I’ve mentioned clicker and target training in a couple of my Q&A responses, so we thought a more detailed explanation was necessary.
The concept of clicker training was formulated over 50 years ago, but it has only become popular in the world of pet owners in the last 15-20 years. It entered the world of Parrot owners around 10-15 years ago.
Clicker training is a training technique based on B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning and uses positive reinforcement; it is therefore reward based training. If the trainer has good timing, clicker training can be an extremely fast and efficient training technique.
The first step to reward-based training is to identify a reward that the Parrot (or other animal) considers valuable enough to work for it. To clarify, the reward is something the bird appreciates, not what the human thinks the bird should appreciate.
With some Parrots an excited exclamation of “Good!” is sufficient. (Trainers of dolphins and other aquatic mammals use a whistle.) For other birds, a quick pet suffices. For many Parrots, the reward is food. Whatever works for your Parrot is what you should use. My own Blue and Yellow Macaw is highly food motivated, so tasty treats work nicely for us.
To identify your Parrot’s favourite foods, offer a variety of different foods in the morning and note what the bird eats first. The next morning, offer the smorgasbord again, this time minus that first choice. Again note what the bird eats first.
Continue this pattern for several days and you should end up with a list of several food items your Parrot really favours. You want several high value treats so your student gets a more interesting variety.
From now on, those special foods should never be just placed in the bird’s food bowl. After all, if they are not earned, they are likely to lose their value. Examples of food treats might be bits of sunflower seeds, cheese or biscuits or a bit of a grape. One client of mine trains her podgy Cockatoo with small curds of low fat cottage cheese.
The size of the reward is important as well, for a variety of reasons. First, a large treat takes too long for the bird to eat, destroying the rhythm of training. Second, we do not want the bird to get satiated and therefore lose motivation. And third, many food rewards are not very nutritional, so we do not want to cause malnutrition.
When I have trained my Macaw Sam, I cut shelled sunflower seeds into 2-3 pieces so it only takes her a second to eat them. (For those of us who are klutzes with sharp implements, a pill cutter works well for this.)
A clicker is a small mechanical device that makes a clicking noise (hence its name) and clickers are available online as well as in many pet stores. Indeed, just type “clicker” into the search box above to locate them here.
Some birds are frightened by loud clickers so a retractable ball point pen can work nicely, as it provides a much softer sound.
The purpose of the clicker is to identify the exact instant the animal does the right thing, indicating a reward is pending. Use of a word like “Good!” does exactly the same thing. Trainers call this a bridge because it connects the desired behaviour with the reward.
Further along, and during more complicated training, this frees the trainer to connect several simple behaviours to form a more complicated behaviour or a behavioural chain, such as taking a coin, walking across a table and putting the coin in a bank.
Training Sessions: Frequency and Location
Training sessions should be short and fun. Many trainers prefer to train in the morning before breakfast so their pupil is highly motivated to earn food treats. This does NOT, however, connote the use of food deprivation. Training should never be about starving the animal into learning a behaviour.
If time allows, a few short training sessions spaced out through the day can be very useful. However, if time is limited, once a day is fine. Some folks achieve excellent results with training only happening on weekends, but overall, the training process will understandably take longer.
Both trainer and trainee should be in good spirits, so trying to do a session after a long and aggravating day at work is not likely to provide good results. If your attitude is not positive, you can expect your Parrot to mirror your mood, which will not lead to positive outcomes. Better to skip a session than have a bad one.
Location is also important. I train my Macaw Sam on the dining room table. It is large enough to allow some room for movement but more importantly, Sam is comfortable on it. Should you choose to use a training area that is unfamiliar to your Parrot, you need to habituate it to the space first.
This is easily accomplished by teaching the bird that lovely things are earned when it stands on the surface without fear. Learning to do that needs to be broken down into as many small steps as the individual bird needs, a very frightened and nervous bird might require many such tiny steps, such as:
Look at the table without showing fear.
Stand on your hand near the table without showing fear.
Stepping voluntarily onto the table without showing fear.
Whatever the surface you choose, make certain it is sturdy under your bird’s feet. No one is comfortable if he/she thinks the floor isn’t dependable. And for working with extremely aggressive or frightened birds, training can begin with the bird inside of its cage.
Teaching the Bridge
The first task is to form a strong connection in the bird’s mind between the bridge (click or word or whatever). So when training Sam, I click and immediately hand her a bit of a sunflower seed. Then I click and repeat, click and repeat. Sam quickly looks eagerly for a luscious bit when she hears the click, which is exactly what I want. Click = reward. Sam loves this game!
Repeat this behaviour over and over until it almost becomes second nature to the bird. Click = reward. Click = reward.
Please note that I do not click and then go into the kitchen to open the refrigerator to unwrap a piece of cheese so I can break off a tiny piece to give Sam as a reward. Were I to do it that way, I may as well give her a treat next week. In other words, a successful trainer has the reward already there and instantly available.
Further into training, the experienced trainer will be able to separate the timing of the reward from the bridge. In that way, the animal can learn to perform several behaviours before receiving a treat
The Importance of Timing
As the old saying goes, “Timing is everything.” This is not an exaggeration with training, as incorrect timing causes the trainer to accidentally reward the wrong behaviour – totally confusing the animal and botching clear communication. The bridge needs to happen within a couple of seconds for the animal to understand that what it just did was correct.
Personally, I am a better trainer when I use a verbal bridge than if I try to use a clicker. My eye-hand coordination seems to get in the way, and this then screw’s up my timing. Were I trying to be a professional trainer I am sure I could get over that, but for my small purposes, a verbal bridge works fine.
Once your Parrot consistently responds to the sound of the bridge (‘click’ or word, etc.), you are ready to start training a behaviour, and the first usually taught is target training. Target training entails teaching the Parrot to touch something on cue.
The target itself can be anything, but a chopstick is often used. Training starts with tiny approximations of the desired behaviour. First, the bird is rewarded for even looking at the target. Then, it is rewarded for taking a step towards the target; finally for actually touching the target.
As each tiny step is accomplished, the earlier steps are ignored. In other words, once the bird is stepping towards the target, just looking at it no longer earns it a reward. By doing so consistently, the trainer will fade the earlier steps until the desired behaviour – the bird immediately touching the target – is performed consistently.
To expand the flexibility of target training, then start moving the target so the Parrot needs to go to it so it can touch it. Work on this behaviour also, until the bird does it consistently.
Applications of Target Training
Once a Parrot is target trained, the trainer can use it for a number of purposes. For instance, target training can be used to get a bird to voluntarily back into the cage. With birds that are food territorial, it can be used to move a bird away from its food bowls so the caretaker can feed without danger of an altercation. Target training can also be used to teach a bird to step up onto the hand.