Thursday, January 17, 2013

Help! My Parrot Wont Step Up!

It has been reiterated for years in the companion parrot literature…your parrot must obey the step up command! Obey and command. For me these words carry strong implications. I visualize a parrot with no desire to step up onto the hand being forced to comply. This usually involves maneuvers such as a hand pushing into a bird’s chest, quickly scooping a bird onto the hand, or peeling toes off of a perch. For a positive reinforcement trainer such as myself this is very unpleasant to picture. Why one might ask? Certainly the mentioned strategies can create the desired resulting behavior of a bird on the hand. However the process of training through force involves strategies that rely on aversive experiences. Pushing a hand into a bird’s chest, scooping or peeling toes are uncomfortable experiences for a parrot, no matter how minimal the aversive is.

Fallout from Force
There can be serious repercussions with lasting effects from using aversives to gain cooperation. One of the most common results is a parrot that learns to bite in response to the presence of a hand. The important word in that sentence is “learns”. Parrots are not hatched with an inherent aggressive response to hands. This behavior is learned through repeated exposure to unpleasant interactions involving hands. Often as a last resort, a parrot bites in an effort to deter the persistent pushy hand. Should the bite produce the desired results; the bird can learn in that one encounter that biting works! And it will be likely to use it next time a hand invades its space.

This is not to say one should ignore a bite to dissuade the aggressive behavior. A more trust building approach is to heed the parrot’s body language prior to biting. Typically a parrot will present other body language that indicates discomfort well before a bite is landed. By carefully observing body language and making adjustments so that the bird appears as comfortable as possible, a sensitive avian caregiver is more likely to gain cooperation without aggressive behavior.

The same can be said for fear responses. Many likely have met a parrot who will step onto an arm, or shoulder, but will do everything in its power to avoid a hand. Again it would be an odd adaptation for a parrot to come into this world with an innate fear of hands. More realistic is the explanation that the bird’s experience with hands taught it to display fear responses.


Positive Reinforcement Offers Hopes
Unfortunately it can be challenging to retrain a parrot to step up onto a hand for positive reinforcement after it has learned aggressive behavior (and/or fear responses) towards hands. But the good news is it can be done. This is particularly important to note as so many birds are often given up, left with little or no attention, or suffer fates worse than that due to being labeled a biter or no fun, through no fault of their own. It is always a sad moment for me to encounter a parrot that has learned aggressive behavior. It is sad mainly because it never had to be if the people in its life had been given the opportunity to learn about positive reinforcement.

Having worked in free flighted educational bird programs for years it was quite a shock when I first discovered the thousands of parrots that had fear responses or showed aggressive behavior towards hands in the companion parrot community. This observation lead me to conclude that the difference is information. The community training flighted parrots for shows has been raised on a positive reinforcement approach to training. Flighted parrots can easily choose to leave should a trainer resort to negative reinforcement to force a bird to step up onto the hand.  Therefore negative reinforcement and its drawbacks are usually not a part of the training strategy.

The companion parrot community, on the other hand, has traditionally been fed advice that heavily promotes the use of negative reinforcement. This in turn has lead to a plethora of troubled birds. This means an important opportunity lays waiting for companion parrot caregivers. With positive reinforcement training finally making its way to many avian caregivers, parrots and their owners now have hope. No longer do parrots have to obey, instead they can learn stepping up results in desired consequences. They can learn to look forward to stepping up!

Positive Reinforcement Vs Negative Reinforcement
Change can be difficult. And those accustomed to using negative reinforcement to create behavior often present solid evidence as to why there is no need to consider other strategies. These arguments include the statement that negative reinforcement works! This is true. Negative reinforcement does work. However effectiveness is not always the measure one needs to consider as a conscientious caregiver. The reason is that the process of learning through negative reinforcement is not a pleasant one. Negative reinforcement is also sometimes called escape or harassment training. The animal complies to avoid the aversive experience. Not exactly a trust building process. In addition negative reinforcement training strategies create a bare minimum required response. Animals only do what is necessary to avoid the aversive experience.

There is also the misconception that negative reinforcement will create faster more reliable responses. While results can be immediate, it should be noted that quick, efficient, reliable, repeatable responses can also be attained with positive reinforcement.

Some argue that in an emergency the bird must step up quickly. In a true emergency, such as the house is on fire, it is understood that one may do whatever is required to ensure his or her parrot is safe. However sometimes the lines get fuzzy on what constitutes an emergency. Being late for work is not an emergency enough for this trainer to abandon her positive reinforcement training strategies. In the long run I will get more reliable performance of the behavior if I take the time to commit to using positive reinforcement even when it is slightly inconvenient to me. In my experience there is no real justification for the use of negative reinforcement for the behavior of step up in most cases.

Tips on Training Step Up with Positive Reinforcement
A key component of training with positive reinforcement is giving the bird choice. Rather than forcing oneself on the parrot, the goal is to teach the parrot choosing to come to the caregiver results in desired consequences. These consequences can be food treats, head scratches, toys, attention, etc.  Identify what the bird likes and use this to reinforce approximations towards the desired goal behavior of stepping up onto the hand.

An easy way to teach a parrot to move in a desired direction is to train the bird to orient its beak towards a target. The target can be any chosen object. The target can then be gradually positioned closer and closer to the hand identified for the step up behavior. The identified hand should remain stationary and in a position that facilitates an easy step onto the hand for the bird. The goal is not to move the hand towards the bird, but for the bird to voluntarily move to the hand by following the target.

A bird that has had an unpleasant history with hands may show signs of apprehension or aggressive behavior as it ventures closer to the hand. Reinforce generously the frightened bird that dares to move in closer. If the parrot shows aggressive behavior, gently remove the hand as well as any positive reinforcers being made available to the bird for just a few seconds. This not only demonstrates to the bird that its body language was understood and acknowledged, but it also removes the opportunity to gain positive reinforcers. When this strategy is paired with reinforcement of the desired behavior, the bird can quickly learn to increase calm behavior and decrease aggressive behavior without the use of training strategies that rely on aversives.

Eventually the parrot can learn to voluntarily step up onto the hand to earn positive reinforcers. While the bird is learning to step up, the targeting behavior can be used to help direct the parrot where to go if needed for basic husbandry duties. This helps avoid caregivers resorting back to negative reinforcement training strategies to move birds during the re-training process.

A positive reinforcement approach embraces giving animals choices to participate. Caregivers can try to make it easy for parrots to choose to present the desired behavior, such as step up, followed by ample rewards. The result is a companion parrot that eagerly anticipates interacting with its caregivers. One of the joys of sharing ones life with a companion parrot is the relationship that can be forged between the caregiver and the bird. Positive reinforcement fosters trust and that incredibly rewarding relationship. If there is one thing you change in your handling strategy, make it this. Move over step up command….. here comes the step up request.

Copyright 2007© Good Bird Inc.To learn more about products and services to help you train your parrot visit

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional in the field of animal training since 1990. She is the President of Good Bird Inc (, a company that provides parrot behavior and training products to the companion parrot community. These products include Good Bird Magazine, books, videos, and parrot training workshops. Barbara Heidenreich has been a featured speaker on animal training on six continents and has been published in nine different languages. Barbara Heidenreich is a former president of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators and served on the Board of Directors from 1997-2009. She is a behavior and training consultant for KAYTEE and SuperPet.

Barbara also consults on animal training in zoos, nature centers and other animal related facilities. She has been a part of the development and production of more than 15 different free flight education programs and has worked with over 40 different animal facilities. In her career she has trained animals, trained staff, and/or presented shows at facilities around the world.


Sandy MsSMurfy said...

Excellent article, one which I knew much of what you spoke of. However, your failure to mention the possibility of odd/unusual circumstances OR exceptions to the rule. My point being, currently having a 13yr old male Ducorps showing extreme hormonal behavioral changes...over time(past several years), I tolerated the aggressiveness,boldness,etc...even tolerating physical biting when I chose not to interact yet still in the large avian environment. Last night was another brutal ...bloody situation... try NOT pulling your hand away when a cockatoo refuses to release! I did...I have many times me, it does NOT work...either the blood flow or the pain causes response EVENTUALLY. Yup...
I may be fair in mentioning when the avian environment was built back in 2002, i learned the paint used caused zinc poisoning for my perfectly behaved/interactive feathered one...once he reached maturity, hormones have influenced increased NEGATIVE BEHAVIOR. Now I struggle with: "How do I keep my feathered one?" has now become nearly an ultimatum...I want him to remain with us...but others are saying "I am not being sensible..." Would so APPRECIATE any response from you...Thank you for all you do!

Unknown said...

Excellent Barb! This is exactly the kind of information that needs to be out there, learning the difference between R- and R+ and how to specifically spot when someone is using R-.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Hi Sandy,
Hmmmm, I definitely dont recommend leaving your hand there to take a bite. My suggestions are to avoiding creating situations in which the bird might be inclined to bite, looking for alternative ways to handle or move a bird, and training the desired behavior with positive reinforcement. Hormones may make a bird more responsive to environmental triggers for biting, but they ultimately dont make the bird bite. Read more about hormonal behavior in the free sample of Good Bird Magazine at As you will read in the article birds are not amplifying hormones all the time and you can prevent them from increasing reproductive hormones. But even so you will still need to identify what specific actions trigger biting and modify what you do...hormones or no hormones ; )

Larson Letters said...

This was a fantastic article. I too know about using positive reinforcement but I forget that it can take time. I recently acquired a 14 yr old African Grey and he would not step up on my hand, but he would for my husband. I did this and after a couple weeks he steps up on my hand! I really love how your birds let you get so close and handle them so much and I really hope that I can get my bird to trust me that much! He is really nervous a lot, so I have a lot of work ahead of me! He barely lets me pet his head and neck area! I have a concern and was wondering if you could give me your opinion. THis bird LOVES my husband, who is his favorite, but my husband doesn't feel the same about him. Is this detrimental to my bird even though I try to give him the attention he wants???? I just want him to be a happy bird!

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Actually I think it works in your favor that your husband is not as interested in being your bird's mate. This makes it more likely other people can develop a relationship with the bird. Read the article by Pamela Clark in the free sample of Good Bird Magazine to learn more about why it is a good idea to avoid encouraging mate like bonds. Your bird doesnt have to be in reproductive/mating mode to be happy : )

V. said...

Hello Barbara,

I've been having a lot of trouble finding help for my specific situation and was hoping you could shed some light. I have a gorgeous little green cheek conure who was hand reared by a breeder and was fine to handle by him and even slightly okay to step up with me when I first got him. He has since not let me come near him or anything I am holding. I tried to stick train him but he won't go near anything in my hand. He sometimes can get closer to me if I gradually leave some fruit on his cage closer and closer to me each time I leave some but otherwise, he just scurries off and makes sure there is some distance between us. I really want to do all I can to make him feel comfy and enjoy being around me. He's fine with me being in the room, provided I don't make sudden movements. He's also only fine with other people if I am in the room, for the most part. What can I do to help him realise my hand is not a threat when he won't come near me or anything I hold?

Thank you in advance


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post, Barbara!!

I am one of the parrot enthusiasts who so eager to learn to be a good and responsible parrot owner. I don't have a parrot with me yet, I feel in love with birds after we rescued two wild birds and I was fascinated by their emotional abilities and their intelligent.

While doing my research, I almost fell into one of the parrot training website, at first I was like..nah...they just try to sell their stuffs but after seeing them popped up every time I googled about parrots, I start to click into their website and start to think of buying their DVD when I got my first parrot.

Couple of weeks ago, I clicked in to read their blog...I was extremely disgusted on how the person wrote that particular blog!!!! Finally, I left a comment telling her, she is just a veterinarian student, she is not a qualified VET nor an Avian VET, What make her think whatever she said or advise in the blog is correct?? The reason I said that because she was telling her readers to buy the cookbook and claimed the recipes in the cookbook had helped to control or improve her bird's condition immensely!!

Since I have pointed out that when she tells everyone to seek professional helps, she herself is not a professional bird trainer nor a certified Avian VET or a certified Bird Dietitian....As I have predicted, my comment wasn't published in her blog.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

Lots more resources on behavior problems here and also check on the recorded webinars on popular topics from behavior problems to how to train your parrot

Lori Bradshaw said...

I found your article very informative, however I have a question for you. We recently rescued a 3 year old Umbrella Cockatoo. Buddy is a beautiful, loving bird. He LOVES to be cuddles and preened but he will not step up! He is very stubborn and clamps on to his perch and won't let go. He has never showed signs of aggression but he just won't budge. We have tried "bribing" him with treats but he won't step off the perch. Any suggestions?

Barbara Heidenreich said...

I have a super comprehensive webinar recording on how to train your parrot to step up. It will help you get over the hump and onto success. It can be found here I hope you will check it out. It has helped a lot of people :)

Unknown said...

Hello Barbara, I have recently adopted two senegal parrots, i literally have little past information. I am trying to get both to come out of the cage as they take good out of my hand. I am trying so I can get them to the vet. One of the birds(arthur), he comes right out, and loves it. The other bird (nigel) get extremely nervous and has came over to attack arthur while out of the cage. Should I separate the the birds. They are ten years old.

Barbara Heidenreich said...

In reality the past information is not too terribly important. You start with what the bird is willing to give you. I would highly recommend you check out two of my webinar on rescued parrots and the other on training step up. (The rescue one is free. ) They are super comprehensive and will give you excellent step by step instructions (including video clips) on how to get on track. You can find all the topics here