These days, it seems that everybody can become an expert in training parrots (or other animals) for behaviors. It certainly feels that way, with the proliferation of videos, articles, websites, and quick-to-digest information promoted by the Internet and on parrot chat lists. Some people try to make a business out of it, recycling well-known concepts into shining packages marketed as new, which command high price tags. In other cases the advice is free and provided by well-meaning individuals or organizations who genuinely want to help caregivers to better understand their companion parrots, but who may end up providing incorrect or misleading information.
Will the real “experts” please stand up?
Animal behavior training is a science. It has a specific name: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). The latter was developed in the 1950s by Prof. B.F. Skinner, a psychologist at Harvard. ABA was first brought out of the lab into real life by Skinner’s graduate students Keller and Marion Breland, and later by Bob Bailey and others. First off then, animal behavior training is an applied science.
As with all scientific information, ABA and training principles are free for all to understand, use, and disseminate. However, this power comes with responsibilities.
The first is that original references need to be acknowledged. Nobody can claim others’ work as their own. In some cases the concepts are so mainstream that the original reference to their discoverer(s) is no longer necessary (e.g., the law of gravity). Taking well-known principles and concepts, repackaging them, and selling them as new is unethical, simply because it is a fraud.
Another very serious responsibility of the teacher and practitioner of science concepts, and thus the ABA teacher and practitioner, is quality control. Unfortunately, contrary to other sciences like astrophysics, for example, ABA comes across as “easy”, as “common sense”. Most of us fall into the trap, after hearing professionals like Dr. Susan Friedman speak, of thinking that we understand the material and can teach it to others. However, just like a physics or chemistry concept, it takes a long time to really digest ABA to a level such that one can really explain it to others. Teaching is not a mere repetition of what is written on a slide; teaching means customizing the information to the particular person or animal in front of you, being flexible enough to mold that information to fit the audience’s pace and ability to follow while at the same time keeping the message intact. One truly has to own the concept in all its hidden layers before reaching this skill. For some of us it takes more than a lifetime of practice.
Indeed, distortion of the science is the risk we are facing today with the Internet proliferation of self-made, self-anointed, and especially self-supervised teachers and trainers of animal behaviors.
That’s when continued, guided study and practice with the professionals is essential. This is because of two reasons: 1) with time the acquired notions tend to fade or to dilute. Being mentored by a professional lessens the chances of this happening; and 2) the professional can keep us up-to-date on the latest developments in the field – and science progresses fast! What is held true today may be disfavored tomorrow as new evidence comes into light.
So how do we recognize the true “experts” in the room? Never be afraid of asking for qualifications, and checking them. A true “expert” will be glad and actually eager to provide them. Continued education, and close mentorship of respected, well-known professionals in the field is paramount. The “expert” will also be able to provide up-to-date references to their work and solid, fact-based evidence to back up their assertions. The “expert” will not be afraid to answer questions with “I do not know, but I will find out for you”, and then will do it. Courtesy, reliability, and accuracy are also trademarks of the “expert”, as is willingness to share freely their knowledge.
We at AEF believe that the real “experts” in any field are also perpetual students. There is always someone who knows more than we do. The trick is to find this person, and learn as much as possible from them.
Please join us at the AEF Symposium and Dr. Susan Friedman’s Living and Learning Workshop on July 18-19, 2009 for an opportunity to learn from the real experts and further your understanding of the science of behavior.