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:
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.