This is an article that I wrote for one of my bird forums.  Not about show dogs particularly, but about changing behavior in animals in general.

I am writing this post because I come across this statement both on internet forums and in real life as a behavior consultant.

Many times when people complain about problem behaviors in their animals (regardless of species) and are given advice they respond that “they have tried that and it didn’t work”. It is important to keep in mind that in order for our animals behavior to change we have to change our own behavior. As a species, we tend to blame the issues on someone else. The bird is being (insert any label here) hormonal, dominant, mean, jealous, stubborn, etc. when the fact is that the behavior has simply been reinforced (consequences) and the stage has been set for the bird to do it (antecedents). As owners we can control and change antecedents and consequences. In other words, the behavior is sandwiched between two things that change behavior, both of which we can control.

When people tell me that they tried something already and it “didn’t work”, I don’t usually have to look far to see why it didn’t work. While not every solution will work for every animal, learning theory doesn’t change from individual to individual or even from species to species. Learning theory remains the same across the board. Functional analysis (antecedent-behavior-consequence) remains the same across the board. So, it isn’t that it simply doesn’t work for that animal, it usually means that there is a problem with how it’s being executed.

How a behavior modification or training plan is executed is important. The skill of the trainer comes into play here. For some things, the timing is critical and if it’s not right the bird will be confused and may be reinforced or punished for the wrong thing. For instance, let’s say that a person asks their bird to step up and the bird bites the owner’s hand, which causes the owner to pull their hand away. The bird was probably reinforced for biting. The owner is upset so then asks the bird to step up onto a stick which the bird does and then puts the bird in a time out to negatively punish the behavior. What message could the bird be getting? Probably that biting makes hands go away when he doesn’t want to step up and that he got timed out in his cage for stepping up on the stick. It is important and critical even to look at what happens just before (antecedent) and just after (consequence) a behavior to determine if and how it can be modified.

Another problem with owner’s execution is with extinction. We know that any behavior that is not reinforced will go away or go extinct. There are some exceptions like if the behavior is a response to stress. If a bird is screaming because he is not getting enough attention, exercise or enrichment then that screaming will not likely go away from ignoring the bird. In this case, the screaming is a symptom of being ignored and is a sign of stress. But, in cases where the bird’s needs are met and the bird is screaming for attention ignoring the bird will cause the screaming to go extinct or go away. This is one where people constantly say “we tried ignoring him and it didn’t work”. The fact is, while they may have tried ignoring the bird, they simply didn’t do it long enough. If the bird has learned that screaming brings the outcome of attention, any attention, the bird will keep screaming. Once the owner starts to ignore the screaming to extinguish the behavior, the bird will have an extinction burst which is when the behavior gets worse before it gets better. Many times it is during the extinction burst that the owner caves because the screaming gets worse and they can’t cope with it which only cements the behavior even further. The bird has now been taught that if they just keep pushing and persisting, the desired outcome will eventually happen.

When a behavior has a strong reinforcement history meaning that the animal has practiced doing something and then getting the desired outcome for a long time, the behavior will be more resistant to extinction.

In the case of screaming, another thing that happens is that the owner “thinks” they are ignoring the behavior, but they aren’t. Birds (and dogs) are very good at reading our body language and some of our body language can unintentionally reinforce behavior. I once had clients who had an American Bulldog who would bark at their back door and they said they couldn’t get her to stop. She was a big, goofy funny dog and just looking at her made you smile. I asked them if they ever laughed while she did it, they said “yes, all the time”. Bingo! When a bird is screaming for attention and the owner is attempting to ignore it, there are a million things the owner could do to reinforce it including, but certainly not limited to flinching, covering their ears, looking in the direction of the cage, turning up the TV, etc, etc. So, keep in mind that the animal, not us, get to decide what is reinforcing and you may have to look at other things going on.

The fact is, extinction can take some time. A bird who has been screaming for attention for 2 years is not going to miraculously stop after 10 minutes of being ignored because there is too much reinforcement history that has supported the behavior. The bottom line is, it takes time. I am not saying it’s not frustrating, I wouldn’t want to try and ignore a screaming bird for 2 hours, but I didn’t make the rules, science did. It isn’t always fun, but it IS the way it is.

So, keep in mind that if a behavior modification plan feels like it isn’t working, you may need to adjust how you are doing things. You may need to wait longer. You may need to adjust how you are putting the plan into action. You may need modify the consequences or adjust the antecedent, but you will get there.


Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.