Romeo paints No. 19

Original art painted by a horse.

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The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward

Installment 3: Hooves & Feathers
Feb 6, 2007

By deciding to train DaVinci without having him attached to me by a halter and lead rope or contained in a small area, I’m basically training him as if he is a wild bird. I want to give him the space to fly away if he needs to. (from Installment 2: Wings)

To further explore this concept, I asked an avian trainer and educator to share her thoughts about my approach with DaVinci. Below is an interview with Cassie Malina, Vice President of The International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators and Supervisor at Steve Martin's Natural Encounters, Inc.

Cheryl Ward: How did you get started training birds?

Cassie Malina: From as early as I can remember, I wanted to work with animals. I was mostly mammal oriented until I took an Ornithology course at The Pennsylvania State University. The class literally opened up my world. Where I was once able to study outside, I could no longer concentrate for the bird songs were deafening. I had to stop my work and locate and identify any bird I heard. I went nowhere without my binoculars and field guide.

Right after college I applied for and was lucky enough to acquire a job with NEI (Natural Encounters, Inc.). During the interview, I actually asked them what animals other than birds I would have the opportunity to work with. They said "rats." Well, I would soon come to know the enormity of this opportunity to work with "just birds." Realize first that there are somewhere around 9,000 bird species worldwide.  From my meager experience as a zoo keeper, I had already learned that each animal is an individual. So, each individual of the many species we work with multiplied by the number of species we work with, at least 65 different species, well, you can imagine the opportunity I fell into. Needless to say, 8.5 years later, I can't think of a more amazing group of animals to be fortunate enough to work with. Oh, and by the way, all our birds are fully flighted! Imagine the sensitivity needed to succeed in training an animal that can fly away if you're not successful!

In your work with birds what type of training seems the most effective and why?

Operant Conditioning training—with a strong emphasis on Positive Reinforcement training—is by far the most effective. When you are training animals that can fly away, you must build positive relationships based on trustworthy, honest, two-way communication. By staying positive, and giving the birds the choice to perform or not, the results are endless.

Every time one uses positive reinforcement, one makes a deposit into the trust account they have with the animal they are training. Every time one uses negative reinforcement or punishment they take a withdrawal from that trust account. If your deposits are substantial, you can take a withdrawal in emergency situations and it will not ruin your relationship with the animal you are training. However, if your withdrawals outweigh your deposits, if you train with negative reinforcement and punishment, your account will be bankrupt and you will not be able to effectively train that animal using positive means because there is no consistent trust or honest communication of positive outcomes. Your bird just might fly away!

In your demonstrations and bird shows, you release birds of prey who fly amazing distances and then return to you. They are obviously not attached to any kind of device nor in an enclosure nor wearing shock collars. I read that you haven't lost a bird yet. What motivates the bird to return to you?

What motivates a bird to return to us are the basic principles behind training with Positive Reinforcement. First, we never make a bird do anything it does not want to do. We ask them and reward them with positive reinforcement, often a primary reinforcer of their favorite treat. If they choose not to perform, we disappear with our reinforcement and return later to try again.

This is the basis of what we call the "window of opportunity." The "window of opportunity" is what I believe to be the mildest form of negative punishment and it often has dramatic results. Our birds have a very short window of opportunity to respond to our cues for behavior before the "mouse goes down the hole," just as it would in the wild.

This ties into the second principle of varying our reinforcements. When our birds perform the desired behavior, they receive a different treat each time. That treat will vary in type and amount and the birds will not know what it will be until they have completed the desired behavior.

Additionally, as part of our two-way communication with our birds, every time we give them a cue, or request a behavior, we look to their body language for a response and we respond accordingly. We rarely get bit by our parrots because we heed their subtle communications, the flicker of a pupil or the sudden re-positioning of the feathers. If we do get bit or injured by any of our birds, we fully admit it is our fault for not correctly responding to the bird's body language that preceded the bite or injury.

What are the advantages of allowing birds in captivity the advantage of free flight, for the bird and for you?

It depends on the situation. With companion parrots, if the parrots are highly enriched by their owners and receive all the basic necessities of the species, including opportunities to explore their environment and make choices to control outcomes, free flight might not be an advantage. There are many things that can go wrong when a companion parrot owner, unskilled in the nuances of free flight training, allows their parrot to fly free. Foremost, the bird may fly away. Birds, like all animals, have a fight or flight instinct. A bird's primary instinct is flight. If a companion parrot gets outside and is unfamiliar with its new surroundings, its flight instinct might take it quickly into the next county. Also, if unsupervised in the home, it might fall victim to a stove, toilet, or ceiling fan accident.

If you are discussing birds in a zoo environment, then again you must see if all the other needs of the species are being met. Wild birds fly to gain food and territory and to avoid predators. Flight is a high-energy behavior and one that wild birds do not weigh lightly. Therefore, again, there might not be an advantage to animals flying in zoo exhibits.

Now, if you are discussing birds in free flight programs, there are several advantages. One is the advantage to the audience of having a wild animal whisk just inches above their head. Confucius said, "Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand." How better to inspire appreciation for wildlife than with free-flight birds?

Another advantage of free-flying is the enrichment value to the birds. They have the opportunity to earn a living and gain a primary reinforcement by performing required behaviors, just as they would in the wild. Their brains are constantly stimulated by the choices and consequences they face.

The advantages for me are extraordinary. I feel like Dr. Doolittle. I can talk to the animals! If there is miscommunication, they might fly away! What a wonderfully high level of training sensitivity and respect for the animal I must have to be so successful!

Do you think there is any validity in attempting to train a horse as if it were a bird, capable of flying away? What would the benefits be for the horse? Would there be any benefits for me as the handler?

Absolutely! Training free-flight birds requires the highest level of training sensitivity in that a mistake might mean the bird flies away. If one applies this highest level of sensitivity to any animal they train the results will be astounding. Assuming your animal would fly away, forces you to use positive strategies. And, the by-product of training with positive reinforcement is an animal that looks forward to and enjoys every interaction with their trainer. An animal trained with positive reinforcement does not exhibit the side effects of negative reinforcement and punishment training which include fear, apathy, and escape and avoidance behaviors. You cannot force a free-flighted bird to do anything it does not want it to do. Why should you force any animal to do anything it does not want to do? All animals are most confident and receptive when they feel they have power over their environment. The relationship between the animal and handler is extraordinarily positive and rewarding for both when positive reinforcement strategies are used.

In your opinion, can a horse be trained from groundwork through under saddle using predominately positive reinforcement? (This would include accepting a halter, leading, standing for the farrier, tying, trailer loading, as well as walk, stop, back, canter, etc.) And can they be taught to accept cues from a rider without first having been trained with negative reinforcement, or pressure-release?

I don't fully understand all of the lingo but I think the answer is yes. I think, however, you would have to first train the behaviors while not on the horse, get them all on cue, maybe verbal or touch cues. This way, you could train with all positive—for example, luring and targeting—and no negative or pressure. Then, you'd have to generalize the cues to be given from on the horse's back rather than standing near the horse. You could have a verbal and touch cue for the same behavior too. There can be, and often are, several cues for the same behavior. Remember, however, that there should not be one cue for more than one behavior.

I think it would be hard to train these behaviors positively from on the horse's back unless you use your target and pair it with different verbal cues for each different targeted behavior. I see that working for a left or right turn but more difficult for a forward or backward movement. But, it's all based on your creativity! Don't underestimate the animal's intelligence to learn interesting and subtle cues. Hard only means challenging, not impossible! Don't forget about Clever Hans!

[Editor's note: Clever Hans was a horse that was claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks. After formal investigation in 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reaction of his human observers and responding directly to involuntary cues in the body language of the human trainer, who had the faculties to solve each problem. The trainer was entirely unaware that he was providing such cues. –Wikipedia]

Is negative reinforcement necessary? I mean, I understand it's a removal of something to increase behavior, but it's the human that's placing/adding the pressure to be removed in the first place. So why would the horse trust the one who's creating stress for the horse?

I don't think it's necessarily required. However, we should also talk about punishment. It gets a bit confusing. But remember that some negative reinforcement and some punishment are very subtle and not so 'negative.' Also, negative reinforcement and punishment are alive and well in the lives of wild animals. They make choices, and the consequences of those choices, whether positive or negative, will dictate their future choices.  For example, remember that a time out, which is an amazing training tool, is negative punishment. This is the essence of what NEI calls the "window of opportunity." You take away the cue (opportunity to earn reinforcement) and the behavior of not responding decreases. Also, remember negative reinforcement and positive punishment are always linked. For one behavior to start, another has stopped.

The classic example is the pulling on the horse's reins. The horse is moving forward, you pull the reins, the horse stops. The behavior of moving forward decreases (punishment) because you added the rein pull (positive punishment). The behavior of not moving forward or remaining still or stopping is increased (reinforcement) because the horse is avoiding the rein pull (negative reinforcement). When the horse stops, the negative rein pull is taken away.

There is also a training strategy some trainers have used with success that is solely based on positive reinforcement. The successive approximations or steps in the training plan are so small that the animal does not have the opportunity to make a mistake. While this works, there is also value in allowing an animal to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. This is, remember, how life is in the wild. A hawk takes too long to go after a mouse, the mouse goes down the hole and the hawk reacts faster the next time. A parrot eats a berry that makes it sick and it does not eat that same berry and, sometimes, similar berries again.

In the training world, when an animal performs a behavior incorrectly, the reinforcement is withheld, the cue is given again, and the behavior is reinforced when performed correctly. Sometimes the trainer has to go back to a previous step to remind the animal of the correct behavior before moving on. This more closely mirrors life in the wild and therefore, in my opinion, is more enriching in that it truly allows the animal to make choices and control outcomes. Remember, again, that withholding reinforcement is a form of punishment in that the incorrect behavior is decreased. This is the interplay of positive reinforcement and negative punishment at work.

What do you think is one of the most important things to remember when working with any animal?

I believe there are several important things to remember. Here are just a few:

Treat every animal as an individual. A training strategy that works with one individual may have to be tweaked when working with another individual of the same species.

Treat the animal with respect and have a channel of honest, two-way communication built on a high level of sensitivity to the animal's body language.

Keep it positive. Avoid worrying about what an animal should not do and focus on training the animal to do the behavior they should do using positive reinforcement techniques.

Repetition, repetition, repetition! Repetition of a behavior builds confidence in the animal and it builds a positive reinforcement history. The more you do something, the better at it you get. Remember, however, that this works with both desirable and undesirable behaviors. For example, the more an animal practices aggression and gets reinforced for it (the trainer retreats) the better at demonstrating aggressive behaviors the animal gets.

Have a training plan and use successive approximations [steps in the training plan]. Move on to the next approximation only when the animal performs the required step without hesitation.

Remember, a behavior that is repeated has been reinforced.

A behavior that is not reinforced (by anything) should eventually extinguish itself.

Every interaction you have with an animal is a training session!

Have fun!!!

Note from Cheryl:

I'm personally in awe of Cassie's experience and insight. I'm very grateful for this interview. Thank you so much Cassie!

To read more about Cassie and her work at Natural Encounters, Inc., click here.

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© 2004-2007 Cheryl Ward & Sam Sharnik
Last updated January 10, 2009