Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Parrot Training in New Environments

If you are a parrot training fan, you have probably already trained your bird to do a few cute things like maybe wave or turn around on cue. Have you ever tried to ask your parrot to present those behaviors in a new environment? Such as a bird club meeting or at a friend’s house or maybe the veterinary hospital. For some parrots this can be very challenging. Suddenly your outgoing social butterfly freezes up and seems to have forgotten all the things you have taught him to do.

In truth he probably hasn’t forgotten, he is just not yet learned to present behaviors in other environments. The process of teaching an animal to present a behavior under many different conditions is called generalization.

Beni, the blue throated macaw has done so well with harness training it was time to let him experience some new environments while wearing his spiffy blue harness. First we visited different rooms in my house. The bathroom was particularly fun. He got quite excited by his reflection in the mirror. I think he even tried to say “hello” in macaw language.

He did well in each of the rooms of the house. They weren’t much different from what he was used to. He would take treats, and fly to me and other perches on cue. However when we ventured into the back yard, it was a different story. This environment was quite unusual for him. So we took it slow. For the first few days I kept the sessions short and gradually walked him to more areas of the yard. He accepted a few head scratches and treats after some initial looking around, but did not look quite as relaxed as I wanted.

Finally today he started to seem a bit more comfy. I thought now would be a good time to try a favorite strategy of mine. One great way to help a bird move onto the next steps toward generalization is to cue a super simple behavior over and over a few times. This gives the bird something to focus on that he knows earns some positive reinforcers. What Beni does best is fly to me. I grabbed a familiar perch and placed it in the yard. With the leash safely wrapped around my wrist, Beni recalled like a champ. Next thing you know his body language looked much more relaxed and he began to show an interest in exploring this new world with confidence.

For Beni, recall is an easy behavior. For your parrot it might be something like saying “hello” or lifting his wings or foot when cued. Any behavior your parrot offers readily is ideal for this strategy. Your bird may need some time to desensitize to the environment first before he will present behavior, just like Beni did. But after just a few sessions of looking around, Beni was ready.

Once Beni has a few more days of relaxed body language in the back yard, it will be onto another new location and a repeat of the process. Eventually Beni will learn that presenting behaviors in any environment is easy and earns you favorite things like head scratches and treats.

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2009


Mary @ StaleCheerios said...

Are birds generally good at generalizing?

I know from the limited number of dogs I've worked with that generalization to new environments can be very hard for some dogs.

My horses seem to usually not have this problem, or at least not nearly to the degree that the dogs do.

Mary H.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Mary,

It can be tough for some birds too. Younger birds that are comfortable around people tend to be a bit more accepting of new things. It is helpful to take advantage of the sensitive period, just like we try to do with puppies.