Saturday, March 19, 2011

Does Ignoring Really Work?

Oh boy... I've been seeing a lot of "just ignore it" advice going around lately. So I feel compelled to write about this topic again.
It usually goes something like this: "you don't want to reinforce the biting/screaming, so just ignore it when he does that. Then he will LEARN not to do it."

Learning is an interesting thing.

I learned not to sass my mom because one time when I did, she shoved a bar of soap down my throat. I learned alright - and quite fast I might add! However, learning is not the only thing to consider when effecting behavior change with our birds. We must also consider how the relationship may be/is affected by the method we choose.
Methods of achieving behavior change in order from least intrusive on the relationship to most intrusive:

Positive Reinforcement
Negative Punishment
Negative Reinforcement
Positive Punishment
If my bird bites me, and I squirt water in its face, it might quickly learn not to bite me. If I squirt the bird, and it bites less, behavior change was achieved by means of positive punishment. This is also the most intrusive method. So I might not want to choose that method first!
But we must remember that there are 4 methods. It does not mean that we always and only choose positive reinforcement. I think that is not realistic and in many situations there are good reasons for choosing something other than positive reinforcement. But it is realistic, and my responsibility, to understand what method of behavior change I am utilizing, and what affect it is having on my birds.

My mom only had to put soap in my mouth once. She probably knew that I would not be happy with her for doing it. But she only had to do it once. She made a choice on which method to use, for her own reasons. I think we should be doing the same with our birds - understanding not only the bird's behavior and response, but also our behavior. I want to clearly know how my choices affect the bird's behavior and my relationship with her.
Any attempt to change behavior must be analyzed in the context of whether it results in an increase or a decrease of a particular defined behavior. Behavior that increases has been reinforced. Behavior that decreases has been punished. So to say to someone "you must ignore your bird's screaming, so you do not reinforce it," is simply not a valid analysis or conclusion.

If we respond to a bird's screaming by leaving the room, whether the action of leaving the room is reinforcing can only be determined by analyzing the behavior to see if it increased, decreased or maintained. This is why it cannot be declared that 'ignoring' will not result in a behavior being reinforced. That cannot be determined until we examine the frequency of the target behavior after the ignoring has taken place.

How does this 'ignoring' advice that is so frequently suggested to be used on birds work on our fellow humans? Let's see...

I call my husband to dinner.
He 'ignores me' (doesn't hear me/chooses not to respond).
I get annoyed.
I yell his name louder.
He 'ignores me' (doesn't hear me/chooses not to respond).
With an even louder and obviously irritated tone of voice, I say:
"Dinner is READY!!!!"

He 'ignores me' (doesn't hear me/chooses not to respond).

Any ideas what I may do next?
Most likely, I will escalate my behavior.
In fact, I already have escalated my behavior vocally.
I may also have moved toward him as I was vocally escalating.

Next, I just might walk over to him, yank that stupid x-box controller out of his hand, use it to knock him over the head, smile at him and say, "As I was saying: DINNER IS READY, (sweet-thing)!!!"

Did this interaction improve my relationship and communication with my husband?! Hmmmmm......

We do not have to imagine how we feel when we are ignored. We have all experienced it. And if it works to 'teach us a lesson', we are not left with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. We might even feel manipulated or coerced. It doesn't leave us feeling calm and happy.

What is reinforcing to one bird may not be to another; what is reinforcing on one day may be punishing on another. When the advice to 'ignore' behavior is given, it is done so with the implied idea that the companion is looking for a way to decrease an undesirable behavior such as biting or screaming. If successful, my bird still has not learned what I would "prefer it to do" or what ways in which it may gain something it finds rewarding.
While it is important to teach a bird what not to do, it is equally (if not more) important to teach a bird what TO DO.
Let's say the bird starts screaming.

I walk away. I'm waiting for the bird to take a breath and stop screaming.
I wait, and wait and wait....
And, wait and wait....


People are often amazed at how long a bird can scream without seemingly taking a breath! Much longer than most people have the patience to ignore!
And then I wait, and wait some more as the screaming continues.
If there are other family members around, they might not be on board with our training methods when they cannot hear themselves think!

And then I wait, and wait some more as the screaming continues.


Finally, the bird takes a breath, is distracted by something, and stops screaming for a moment.

Finally, the golden moment I have waited for has arrived! I run into the room, and give the bird a treat and praise.
What have I just taught my bird?

Scream for 20 minutes, take a breath, and she shows up.

Tomorrow the bird will be prepared to scream for 21 minutes if need be, to gain the reward of the companion showing up with a treat.

With Coco, it is my goal to address 'screaming' when she is first starting to get geared up to go to the ball game. I can tell... as I am sure all of you can with your birds as well! I do check to be sure she has everything she needs, just as one would with a crying baby. Is the curtain open? Should it be closed? Radio on? Should it be off? Wrong music station? Food? Water? A snake on the deck? Having an understandable need for some time with me that I should not ignore?

Don't we do this with our children? Does anyone ever suggest that we ignore a crying baby so that they 'learn' that crying doesn't gain it anything? We try to address the situation and affect behavior change when the child is starting to get geared up... not after it has been screaming its lungs out for 30 minutes.

Behavior change is not about providing a recipe for what to do, in order of how to do it, and then voila... no more screaming/biting, etc. However, I will say this: I rarely respond to screaming by leaving the room. If she is gearing up, I usually go toward her and see if I can get her interested in something such as playing with me and some toys, or taking a walk around the house, or (fill in the blank). I try to address it before the screaming starts, not after..

As I am so fond of saying, "The only bite that cannot be inadvertently reinforced is the one that does not happen." The same is true with any behavior - including screaming. We are good at watching body language so that we can avoid a bite. The same can be applied to screaming. Watch the body language. It may be 'vocal' body language. It is with Coco. But she also displays body language such as standing tall or perhaps pacing when she is getting geared up. Through the benefit of a relationship with her, I learn what triggers her, what situations may cause her to gear up, what to avoid, what to change, how to redirect her attention, what signs she displays when she is feeling uncomfortable, and so forth. Then I have the ability to try to get her involved in an activity that she finds reinforcing, and situations where she has the chance to gain something rewarding!

A busy beak is a happy, quiet beak.

Want a treat, little girl?!


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9 comments:

vi said...

i tend to change what i do with everyone here.... they are mostly all very good, and very well behaved but they do occasionally get in moods- i figure everyone has a bad day or a bad couple of weeks.....(like molt)
they all do eventually get right again

Arlene said...

Thanks for touching on this subject again. When one of my budgies starts yelling she wants a cheerio. She won't stop until she gets the cheerio. I've watched her and I can tell when she is about to start screaming. She'll start shifting from one foot to the other and do a little pace back and forth and then the yelling starts. I don't always want to give her a cheerio because she yells for one. So when I notice her shifting and pacing I walk over and talk to her and give her something else to do.
If that works and she happily engaged in some activity I'll go over and give her a cheerio.

Am I going in the right direction?

Arlene said...

p.s. Coco's goodie plate looks divine.
I'll bet she didn't know what to pick first. :)

Robin Cherkas said...

Absolutely, Arlene!!! A PLUS! She's getting a cheerio for doing what you want - being happily engaged in a different activity! She didn't have a fit, and that's what you wanted. Yeah!

Arlene said...

You taught me good Robin. Thanks. ;)

louara said...

My budgie is tame and pretty much well behaved, she rarely yells or squawks in anger. One behavior she has recently started though, is that she will not go inside her cage to go to bed. She would always put herself to bed in the past. (she is 5 yrs old) A few nights she was outside past midnight so I used treats to get her to go indoors. Did I make a mistake? I don't want to now start staying up so she will get a treat.
Thanks for the visuals Coco-you look amazing as usual!

Robin Cherkas said...

I don't think you made a mistake; you rewarded her for going into your cage which is a behavior you wanted/needed at the time. I would start much earlier with a bed time routine - something where the two of you can play near the cage, get millet or other treats she likes, and let it be a 'mommy and me' time that concludes with her going into the cage (on her own or for a treat. Then I would stay there with her, sing or do other things she likes (read, hang out - whatever she likes), so as not to create a direct correlation between her going in the cage and you leaving her for the night.

louara said...

Thanks Robin, that is great advice. Trouble is I work late hours, so I am not always the one to put her to bed at night. I will pass this info on to her other caregiver and hope it works.

Btw-Coco isn't the only one with a box project-Gracie-Mae is hard at work every afternoon this week on her "destroy the box" project. Thanks for the advice on that as well, she is really enjoying herself.

Drac2you said...

Wow! This is THE BEST ARTICLE I've EVER read on this subject. I've tried all the ignore, leave-the-room, shut-the-door, dirty looks, etc. suggested everywhere else I've researched this behaviour. I have a 30 y.o. blue-fronted Amazon male that has his tantrums whenever I'm not entertaining him or the centre of the universe (LOL). I'm going to try to get a plan in place ASAP based on THIS and this article ONLY!! Thank you sooo much, Robin, for FINALLY shedding the light on this annoying, potentially happy-home-ruining behaviour and how to stop it. :)

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