I wanted to write a post that could help people understand how you can go about changing or modifying problem behavior in their parrots. It is good for people to know this because once you get the concepts, you can apply it to anything. Behavior doesn't just "happen", it happens because of what happens before the behavior, or the set up, which is called the "antecedent" and by what happens just after the behavior, which is called the "consequence". The great thing is that, those are both (the antecedent and the consequence) things we can change which will change the animal's behavior. The other great thing is that, we KNOW this. It is scientific, it is proven and we know that it is how it is. It does not change between species, breeds or anything like that, we ALL learn this way. People will blame behavior on all sorts of different things, but the truth is that the behavior is only going to keep happening if it is effective. No animal, human or non-human, does things for no reason. The key really is figuring out what the reinforcement is for the animal as this is what drives the behavior. The reinforcers, of course, are what change from individual to individual. In general, I am talking about changing behavior that is considered problem behavior. I want to note that some behavior that people consider "problem" is actually natural, normal behavior for that species. You won't be successful at and shouldn't try completely getting rid of natural behaviors. Excessive screaming can be modified, but not ALL vocalizing. Destroying furniture can be modified, but not ALL chewing. Also, it is important to keep in mind that in order for our animals behavior to change, we have to be willing to change our own behavior first. If no change on our part was required, the problem would have resolved itself. Finally, keep in mind that animals get better at whatever they practice, so don't let a behavior go on and on before putting together a training plan. If they are doing it over and over and it is being reinforced, it is getting stronger. It is best to figure out how to modify it as early on as you can. Changing Antecedents When you want to change a problem behavior, the first thing to look at is whether not it is possible to simply change the antecedent so that the behavior can't happen. Remember, the antecedent sets the stage. Here are a couple of situations where I could simply change the antecedent: A dog barks at the front window when the mailman comes to the porch. Here are some antecedents I could change: 1) Do not allow the dog access to the front window before the mailman has come. Simply keep the dog away from the window by keeping him in another part of the house. 2) Move the mailbox off of the house and onto a stand at the end of the driveway. 3) Close the blinds Any one of these could work, depending on the dog, the set up of the house, etc. If the dog can run upstairs and see the mailman from another window, then we may have to make sure he can't get to other front windows as well. If the dog is very sensitive to sound and barks even if he can't see the mailman, we may have to move him to a specific area of the house and add white noise. There are a ton of things we can do to change the set up. Another example: A Meyer's Parrot (named Nemo), climbs onto and then guards the garbage can when sitting on the side of it. If you go to reach for him or ask him to step up, he will react by lunging with an open beak. Here are some antecedents I could change: 1) Move the garbage can to someplace in the room where it is more difficult for him to get to and less noticeable to him. 2) Take the garbage can out of the room when he is out of his cage. 3) Put something over the garbage can so that he can't see it and/or on it. I usually do #1 which works well It should be noted that for the lunging behavior the antecedent would be reaching for him. If I do not mess with him, he minds his own business, cheerfully playing in the garbage can. So, I can make the lunging not happen by just leaving him alone. I actually do this sometimes. When I know I have plenty of time, I let him hang out on the side of the garbage can, leave him alone and when he gets bored he climbs up on the playstand and steps up with no problem. Some other examples of changing antecedents are: -If you have two birds that fight, do not have them out at the same time. If they aren't out, they can't fight. -If you have a bird who flies out of the room, shut the door or put up a net or curtain. If it isn't an option, they can't do it. -If you have a bird who flies at guests who come over, don't have him out when people come over. If he isn't out, he can't fly to them. -If you have a bird who chews on the blinds, open the blinds when he is out or move the cage so he can't access the blinds. If, for whatever reason you can't change the antecedent or the set up, then you may have to come up with a training plan to modify the behavior. Changing Behavior The best training plan, in my opinion, for getting rid of a behavior you don't like is to train an alternative behavior or an incompatible behavior. Teaching an alternative behavior means that you teach the animal to do something else. Teaching an incompatible behavior means that you teach something to the animal that they cannot possibly do at the same time as the behavior you don't like. The point is that you teach the animal to do an acceptable behavior INSTEAD of the behavior you don't want him to do. This is what I do if I can't change the antecedent. Frequently, clients will tell me (about their dogs), "I don't want him to jump on people who want to greet him". So, I ask, "What would you like him to do?" Then they say, "I just don't want him to jump" at which point I really push and say, "What do you want him to do when he greets people? What would be acceptable? How about if he sits instead?" They say that would be so great, so we train that. The dog has to sit before greeting a person. It is MUCH easier to train what you want instead of trying to get rid of everything you don't want. You could spend an animals lifetime trying to get rid of all the behaviors you don't like, when simply training a few behaviors REALLY WELL, can give them the information and the tools to be able to do what you ask and get it right. So, for my problem behaviors from above: A dog barks at the front window when the mailman comes to the porch. 1) I could train the dog to go lie on his mat quietly when the mailman approaches. He cannot quietly lie on his mat (which is in another room away from the front window) and bark at the mailman at the window at the same time. 2) I could train the dog to come to the owner and sit down when the mailman comes on the porch. You can see here that there are a ton of behaviors I could teach the dog to do INSTEAD of barking at the mailman. Depending on the reinforcement history of this behavior, the temperament and learning style of the dog, the skill level of the owners, this could be really easy to do or really challenging. You can see that simply changing the antecedent is much simpler if it is possible. A Meyer's Parrot (named Nemo), guards the garbage can when sitting on the side of it. If you go to reach for him or ask him to step up, he will react by lunging with an open beak. 1) I could teach him to follow a target to move him away from the garbage can. 2) I could teach him to climb onto a certain perch on the playstand (near the can). Some other examples of alternative behaviors are: -Teaching a bird to talk quietly instead of screaming. -To teach a bird to step up with his head upright instead of biting. -Teach a bird to go station on a certain perch instead of trying to bite your hand when putting the food bowl in. -To teach a bird to play on a play stand instead of walking around on the ground. -To teach a dog to sit instead of jumping up. Reinforcers Like I mentioned before, when animals do a behavior, they are doing that behavior for an outcome or for the reinforcement that follows it. They get something out of it. If we want to build a behavior we have to find out what is reinforcing to the animal and add that immediately after a behavior happens. When we think of reinforcement, we think of food or something that we may be giving in order to strengthen behaviors that we want to teach the animal. Food, attention, play, are all things that we may use to intentionally reinforce an animal, however, the animal is the one who really decides what is reinforing. In other words, I don't get to say that because I like petting my dog a certain way that it is reinforcing, he may be more reinforced by food, or a ball toss, or whatever. The only way to determine whether or not something is reinforcing is to see what happens to the behavior that the intended reinforcement follows. If it happens more frequently or is maintained, it was reinforcing. If the behavior does not happen more often, or happens less, it was NOT reinforcing to the animal. Below is video I made for my clients to explain reinforcers and how they work. These are reinforcers for building behaviors, but remember that there is something that is reinforcing the behaviors that you want to modify also. You aren't giving a piece of food, but make no mistake that the animal is getting something out of it. If they weren't, they wouldn't keep doing it. Finally, if a behavior is happening that you want to stop happening and you can't change the antecedent then you will need to find out what is reinforcing the behavior and change that. Remember that what reinforces the behavior is what happens right after the behavior happens. Let's figure out what is reinforcing for the animals in the examples above: A dog barks at the front window when the mailman comes to the porch. In this case, the dog is alert barking. Every single day the dog alert barks at the mailman and every single day he is reinforced by the mailman going away after dropping off the mail. The mailman did not intend to reinforce that behavior and he didn't leave because the dog barked, but because it happened directly after the dog barked, the barking is reinforced. In this case, it makes more sense to change the antecedent set up and/or teach an alternative behavior since I really can't control the mailman. A Meyer's Parrot (named Nemo), guards the garbage can when sitting on the side of it. If you go to reach for him or ask him to step up, he will react by lunging with an open beak. In this case, the reinforcement for the bird is my backing off or removing my hand. He did not want to be removed from the garbage can to he lunges with an open beak which causes me to remove my hand and the behavior is reinforced. Now, he may also not want me to reach in the can but I am pretty sure it is because he doesn't want to be removed or asked to step up. I am not stupid enough to test out this theory and see what happens if I just reach in as I think I know what the outcome would be and frankly because I have worked around the situation by changing antecedents and/or simply not reaching for him, it doesn't matter. Some examples of things that can be reinforcing to birds. Keep in mind that this is by no means a complete list of things that can reinforce a bird, nor will all of these be reinforcing to every bird: -Getting food -Getting attention -Getting scratched or pet -Excitable tone of voice/excitement -A reaction (for some birds, a reaction of any kind can reinforce a behavior, even a flinch or yelling at the bird) -Increasing distance from someone (moving the person away) -Chewing on wood or other things including, but not limited to pens, keyboards, furniture, paper, boxes, plastic, books, etc, etc, etc -Foraging -Shredding stuff -Play -Toys -Exploring/investigating In any situation that has problem behavior we have to look at what sets it up (antecedents) and what keeps it going (reinforcement). Change the antecedent and/or remove the reinforcement and the behavior will stop happening. This is easier said than done sometimes as it can take good observation skills as well as good mechanical skills sometimes to change behavior. As Bob Bailey says, "Training is simple, but not easy." Negative Punishment It is also sometimes possible to change behavior by removing something that the animal wants in order to make a behavior go away. For instance, if I am working on step up with a bird, using a tested reinforcer (like a seed) that I have determined the bird really likes as a lure and he tries to bite me, I can remove my hand AND the opportunity for reinforcement for just a few seconds, before giving the animal the opportunity to make the right choice for which he can be rewarded. Some examples of negative reinforcement are: A bird screams for attention and the owner leaves the room. You are removing what the bird wants, YOU, immediately after the behavior of screaming happened. A dog jumps up on the owner and the person turns away. The owners attention is removed immediately following hte jumping. Remember if you use negative reinforcement to be sure to reinforce the animal when they make the right choice. In other words, any time the bird is quiet you need to reinforce that. At first, frequently and then you can build duration of quiet periods up from there. For the stepping up, you would reinforce with the seed EVERY time the bird does the behavior correctly. The other thing to keep in mind is that in order for negative punishment to be effective, it has to happen every time. If the animal is reinforced some of the time for the problem behavior that will still keep the behavior strong. In general my go to is: 1) Change antecedent if possible 2) Train an alternative or an incompatible behavior 3) Possibly consider negative punishments, but I would try to change it with the first two options. I hope that this helps some and that it gives people a better idea about how they can use these tools to change behavior in their birds.