I had an interesting search from Google show up under my stats today. I thought I should talk about it…
‘Can you just praise your parrot during clicker training if treats from hands are difficult?’
Assuming that the bird bites or is unwilling to take food (not the owner having an issue juggling both clicker and treats), I can relate to that particular search. We have had similar issues with O. being able to treat Mavi, and Mishka was formerly unwilling to take anything from us. Been there.
Until your bird is willing/able to take treats nicely from your fingers, I found two things that really helped: either dropping the treat close to the bird, but not so close that it feels nervous; or else simply putting the treat into a bowl. Someone also commented that a popsicle stick, tongue depressor, or even spoon can be used to safely relay a treat to the bird. (You may need to desensitise them to the object, first, though.) A T-stand with stainless steel cups attached is good for the above methods, or else something like a coop cup bolted to the outside of a cage. These tips are particularly good during touch training for biting birds – no need to involve sensitive digits.
When working with any animal, the reinforcer (treat) must of be of true value. Vocal praising should accompany a reinforcer, but praise alone generally isn’t enough.
So what’s the best reward? For many animals, food is often the best, yet sometimes parrots just aren’t food motivated. In this case, a favourite toy or a head-scratch can work. You can even be clever about motivation, and reward a behaviour with something the bird wants to do.
For example: Letting your out of his cage, immediately, every time he poops, whilst making a big deal of it. Suddenly, he makes the connection that relieving himself means out-of-cage time and attention. If you start timing the length of time between poops and watching for his body language, you can learn when he is about to go and pair the action with a command, e.g. ‘Poop!’ Soon, you have it on cue. (Yes, toilet-training for us has been as easy as that.)
Or you could try rewarding a bird’s talking or pleasant noises with your attention. Just make a fuss, and suddenly the bird will be more willing to make these ‘sanctioned’ noises for your attention, rather than screaming. Even if he’s only just starting to talk and is shy, responding is the best thing you can do to encourage more. He may stop, temporarily, but he’ll have already made the connection that speaking brings attention.
Stepping up can, and probably should, be followed by doing what the bird wants to do! A treat is good, too, but this is an easy way to persuade him that your hands aren’t a bad thing. He actually could decide that, if you are constantly taking him away from what he wants to see. Instead, by bringing him where he wants to go, he learns that you’re a mode of transportation – and are therefore of use to him. Choice in a companion bird’s life is a thing that should be instigated as often as possible for a healthy pet.
As to what rewards your bird prefers, that’s simply down to you getting to know him a bit. You can figure out what your his most valued treats are quite easily by putting common favourites (shelled sunflower seeds, walnuts, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, cashews, etc., banana chips, fruit pieces, hemp, millet, or even very small amounts of cheese or whole-wheat bread – not ideal) into a bowl. Hold it up to him, or let him go to it, and watch carefully to see what he picks out first. He’ll almost always go for his favourites.
If your pet gets excited about a food, chances are it could make a good motivator. Remove these treats from the animal’s regular diet and reserve them as a training tool.
Note that a food reinforcer must be able to be eaten quickly, so that the bird doesn’t forget how and why it earned it. Keeping up the momentum, so to speak. Thus, things that can be chopped or broken into small bits are ideal. Things that need to be chewed a long time, or shelled, aren’t good reinforcers.
Most importantly, the bird has to be willing to work for it. A ‘treat’ that doesn’t excite the bird is no treat at all – and birds are individuals. Ptak loves millet, Mishka will do anything for a bit of a chip or crisp, and Mavi adores hemp seed. Pip will even stand on our fingers for a piece of broccoli. Offering your bird the right reinforcer can make all the difference. (What are your birds’ favourites?)
I’m actually off now to start some harness training with Maverick… going to start by doing some of the exercises on the little leaflet, then introducing him to the harness. Today I probably won’t do much more than offer him treats whilst it’s in his presence. Honestly, though, I’m most nervous at approaching his wings, as I have tried to work with him about lifting them before, and got a sharp nip for my troubles. Clicker training for that, too!
Wish me luck.