Common Behavior Problems Easily Solved With Target Training

When some people think of bird training, often the first thing that comes to mind is trick training. They envision the cute routine they saw at a theme park somewhere. While it is very beneficial to a bird to experience all types of training, for the average companion bird, training generally refers to “target or touch training” (aka clicker training).

Target training is a simple process in which a bird learns that when he touches a target stick presented by a trainer, he will earn a reward. It is an example of positive reinforcement training which helps build the human-bird bond while giving us a valuable tool with which to correct behavior problems.

The term target training is self-explanatory: it is the process that allows you to target your bird to different locations without force or bloodshed. Are the wheels beginning to turn yet?

The following are some of the most common behavioral concerns we are contacted about. Each of them are easily solved with basic target training.

“I can’t get my bird back into his cage!”

“I can’t get my bird out of the cage!”

“My bird won’t go into a carrier!”

Do these sound familiar? By positioning the target in a way that causes the bird to have to go into the cage or carrier to touch the target stick or by opening the cage door and positioning the stick outside the cage, your bird will be the one making the choice to go in or out, and you will no longer have to be the forceful bad guy!

“My bird won’t step up!”

If your bird is truly afraid of your hands, target training will not convince a bird to step up for you. The one thing that will override your bird’s desire for a treat is the concern for his safety. However, once you have established even the most basic training, you can use it to teach your bird that your hands are not something to be feared.

A few years ago Jamie did some work with a client’s Alexandrine parrot, “Rasta”, who had a fear of hands; a problem she solved completely with target training. In a series of steps which involved using the target to get him to slowly inch closer to a hand (held very still), Rasta slowly discovered that her hand meant him no harm. Once his comfort level increased, she started positioning the target in a way that prompted physical contact with her arm. Eventually, Rasta agreed to step onto her arm briefly to touch the target and earn the reward.

Targeting initiated a learning experience that taught Rasta that hands are not scary. This video demonstrates the final steps in his training.

It appears that the biggest obstacle people have with target training is getting started, or more precisely, getting their bird to get on board with the idea. A typical comment is, “I place my bird on the training perch, and he flies off before we ever begin.”

Sometimes people bribe their bird to stay put with the very treats they intend to use during training, and he is already filling up on the treat he was supposed to EARN. Full birds have no interest in treats, earned or otherwise, and there is no longer a reason for your bird to stick around.

Many people give up at this point convinced their bird isn’t interested in training. The truth is that the bird has not yet experienced training.

This is such a common complaint that I now automatically suggest that training begin with the bird in the cage. If your bird will come to you at the side of the cage to accept a treat, you are already on your way. Being inside the cage takes flight out of the equation, and his focus will on you and your activities at the side of his cage.

As long as you introduce the target stick in an acceptable way (so there is no fear of it) it is easier to get a caged bird to touch it so you can click and reward, and they can start to understand what training entails. Once your bird understands training and the benefits of it, he will be much more likely to remain on the perch for a session.

Our One Day Miracles course addresses these and other types of behavior problems that are solved with basic training.

Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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9 comments

sarah

I have a 25 year old cockatiel who was the sweetest bird all this time until, gradually over the last 5 years, he developed a nasty biting, rapidfire pecking behavior on my hands, neck, ears, and now face because he hates my husband. My husband wouldn’t listen to me when I told him to stop teasing my cockatiel without first bonding. He thinks it’s funny to watch him get mad. My cockatiel sits on the back of my husband’s computer chair and has associated his annoying enemy’s head with mine so my cockatiel won’t stop attacking me every time I slightly move my head away from stone-still. I’m afraid my jerking reflexes to his biting will get his head crushed with mine. It has forced me to shove my hand under my bird to take him off, which is making the problem infinitely worse. I’m not able to hand train my bird with food, as he hates my hands now. He has hated my hands early on in during this 5 year association. He used to eat from them. I’m beyond frustrated and my husband STILL won’t listen to me after all these years. My sweet cockatiel is ruined. I don’t know what to do.

sarah
Sharon Oliver

Hi, I have a 14 month old Quaker Parrot that has been target and clicker trained!!! He knows he gets a sunflower seed when he comes to me on request which is when he is on his training perch only!!! However when he lands up high like on a curtain rod!!! I can’t make him come to me I have the chopstick plus clicker and I show him the treat!!! He won’t budge!!! I end up getting a step ladder and have to actually man handle him back to his cage!!! What have I maybe done wrong? Many thanks Jamie and Dave I watch your blogs every day!!! And just wish there was someone in Australia that could help me!!!! He is so tame but he does get excited and bites sometimes but we ignore the behaviour even if it hurts!!! Awaiting for your expert opinion Regards your Aussie follower Sharon

Sharon Oliver
Cory Fortin

Hi I just adopted a 28 year old blue and gold macaw and she’s extremely terrified of water, how would you suggest I get her over this fear?

Cory Fortin
Wyatt Roberts

Hey guys! I run a pigeon control company in Phoenix — http://www.phoenixpigeons.com — and recently I brought home a pigeon that I found injured. I’m wondering if it’s possible for me to train him to be a family pet, and how advanced can you train the common pigeon to be?

Wyatt Roberts
Carole Winchell

I have a 9 mo. old baby African Grey with some tendencies to bite. A bird whisperer suggested to say ‘ow’ very loud and put the bird in the cage for a few minutes away from their favorite person, you, to help it remember it hurts that person. I has worked for me. I also follow the clicker training, which follows up the positive reinforcement.

Carole Winchell
Naomi Seymour

Hi guys! I have an Indian ringneck that is 9 weeks old. I ordered some of your dvd’s and also some online ones before I got him. Just wanted to let you know I started touch trainning with him on the second day I got him and he picked it up immediately. As soon as he sees that chopstick he comes my way. Such a great way to encourage him to come out of his cage or come to me where ever he is in the house. I have learnt so much from you guys. Thanks heaps :)

Naomi Seymour
Gabrielle

I have recently been given a parrot who is not hand rare and was locked is a small cage in a shed. I’ve taken him home and got him a bigger cage and he is very slowly interacting after a month he will take food from my hand but is still very nervous any tips welcome.

Gabrielle
Suzanne Haigh

A rescue cockatoo came to live with me abut 4 weeks ago. He quite friendly and will come for his treats, we are just starting clicker training, but the minute I attempt to let him out of his cage he goes for attack. I have to cover myself so when he does attack the bites are less damaging. I just wonder if you have any ideas what I can do please?.

Suzanne Haigh
Ellen Rosenthal

We have a new hand-raised parakeet (about 4.5 months old now). At first she was very friendly and easy to hold; she would sit on our shoulder, hand, etc. But she also seemed obsessed with nibbling and nibbling leads to biting. She will bite our shoulders, our fingers, etc, for no good reason, after nibbling for a little while. When we try to remove the bird from the body part that she is biting, she squawks and seems very angry. This is causing us concern because we just don’t know what to do about it. Is there a chance that she will outgrow this behavior? Your advice on here seems focused on getting birds to do something, whereas we are trying to get our bird to STOP doing something.

Ellen Rosenthal

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