Misunderstanding Positive and Negative Reinforcement

I was talking to a lady at work who was telling me that she was beginning to train her new Boston terrier puppy.  I asked her how she intended to train it: “Oh, definitely with positive reinforcement, I would never punish a dog!”  As she continued to talk, I realized that she took punishment to be the opposite of positive reinforcement.  A lot of people make this same mistake.

The misconception seems to come from the words positive and negative and people’s misunderstanding of the word reinforcement.

First, a reinforcement is anything that strengthens the likelihood that a behavior will continue to happen once it has started.  Secondly, you shouldn’t confuse the words positive and negative with good and bad.  A positive reinforcement (R+) simply means that something has been added to the bird’s environment and serves to increase a behavior, such as a food reward or praise.

A negative reinforcement (R-) means that something has been deleted from the birds environment to increase a behavior.  An example of the this is the time out. When you walk away and disconnect from your nipping parrot,  you are denying the bird your attention in the hopes that he understands that this behavior was unacceptable and will result in the loss of something he values.  BOTH are useful tools in training. A time out is a fairly harmless way teach a bird, but it is R-, which generally does not yield the same great results as R+.

In the book “Don’t Shoot The Dog” by Karen Pryor, she describes a technique where a trainer uses negative reinforcement successfully to teach a llama to allow the trainer to approach him.  Quite simply, every time the trainer was allowed to get a little bit closer to the animal without incident, the trainer would  leave.  R-.  Inch by inch, the trainer was able to get close enough to physically handle the animal.  It works.  The trainer got what he wanted, and the llama was no worse for wear, but it didn’t gain anything from the experience either.

The continued use of R- in its varying degrees can eventually get you into trouble.  It sometimes crosses the line into what is perceived by the animal as force or punishment (or actually is)  – do it my way or I’ll take something important from you.

You have to consider the possibility of fallout from the use of R-: an animal that feels it is being “mistreated” might decide to retaliate and bite.  Or your relationship might simply deteriorate.  It is known that parrots do not respond to punishment.

The use of R+ is win/win.  Everybody benefits.  Your parrot performs a requested behavior, and gets a reward for it.  Eventually the reward is phased out and offered intermittently, and the behavior remains.  A parrot, or any animal, that is trained by these methods actually looks forward to the training because it is a way to earn yummy treats.  It never feels forced to comply and will do so eagerly.

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

1 comment


that info was very usefull and its working on my cocktail.


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