Positive reinforcement vs Force free – is there a difference?

So many people have taken to training animals using positive reinforcement techniques and nothing makes me happier. Many people refer to themselves as “positive reinforcement trainers” and that is absolutely fine. But what does that really mean?
Many people, including some popular internet personalities, use positive reinforcement to teach their birds all kinds of cool tricks. Makes sense, since positive reinforcement works! But in many cases, that is not all that is going on.

This Kea is trained with positive reinforcement to participate in important research.

This Kea is trained with positive reinforcement to participate in important research.

For example, there is one video on youtube where a positive reinforcement trainer shows the viewer how to teach a parrot the “wings”-trick, which consist of the bird spreading it’s wings on cue. In the video, it is explained how there are many ways to get this behavior, like perching the bird on your hand and then lowering/dropping it quickly to make the bird loose it’s balance and spread it’s wings. The other example, which is the way the bird in the video is being trained, is by poking the birds wings with your index fingers until it is uncomfortable enough to lift it’s wings. After doing this, the spreading of wings is positively reinforced using a treat.

Two grey parrots being reinforced with treats for desired behavior

Two grey parrots being reinforced with treats for desired behavior

So what’s happened here? While we have indeed used a valued resource to positively reinforce a desired behavior, lot’s of other things have happened too. We have also used negative reinforcement; adding an aversive stimulus, and then removing it when the bird does what we want. This can definitely work, but also has the potential to make the bird uncomfortable and affect our relationship negatively. At some point, we have decided that teaching a specific trick is more important to us than the well being and trust of our bird. Here is where force free trainers differ from other positive reinforcement trainers.

Good relationships with are animals are so important. It enables mutual trust and makes everything more fun, both for us and our animals!

Good relationships with are animals are so important. It enables mutual trust and makes everything more fun, both for us and our animals!

For a force free trainer, the well-being of animals come first. For us, increasing wellfare is the whole reason we do this training thing to begin with. We use knowledge about how learning happens to train animals using a “most effective, least intrusive”-approach, no matter if it is a “silly trick” or working on a behavior problem. We also take on a more holistic approach to the relationships we have with our animals; recognizing that ALL interactions are training opportunities and can potentially affect both the wellfare of the birds and our mutual relationship. This means we also work proactively to reduce stress and minimize the situations in which we potentially have to put our birds through things they do not like. This is done for example by teaching them skills that will aid us in taking care of them, like voluntarily accepting medicine from a syringe, feeling comfortable in a towel, going back to the cage when we ask them or participating in a voluntary nail trims. It can also mean teaching them skills like letting go of stuff on cue, and other things which enables us to avoid using any kind of force (like forcefully prying an item out of their beaks) in our daily lives together; all using positive reinforcement techniques.

These lorikeets live in a huge flight aviary and are not tame. Yet, since we only use force free methods, we are able to teach them how to station using positive reinforcement in a way that makes them want to participate. Instead of capturing them with a net, we can now get their weights and give them medicine without any stress at all.

These lorikeets live in a huge flight aviary and are not tame. Yet, since we only use force free methods, we are able to teach them how to station using positive reinforcement in a way that makes them want to participate. Instead of capturing them with a net, we can now get their weights and give them medicine without any stress at all.

Therefore i think it is important to be critical of what you see, especially now when the internet is bursting with tutorials and trainers claiming they have all the know-hows, even if they claim to be positive reinforcement trainers. Same goes in the dog world where many people refer to themselves as “positive trainers” since they use treats and toys as rewards, but on the other hand have no problem with slapping an e-collar on a dog and using methods that are not compatible with high wellfare standards. Reflect on this and make sure to ask yourself what kind of trainer you want to be, and realize that just because someone has success in training one or several birds, that does not necessarily make everything they do/advocate best practice when it comes to wellfare.
And most importantly: always ask yourself how your bird feels about your interactions. If you want to teach him or her a certain behavior but can’t figure out how to do it without using aversives, no matter how small, reflect on whether it’s really worth it. And think some more on how to do it, because there is pretty much always a force free way to go about things!

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