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Model-Rival Training Technique

Learn about the model-rival training technique as used by Dr. Irene Pepperberg in her work with Alex, the African grey parrot.

Lisa A. Bono
Posted: January 21, 2011, 4:30 p.m. PST

Alex the African grey with Dr. Pepperberg
© Arlene Levin Rowe, The Alex Foundation
Dr. Irene Pepperberg used the model-rival technique with Alex, a Congo African grey parrot.

At one point, it was believed that dominance was the key to training a parrot. From studies by Dr. Irene M. Pepperberg with the African grey parrots Alex, Arthur and Griffin, we have now learned how truly intelligent and sentient the African grey parrot is. If we can understand the African grey parrot mind, we can learn how to work with these parrots.

Dr. Pepperberg developed her label-training procedure by modifying the Model-Rival system developed by Dr. Dietmar Todt. Todt’s teaching method used two people to play the part of parrot peers in the wild.  For example, a bird sees people handling a targeted item. One person trains the second (the model/rival) by presenting and asking questions about the item (e.g., "What color?”).The trainer rewards correct responses with the item, showing referential, functional label use, respectively, by providing 1:1 correspondence between label and item, and modeling label use as a means to get the item.

The second person is a model for a bird’s responses and its rival for a trainer’s attention, and also illustrates aversive consequences of errors. After garbled/incorrect responses, trainers briefly hide the item and scold the model/rival, who is told to speak clearly or try again; a bird thus observes "corrective feedback.” A bird is included in interactions and initially rewarded for attempting a correct response; training is thus adjusted to its level. Model/rival and trainer reverse roles to show that either can use interactions to request information or effect environmental change. Without role reversal, birds exhibit behavior inconsistent with interactive, referential communication: They neither transfer responses to anyone other than the human who queries them during training, nor learn both queries and answers. 

Through the years, Pepperberg has used different people for training versus the formal testing needed in her research.

Here’s an example of a training session from The Alex Studies, in which Pepperberg and Bruce Rosen (secondary trainer) are trying to improve Alex’s pronunciation of the label "five.”

Dr. Pepperberg (acting as trainer): "Bruce, what’s this?”

Rosen (acting as model/rival): "Five wood.”

Alex looking at blocks
© The Alex Foundation
By 1978, a little over a year since Dr. Pepperberg started working with him, Alex showed an 80 percent accuracy rate in labeling seven objects. He also began to learn colors

Dr. Pepperberg: "That’s right, five wood. Here you are … five wood.” Here, Pepperberg would hand over five wooden craft sticks to Rosen, who begins to break one apart, much as Alex would.

Alex (acting as parrot): "’ii wood.”

Rosen (Now acting as trainer, he quickly replaces the broken stick and presents the five sticks to Alex.): "Better…” (Rosen briefly turns away then repositions himself in visual contact with Alex): "… how many?”

Alex: "No!”

Rosen turns from Alex to establish visual contact with Dr. Pepperberg and asks: "Irene, what’s this?” (Presents sticks)

Pepperberg (now acting as model/rival): "... ’ii wood.”

Bruce: "Better…” (Bruce turns away from Dr. Pepperberg, then resumes eye contact with her) "…how many?”

Dr. Pepperberg: "Five wood” (takes wooden sticks) "…five wood.” (Now Dr. Pepperberg acts as trainer again, directs her gaze to Alex and presents the sticks to him) "…how many wood?”

Alex: "Fife wood.”

Dr. Pepperberg: "OK, Alex, close enough … fivvvvve wood … here’s five wood. (She places one stick in Alex’s beak and the others within close reach.)

Choosing to work with your Afican grey using the Model-Rival technique is a serious undertaking. You must set aside time on a daily basis to facilitate their learning. A hit and miss approach will not be successful. Start slow with one or two short training sessions (recommended 5 minutes each). You can increase frequency and length gradually as your grey begins to learn. Each bird is an individual and there is no set time frame in which it will learn. Keep in mind that Alex started out the same way, and we are all aware of how incredibly educated he became with the training, understanding and dedication of the people around him.
Sadly , in September of 2007 the world learned of Alex’s passing. Dr. Pepperberg and Alex’s relationship lasted for more than 30 years, and her work continues with Arthur and Griffin using the Model-Rival Technique. 

For more information on the Model-Rival Technique or The Alex Foundation, please visit

Find out more about Irene Pepperberg and her work with Alex in this video:

More on Alex here:
Life With Alex DVD Features Never-Before-Seen Footage Of The World-Renowned Parrot
Avian Community Mourns Loss of Pioneering Parrot

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Model-Rival Training Technique

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Reader Comments
Alex was a fomous parrot. I have been aware of him for years. I also bought a book about Alex on
William, San Francisco, CA
Posted: 1/14/2014 1:52:03 PM
This article only begins to tell a little about Alex. I got to watch a video that was made of Alex and his training. It was truly impressive. One of the things I learned from Dr. Pepperberg is the importance of keeping a bird in learning mode. When in this mode the process seems to accelerate. Advances can go from months to weeks or even days. When we slack off so do our birds.
Charles, Orlando, FL
Posted: 6/5/2013 8:15:37 AM
i remember reading about alex's death. i was so sad :( but he definitely was an amazing creature!
Gabby, San Diego, CA
Posted: 6/4/2013 10:05:59 PM
Just amazing. I'm always wondering just what my bird might be thinking. Gotta love those birdies.
janet, henderson, NV
Posted: 9/7/2012 7:03:19 AM
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