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.
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!