Teaching a Parrot to Learn

I had a lengthy conversation with a friend the other day about some behavioral problems he is experiencing with a new bird in his flock. We talked about the difficulties he is facing in trying to lay the groundwork for dealing with these problems. His bird has never experienced training, and in fact, has never been properly socialized. It is in the habit of biting right off the bat to get its message across without first issuing any warnings. This technique has always worked for the bird in the past and it sees no point in changing its ways in its new home.

In the course of our conversation, we discussed how important the training environment was to this bird’s success.  We discussed that the “training environment” included the attitude and mindset of the trainer, and will ultimately affect the bird’s willingness to cooperate.  I thought you might benefit from what we concluded from our discussion:

Check your ego at the door…

In order to successfully work with a parrot, you have to relinquish the idea that you are in control. You will never control such an intelligent, willful and creative creature, nor should you ever want to. The closest you will come is in the control of a situation, and, in fact, your parrot will often look to you for direction in this area.

A big mistake people often make when training a behavior, or dealing with a behavior problem, is by starting with the idea that there is a battle of wills to be won (by you). A training and learning experience should be viewed as a challenge, not a conquest. In the end, everyone should have grown and gained something worthwhile.

Chet used a wonderful exercise in one of his seminars where he tried to clicker train an audience member to perform an unknown task. There are two things to be learned from that video:

1) Even we big-brained mammals can struggle through this method of learning, even with the advantage of having entered into it knowing we were there to learn something, and expecting the clicker to guide us.

2) It felt to me that the student was distracted by the setting which hindered the ability to focus. These are two important considerations when you are creating the environment in which you will teach your bird.

You will serve the whole process better if you really think things through before you begin. Be the teacher and the student. Consider being a parrot that has never experienced training before:  your owner sets you on a perch and expects you to sit still while he tries to convey something to you. Problem is, your a parrot. You don’t know that you are expected to sit still or understand that something follows. Before you teach your bird anything, you must teach it to accept the training process and understand its reluctance and confusion.

Both teaching AND learning is an art. Just as the teacher has to know the best way to reach and encourage an individual, the student must understand that there is value in the education. It is very difficult to teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, even with the enticement of a reward.  And if the experience is so off-putting that the reward is not worthwhile, nothing will ever be accomplished.


Setting everyone up for success…

Are YOU in the right frame of mind to provide an experience conducive to learning?  As the teacher, the responsibility for the outcome of the first few trainings rests squarely on your shoulders. Showing impatience or disappointment at this early stage will only serve to make the experience unpleasant for your bird and impede your progress. It is through repetition and consistency that your bird will learn, and creating that want has to come from you.

Remember to always set your bird up for success by taking the teaching and learning to a place that is quiet and perceived as safe by your bird. Distractions made by other birds, animals and family members will set the process back each time it occurs.  Noises and constantly opening doors will be detrimental to your bird’s willingness to focus, and frustrating to you each time you have to begin again. Training is cooperative effort at its finest, and will set the stage for an enriching learning experience that you will both come to look forward to.

Author 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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