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.
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.