Thursday, July 23, 2009

Training a Scared or Aggressive Parrot To Step Up

In 2002 when I first struck out on my own as an animal training consultant I did some work with a parrot sanctuary in Texas. At this facility, the birds were stepped up onto hands wrapped in towels. Often this approach means force is being used to train the parrots to step up. We all really wanted the birds to learn to step onto hands voluntarily. It was my job to train it with positive reinforcement. I had 50 parrots to work with. All either showed fear responses or aggressive behavior towards hands. (Many of these birds can be seen in my first book “Good Bird!” A Guide to Solving Behavior Problems in Companions Parrots”)

What I quickly discovered was that asking a parrot to go from two feet firmly planted on a perch to one foot on the hand was a BIG approximation, one that most birds would not do with that kind of history. I had to find a way to make smaller approximations. So I developed a technique of placing my hand at the end of the perch and using the target to get small steps towards my perching hand. This way if your parrot is not ready he does not need to get on your hand, but can still make progress towards making it happen and you can reinforce it. Here are some photos of me demonstrating it in my DVD and another at a facility where I consulted.

At the time few skilled training professionals were working with parrots with such challenges and I am quite confident I had not seen this particular method elsewhere in my years of training. Certainly early in my career I learned from other great trainers the importance of letting the bird approach the hand and reinforcing small approximations. But what to do with a parrot that is really struggling with aggressive behavior or fear responses towards hands right when he is at the cusp of touching a hand was not something I had seen someone demonstrate. It was actually fun to explore options and experiment until I found a technique that worked pretty consistently.

Since then I have had the chance to practice it and fine tune it with at last count over 1000 parrots at workshops I teach. I do very freely share this technique in my DVDs and almost everyone gets to see a demo of this at the live seminars. In the DVD you get so see a parrot go from lunging so hard at my hand that he almost knocks over the perch, to eagerly pulling my hand closer so he can step up on it.

The bird is a blue and gold macaw belonging to a friend. I had never really interacted with him much before we filmed and by no means was he already trained. We filmed over a weekend. It took two twenty minute sessions to go from lunging to "can't wait to get on your hand!" I still smile every time I play that clip at a seminar. Makes me happy to see a parrot's behavior change so dramatically.

The DVD that features this clip is called Parrot Behavior and Training #1 . Click here and you can see the "before" and "after" with the lunging blue and gold macaw about half way through the video featured in the player on this page.

Hope it helps inspire a few parrot people out there! Happy training : )

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009


Lene Johansen said...

Great post Barbara.

We rescued a 6 year-old Greenwing Macaw last summer. The owner showed us how aggressive Gus became if you tried to get him to step up. They would usually just leave the door open so he could climb out on his own volition or force him out with a stick.

Turns out he had not learned how to step up and he was a very anxious bird. The aggression scared off the previous owners, and he was terribly confused for a few days when we could not get scared away. Within a week he would step up. It took him about two month to learn to ride comfortably on the shoulder.

He often hangs upside down from the dome of his cage when I come to wake them up in the morning. At this point, Gus will grab the front bars with his beak and simply just flip over down onto my hand. I take that as a sign of trust.

Sometimes when he is perched someplace other than his cage, he might just feel up my arm with his tongue and beak before he steps up, just to make sure it is indeed my arm and it is firm enough to step up on.

Jill said...

If you're ever in North Carolina, look us up! I'd love for you to meet our Oliver. Oliver is my grey. He's turning 7 years old on 8/1.

I have his videos on my website. said...

quite and interesting articles you have.keep posting about parrot i really love birds. god bless you and your parrots!!!

Anonymous said...

i am adopting a blue front amazon this will be his 3rd home he has been abused and is very agressive he is 30 years old. do u think i will be abel to teach him to be nicer and not bite me? help me please i really like him and he does take treats from my hand but i can hol him or bring him out of his cage. thanks debbie

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Debbie,

Yes you can make progress using the tips in this post. I also suggest you check out my FAQ page for more resources They are still learning even when they are older. A 44 year old cockatoo I work with just learned to accept injections without restraint. This bird had also been in a few homes.

Anonymous said...

I got a lovebird from a local sanctuary. He is so scared whenever you get close. I've been patient to get him use to me but he is extremely reluctant. I've tried various treats and fruits but he doesn't seem to be focused on any. Any help you can give to help would be appreciated.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Try millet spray for the lovebird. Just work on eating in your presence for now. Even if you are at a distance. I am working on a resource for building trust : )