Lisa Desatnik on January 30, 2013
I came through my door this afternoon to that familiar voice that often calls out to me when I walk in. “Mommy here!,” it says. Yes, I admit I am a sucker for cute voices and especially when the voice is attached to my sweet, playful teddy bear of a bird – Barnaby – who came to live with me 13 years ago.
But Barnaby’s vocalizations were not always among my favorite sounds. He is a typical Timneh African Grey after all who finds great fulfillment in repeating what has value to him. Unfortunately, when he was the new kid in the household, he figured it was pretty cool to mimic the occasional screams he heard from my other two birds. And he liked projecting his voice to ear piercing decibels.
I was beside myself. I followed the advice I had heard from others or read online like giving him the evil eye, covering him, ignoring him…but the problem only got worse, not better. How could that be? When I look into his eyes now I can’t imagine that I was once at a point of needing to find him another place to live but that is exactly where I was. I know there are a lot of bird owners out there who can relate.
What happened next not only solved our issue, it strengthened our relationship and enhanced Barnaby’s quality of life in my home. In fact, it convinced me to spend the next 13 years wanting to learn about behavior – why it happens and how I can change it in the most positive, least intrusive way.
I stumbled upon Dr. Susan Friedman, a psychology professor at Utah State University who has pioneered the application of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to captive and companion animals.
What Susan teaches is that we’ve got to stop looking for answers by labeling behaviors or birds, or species generalities. It serves no purpose in helping to get at the root of the problem. The bottom line is that ALL behavior has function. No matter what the behavior is – whether it is biting, not stepping up, chewing on furniture, or screaming – something occurred immediately prior to the act (antecedent) that may serve to “lead to” it, and something occurred immediately after the act (consequence) that impacts whether or not the behavior will be repeated in the future.
As our pet’s teacher, we can influence its behavior simply by changing the environment including the antecedents and consequences.
All of my earlier attempts, I learned actually reinforced Barnaby’s screams instead of discouraged them. There’s a scientific word for what I had been doing. It’s called “intermittent reinforcement”, meaning, sometimes I gave him attention for screaming without even realizing it. Intermittent reinforcement make a behavior more resistant to change (think of the addiction of the slot machine in a casino).
So what did I do differently?
Well, in short, I developed a plan to provide him a more enriching and satisfying alternative to his screaming. Here is a summary of my strategies.
- Ignore all screaming. Period. That means if I was in the room, I calmly walked out with the other birds. If I was out of their room and he screamed, I would become a statue or walk downstairs. Most definitely I would not walk past his line of vision and I would not go into their room. With this step, I had to be prepared for an “extinction burst” where he screamed even louder to try to get my attention. Under no circumstances could I give in and go to him during this, or his problem would only worsen. The contingency I wanted Barnaby to learn was, “When” I scream “Then” the room is evacuated or “When” I scream “Then” the house becomes silent and my favorite person ignores me.
- DRA or differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior. Each and every time Barnaby would make a chosen sound (at first it was a whistle, then changed it to “mommy here”), I was immediately there with reinforcement. The contingency I wanted Barnaby to learn with this was “When” I make this sound “Then” Lisa gives me attention. Eventually I got to where I didn’t need to come each time but just acknowledge him with a voice contact, and came in occasionally (remember the value of intermittent reinforcement for building strong behaviors).
- Thoughtful arrangement of the environment. I needed to make sure Barnaby had enough activities that HE was interested in to keep him busy. When I left his room, in the beginning, I would give him something to keep his mind occupied until I was out of sight. If he wasn’t interested in what I had given him, it meant that his gift wasn’t as stimulating to him as calling out to me, and so I had to find something else that was.
People ask me how I got Barnaby to talk so much. (He and I have conversations all day long.) Well, it is because he knows if it is me with whom he wants to communicate, the only way I will hear him is if he speaks human.
I can’t tell you that he doesn’t ever scream now. He is a bird after all. But I am diligent every single day to be aware of watching that I never reinforce a scream. Since talking gets him lots of feedback from me, guess which choice he chooses to make by default if he wants to communicate *with me*.
There are times when I am not the source of his reinforcement for screaming (although most of the time I am). On occasion Dreyfuss, my pionus, will scream and he will react to her, so I am also diligent to know her precursor noises she makes just prior to a loud scream that I can interrupt (prevention is always good).
And there are those occasions where I can’t catch Dreyfuss in time and she screams but Barnaby wants to communicate with me, not her. That is when I hear him tell me, “Barnaby is a good boy.”
Yes Barnaby, you are. And thank you for reminding me of that.
And this is why I love using positive reinforcement and science for modifying and managing behavior.
Lisa is the proud parront to Barnaby, a Timneh African Grey, and Dreyfuss, a Maximillian Pionus; and aunt to her family dog, Sam. She is a long time student of using Applied Behavior Analysis and positive reinforcement strategies as they relate to setting pets and their caregivers up for success. Lisa writes about behavior and offers one-on-one training consultations for pet caregivers in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.
Want to learn more about Lisa? Visit her website: http://www.SoMuchPETential.com.