Reinforcers are anything that follows a behavior that causes that behavior to maintain or increase. For example, a bird steps up or flies to you when you ask and you give it an

Recalling Rico to the hand for a primary reinforcer

almond. If the behavior of stepping up maintains or increases more than likely the almond is a reinforcer for the behavior of the bird stepping up. In this instance the almond would be a positive reinforcer because it was something that was added to the environment that caused the behavior to maintain or increase. Positive reinforcers are always items of value to the one giving the behavior.

Also, the bird is always the one that determines the reinforcer. The reinforcer is never determined by us. If the bird is full, more than likely that almond is not going to be of high value to the bird. In other words, it’s not a fair trade.

Birds are individuals too. Imagine living life from their perspective. We ask them to step up. What’s in it for them? If they really don’t care to step up onto us because they are enjoying looking out the window instead, why would we expect them to step up onto us? Because we want them to? Nope, it doesn’t really work that way.

Positive reinforcers aren’t always food related either. Food related reinforcers are called primary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are those that are needed for survival such as food, water, shelter, and reproduction. Secondary reinforcers are everything else such as a head scratch, a toy, a “Good Boy!”.

Secondary reinforcers can be very strong also. Reserving a known positive reinforcer makes the value of that reinforcer more valuable to the bird, if it is correctly identified. For example, Rocky, my moluccan cockatoo loves to be scratched around the neck. He loves it so much he’ll actually pick your hand up and place it on his neck. “Bingo!” This is an identified very valued reinforcer of Rocky’s. So I use it and I may reserve it for when I need it.

If my goal is to ask Rocky to step up out of his cage and onto my arm with the intention of walking him through the house to his play station in the bird room, I better use the neck scratch wisely and accurately.

Rocky coming out of the cage could be reinforcer for him stepping onto my arm. The opportunity for him to be with me may also be the reinforcer or an additional reinforcer.

I ask Rocky to step up onto my hand from his cage. He does. I may say “Good Boy Rocky” and that may be a good enough reinforcer. I’ve identified that he wants to come out of the cage and I know time or attention from me is also a valued reinforcer. The “Good Boy Rocky” and the stepping onto my arm are both valued reinforcers to him. Now, if I walk through the house scratching the back of his neck, why would he want to step off of me and onto his play station when asked? Why would he want to step off of me when he’s getting that highly valued reinforcer of HIS when he’s on my arm?

So I walk through the house and deliver the “Good Boy Rocky” for him perching calmly on my arm. Perching calmly is a behavior I want to reward so I better not forget to reinforce it. Sometimes a “Good Boy Rocky” is a big enough reinforcer for keeping him perched calmly. If I see that it’s not working, I may deliver an occasional head scratch during my walk to the bird room.

When I get to the bird room and am standing in front of his play station, I then ask him to step up. If he hesitates, I show him the positive reinforcer that will be delivered when he does. That is a me moving my fingers in a position that shows him that I want to scratch him. Almost always, he steps up. Yes, this may be called luring. I showed him the reward for the behavior I’m requesting. He steps up. I deliver the head scratch. This is called contingency. I deliver the reinforcer only when the requested behavior is given. The delivery of the reinforcer is contingent on the behavior of stepping up. This helps keep the behavior of stepping off of me very strong.

In the times that he choses not to step up, I rely on a list of reinforcers I reserve for when I find myself in this situation. Rocky loves peanuts. Rocky loves pine nuts. I break out one of these primary reinforcers and put them in his foraging toys and there goes Rocky. He steps up onto the play station and goes running to the foraging toy. No force needed. The bird’s choice still remains and the desired outcomes are still paired with my requests which makes behaviors more likely to happen when requested in the future.

On the other hand, we can strongly reinforce a lunge from a bird every time we walk by. If every time we walk by a bird and it lunges, that lunge is being reinforced. The lunge is maintaining or increasing isn’t it? It’s being reinforced. If every time our cockatoo is on the floor, it chases our feet. The chasing is being reinforced. So what do we do in these instances? Train. Train the bird to do something else that is of desired behavior, like stepping up or going to a perch and when it does, that is when we deliver the highly valued positive reinforcers we are reserving for times like these. The reinforcer better be of more value to the bird for stepping up than it is for continuing to chase your feet. That’s where our work comes in.

There is so much proof in the power of positive reinforcement. This type of training helps build relationships with the animal and helps behaviors remain strong. The outcome of using positive reinforcement training is the positive reinforcer for me continuing to use it and share it. There are several reasons I love using it. First, it is the most ethical way I have seen in interacting with an animal because it gives choice the animal and reduces stress. Stress levels can be a major factor of working with birds under our care or any animal in any type of confinement. Second, it develops into a strong line of communication between the handler and the animal or bird. Third, it builds trust between the handler/caretaker and the bird. Fourth, it is so effective when working with a bird showing ‘frightened’ or ‘aggressive’ behaviors. Fifth, with consistent pairing in delivery of positive reinforcers and attention to body language, soon the handler/caretaker will see the reinforcers shift or grow. With consistency it doesn’t take long for the bird to choose the proximity to you or to be with you as a highly valued reinforcer. Creating stress-free and enriched environments is a goal of mine with every bird I encounter.

Just a bit of Saturday morning blogging. Next I’ll dive into the commonly misused term of ‘negative reinforcement’.

Video: Rocky stepping onto his play station for a head scratch. Real-time in how it works.