Negative Reinforcement Is Not Evil

Positive reinforcement: the addition of something in a bird’s environment that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.

Negative reinforcement: the deletion of something in the environment that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated.

That’s all – there are no implications of good or bad, right or wrong. One does not mean reward and the other punishment.

Your bird performs a trick or task. Upon completion, you immediately click, and then deliver a favorite treat. Positive reinforcement. You have added food to the bird’s environment. Your bird now knows what to do to make this happen again in the future, and chances are good that it will.

Your bird is terrified when you are around. You walk within ten feet of the cage and when your bird shows calm and relaxed behavior, you leave. Negative reinforcement. You have deleted yourself from the environment. Your bird now knows that it is safe for you to be with in ten feet of the cage and will likely continue to feel safe within that margin tomorrow.

(I know it’s sad that your bird would regard your leaving as a reward, but it is means to an end. Eventually, as you slowly narrow that ten foot gap, your bird will come to understand that you pose no threat and accept you being near. Finally, you will be close enough to target train your bird into stepping onto your hand. That’s when the real relationship can begin to unfold.)

Both positive and negative reinforcement can help you achieve goals with your bird. But of the two methods, you will find that your bird prefers (and will anticipate!) training using positive reinforcement because there is an obvious gain for your bird.

From a bird’s perspective, it gets nothing out of negative reinforcement. From your perspective, you know you re doing a great service by helping your bird overcome those fears that keep it from enjoying life.

But don’t expect to be the hero using negative reinforcement. Your bird will not recognize and appreciate your efforts anymore than your 6 year old would give you a shout out for the roof over its head and the dinner on the table. It just is as it should be.

Your bird will never say to itself: ” I hope we do some of that negative reinforcement training today“, because in fact, if you are doing it right, your bird will not know it’s being trained at all. But none of this diminishes its value or impact as a training method.

It’s a different means of training than that which you usually hear about, but it is important because it builds trust. Negative reinforcement has an undeserved bad reputation because people simply misunderstand the term.

If your bird fears you, there is no hope for a relationship that involves interaction. Negative reinforcement is the premise of the Birdtricks Power Pause training method. It works.

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

1 comment


will the power pause work if you have two birds that are fearful? thanks


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