, positive reinforcement is counter productive to the trainer and could even be harmful to the parrot if it is applied incorrectly!

Moral arguments must be separated from training methodology. There of course must be oversight and consideration of whether something is harmful or not, but this should not be used as a means of marketing to promote something as safer or less cruel!
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby footfoot » Fri Nov 19, 2010 12:08 am

I don't think trainers are trying to emphasize their moral high ground by focusing on positive reinforcement. I just think that parrots can be intimidating and challenging to many folks and the idea of using treats and happy thoughts is much more appealing than their possible preconceived notion of having to yell at, scold or otherwise be mean to get the bird do what you want it to do. They're just trying keep everything upbeat and doable for otherwise tentative parrot owners.
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Re: The Pitfall of Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby DrFeLo » Wed Apr 20, 2011 1:10 am

y tienes toda la razon, hace años que trabajo en entrenamiento de animales de todo tipo (zoologico y mascotas) y tenia el mismo cuestionamiento, y se soluciona con el siguiente ejemplo, estoy seguro que prefieres recibir dinero por una labor bien hecha, que recibir latigazos cada vez que fallas, hasta que termina tu trabajo.
saludos cordiales
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