Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Why you should ALWAYS bribe everyone, all the time!

Congratulations everyone, you made it through another year! My year of 2016 was full of brand new beginnings, excitement for dream jobs, and fulfillment of wishes since before my college days. Then there was the realization that not all dreams are really what you want.

Already 2017 has shown promise of strong self, and career development. As I look back on 2016 and and take a scrutinizing view of myself, I see that I have gained the skill of criticizing of others. This is good because it allows me to communicate better, and more thoroughly to others by offering my own viewpoint, realizing I could be just as wrong as they are. No one is perfect, and I'm comfortable with that. In addition, looking back at the year of 2016; to see the mistakes, misunderstandings, and shortcoming of others has made me frustrated and disgusted at these people's actions.

Scimitar-horned oryx 

One early winter morning, near the Scimitar-horned Oryx exhibit; I explain the downfalls and upsides of certain techniques. The topic of discussion is Bribery: Bribery is often confused with Positive Reinforcement (R+) and people wrongly think of them as one in the same. Bribery has the downfall of having an animal possibly perform at minimum for her behavior. It also lets the animal decide that what you're offering is not good enough in exchange for the behavior you are asking for. Over time trainers are compelled to offer a higher value reinforcer overtime. 

A common example in the bird training industry:  A bird of prey that has flown away from its handler is sitting high in a tree. The handler shows the bird 1/4 hind limb of a rodent in her falconer's glove. The bird sees this and at first will come down from the tree  consistently on this continuous, 1:1 fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement (keep in mind this is not all in one day but over different days). Over time the bird expects to always come down for 1/4 of a rodent. It becomes boring and the payoff becomes less valuable and as a result, the bird's behavior of flying to the glove becomes less dependable. This is bribery, and these are the downfalls.

When you show a bird, or any other animal what they will get when they do an action, for example flying down to the handler from the tall tree, that is considered bribery. Another example is when a dog trainer can only have a dog sit when they show them a treat. Bribery is great to use to start a behavior, but it needs to be faded quickly to avoid these pitfalls. 

Image result for the sands casino
The difference between bribery and positive reinforcement is when properly using positive reinforcement the animal does not see what it is going to get.  This helps eliminate the long-term problems seen with bribery. If you want a strong, reliable behavior you can't get there only with bribery. This is because it's impossible to use with a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement; it defeats the whole purpose of the concept. 

Casinos are notorious for creating strong behaviors. This is because they use that variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. You never know what you're going to get or when you're going to get it. If you knew, you probably wouldn't go in the first place; it's not exciting.

So anyway, back to the one winter day near the Scimitar-horned Oryx exhibit, I explained this idea to some of the newer zookeepers. I say that we shouldn't be using bribery, or at least we shouldn't be showing Oryx the food all the time in order to create strong, reliable behaviors. 

The reason this was discussed because there had been issues with asking the animals to shift out of their holding pens. Zookeepers were showing the animals the pellet and hay diet. The Oryx decided it wasn't good enough; creating very inconsistent shifting behaviors. Several weeks later a senior zookeeper, whom I did not discuss this topic with, loudly proclaims that "we do not use bribery at this facility." My heart sank.  This person, the senior zookeeper, clearly does not understand the basic concept or the differences between positive reinforcement and bribery. Or how bribery plays an important initial role in effective training. 

So instead of using bribery the senior zookeeper's idea was to not use food at all. He/She would rather scare the animals out of the holding pens. Which of course is much worse than using bribery to create "stubborn" animals with inconsistent behaviors. I am disgusted and completely revolted at myself for not thoroughly explaining the concept of such a basic idea as bribery to all of the staff. Of course who am I to explain such a concept to a senior zookeeper? The hierarchy of humans is so disgustingly tight and rigid that I would've had to, and should have (but was too afraid of authority figures to do at the time) explained it to senior management. I should have asked that a more thorough education program be put into place, or maybe ask the curator to clear up the misunderstanding with the keepers. Oh the lessons we learn with each passing year...

Copyright 2017 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top 5 Reasons Pet Owners Need Training Skills

1. Veterinary Exams

Every pet needs a yearly exam so why not improve their lives and make this visit as stress free as possible? Stress has been linked to a cornucopia of diseases, both physical and cognitive, stress can be reduced by associating good things (ie. toys, treats, praise etc.) with travel crates, nail clippers, body manipulations, syringes, swabs, towels, and anything else you can think. Training for medical exams greatly improves our pets quality of life. Wouldn't it be amazing to have your pet making friends and earning cookies at the vet's office instead of learning that people in scrubs give scary, strange, and uncomfortable procedures? Yes it would!

2. Medical Emergencies

The one thing that is more stressful than a vet visit is an emergency situation. Vet visits don't happen just once a year, the potential to make an emergency trip is always present: birds break blood feathers, dogs scarf down chocolate, cats stop eating, and lizard hemipenes prolapse. Having your animal trained to walk into a crate or let you manipulate a sensitive area can mean the difference of life and death. Training saves lives!

Tambako The Jaguar at flickr

3. Normal Behavior

Learning to teach your animal behaviors without using force or aversives trains you to notice the most minute behavioral changes in their routine. Knowing what makes your pet uncomfortable and making a commitment to avoid these situations allows you to see problems cropping up long before they ever get bad. Having regular training sessions gives us information about how much food out pets eat and the mental state they're in, any deviations from this norm is cause for concern (like biting, pets of aversive-free trainers don't get bit but pets in pain can bite).  Its like having super powers!

4. Preventing Behavior Problems

Noticing subtle changes in normal behavior feeds into another skill, seeing the potential for behavior problems to develop. If you recently brought home a particulary mouthy baby bird you may notice, not unlike a human child, they like to explore their new world with their mouth. Fingers are especially fun for birds to chew and manipulate but baby birds may not realize how much pressure they are using and the pain they cause. I realized this when I recently brought home my baby parrotlet, Titan. At first he would begin to lightly chew the soft webbing between my fingers (everyone has this webbing). Realizing that sometimes Titan would chew a little too hard I wanted to nip this behavior in the bud as I did not want this to develop into chewing fingers whenever he sees them. That would get in the way of him happily playing with my freinds because I want him to be able to play with anyone. To prevent him from chewing on  my fingers I make it a point to leave small, chewable toys that he likes in front of his cage and I use them when I take little Titan out. This allows me to easily grab a fun, special toy he only gets when outside his cage. I prevent him from chewing my hands by offering the toys to chew first, and if he did beak my hands I redirect his attention to a nearby toy to chew instead.

Taco, a recent foster bird.

5. Socializing is Easier

Birds get scared and it's often from new people. Being equipped with training skills allow you to teach others how to make your bird feel comfortable in their prescence and allows you to observe and prevent situations that will cause your bird to associate anything aversive with new people. You'll know to reserve favorite treats only for such visits and to heavily reinforce your bird for appropriate behaviors towards your guests. I do this every time I have a visitor interested in meeting my birds. Think of it as an interview, but the employer is your pet looking to hire new acquaintances. First impressions are very important for any interview and it begins when you walk in the door, the same is true for your pet bird. When my doorbell rings I open the door and ask the company that if they want to make friends with the birds inside the best thing to do is immediately sit down on the couch without making much eye contact or fuss (now that might not hold true for your hyperactive caique but it certainly won't make the bird scared of your visitors). I work with rescue birds that have a history of poor behavior habits and they have responded most positively to visitors that keep their space, keep their voice low, and offer lots and lots of reinforcers (special treats, toys, and activities for only when they are really good). My fosters have always warmed up very quickly to new people this way and it is easy to tell when a visitor has passed their interview.

Caitlin Bird Copywrite 2016