Clicker Training Parrots
–This is an article I wrote for the November issue of Parrots magazine.
Clicker Training as a Tool to Help Manage Aggressive Parrots
I still have the scars from where Fergus, a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, bit me several times during a bizarre frenzy. I agreed to foster him for a local parrot rescue and the first thing he did when I let him out of his cage was fly towards me and bite me several times on my hands and arms. In his last home, he had done the same thing to several people. How could such a parrot be rehabilitated? I certainly couldn’t force Fergus to step up nicely onto my hand and allow me to handle him. His bites were also too painful for me to simply ignore. However, I didn’t want him to live his whole life in a cage. I did have the option of having him sent to a new foster home, but I really began to wonder if there was a way I could get him to like being around people so he wouldn’t drive them away by biting. I decided to do some clicker training with him, so I could hopefully show him that interacting with me could be enjoyable. I took this approach because clicker training can be used to teach new behaviours to companion animals, it is humane, it often helps calm nervous or aggressive animals, and it can be done while an animal is in a cage. It’s the method that people who train birds or dolphins for shows at zoos use and it’s based on many scientific studies on how animals learn. So, I hoped it would help decrease Fergus’ aggressive behaviours by teaching him how to behave around people.
The Basics of Clicker Training
Just what is clicker training? Clicker training is based on the principle that behaviours which are reinforced will increase in frequency while ones that are not will decrease. Very little of a parrot’s behaviour is completely inflexible, because parrots will keep behaviours that result in consequences they find rewarding, such as those that result in their getting attention or treats. Some behaviours, like preening, are simply self-rewarding. Behaviours that always result in unpleasant or neutral consequences will decrease in frequency until they disappear.
Reinforcement timing is an important part of clicker training. The faster the reinforcement occurs after the behaviour, the faster the animal will learn to increase that behaviour. There are two basic types of reinforcement that animals can learn from: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when a positive stimulus is presented right after the behaviour. The stimulus must increase the future likelihood of the behaviour occurring; otherwise it’s not truly a reinforcer. For example, giving a sunflower seed to a bird who steps up on a hand would be positive reinforcement if it made the bird more likely to step up in the future. However, it may not be reinforcing if the bird isn’t hungry at the moment. Negative reinforcement occurs when a negative stimulus is removed when the animal presents the desired behaviour. If a bird steps up on a person’s hand to avoid being pushed on his chest, then he’s learned step-up through negative reinforcement.
Another important aspect of clicker training involves the use of conditioned reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer is one that an animal has to learn to find reinforcing, and here’s where the clicker comes in. A clicker is a small box with a button on it that makes a click when it is pressed. In clicker training, the sound of a clicker must be paired with the presentation of a treat. The treat is the primary reinforcer, because the bird naturally likes it, but a click can become reinforcing to the animal if he associates treats or other positive things with it. The clicker is sometimes referred to as a bridge, because it bridges the time between the behaviour and the delivery of the reward.
Why use a Clicker?
So, why use a clicker at all? Why not use treats to indicate to the animal what behaviours are wanted? It’s because to let an animal know that what he’s doing is correct, he must be reinforced exactly as the behaviour occurs. Often, delivering a treat or head scratch takes a bit of time, and by the time it has been delivered, the animal has done something else, such as lifting his head. A click is short and can be easy to deliver right as the behavior occurs.
Charging the Clicker
The process of getting an animal to associate a click with positive things is often called “charging” the clicker. This is very easy to do. Just click, and offer a treat immediately after the click sounds. Only a few repetitions are really needed to “charge” the clicker in this manner. I used only ten or so repetitions to charge the clicker when I started training Fergus.
Of course, a clicker does not have to be used as the conditioned reinforcer. Any short sound will do; however a clicker is often used because it is short, easy to deliver, and few other sounds in the environment sound exactly like it. Some people use words or tongue-clicks as conditioned reinforcers. Trainers of marine mammals, like dolphins, often use a loud whistle, and people have even trained fish using lights as conditioned reinforcers.
Choosing a Reinforcer
What are the best things to use as primary reinforcers? Food is the obvious one, and a good way to figure out what food treat is most reinforcing to a parrot is to place a mix of foods in a bowl and see which one the parrot picks out first. Most birds love seeds, millet, or nuts, but dried papaya, pieces of grape, single peas, or kernels of corn are often reinforcing to birds as well. Generally, a type of food that is used as a treat will make the best reinforcer. If the type of food used in training sessions is available to the bird at all times, then he may not be very motivated to work for it. However, some animals will gladly work for pellets. Since Fergus eagerly took sunflower seeds from my hand, I used those as reinforcers.
Use small, bite-sized pieces during training. That way, the parrot can quickly eat the food and he won’t become satiated as rapidly, so more repetitions of the behaviour can be performed during the session. Training sessions are best done before or a couple hours after a meal, so the bird will be motivated by the treats. A few training manuals I have seen mention food restriction as a part of training birds; however, this is not necessary to train pet parrots. Most professional trainers do not recommend food restriction for training pets because all that’s needed is good timing of the training sessions. If obesity is a concern, feed your parrot a slight bit less for breakfast and dinner.
Food is probably the most common reinforcer used in training animals, but there are other possibilities. Toys, praise, or petting can be reinforcers. However, using toys or petting can make it take a bit more time to train the bird, since they can require more time to present than a treat. They also must be taken away or stopped at some point, and some birds may perceive that as punishment, as a positive stimulus has to be taken away. These things may also not be reinforcing to each bird: if no progress is being made, then it may be time to try a new potential reinforcer. After all, something which is reinforcing to one bird may not be reinforcing to another. A gregarious bird that associates praise with positive experiences may enjoy praise but one who has received little socialization with people may not be reinforced by praise. Tailor your training strategy for your specific bird.
What about Punishment?
I never dealt harshly with Fergus or acted domineering with him. I don’t do this with any of my parrots because training is best done with a friendly attitude and by using positive reinforcement as much as possible. Animals, including people, learn faster when trying to receive rewards rather than avoid punishment. It is also more humane to teach animals using positive reinforcement. Additionally, the way most people punish animals rarely works. To be effective, a punishment must occur immediately after the unwanted behaviour. For example, some people place screaming birds back in their cages to discourage the screaming. However, by the time the bird gets to the cage, he has already been picked up and moved, and he may not associate his “banishment” with the screaming. Using punishment can have other fall outs as well. The animal could become afraid of the owner, which will make subsequent training sessions ineffective. The animal could also start to bite the owner to drive him away if he associates the owner with frightening things.
Now that I’ve said that, I must note that, technically, when a trainer withholds treats from an animal who is displaying a behaviour that the trainer wants to extinguish, he is technically “punishing” the animal. In clicker training jargon, there are two forms of punishment: positive and negative. Positive punishment should be avoided as much as possible; this involves applying a stimulus that the animal finds unpleasant. Negative punishment is different in that it involves removing something the animal finds reinforcing. Basically, in this context, “positive” refers to adding something and “negative” refers to removing something. Walking away with your treats from a parrot that screams is a form of negative punishment. Obviously, we can’t reinforce all behaviours, but during training sessions, try to set your parrot up for success: don’t give cues you don’t think he’ll respond to, and don’t hold a session when he’s tired.
The best thing about clicker training is that it can help reduce unwanted behaviours, because a trainer can reinforce behaviours that are incompatible with the unwanted behaviour. For example, teaching a bird to talk can help reduce screaming, since he can’t talk and scream at the same time. Talking can be reinforced, while screaming can be ignored. Providing chew toys can help too, since few birds can scream and chew a toy simultaneously.
A very useful first behaviour to teach a bird is to target. This is the first behaviour I taught Fergus because I could teach it to him while he was in his cage and he couldn’t attack me. “Targeting” is when an animal touches his nose or other body part to the end of an object such as a stick. With birds, this tends to involve teaching the bird to lightly touch the end of a stick with his beak. The target stick should not be similar to one of the bird’s perches, in case he tries to step up on it. I used the end of a wooden spoon as a target for Fergus to touch.
Many birds, like Fergus, will immediately poke their nose to the target stick to investigate it. If this happens, immediately click and treat the bird. If your bird hangs on to the stick, try clicking right before the bird touches the target and remove the target right after it’s been touched. Once the bird is touching the stick reliably, make him stretch a bit to touch the stick. Once that is done reliably, make him take a step, then two steps, and so on. Try having him go left or right, and practice the behaviour in many different areas, with different distractions.
I did this with Fergus, who was an unbelievably fast learner. After one week, he would touch the target even if he had to climb to the other side of the cage or to the cage floor to reach it. I initially trained him while he was caged, but two weeks after his initial attack on me, I let him out of his cage again and he didn’t try to bite me. I began target training him while he was on his cage and he continued to focus on learning. He never bit or attacked me again during the three more months I had him. I suspect he learned that interacting with me could be rewarding, so he no longer wanted to drive me away with bites. I was also sure to provide him with lots of chew toys he could focus on while he was out of his cage.
What about a bird that seems reluctant to touch the stick? I ran into this problem with Ripley, my Red-lored Amazon. Here’s where shaping (or successive approximation) can be useful. Before you shape a behaviour, define what you want the end behaviour to look like. Then, start to teach the behaviour in small parts. For shaping targeting, start by finding out how close the stick can get to the bird before he starts to show fear. Keep the stick in that area initially. Then, start to click him just for looking at the stick, then for moving towards it, and then for bumping it. Doing this, it took me about six sessions to get Ripley to reliably touch the stick. The average training sessions with my parrots last ten to fifteen minutes, but they can be longer or shorter. It all depends on how long the parrot can keep his interest, and I always try to end on a positive note.
Targeting can be very useful for teaching other behaviours, many of which are useful for basic husbandry tasks. For example, I taught Fergus to go back in his cage using his target stick. The key to this was that, for the first few times Fergus went into the cage to touch the target stick, I did not close the door. When I did finally close the door, I gave him a “jack pot,” or a bigger than normal amount of treats. Teaching Fergus to willingly go in his cage made him much easier to manage. Birds can also be trained to stand on a scale or go in a carrier through guidance with a target. I used targeting to get Fergus to stand on a scale at the veterinarian’s office.
Training Step Up
“Step-up” is the cue most parrot owners give to get their parrots to step onto their hands, and this is often the first thing that bird owners teach their birds. It is indeed a very useful thing to teach, but for very aggressive birds, I recommend doing target training first. The target then can be used to guide the bird onto a hand-held perch, hand, or arm.
Many birds who do not step up on cue end up being labeled stubborn, dominant, or spoiled. What is often the case is that the bird really hasn’t been taught what the cue “step up” really means, or he hasn’t been taught to respond to it in a variety of situations. If your bird is like this, try teaching him to respond to the cue “step up” using only positive reinforcement.
To train a step up using positive reinforcement, start at the beginning using shaping, or luring with a target or treat. To shape a step up (on a perch or hand), first reward the bird for looking at the perch, then for moving towards it, placing a foot on it, and so on. Once the bird steps up, then he may not be comfortable being moved around on the hand. Again, use small steps: reward him for allowing you to move your hand a bit with him on it, and gradually move up to you walking to different areas of the house with him on the hand.
Fading the Target
When using a target to coax a behavior out of a bird, such as using one to lure him onto a hand, be sure to start fading the use of the target as soon as possible. Otherwise, the bird will focus on the target rather than the behaviour itself. Gradually make the target smaller, and/or use the same hand gestures used with the target, but don’t use the target. Add a verbal cue, and use it consistently with and without using the target.
Many owners with talking birds enjoy teaching them to say words on cue. For example, Fergus could say “Hello!” and I wanted to teach him to say back it when I said “Hello” to him. What I had to do was capture the behaviour, or wait for it to occur on its own, and reinforce it when it happens. So, when Fergus said “Hello,” I clicked and treated him.
When I got Fergus offering “Hellos!”, and I felt I could predict when he was going to say it, I added my cue, “Hello.” To get the behaviour under stimulus control, I clicked and treated he said, “Hello,” in response to my “Hello.” Soon, he began to figure out that he got treats when he said, “Hello” when I did. This was just a cute behaviour to teach him, but in doing so, I could spend time interacting with him in a positive manner, which I felt enriched his life.
Clicker training is a very effective, humane way to train any animal. It’s also a great way to enrich a parrot’s life, as most learn to enjoy training sessions. Additionally, it can be used to effectively communicate with your pet and let him know what behaviours you would like him to do. I taught Fergus how to act around me and that he didn’t need to drive me away by biting. His story here winds up with a happy ending: He learned to enjoy out of cage time and he was eventually adopted by a kind couple who were also interested in clicker training. This meant I could continue to foster birds, and the bird that I’m fostering at the time of writing is yet another teenaged male Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo named Mitri. He’s also enjoying his clicker training lessons.
Commonly Asked Questions about Clicker Training.
Q: Isn’t this bribery?
A: No, because the reward generally comes after the behaviour and it is not shown to the animal before hand, unless it is being used as a lure.
Q. Do I have to keep treats with me all the time?
A: No. You also do not need to use the clicker once the behaviour you want is performed on cue. The clicker is primarily used during the learning stages. However, be sure to periodically offer treats for behaviours like stepping up, and always offer reinforcement after using a click.
Q: I have lots of birds. Will they know who the click is for?
A: Most likely. Many animals can figure out that the click is for them only if the trainer is paying attention to them.
Q: What if my bird imitates the clicker?
A: Don’t worry about it. Just keep going and ignore it.
Q: I can’t juggle the treats, the target stick and the clicker. Help!
A: I got around this by holding the clicker and the target stick in one hand, with the clicker in my palm. One could also forgo the clicker and use a word as a bridge. Just be consistent with which word you use and the tone it is said in.
Ellen K. Cook, DVM. 2006. How Positive Reinforcement Saved a Cockatoo’s Life. Good Bird Magazine. Vol 3, No. 1. (This article gave me hope that clicker training could help Fergus, as the author used this approach with her Moluccan Cockatoo that often bit her).
Barbara Heidenreich. 2005. The Parrot Problem Solver: Finding Solutions to Aggressive Behavior. TFH Publications, Neptune, NJ.
Melinda Johnson. 2006. Clicker Training for Birds (Getting Started). Sunshine Books, Inc. – Karen Pryor Clicker Training. Weston, MA.
Karen Pryor. 1999. Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. (Revised Edition) Bantam Books, New York, NY. (This book is not specifically about dogs or birds, but is about the general principles behind clicker training).