Monday, June 1, 2009

Generalizing Behavior

The concept of generalizing behavior is straightforward, and one I feel is an important key in the relationships with my birds and how they interact in the home environment. It is a part of their lifestyle training. So, let me simply jump right in and start by providing an example!

Let's say that a bird knows how to step onto a hand; it will step onto a hand from a play gym and back down again, but the companion expresses frustration that it will not step onto another surface in the home such as the kitchen countertop.

There was a time when the companion trained the behavior of stepping on and off the hand from the play gym.

Now, the companion desires for the bird to do the same on the kitchen countertop. However, this is a new room and a new surface - it is an entirely different circumstance and situation. We cannot assume that because the bird knows how to step up and down from the play gym that it will (or should) do it everywhere, anywhere, and under any conditions automatically.

So the companion must approach training a step down and step up from the countertop as a new behavior, starting back at square one, just as occurred with the play gym. Through this process, the step up/step down behavior is being generalized to a new surface, room, circumstance or situation.

In the process of training the behavior of stepping up/down from the kitchen counter, if I were to place a treat on the countertop and ask for a step down but the bird chose not to step down, I do not roll my hand, try to dump the bird, or otherwise try to 'convince' the bird to step down, with the false belief that it will "realize" there is nothing scary about the countertop once it ends up there.

Instead, I simply take a step back away from the counter. In conjunction with the bird's decision not to step down, I most likely observed body language such as moving away from the countertop, moving closer to me, taking a step up my arm, etc.

In seeing that my bird has chosen not to step onto the countertop, I then know that I need to take a series of smaller steps in order to train the behavior. For example, I may place the treat on the edge of the counter where the bird can reach it while still still on my hand, gradually moving the treat further back on the countertop as I am working on this new behavior.

Over time, the step up/step down behavior becomes generalized to the new location and surface of the kitchen countertop.

In this scenario, it was important that I did not conclude that because my bird steps up and down from the play gym that it would (or should) naturally do it from any surface, at any location, at any time 'automatically' without any training or effort on my part.

At each new surface or situation, I am retraining the step up/step down (in other words, generalizing it to new and different situations).

With this new understanding comes an important consideration and a potential risk: I must be careful to consider what happens after the step down (or whatever behavior is being trained) and the way in which I view and utilize the concept of generalization.

A real life example:

Coco and I were in the bathroom Sunday afternoon. She was on my hand, and I slowly lowered her into the tub, watching her reaction, to see if she was interested in a shower. If she wants a shower, she will step off my hand into the tub pretty quickly. Simple.

Instead of stepping into the tub, she took a step up my arm. My response to this was to bring my arm out of the tub to indicate to her that I understood her body language. It was not a matter of me training her to step down; she will step down if she wants a shower. It was a matter of me understanding that she was communicating to me that she did NOT choose to take a shower at the moment I was offering her the choice.

I spoke to her for awhile, gave her some scritches, and a few minutes later repeated the process again, slowly, carefully observing her body language. This is to give her a second opportunity to choose to shower. Perhaps 50% of the time she would choose a shower at the second opportunity. However, in this instance, she once again took a step up my arm giving me a clear communication of her choice not to shower.

Now, had I shown her a high value reinforcer, and asked for a step down, she may very well have stepped into the tub. But: not because she wanted a shower.

If she did step into the tub under that circumstance, and I then turned on the shower head and proceeded to give her a shower, I would have made a serious withdrawal from our relationship's trust account. Additionally, I would have degraded her step down behavior, and caused a bad experience in the bathtub. That would be the last thing I would want to do! In the context of my relationship with Coco, such an action on my part would be dishonest and manipulative.

Even when she readily chooses to step into the tub for a shower, I still allow the water to trickle from the faucet and angle the shower head in such a way that she can choose her own showering technique and pace. Often she will spend a number of minutes running around the back of the tub where there is no water, making birdie noises and listening to her echo, while slowly making her way into the water spray as she begins her own routine of playing and enjoying shower time. These are choices she makes throughout the shower experience which usually lasts 15 to 20 minutes. There is no sense in rushing it! She is very vocal and animated, and she chooses the manner in which she goes about enjoying her shower time.


Generalizing behaviors is an important part of their lifestyle training. It opens up new possibilities - a bird hanging out on the shower rod while we are in the bathroom, sitting on the table while we are folding clothes, and so much more - lots of new opportunities for exploration and enrichment!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Everything makes sense! This is some info I haven't seen before, but my birds trust me more than ever now.

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