Planning and practice are key to successfully training your parrot

Sunny the parrot sinks one. (photo courtesy Parrotdise Perch)

Sunny the parrot sinks one. (photo courtesy Parrotdise Perch)

By Kathleen Grey

In the Summer 2013 issue of Citizen Pet, strategies were discussed about how to solve behaviour problems in parrots. Now, here are some fun ways to change unwanted behaviours.

Become a better trainer
Becoming a better trainer only requires planning and practice. Set up an area away from distractions where you will do the training. Using a clicker, practice the delivery of the reward, usually food. I use a small plastic measuring cup in one hand with the clicker attached to the handle. This keeps my other hand free to move props around. Sudden movements may startle a bird, however, if the delivery of the reward is too slow they could lose interest or the cup with the treats could become the centre of attention. You can hide the cup with your hand to avoid this.

Planning is as important as the training session itself
With proper planning you can avoid common mistakes. The ideal training period is 15 minutes. An experienced trainer can teach a parrot to play basketball in this time. Start a training log and record your plan.

What are you going to use for a reward?
You want to choose something that is easy to deliver, can be cut up into small pieces and will motivate your parrot to repeat the behaviour for more. This can be tiny millet seeds or a favourite nut chopped into small pieces. The objective is for your parrot to spend more time learning a behaviour and much less time eating. Once your parrot is full they will no longer be interested. Avoid in-shell seeds or any food that needs to be manipulated so they can eat quickly and move on to the next step.

What behaviour are you going to train?
Keep it simple, such as putting a ball in a cup or a ring on a peg. Consider how you are going to shape this behaviour. For starters you will need to prime the clicker, that is, clearly associate the clicker with the reward so your parrot understands that the click means treats. Start your shaping plan with a click and reward four to six times before setting any props on the table.

How to shape a behaviour
When beginning to shape any behaviour you want to reward the smallest movement towards the goal behaviour. For example, if training a parrot to pick up a ball and put it in a cup, the following behaviours are deserving of a click and reward: look at the ball, raise a foot in the direction of the ball, step towards the ball, two steps towards the ball, walk over to and stand at the ball, put a beak on the ball, pick up the ball, etc.

You will also want to repeat the beginning steps several times, delaying the click and reward for the advanced behaviour as you get closer to shaping the final goal. We touched upon the “extinction burst” or temper tantrum response in the previous issue about eliminating unwanted behaviour. We can use this to our advantage when we want an animal to do something bigger or higher simply by withholding the click and reward for the behaviour that was previously reinforced. To get the ball held higher delay the click and reward just enough to get a small increase in height. Ultimately your parrot will walk from the starting point to the ball, pick it up and put it in the cup for one click and reward. Once your parrot perfects the trick, you can start intermittently reinforcing. This is the strongest form of reinforcement. You can also change the rewards to praise, head scritches, or other treats.

Writing out a shaping plan will help avoid clicking for the wrong behaviours. The plan establishes your criteria for rewarding and helps you keep focused on exactly what your criteria is at each stage of the training session. It is easy to accidentally click at the wrong time, perhaps just as your bird turns its head to look at you. A click at the wrong moment is your mistake, not your parrot’s. So if you click at the wrong time, reward your parrot, then promise yourself to never click at the wrong time again.

Novice trainers are always amazed at both the ease of training and the enjoyment their parrot gets from the training sessions. It’s a great way to spend one on one time with your parrot. Keep it simple, keep it positive and have fun.

Watch for the Winter issue of Citizen Pet where Kathleen will discuss advanced training techniques and training for medical applications.

—Kathleen Grey is the owner of Parrotdise Perch, the largest parrot specialty store in Canada, with locations in Calgary and Mississauga, ON. Visit www.parrotdiseperch.com.