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Clicker Training 101

What is Clicker Training?

Professional animal trainers have been using clicker training for decades to train their animals to perform a variety of useful or showy behaviours on cue. Clicker training is also becoming popular among exotic bird owners and there are now books and videos out there specifically on clicker training pet parrots. Clicker training is an effective and humane way to train a parrot to do things like step up onto a hand, go back in her cage, and pick up items with her beak. It is based on numerous studies on how animals learn and is centered on rewarding desired behaviours.

Galah

A Galah in a bird show at the Minnesota Zoo.

The clickers often used by trainers are little plastic boxes that have a tab on them that produces a brief clicking noise when pressed. They are available at most pet stores. A clicker trainer will press the clicker as the animal performs a behaviour the trainer is looking for. The clicker serves as a marker that tells the animal what it just did was good and will earn it a reward in the future. However, before clicker training can start, the animal must first associate the clicker with a reward.

Charging the Clicker

The process by which the animal learns to associate the clicker with a reward is often called charging the clicker. This is easy to do: first, click the clicker and then immediately offer the animal a reward. Repeat several times. Through this process, the bird will learn to associate the sound of the clicker with a reward. This will mean that the sound of the clicker will become reinforcing to the bird, and that the bird will become likely to repeat behaviours that earn her clicks.

A Clicker

Food makes an excellent reward when charging the clicker, because food serves as a primary reinforcer for most animals. A primary reinforcer is something that will naturally act as a reinforcer, and will not need to be paired with anything else to act as such. A reinforcer is a consequence of a behaviour that increases the frequency of the behaviour that preceeded it. Animals obviously need food to survive, so animals will tend to repeat any actions that lead to them getting food. For example, dogs that are rewarded with tidbits of food for begging will generally continue to beg.

A secondary reinforcer initially needs to be paired with a primary reinforcer if it is to act as a reinforcer. The clicker is an example. For it to have a reinforcing function, it first has to be paired with a primary reinforcer such as food. This is because the clicker sound alone holds no value for the animal. However, once a clicker has been “charged”, and paired with a primary reinforcer, it will then also become a reinforcer.

There is really nothing magical about the sound of clickers. A word or another sound can be used in place of the clicker, so people who don’t like to use clickers can still apply the principles behind clicker training. However, there are a few reasons clickers are often used by animal trainers. First, the clicker doesn’t really sound like any sounds used in the English language. Therefore, the animal will not confuse any words for a click, and a click won’t be mistaken for any other sound. The clicker can also be used by the trainer to mark the exact behaviour she wants to reinforce. Sometimes, the behaviour a trainer wants to reinforce is only displayed for a second, and a short click works well as an immediate reinforcer. Using food or petting as a marker may introduce a delay between the behaviour and the reinforcer, which will make training take a bit longer. One rule to follow when training is to always reinforce a desired behaviour as soon as possible, because even a one second delay between the behaviour and the reinforcer will slow down the training process. Ideally, the behaviour should be reinforced as it occurs, and this is easy to do with a clicker or word.

Other Considerations

Before a training program starts, a trainer must decide what kind of primary reinforcer she wants to use. Food tends to work well. For parrots, sunflower seeds, bits of nut, bits of dried papaya and millet can all serve as excellent reinforcers. I tend to use sunflower seeds as reinforcers when training my birds. A good way to find out what type of treat is a bird’s favourite is to place several goodies in a dish and see which one the bird takes. When training, always follow a click with a treat of some sort.

Hyacinth Macaw eating a nut

There are also several ways one can increase the value of food as a primary reinforcer. Quite often, whether or not an item acts as a reinforcer will depend on the general state the bird is in. For example, if a bird is hungry, food will act as a very strong reinforcer, but if he just ate, it will not. Likewise, if a bird has a dish of sunflower seeds in his cage at all times, sunflower seeds may not act as a reinforcer for him. Thus, to increase the value of food, hold training sessions at a time when the bird may be a bit hungry and take the food that will act as a training reward out of his regular diet. Do not, however, be too strict in controlling his food intake. Small birds in particular have high metabolisms and shouldn’t go too long without eating. Additionally, training a ravenous animal really isn’t much fun, for the trainer or animal.

Target Training

Once a reward has been chosen and the clicker has been charged, the training can begin. A very useful first behaviour to train a bird to do is to target. A bird that has been target trained will touch his beak to the end of a target stick that is presented to him. The target stick can then be used as a tool to train the bird to go into a carrier, step on a scale, go into his cage, or step up on a hand.

Almost any item can be used as a target. Chopsticks, dowels, Popsicle sticks or spoons all work well. I like to use wooden spoons, because I can place the clicker in the spoon part (which goes in my hand), and I can click the clicker as soon as the bird touches the stick.

To start target training the bird, place the end of the target stick in front of him. As soon as the parrot touches the stick with his beak, click the clicker and offer him a treat. Repeat several times. Then, gradually increase the distance that the bird has to move to get his beak to the clicker. Start so that he only has to move his head a bit to touch the stick. Then, move the stick so he has to lean forward to touch it, and then move it so he has to take a step to touch it and so on.

Many birds, when being target trained, will initially nip the stick to investigate it. However, some birds may be a bit wary or even scared of the stick. If that happens, try changing the type of stick used. For example, use a shorter or duller-coloured stick. If that doesn’t work, place the stick some distance away from the bird – as far as it takes so that the bird shows no fear. Then, start rewarding the bird for merely looking at the stick, even if briefly. Click as the bird looks towards the stick and then offer him a treat. Repeat several times and slowly increase the criteria required for a click. Move from getting him to look at the stick (at progressively shorter distances), to where he has to lean a bit towards the stick, to where he actually has to touch the stick. If the bird starts to show any fear, move the stick a bit farther away. I had to use this type of gradual desensitization to teach my Red-lored Amazon, Ripley, to touch a Popsicle stick.

Ripley

Some birds will grab the target stick and hang on. If that happens, just gently twist the stick out of the bird’s mouth and give him a treat as soon he lets go. If the bird is tenaciously holding the stick and will not let go even if the stick is twisted, just wait and click and treat the second he lets go of the stick. This behaviour often stops once the bird figures out that he just needs to nip the stick lightly to get a click and a treat.

Once a bird has learned to touch a target stick reliably, even if he has to move around to get to it, he can be taught to perform many other behaviours on cue. For instance, the target stick can be used to get him to go into a carrier. Initially, use the target stick to get the bird to go close to the carrier, then towards the door of the carrier, and then into the carrier. Say something like, “Go In,” each time he goes into the carrier. A similar technique can be used to train a parrot to go back into a cage on cue. To ensure that the parrot will go into the cage or carrier reliably, do not shut him in there the first few times he goes in on his own. Gradually phase out the use of the target stick by giving a reliable cue word (like “Go In”) each time he enters the cage or carrier on his own. Soon, he may go in the cage or carrier upon hearing the cue, “Go In.” Rewarding him each time he goes in will help keep the behaviour strong and prevent the common problem wherein the bird refuses to go in his cage.

Step Up

Once a bird has been target-trained, it is simple to teach him to step up either on a hand or a hand-held perch. Just put your hand (or arm, for a large bird) in front of the bird and place the target stick where the bird has to lean forward over your arm to reach it. If the bird seems reluctant to do this, gradually get him to go closer to your arm, until he finally has to step up on it to reach the stick.

Step up can also be trained without a target stick. Some birds may simply step up on your hand or arm if it’s placed in front of them. Reward the bird (click and treat) once he does this and repeat a few times. Even when the bird is stepping up reliably, be sure to still reward it frequently, with praise and/or treats.

If the bird does not step up on a hand when it is presented, reward any gradual steps he takes towards stepping up. For example, click and treat if he merely moves towards your hand, and then gradually increase the criteria he has to meet to be rewarded. Move from having the bird move towards your hand, to placing a foot on your hand, to stepping right up on your hand. Do not push the bird in the chest to get him to step up, especially if he’s nervous or has had bad experiences with people. That may make him fear hands. Instead, teach him that stepping up on hands leads to positive outcomes.

Other Behaviours to Train

Stepping up on cue and target training are two very useful behaviours to teach a bird. It’s also simple to train most birds to ring a bell and turn around on cue.

To teach a bird to ring a bell, use a bell with a little rope or chain attached to it. Teaching a bird to ring one is quite similar to target training a bird. If the bird immediately grabs the chain and rings the bell, click and treat. If not, start rewarding small steps towards the final behaviour, which could include the bird moving towards the bell, touching the chain with his beak and so on.

A “turn around” can be trained with or without the use of a target stick. To train this without a target stick, start clicking and treating when the bird looks either to the left or right (depending on the direction chosen). Try getting him to move his head by wiggling your fingers or another interesting object in a way that will get him to move his head. Once he does this frequently, start to click and treat when he moves his whole body sideways, and then finally when he turns around. Once he turns around reliably, add a cue. For instance, say, “Turn around,” when he does this, and soon, he will know to turn around on cue.

To teach a turn around with a target stick, just move the target stick in such a way that the bird has to turn around to keep it in his view. Say the words, “turn around” as you do this. When using a target stick to teach a behaviour like this, do start to fade the use of the target as soon as possible. Keep using the vocal cue, but start to make the target stick shorter and shorter until the bird responds only to a hand and vocal signal.

Where to train and for how long?

When a bird is first learning a new behaviour, start his training sessions in a quiet area that is free of distractions. This will make it easier for both person and bird to focus on the task at hand. Once the bird has started to understand what is being asked of him, start to practice in different locations. Frequently, if a bird is taught to respond to a certain cue in only one location, he may respond to it only in that location. This is common with dogs as well. Many dogs who are taught to sit, heel, and come on cue in an obedience class will only respond well in the class environment unless the owner practices with the dog in a variety of locations. Gradually increase the complexity of the environment when teaching an animal to respond to a cue in a variety of situations. For example, start in a quiet area, then in an area with a TV or radio on, and then in an area with other people around, and so on.

Most training sessions should be relatively short, but the exact length of time will vary depending on the bird. Initially start with very short (five minute) sessions, and gradually increase their length. Stop when the bird starts to seem uninterested and then use a slightly shorter session next time. The key is to stop before the bird starts to become bored. Try to end all training sessions on a positive note, even if this involves asking the bird to do something very simple. Additionally, keep training sessions positive. If the trainer starts to become frustrated with the animal, the animal may not want to participate in the future.

Common Misconceptions

Many people object to clicker training (or training involving treats) because it seems similar to bribing. Done properly, clicker training rarely involves bribing the animal. This is because bribing involves showing an animal a treat before if performs the behaviour the trainer wants. Clicker training involves giving the animal a treat after he performs a desired behaviour. On occasion, a trainer may try to lure an animal into a desired place or position with a treat, but overall, clicker training need not involve bribing the animal very often.

Clicker training also does not involve spoiling an animal (as many think it does), nor will it necessarily make a bird (or dog) beg from the table. The animal is actually asked to perform a specific behaviour to get a treat, and most clicker trainers are careful not to reward behaviours they do not want to see. For example, if one does not want an animal to beg for food, or squawk for attention, then these behaviours should never be rewarded with treats or attention.

It is also not true that a person must always have a clicker and treats on hand to get the animal to respond to cues. The clicker is most important when the animal is first learning about how to behave. Many trainers only use the clicker (and the treats) when the animal is learning. It is, however, prudent to frequently reward any behaviour one wants an animal to keep displaying. Personally, I only use the clicker when teaching an animal something and don’t bother with it once the animal does what I want reliably. I still frequently give my birds treats for stepping up, and my dogs always get praise, petting or treats when they come back to me when called when they are at the dog park. The result is that the dogs are very reliable when it comes to coming to me on cue.

Micro

Micro the Maltese comes back to me at the dog park.

Finally, many people think that one must only use food as a reward when clicker training. That isn’t necessarily true. Food is often used because it’s something all animals need and it can often be delivered very quickly, which means that more repetitions can be done in a session. However, if an animal does increase the frequency of a certain behaviour if it is praised or petted for doing so, then praise or petting will be useful reinforcers for that animal. In fact, my cockatoo will sometimes refuse to take a piece of food from me during a training session and will bow his head to me. That’s his way of requesting that I stroke his head, which I will do for him.

Further Resources

There are many books, websites, and videos out there for people who want to learn more about training with positive reinforcement.

I really like “Clicker Training for Birds,” by Melinda Johnson. This book gives detailed instructions on clicker training birds to do a variety of things and it gives advice on solving parrot behaviour problems using the clicker. All technical terms are also defined very clearly.

If you have a flighted bird and want to train her various flight commands (such as to fly to you on cue, or to fly to a spot being pointed at and so on) try out “Breaking Bad Habits in Parrots,” by Greg Glendell. This book has information on training a flighted bird.

The books, magazine, blog and videos by Barbara Heideinreich are also an excellent resource on training animals using positive reinforcement. Go to www.goodbirdinc.com for more information.

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