Sunday, October 4, 2009

Harness Training Your Parrot

Ah, the harness. So many people want to train this behavior. And for many parrots this is a very difficult behavior, and for trainers a behavior that can try your patience. However this doesn't mean a caregiver should give up on positive reinforcement to get there. It just means preparing to take some time, maybe a lot of time.But for me that is absolutely A-OK.

For those of you who have been to my seminars and seen video clips of parrots sitting for blood draws and perched patiently while they receive an injection, you no doubt realized those are behaviors that were trained with tiny, tiny approximations and took some time to train. I recently read the manuscript to a friends book in which she said "you can be sure that shaping with the smallest approximations is what is behind the most impressive behaviors"

We have a tendency to take for granted that our parrots should do things we want, when we want. Especially when it comes to behavior we accomplish easily with other species such as our dogs.

I implore people wanting to train this behavior to take a moment to pause and relax and say "it's OK if it takes me two years to train this behavior" It probably wont take you that long, but it will let you calm down and not feel pressured to get the behavior done right this second. Go at the pace your bird dictates works for him.

I often tell people what if this was a lion or a porcupine....what would you do if that animal did not want to go in the harness? : ) (I mention the porcupine because at one zoo where I consulted we did work on training a porcupine to wear a harness) Force will likely cause aggressive behavior or an animal that wont come near you. And as has been mentioned before, our goal with positive reinforcement is to create an eager participant and in turn continue to foster that wonderful relationship we can have with an animal.

I too have been working on this behavior. I started maybe 1 year ago with one of my amazon parrot's and have worked on the behavior off and on. I went through a lot of experimentation. Different harnesses, different shaping plans, etc to try to find the easiest methods. I have also worked on this behavior with the two young parrots currently at my house. One has mastered the behavior and one is still learning. Once everyone (and another one I want to start on this behavior) is trained I will have a comprehensive teaching tool for this behavior. However here is a sneak peak to get people started. It doesn't have all the steps outlined, but it may help you get some ideas.

The bottom line is that difficult behaviors require small approximations, using high value reinforcers, training when the animal is most receptive to those reinforcers, going at the animals pace.....and time. Be patient. You have many years ahead of you with your parrot.

PS The harness I am using is the Aviator Harness.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009


cmoore said...

Barbara, I want to second everything you said in this post. Harness training takes hard work and often means helping our parrots overcome some fear of the harness (either due to past negative experiences or because it is a strange new object). It's a process that can really try one's patience. (Believe me, I speak from experience!)

But once my two caiques were harness trained, it opened up a whole new world. I can now take them out into the world and desensitize them to all kinds of new things: traffic noises, crowds, new people. (I've found that it's a whole lot easier to teach my birds to interact with new people away from their "home turf.")

I also believe that getting my birds familiar with being outdoors will help them stay calm(er) and give them a better chance at making it home if they ever get outside unharnessed. I can generalize their recall behavior to the outdoors, and to new and unfamiliar places. I can teach them to climb or fly down from tree branches and other outdoor places.

Thanks for this well-written and informative article.

Sodacoaster said...

this little guy in the video reminds me of me when i go to the hair salon. I don't care what they're doing anywhere else, just to have someone play with my hair puts me into a trance. Looks like this little guy feels that way too!

Kim said...

Hi Barbara

Your little vid is so far the best advice I've found about harness training. Most other advice I've found argues that the parrot needs to be accepting of being touched all over etc. something my little man is uncomfortable with and that I'm not willing to push. Following your example with your amazon for a parrot that is less touchy-feely gave me somewhere to start and now we're working through approximations to get him into it. So far his progress has been good and he's pretty accepting of the harness.

Thanks again :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Barbara,

I'm wondering if it is possible to train (with positive reimforcement) a double yellow headed parrot to wear a harness?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Yes, but as stated in the blog, if the bird is not receptive to touch it will require many small approximations.

Tess said...

I have been training my Princess Alexandra parrot for some months now. She does not like being handled and progress is very slow. Have other people has success with Princess parrots?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Tess,
For me it is not so much about species as it is about your training process. There are many parrots who are not comfortable being touched or manipulated in order for a harness to be applied. Definitely plan on taking tiny approximations and pair everything with high value reinforcers such as favorite treats. Those two elements will be key to your succes : )

Anonymous said...

I`ve made the big mistake of forcing on the harness and then go out together and have fun so that my parrot would associate the harness with fun hings. A trainer gave me this I know better!

I know that I have to start at the beginning. My parrot is not extremely afraid of the harness BUT he does not trust ME with de harness so I have to start from the beginning. HARNESS + ME = TREATS.

Thank you Barbara for your video and your way of explaining everything so easily.

We will take the smallest steps possible but we will get there... I hope ;)

Jan Hayes said...

thank you for this helpful video. It was good to see you work with a more resistant bird like your amazon.

Unknown said...

I wish I had seen this before a breeder told me to force the harness on. My quaker is only just learning NOW to be calm when its being hung on the cage. If I hold it or pick it up from the cage she freaks out and flys away (she is clipped but can fly a little indoors). Is there any other advice you can give me in relation to how to associate good things with the harness. She doesn't have a fav treat, nor does she prefer touch over praise or food. She is a fairly placid bird when it comes to rewards.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Sorry to hear about your Quaker, Barbara. You can rebuild trust but you do need to pair the harness and training with something your bird desires. I would focus on finding a good reinforcer first. Read this blog for some ideas.

Unknown said...

Hello Barbara, thank you so much for your video and advice. I am training my little quaker parrot to accept the harness. He will allow (with a lot of coaxing) the headstrap to be placed in his head and let me put the wing straps over his wings without tightening. We have been outside twice but he still attempts to chew and pull the harness, so I am putting further outside trips off for now until he accepts the harness more. Being a little bird, he struggled to accept the harness approaching his head and still requires a lot of coaxing to get it on. We have been training for four weeks. I am happy to continue training as long as needed, but was wondering what the average timespan for training of a quaker sized bird is? Obviously, I appreciate my little one may take longer and that's ok. Thanks.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

It actually is quite a challenging behavior because most parrots do not like their wings manipulated or their bodies touched. So it does take small approximations and high value reinforcers paired with those circumstances. I cant say what exactly the amount of time will be for your parrot and in reality it may be something your bird merely tolerates vs truly enjoys. Honestly I am still waiting for the perfect harness design that is most comfy for our parrots. So far this is the best we have. But there are challenges. So dont feel compelled to push things or you will find it harder and harder as the bird is pushed past its comfort level. It is much better to go slow with difficult behavior such as these.