Clicker Training Your Parrot to Modify Behavior

No Bad Birds

The celebrated British dog trainer, Barbara Woodhouse, once started a dog training revolution by titling one of her well-known books “No Bad Dogs”. If only we could get our parrot owners to say the same thing! Other exotic animal pets also have their fair share of complaints. In this article, we will use birds as our primary example, but the principles mentioned apply to many different types of pet.

Screeching GreyMany bird owners, particularly those who are inexperienced, tend to assign blame to a pet parrot for behaviors such as screaming, biting, messiness, or destructive chewing within the house. Parrot owners need to be prepared and educated to deal with problems. “Forewarned is forearmed” never rang truer than in this business! No need to scare away potential owners either. Just remember that by putting a natural perspective on all types of parrot behaviors, owners are more likely to understand the parrot’s point of view. We all need to be “parrot whisperers”. This means that we need to speak and understand the language of the parrot, and not just the vocal cues. You want your customer to be happy with the bird they have selected. You need the owner and the parrot to be happy or they will dispose of the pet eventually. This will result in the loss of a potential long-term customer.

Behavior Problems – Your Real Loss Leader

Reduced revenue from lost pet business isn’t always a matter of margin. Did you know that the biggest cause by far of the failure to keep a pet is not death due to illness or injury? Nor are the majority of pets lost because they have escaped, ran away, or been stolen. Allergies aren’t the issue either. Sadly, the number one reason for the failure to keep a pet is that owners simply stop wanting the animal. The pet was noisy, it scratched the kids, it destroyed the house, it was boring, it did not form a successful relationship with the owner or family.

Ask any shelter worker how many dogs are euthanized annually because the owners could not cope with the dog, or ask animal rescue workers how many poorly socialised ‘problem’ pets are literally thrown out into the street. If the owner(s) have a happy relationship with their pet, they will keep it and spend money on it. But how can owners be encouraged to develop that happy relationship? Interaction with the pet is a key aspect. Parrots that are asked to come out of the cage on a daily basis, and that can do tricks or make special sounds on command are obviously much more likely to become a treasured member of the family than a parrot that must be confined to his cage and represents a “task” rather than a joy. The parrots that fall into the latter category often end up in the classified ads, garage sales, or rescue centers after having been passed around from one unsuitable home to the next.

New Training Opportunities

Fortunately, there have been significant advances in the techniques by which owners can communicate with (and manage) their pets. Currently, all those in the pet industry should be familiar with the latest interactive training program for dogs, horses, many exotics, small animals, and birds – it’s called Clicker Training. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s fun, and it has already taken the world of pet training by storm. Clicker training  your parrot can be employed both to solve problem behaviors and to teach the bird tricks. Clicker Training is an accessible, highly focused refinement of a well-established training method called ‘operant conditioning’, where trainers signal to an animal that their correct behavior is going to be reinforced with a reward. The sound of the clicker tells the animal that whatever it was doing at the exact moment it heard the clicker has earned it a treat – usually a food item (sometimes praise or petting). Over time, a click sounded whenever the animal has performed correctly, followed by a reward, will prompt the animal to repeat that behavior whenever the clicker is used.

The click only means one thing to an animal: “I did something right and now I hope something good will happen”.

Animals are quite capable of remembering past efforts and will embroider their behavior in a strategy to get the reward (the click and the treat). This is especially true when the schedule of reward becomes irregular – i.e. not a treat every time. Once the animal understands the meaning of the click, it will go to great lengths to please the trainer.

clicker
Clicker training devices such as these can be purchased on-line or at pet retailers.

Clicker Training devices are available through several pet retail outlets, although many consumers have obtained them through internet sources. Commercial devices make a cricket-like noise that is unique and more consistent than any noise we humans can produce, and their use evolved out of whistles used in dolphin training. Commercial clickers are small plastic boxes about the size of a domino, with a metal tongue depressed by the thumb. The clicker is fairly loud and the sound should be introduced to the pet from behind your back or within a pocket. Many owners simply make their own clicker using the lid of a juice jar or baby-food jar, sometimes making the “dimple” larger by pushing it out on the corner of a table. The dimple’s center makes a popping or clicking noise when pushed out. Staple removers (staple “biters”) also make a quiet but distinct clicking noise when depressed twice in rapid succession. Think of a clicker as a special signal with the rough equivalent of “good dog” or “good parrot”. What happens to your dog when you ask him to sit and he complies? You quickly say “good dog” and often a pat or even a treat follows. The click is a more powerful equivalent of “good dog”. The click is a bridge to conveying a message (“that was what I wanted and now you will receive a reward!”).

What’s So Special About Clicker Training?

Clicker training your parrot has several key advantages. Because the method uses positive reinforcement instead of force or punishment, all of the pet’s vitality and intellect works ‘for’ the owner, rather than against. The training itself builds trust, and often feels like play. Animals can learn at any age, and with any behavioral “baggage”. But clicker training is overwhelmingly successful when it comes to building a “bond” with the owner, because of the focus on positive reinforcement.

Here’s a case in point that shows how effective clicker training can be:

A 6 month old citron-crested cockatoo is doing extremely well at home. Like many young cockatoos, he is very affectionate and constantly seeks attention from the owners. The owners are well educated in managing juvenile parrots, and give him plenty of attention while maintaining dominance and control. There is just one problem. Large, messy droppings are not appreciated in the family room where the young bird spends much of his time. The owners have noticed that the parrot often relieves himself shortly after coming out of the cage, and that immediately prior to the act he waggles his tail slightly. First, they begin their clicker training program by simply teaching that the sound of the click means a reward – in this case, attention. Release from the cage, parrot neck scratches, head rubs, and time spent with the owner being handled are prefaced by a “click” for approximately one week. The owners test the bird’s response at the end of a week by clicking while the bird is playing quietly on the sofa. The bird immediately approaches the owner with the head down, asking for a rub. Now they plan a ‘cue’ for the new behavior: eliminating on command. “Potty-time” is the verbal cue selected, and is combined with holding the bird above his play station shortly after being released from the cage. Before any of these cues are given, the owners avoid handling their pet after his release from the cage, and watch him carefully for signs of wanting to go. As soon as the tail wag is seen, the bird is quickly but quietly picked up and the cue given (“Potty time!”). After a few minutes, if a successful response is produced, the bird is rewarded by an immediate click (during defecation if possible) and a treat (head rub or underarm scratch). A failed response is simply ignored, to be tried again on another occasion. Soon the bird will perform well when simply asked to go. Eventually the bird will not require the constant reinforcement of the click, and the owners can use the clicker to move on to a new behavior or “trick”.

Rules for Getting Started

The following are basic pointers common to most types of clicker training:

  1. Find out what the animal really wants. An irresistible food treat is common – liver for dogs, fatty acid supplements for ferrets, sunflower seeds for parrots, raisins for chinchillas, etc. etc. Keep treat size small, so that the trainee can consume morsels quickly and not fill up.
  2. When you first begin with a new behavior, keep distractions very low. Ensure that sessions are not too long, and make sure your animal is comfortable in his surroundings. If your pet doesn’t want to work, try again later. Clicker training means that the pet has the option to cooperate.
  3. Work with one pet at a time or use different sounding clickers for each animal. Spend the first week teaching only that the clicker signals that a reward follows – that’s all.
  4. Practise precision timing. Click during the desired behavior, not after it is completed. Expect your pet to end the behavior once the click has sounded. Give the treat after that.
  5. Test the response to the clicker after one week – does the animal expect a reward? With some pets, it may not be an obvious response, so don’t jump to conclusions too quickly.
  6. Click once (in/out). If you want to express extra enthusiasm, occasionally increase the number of treats, or supplement with lavish praise (create the “jackpot” effect). Do not increase the number of clicks.
  7. Keep the clicker with you or have it handy so that you can use it when you spot the desired behavior. Give a cue when you see the action required (ie. saying ‘down’ when you see the dog is about to lie down).
  8. Or you can give the cue and create the action (ie. saying ‘up’ and using your hand and a perch to get the bird to st9ep up). Then click and reward while the behavior is performed.
  9. Now continue to reinforce that behavior by giving your cue when you have the clicker handy. Click and reward when your cue is successful. Once well learned, the click may eventually be discontinued as you move onto the next trick, but continue to reward cue response.
  10. Move onto another desired behavior or trick by thinking up another cue and repeat steps (7) and (8) above.
  11. Raise or lower your criteria as needed. If your animal seems confused, tired, or just not getting it, you may be asking for too much too soon. If the trainee seems bored or mechanical, try going to the next level.
  12. Don’t order the bird around-clicker training is not based on commands. Don’t scold, yank on leashes or spank-these are not part of clicker training.
  13. Fix bad behavior by clicking good behavior. Click the ferret for relieving himself in the proper spot. Click for chewing a bone, and not a slipper. Instead of shouting at a barking dog, click when he’s silent. Cure leash-pulling with a click during those moments when the leash goes slack.

By: Louise Bauck BSc, DVM, MVSc.

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