Friday, April 23, 2010

Stick Training Parrots

I recently had the pleasure of watching the results of some great positive reinforcement training with a cockatoo. The parrot in question unfortunately had some not so great experiences with stick training in his past. For many parrots sticks or dowel rods become a problem when they are used to force a parrot to step up for transport to another location. It is an easy situation to fall into. A caregiver needs the bird to step up, a stick is pressed against his chest and eventually the parrot gets on it. Overtime the bird learns to hop onto the stick right away to avoid the pressure against his chest or feet.

This is a very straight ahead example of negative reinforcement in action. The problem is that it is usually not too much fun for the parrot. The parrot complies. However it is because he has to, not because he wants to. What can often happen is the bird ends up showing a fear response or aggressive behavior towards sticks.

This was the case with the cockatoo in question. Getting on a stick often included biting and attacking the stick. His caregivers wanted to create positive associations with sticks. One of their strategies was to teach him to orient his head towards a target. In this case they used a closed fist as the target. The cockatoo learned following the target with his head earned him his favorite treats. This made it easy to teach him to walk towards the stick and step onto it willingly. (You can learn more about how to train this behavior from my parrot training DVDs.)

Another clever strategy this team used was to teach the cockatoo to keep his head upright when he stepped onto the stick. In the past he used to bite at the stick. The target was used to prompt him to keep his head up away from the stick. This was then reinforced with treats. Keeping his head upright and biting the stick are incompatible behaviors. The parrot cannot do both at the same time. This is a great way to address certain problem behaviors.

It was a pleasure to see the incredible progress this team made with this parrot, just by using some simple positive reinforcement training strategies. Best of all the cockatoo can now look forward to stepping up onto a stick because he knows it results in wonderful consequences. That's him in the video clip. Check him out!

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright Good Bird Inc 2010

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