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Biting Parrot – The Solution (part 2)

 August 25th, 2009
Posted By:
Mike

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.

Target bird you are afraid to handle through cage bars

Target bird you are afraid to handle through cage bars

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:

Target Training Budgie (but the concept is the same for any bird)

Single Handedly Target Training (very important skill you will need to apply here as well)

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.

Target onto perch by holding parallel and using target

Target onto perch by holding parallel and using target

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.

Target onto flat hand to introduce step up with less risk of bite

Target onto flat hand to introduce step up with less risk of bite

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.

Biting Parrot – The Solution (part 1)

 August 23rd, 2009
Posted By:
Mike
Territorial parrot bites approaching strangers.

Territorial parrot bites approaching strangers.

Kili, my Senegal Parrot, can be described as cute, lovable, and cuddly by some (that would be me). But my girlfriend would sooner describe the parrot as a ferocious, atrocious, little beast. With hormones raging, an ongoing molt, and the troubles of bird life, Kili gets very territorial and aggressive toward people other than myself. She can be describes as a “one person bird” as Senegal Parrots often are.

This is the classic tale of a biting parrot. In many cases the parrot bites everyone including the owner. I suppose I am lucky that my bird is so bonded to me, but then again I’ve been working with her and teaching her tricks since she was a baby. Nonetheless, these techniques work for anyone and any bird. This is because they are based on the rudimentary elements of behavioral psychology and are aimed to work at the most basic level.

Here is my 5 step process to go from a biting bird to a bird that will step onto your hand without biting:

1) Forgive and forget - From this moment on, if you want to give it your parrot an honest shot at making this work, you cannot blame your parrot ever. You have to accept responsibility and also realize that you are on a higher level than your parrot. You have to be the adult and be a role model for your bird. You can never assume that because your bird bit last time that it will bite this time. You have to give it a fresh chance every time. If you keep assuming your bird will bite, your behavior will send the same signal to your bird that caused it to bite all the time before. This does not mean you have to take bites all the time, we will discuss some ways to avoid the actual flesh tearing bites, but you will have to pretend to ignore the aggression.

Lingering on bites or past experiences ruins training progress.

Lingering on bites or past experiences ruins training progress.

2) Training Diet - If your bird is not on a training diet and is biting you, that explains a lot. In some cases, a proper food diet change alone can improve bird behavior. Get your parrot on a pellet diet and moderate the amount of food it gets. Only give food to your parrot as a reward for correct behavior. Never give your bird a reward for biting. Never give your bird a non-food reward for biting. There is so much info available about training diet so I will not go through all the details. Instead, read this article about food based training diet, and then you can read this series abut non-food training diets (ways you can get your bird do stuff even when it isn’t hungry). So if your bird is not already on one, don’t make any excuses and put it on a training diet because you will not succeed in getting your bird to stop biting if it has no reason to.

Pellets are a good basis for training diet. Save seed/nut treats exclusively for training.

Pellets are a good basis for training diet. Save seed/nut treats exclusively for training.

3) Clicker Conditioning – This is actually the fun and easy part. Clicker conditioning is simply to make your bird used to eating treats out of your hand and associating the sound of a click from a clicker. You can buy these in most pet stores (check dog training) or online. When your bird is hungry (before meal time), sit next to your bird’s cage (assuming you can’t take it out, if you can then take it somewhere else), have clicker in hand and bird’s favorite treats ready. Your bird should be calm and focused. If the bird is trying to attack you through the bars or run away, you are going to need to do power pause first. Ideally you should be at the side of the cage the bird is and it should neither attack or run away. It should just sit and watch you. From this point all you have to do is click the clicker and immediately give a treat to your bird. You should repeat this until your bird doesn’t want anymore treats and do this for a couple of sessions to be sure your bird has really picked up on this process. Even if you do a little more of this than you need to, it’s ok because the bird is building a positive association with you and the clicker. Can’t beat being nice and giving treats for no reason.

In the following post, I will get into the actual training involved in teaching the parrot to step up without biting. Be sure to check back and read this because it will be a walk through of the training process involved. In that post, I will show a video of how my girlfriend got bit by my parrot and then step by step the process we used to resolve the biting.