4) Target Training
This is the section you have probably been waiting for. Here is where I show and teach you exactly how to teach your bird to step up as an alternative to biting. So you are getting two in one. A bird that is less likely to bite and a bird that willingly steps onto your hand. The fact is, by teaching the bird to step up, you are eliminating the major cause of biting which is fear of hands.
Although this video features a Senegal Parrot, I guarantee that the exact same techniques and principles apply to all parrots. Perhaps the scale may vary between a parakeet and a macaw but the concept is exactly the same. This works great for senegals, cockatiels, budgies, parakeets, conures, parrotlets, lovebirds, african greys, cockatoos, amazons, eclectus, monk parakeets (quaker parrots), and macaws.
The first thing is to get your bird used to the target stick and the concept of touching it to get a treat. Since this article is more about using targeting to train a bird to step onto your hand, I will not devote as much time to explaining how to initially teach targeting. I will assume you know it as this point but if not, you can learn all about it from these two articles:
Once your bird is reliable at targeting (whether in or out of cage), you will be ready to move onto the next step. But seriously, your bird should be willing to make multiple steps and go anywhere in its cage to be able to touch it. One piece of advice to people whose bird bites the stick too hard or aggressively is to click about a quarter second before the beak touches or squeezes too hard on the stick. The bird will pay more attention to the click and ensuing treat and won’t destroy the stick or learn to bite hard.
The next stage is to get a perch you can hold in your hand to target the bird onto. I recommend literally using one of the perches that used to be in the cage because the bird will be used to it and not fearful. The bird will already know it is something safe to step on. I do not recommend using a different kind of stick, machined dowel, or anything else because the bird may be scared or aggressive toward it. Never use the target stick as something to step on or the bird will get very confused. This stage is quite simple and upon reaching success, you will be able to transport your bird about the house safely.
Hold the perch parallel to the place your bird is standing at a close distance and slightly higher than your bird’s feet. With your other hand, you will have to hold the clicker, treat, and target stick. Point the tip of the target stick in front of your bird but far away enough that it must step onto the handheld perch to reach it. As soon as it has stepped up and touched the target, reward. Do not let the bird off the perch until it has completely eaten the reward. You want the bird to associate eating treats on the handheld perch. If this is the first time you are doing this, do not get ahead of yourself and take the bird away from the cage yet. Let the bird off of the perch by either targeting it back onto the cage branch or holding the handheld perch slightly behind and below the bird’s normal perch and it will step back itself. This will need to be practiced until the bird is comfortable to be targeted onto the perch and to be removed from the cage and brought elsewhere.
Now that you know how to safely take the bird out of the cage, you should have enough confidence to bring it to another room and begin the real training on a remote (out of cage sight) training perch. The bird has to be trained away from its cage to avoid territorial issues and wanting to go back. Practice targeting in the training area and targeting onto the handheld perch. When you have built reliability and confidence in this technique, you will be ready to move onto targeting onto your arm. Do not hinder on the perch stage for too long beyond when your bird is good at it because it can hurt your success training to step on hand if it is too used to perches only.
Training the bird to step onto your hand will be similar to stepping onto a perch. I recommend you use the perch to take it out of the cage to the training area rather than sticking your hand into the birds cage because that is asking for a bite. From the training perch, start by practicing some targeting the bird already knows. You may want to try different perches to get the bird used to going wherever, even targeting on the floor or table. When the bird is warmed up and targeting practically anywhere, you can sucker it into stepping onto you arm without realizing by using your arm as the perch. Hold your arm parallel to the perch it stands on and target onto your arm with the tip of the stick. This is a good beginning because your arm is stronger, less personal (bad attitude to hands maybe?), and less harmful if bird changes mind and decides to bite. If the bird doesn’t bite, your training is going very well and continue practicing this. If the bird does bite, you may be moving too fast and need to work on targeting some more or try to use a better training diet to motivate.
I also recommend that you let your bird make multiple steps toward your hand and target stick. Don’t immediately shove all of this in front of it because it may bite. Instead, start a few steps away and let it chose to come over at its discretion.
Next, you can try targeting onto your flat hand. By not exposing your fingers, you are giving the bird less to think about, less to bite, and less concern. After this you can try to target onto your finger. You can keep your finger curled up at first so that the bird can’t bite the tip where it is more sensitive. I usually like to keep my thumb curled under and all my extra fingers out of the way so my bird isn’t tempted to nibble on them for fun. If you are successfully targeting your bird onto your finger and reaching consistency without bites, you are nearly finished. Begin saying “step up” every time your bird is stepping onto your finger reaching for the target stick. This will later become the cue to step.
Finally, if you are really confident that your bird is stepping up and not biting when you use the target stick, you can start to lose it. First practice targeting it on. Then hold the target stick further back that the bird sees it but cannot touch it. Say step up and click as soon as the bird is on your hand, even though it did not touch the stick. Soon you will be able to just say step up and not use the target stick. Continue clicking and giving treats for stepping up though. The bird will realize that the stick doesn’t even matter for the “step up” trick and that just stepping on is enough to get a treat. If your bird is not stepping or you start a step up session cold turkey and it forgot what to do, you can flash it a glimpse of the target stick but without actually targeting it and it may help remind it what to do. Of course if that fails, you can return to targeting.
When you are reliably getting the bird to step up from the training perch, you can begin targeting it out of the cage onto your hand. You will basically want to repeat all the stages of target training you did on the training perch again at the cage. The bird may have a different concept of strangers approaching the cage. While it learned to trust you in the training area, does not mean it will tolerate you putting your hands on its cage. That is why you should repractice the handheld perch, arm step, hand step, and finally finger step by the cage. Luckily by now the bird knows these concepts and what to do and you are merely teaching it that it is ok to do this at the cage as well.
If you want other people to be able to handle your bird, you should let them run through all of these stages themselves. After one person can do it, it will take much less effort (perhaps just one or two times) for the bird to accept targeting and step ups from a stranger as well because it knows that treats are coming wherever the target stick is.
In the next and final post of this 3 part series on solving parrot biting problems, I will discuss some strategies and discipline required to teach what you learned in this section to your parrot. It is as important to have a motivated trainer and motivated parrot as it is to follow these techniques.