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Click & Treat

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 17 February 2010

The question is often asked "Is it important to offer a treat every time you click a behavior?" Yes it is important to follow each click with a treat. The clicker only gains its value as a training tool due to the association the animal makes with the sound of the clicker and the following treat. Fail to deliver the treat and the effectiveness of the clicker will diminish. This is different than choosing not to click a correct behavior and thus not reinforcing that correct behavior - see also the article on Variable Reinforcement. The click serves three main functions:
  1. The click identifies the exact moment the animal did something that earned it a goody.
  2. The click promises a goody has been earned and is on its way.
  3. The click signals the end of the behavior.
A click is a bridging signal and it means something very specific to the animal, otherwise it is of no value. That is the concept behind what is termed a secondary reinforcer (or conditioned reinforcer). The secondary reinforcer gains its reinforcing value from being paired with another reinforcer - either a primary reinforcer (unconditioned reinforcer) or another secondary reinforcer. The primary reinforcer needs no pairing with another reinforcer to have reinforcement effect. If you use the secondary reinforcer and fail to offer the following reinforcement, then essentially you are undoing the pairing and at some point your secondary reinforcer will have no value any more or at minimum will have weakened value. It may cease to function as a secondary reinforcer. Failing to follow the click with the promised treat will diminish the value and effect of the click as a training tool. I was just going over some material I have from Marion and Bob Bailey and noticed the following. Due to past discussion I have had with other trainers of what qualifies a reinforcer as a primary or secondary reinforcer I am posting this quote. Some have previously insisted that social interests and play interests are secondary reinforcers because they are 'learned'. I have disagreed on the grounds that the fact that they are learned is not part of the definition, and that the only consideration that really matters as per the definition is the inherent reinforcement value and not needing to be paired with another reinforcer to gain reinforcement effect. Notice here that they specifically and very clearly include play and social activities as primary reinforcers. Again the defining issue is NOT about being "learned", it is about having reinforcement value without associative pairing with some other reinforcing stimuli. "The behaviors we have been examining here are typical of what goes on in the case of the so called primary reinforcing stimuli. These are stimuli that are usually associated with basic biological necessities such as food, drink, a mate, the young, body comforts. Primary reinforcers also include other natural, built-in, often preferred behavior patterns that the organism engages in spontaneously. These include social contacts and social activities, play and "exercise" behaviors, exploration. We may also identify here the primary punishing stimuli, or primary aversive stimuli. These are punishers or aversive stimuli that are naturally painful or unpleasant -- natural objects or events that the organism in question would tend to avoid if possible." ~ Marion and Bob Bailey. Marion Bailey not only had her Ph.D. but also had the experience of being one of B.F. Skinners grad students and she also had the experience of training thousands of animals through her company Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE). Her scientifically reviewed paper, Misbehavior of Organisms, written by Marion and Keller Breland (her first husband), had significant impact on the world of operant conditioning. Bob Bailey, as the general manager of ABE, also knew B. F. Skinner and trained thousands of animals. In my personal opinion there is currently no one with equivalent credentials on behavioral subjects than Marion and Bob Bailey. Misbehavior of Organisms is a short paper that is well worth the time it takes to read it. I would highly encourage everyone interested in animal training to become familiar with this paper. It emphasizes that operant conditioning is only part of the behavior equation, with evolution and instinct being critically important. PRIMARY REINFORCERS Reinforcers that are not dependent on their association with other reinforcers. (Compare secondary reinforcers.) I would prefer the term 'Non-Dependent Reinforcer' over primary reinforcer but this is not a commonly used term. SECONDARY REINFORCERS Reinforcers that are dependent on their association with other reinforcers. Also called conditioned reinforcers. (Compare primary reinforcers.) CONDITIONED REINFORCER (S,) A stimulus that initially has no reinforcing properties but, through occurring simultaneously with unconditioned or strongly conditioned reinforcers, acquires reinforcing properties. Also called secondary reinforcer. I would prefer the term 'Dependent Reinforcer' over secondary reinforcer but this is not a commonly used term. For more on how to actually use positive reinforcement in training, read the articles Positive Reinforcement and Clicker Training and Target Training.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Clicker Training

Clicker Training

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 31 January 2010

Success training parrots to fly out doors depends largely on your ability to set the animal up to change its behavior. Before attempting to flight train a parrot outdoors I recommend you master basic training skills. There are several articles on this site about clicker training. I also recommend you watch this short video by Behavior Works. A Freeflight member wrote: "I went about ten feet from him and with my hand held out clicked two times, he kind of looked at me funny like i was crazy but when I clicked twice again he went to his perch, so i placed him back on the cage and tried again, same reaction." This demonstrates the beauty of using positive reinforcement strategies for training, you can do it all manner of wrong and still get good results. I think it is great that this person and his birds have made such progress. But let me show you how you can use the clicker to get better results. Lets start out by discussing how a clicker is normally used and some of the theory behind this. Usually we use a clicker to do three things: 1) mark the exact moment the bird did something we want, 2) promise that a reinforcer (desired treat) is on its way, 3) mark the end of the behavior. Normally we do NOT use the clicker as a cueing signal, as you are doing. The idea here is that a bridging signal (the click) is a way to tell the animal what it just did that has earned it something it wants. This way it can more easily and more accurately understand WHY it is getting the goody. What did it just do that earned it the goody? What ever it was doing at the moment the clicker sounded is what earned that goody. This is very valuable information and not always that easy to communicate to an animal with accuracy without such a bridging signal. As such it is also important to use the clicker with great accuracy on your part, making sure to click at exactly the moment the desired behavior occurs. And in long duration behaviors, it also tells the animal that it is finished with this repetition. With continued use, the click may become associated with good things enough that the sound itself becomes a secondary reinforcer. Some animals will work just to earn the attaboy sound of the click and may even ignore the treats themselves. I would not expect this but it is interesting to observe when it happens. Like with any number of visual or audible signals you could use the clicker as a cueing signal but then what will you use as the bridging signal that has the same precision and uniqueness as the clicker? I do not recommend using a clicker as a cueing signal. I think it is far more valuable as a bridging signal. The real value of the clicker is that it is very precise due its very short crisp sound and it is unique. You are very unlikely to accidentally tell the bird that it just did something right and that a goody is coming while you were talking on the phone and commented how you have a "good bird" and then fail to follow through with your "promised" goody - some people advocate using "good bird" as a bridging signal. The only time the bird hears a clicker is when you actually intend to use it. Even if you are using it with another animal, the bird can still see that every time the click is sounded someone gets a goody. With a clicker you can very accurately mark a quick or very brief behavior so the animal knows it was that very tiny bit of behavior that earned it the coming goody. This is highly useful since many behaviors must be trained as a series of tiny steps or approximations. This is called shaping the behavior. Essentially this means that the end behavior is trained by starting with whatever level of behavior is available and then reinforcing slight improvements toward the goal behavior. To do this you break the behavior down into the smallest parts you can and then train each part before moving on to the next part. To start this we usually begin by "charging the clicker" as some people call it. Which simply means we will help the bird associate the clicker with receiving the goody. Essentially we click and then immediately hand the bird the treat. Do this a few times and usually if you click, delay a moment and watch the bird, it will look to the hand that delivers the treat. This means the bird has made the connection that when it hears the click it expects to get a treat. Now we can start using it to identify actual behavior. ok i wasn't quite sure what everyone was talking about as far bridges go, but this post made it a bit clearer lol, so in some way i am also using a bridge and did not know it, because first thing in the morning i open all of our flocks cages (5) and when i go to the kitchen can hear them all playing around on the cages, louie will start calling and chattering up a storm and his favorite things to say are louie bird, and louies a good bird, and then starts his whistles to call the dogs, but he won't leave his cage until i say louie come to dad, and immediately you hear the beat of his wings and into the kitchen he comes, so is this good or am i still doing things wrong This is not doing anything "wrong" but it is not using a bridging signal either. Are you telling the animal it just that moment did the very behavior that you want to give it a goody for? And is there a delay between when that is communicated to the bird and when it receives the goody? In the above description the answer is no you are not doing either. Whenever you reinforce a behavior it is important that the animal can make the contingent connection between doing the behavior and getting the reinforcement goody. Any delay between the behavior and getting the goody will only diminish this association. It is one thing to stand in front of the bird and immediately hand the bird a goody when it does the correct behavior. The bird can easily determine "Hey if I do this, then cool, I get the goody." But if you are on the other side of the room and the bird does the behavior, you jump up from your chair, walk across the room and as you hand the goody to the bird, it is scratching the feathers on its butt. It now thinks "Cool, if I scratch the feathers on my butt, I get goodies." Which of course is not what you really meant. So by using a bridging signal, if the bird does the behavior, immediately you click, get up from your chair, take your time walking over to get the goody and hand it to the bird. And even if it was scratching the feathers on its butt at the moment you hand it the goody, it still knows that it got the goody because of what it was doing at the moment you sounded the click, not what it was doing at the moment it received the goody. Now for this to work, we must first teach the bird how the clicker is used to mark a behavior. This is usually done with training targeting, touch the end of a stick. Click here to read more about Targeting and using the clicker to train a behavior. Chris - I do have to disagree with your point below.  About saying "good bird" while on the phone and your bird getting confused because it didn't get a treat. I think they can tell the difference between when we're just talking, and when we're interacting with them. That being said, I still try to minimize when I use a possible bridge if I'm not actually bridging them for anything. The concept of a bridging signal is that the signal marks a moment in time and then points to a coming reinforcement. This again is another associative pairing process and is often considered a secondary reinforcer. If you use that bridging signal in a non bridging manner, then you are weakening that associative pairing. How much this will interfere with your training will depend largely on how much you continue to strengthen the pairing through correct usage. To use the best form and have the greatest effect, you would simply select a bridging signal that is used as a bridging signal only, and it would not be used at any other time or function. The same is true for selecting a signal that is precise. Yes you can get away with all manner of bridging signals, including "good bird", but if you really want to use good form and get the most from your training, you will select a bridging signal that is specifically selected to produce a crisp short signal. Of course this is supporting a clicker as a general training tool. There are situations where a clicker would be a very poor bridging signal and some other signal would work far better - like try to train during a rock concert or at a distance of 1/4 mile from the student. The most common reason given for not using a clicker is people wanting to keep both hands free. To me this is a bit like arguing that a calculator is too complicated to be useful for doing math. Bob Bailey says training is a mechanical skill and then he sets to teaching you how to use your hands with a clicker in it. I agree of course - how can you disagree with Bob Bailey on anything related to training 🙂 ? If a magician were to take the stance that many other people take against learning to use his hands, most card tricks would never get performed because it is simply too difficult to do with the hands. Sometimes the benefits are worth the effort and time spent doing a little practice to develop one's coordination to learn to do something you could not easily do before. Today I can easily use both my hands to handle and train one or two birds, while holding a target stick, clicker and treats all at the same time. I do it all the time and give no thought to it. I guess it all comes down to what is acceptable for each person. Early on I was told that a clicker gives me a significant clarity and accuracy advantage when training. And I can say I have seen this many many times with even taming a new hand shy bird. I have learned how to use that clicker both from a theoretical stand point and from a physical and mechanical stand point. So for me personally, there is simply no question about if a clicker is a great training tool. Everyone else is free to like it or dislike it as you like. For more on how to actually use positive reinforcement in training, read the articles Clicker & Treat and Positive Reinforcement and Target Training.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Best In Flock Interview

Target Training

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008

See short video of target training. The term "targeting" most commonly refers to training an animal to touch an object or location. It may require the animal to travel to the object or location, and the trainer may specify which part of the animal touches the object. A target stick can be used to lure an animal to a location, such as in or out of a cage or carrier or to a particular perch. I use targeting as part of my initial recall training for flighted birds. Targeting is a simple behavior that has great value as a training aid and training tool. The animal is either doing the behavior or it is not, so it is clear to both trainer and animal when the correct behavior occurs and that helps the animal link the reinforcement to their behavior. Thus it is very useful in helping an animal learn about the rules of learning (if I do something he wants, then I get a goody.) I am an advocate of using a clicker for training because it clearly identifies the precise moment the desired behavior happens. I use a clicker to train targeting. Targeting is a great first behavior to train because the simple behavior of touching a target helps teach the animal the connection between its behavior and how it can do this specific behavior to get a treat. When combined with clicker training, targeting helps the animal more quickly come to understand the meaning of the clicker. There are several reasons training an animal to target is useful. Among them are: 1) Targeting is a useful behavior once learned because it allows you to move the animal to different locations without having to handle it or force it in any way. 2) It is a good behavior to use to help teach the animal what the clicker means 3) Targeting is a great way to teach the bird the 'cause and effect' concept. Giving the bird the ability to feel in control of some of its life is important for its mental health. The bird learns it can influence you to give it treats through selecting its behavior. This is sometimes referred to as "operating on its environment". Targeting is a good behavior to show the animal that it can have some influence on its environment because the behavior is yes or no, without grey areas to be confusing. 4) As your training progresses into more complex behaviors, targeting can be a good behavior to teach the concepts involved in establishing stimulus control. To train targeting you need a target, an animal, and a treat. The first target I use is a stick, a 'target stick'. It has no other function except being my target stick. My animals all know that when that stick comes out, we are about to do some training. They never confuse it with a perch, a pencil or some other functional device. They do not have access to it unless we are training. I use either a chop stick or a one foot long piece of 1/2 PVC pipe with an end cap on each end. One end cap is painted blue and the other red. These can later be used for training the birds to distinguish between different colors. To start, I put the bird on a T perch. I hold the target stick up to the bird and note the bird's reaction. If it recoils in fear, then I "shorten" the target stick by hiding most of it behind my hand/arm. By offering the target stick with most of the length hidden I can offer what appears to the bird to be just the end or the end and a few inches of the target stick. In most cases the bird will touch the target stick without much effort. Initially it does not matter WHY the bird touches/bites the stick (fear, aggression, curiosity, defensive attacks, etc.), it only matters that it does. Again, what matters is that contact with the stick is made. Most often the animal will reach out to the target stick due to curiosity or defensiveness. In either case it may bite the stick or just touch it briefly. Click and treat at the moment of contact. Initially I may resort to putting the stick into the face of the bird so it has little choice but to touch the stick. Usually after only two or three reps like this the bird will become more interested in touching the stick on its own, probably because it is starting to make the connection that there is a good thing that happens after touching this stick. When the bird touches the target stick, I click my clicker at exactly the moment the bird makes contact and I immediately offer the bird a desired treat. I use peanuts or sunflower seeds the most but occasionally use french fries, potato chips, or anything else I happen to have that the bird seems to desire. Your timing is important especially if this is the first behavior the bird is learning. By clicking the clicker at exactly the moment the bird makes contact with the target stick the bird learns that touching the stick earned it the goody. Imprecise timing will make that association more difficult to make. So, practice clicking your clicker by bouncing a ball and clicking at the moment the ball hits the floor, or have a friend touch something while you try to click at the exact moment they touch it. Your friend can tell you whether you clicked at the exact moment. Try video recording your clicking the moment the ball hits the floor then review the video to see how well you are doing. As with all behaviors, the trick is getting the first repetition to happen so you have something to reinforce. It is our goal for the animal to initiate touching the stick, to initiate the action that causes the physical contact to occur. I may sometimes initiate the touching of the stick to the birds beak myself if the bird seems to believe they must bite the stick and I am ready for them to learn to simply touch, not bite the stick. This demonstrates that touching and not biting works to get a click. If the bird is very fearful of the stick you can start clicking for the bird simply looking at the target stick. Then click for its head turning in the direction of the target stick. This will usually lead to the bird becoming curious enough to reach out and touch it. You immediately click and treat. After each such repetition I give them the choice to touch it on their own to see if we are making progress. If not I repeat and then give them the choice again. Once the bird is touching the stick when it is right in front of its face, I then change the criteria so that the stick is now positioned off to the side of the bird's face. The bird then must turn its head to reach over and make contact with the target stick. This is a simple test to see if the bird does in fact understand what is going on. Once the bird will turn its head to touch the target stick we again change the criteria so that the bird must take a step to touch it. Next I work on getting them to walk from one end of the perch to the other to come touch the target stick. I might also work on turning 90 or 180 degrees to touch the target. Then turn 270, then 360 degrees. At this point they are usually starting to "get it" and the progress goes quickly. Then I work on them walking across a table or cage top to reach the target stick. This is a form of "luring" the bird with the target stick since the bird is now moving to the location the target stick is held. The practical application of this is that you can now move the bird from place to place without having to handle it. You can now use the target stick to move the bird in or out of its cage or carrier or to different areas of its cage while feeding or cage cleaning. If your bird bites or is frightened of stepping on your hand, this is useful. After teaching targeting to help generalize the learning process I use my clicker to mark and reinforce other simple behaviors the bird already knows, like step up, step down, etc. This helps the bird generalize the click/treat relationship and how the click marks the behavior that earned the bird the goody. From this I can move on to clicking the bird for letting me touch it on its head or back and eventually putting its head down to be touched. Targeting is a great first step toward such goals. Click here to see a short video of target training. There are no in-betweens, no gray areas.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

To The Perch & Back Again

Training the "Fly To Perch & Back" Game

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008

Flying back and forth between a perch and your arm can be a wonderful game both for training purposes and for entertainment purpose and is great practice to maintaining recall stimulus control as well as build muscle tone when non outdoor flying conditions exist. To start this "game" I first work on getting recall responses from a perch or cage top. This is often started at the same time I am training a cued recall response but may also be trained at any time or age. I start this process by first target training the bird and then use the target to lure the bird to land on my arm. Once I have the bird coming to my arm for a treat I then start placing the bird back onto the perch to eat the treat. I like to use a sizable solid treat like a peanut in the shell for this part of my training so there is a reason for them to return to the perch - to eat the peanut. Once I have them easily stepping onto the perch to eat their treat, I will start asking them to fly to the perch from a foot or two away. This is usually very easy to get started since they already understand the need to get there, to eat their treat. We then continue to systematically increase the distance until they are flying to the perch from the full distance available. For me this training always starts indoors or in an aviary as I want this behavior very reliable indoors before we work on it outdoors. Most often I am using peanuts or sunflower seeds for these treats but have used chips, fries, bread and other snacks. "Do you need to treat for being on the perch?" In the very beginning I might click and treat for being on the perch but normally I do not. I usually click for the flight to my arm, immediately deliver the treat to them and then prevent them from eating the treat until they are on the perch again. "Click for the behavior and treat for position" was a saying Bob Bailey used. I have had the privilege of meeting Bob Bailey on a coupe of occasions and believe he deserves his reputation as the the ultimate in training authority. He have trained more animals than probably anyone on the planet and has an amazingly solid understanding of the sciences involved with animal behavior modification. Anyway, the idea here is to reinforce the desired behavior and use the delivery of the treat to set them up for the next repetition. The click marks the event that earned them the goody but this still leaves us an opportunity to determine where/how the treat gets delivered. This is a secondary function of the treat but it can be helpful. As to if this is important to continue on a regular basis, I do not keep doing this for very long. I will use the treat fly back to the perch to help establish this behavior and once it has been working well for a while then I will fade the treat back to the perch concept. They may or may not get a treat that they can fly back with is what I am saying here. I am not saying that I avoid giving them a treat to fly back with at any time. So in the beginning I am looking to make sure that as I start to teach them to fly to the perch, they have a treat to eat once they get there. But after this behavior becomes established I don't worry about it one way or the other. Usually they seem to react as if the opportunity to do another recall rep is reinforcement enough. This would be a secondary reinforcer just like the click is a secondary reinforcer. Secondary reinforcers can be very powerful if built up correctly. Money is the classic secondary reinforcer example and look at how powerful it is. Once the bird has already figured this out it will often volunteer to fly back to the perch. It wants to be ready to do it again so that it can get another goody. Just so you know, this is way cool, but be aware that such behavior can also take the form of doing a behavior that you do not want so that you will call them away from the item or area they are NOT supposed to be playing with. So keep the alternative form in mind so that when those start happening you can take appropriate action to NOT reinforce the undesired behavior involved.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Building Interest In Food Rewards

Creating A Food Motivated Bird

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008

The problem of not having a food motivated bird is likely a problem of improper food management - I don't mean to offend with this just point out that this condition exists for a reason. Animal trainers SHOULD be managing all of the things the animal desires that we have the ability to limit access to, otherwise the animals are just being housed between training sessions and not really in an over all training program. This includes aspects of social contact, opportunities to play with certain items or with certain friends, food, etc. But food as a tool will be most useful if it is being managed. There are several different approaches to managing food for training purposes that can help you have a bird that is willing to work for food treats. There are a couple approaches that have names many of us are familiar with, though these are not official OC names. Favorite Treat "method" and Weight Management method are probably the two most commonly used. A third approach is used by some on the list but I have not seen a name associated with it. I will here call it Controlled Free Feed method. In addition there are strategies that can be used to make certain items of food more desirable independent of hunger. Weight management is where the animal is given only enough food to be kept at a specific weight. This is one way of making sure the animal remains hungry enough to work for food. Hunger cannot be measured directly but weight can. It can be assumed that if an animal is some amount below its normal weight that the animal is hungry. How hungry is determined by paying close attention to how well the animal responds to training. If the animal is working well at a given weight then that weight means the animal is hungry enough to be interested in the offered food items. Adjusting the weight until the animal's performance is at a desired response level is the key to weight management programs. There are some potential dangers to new people using weight management. A similar thing can happen with weight management as happens with the use of punishment. The trainer is reinforced for successful application of aversives when punishment seemed to work and thus has a tendency to continue or increase use of punishment methods in the future. So too can weight management have a similar problem. If lowering the animal's weight produced results then the trainer is reinforced and thus more likely to lower weight again. If not approached with a serious focus on the animals response levels, this can easily turn into a mind set of "lower the weight if there is a problem". That is not always the right thing to do and like with punishment can result in inhumane treatment of the animal or worse be dangerous to the animals health. There is also the problem of the new trainer not understanding what is causing the animal to fail to perform. There are many reasons an animal might not perform a task, hunger is only one of them. If the trainer misidentifies the reason as being not hungry enough then the trainer will likely lower the weight again. The real problem might have been a distracting/disturbing item in the area or an illness or various other factors that can reduce responses independent of hunger. Reducing the animals weight for the wrong reasons can be dangerous to the animals health and general well being. An animal whose weight is lowered too low will exhibit serious signs of stress and other undesirable symptoms. Favorite Treat Method (an unofficial name) is focused more on the selection of the treat item rather than the animals hunger level or weight. The main idea is to find items of food that the animal desires for reasons other than just being hungry. Food is desirable for many reasons: the animal enjoys the flavor or taste, enjoys the texture or feel, enjoys the act of opening the item to get to it (sunflower seeds seem to be more enjoyed when in the hull), or the animal is feeling hungry and eating the item will help reduce those feelings of hunger. Selecting an item of food for training that the animal desires and will WORK for is the key to this method. Like with weight management, the animal's response level is the key element that defines how effective the item is. Where weight management is mostly gauging level of hunger, favorite treat is mostly gauging how desirable the item is. Obviously the two methods have some common elements and can be used concurrently. The Controlled Free Feed method (unofficial name) I have seen is limiting access to food until a specific time of day, at which time the animal can eat all it wants. No weight is measured since the animal does free feed when given access to the food and thus weight loss is not part of this approach. This approach is also mostly focused on the use of hunger to motivate the animal but does also include an element of routine. Animals will often do things in a routine so once a routine is established it can be easier to get them to do certain behaviors, like go back onto a cage at the same time everyday. Feeding routines can also be adjusted to get the best performance for optimal times of day - late evenings will be easier to get birds to go to roost thus easier to feed and get them back into a cage at this time of day. Strategies for Increasing Interest in food items can include: limiting access to that particular food item; limiting the kinds of food they get when not eating this food item (feeding less exciting food for a period of time or full time will increase value of favorite item - feeding pellets will make seeds as treats more valuable); letting them occasionally get truly hungry can help them understand that food is valuable when it is present; and periods (days to weeks) when the animal does not have free access to foods all the time will make feeding opportunities more valuable - they may like an item but not be interested in it during training because they think it or another will be there whenever they feel like getting around to it. Some of these will need to be implemented more frequently to keep food items valued during training sessions and others will only need to be learned once. But the key focus here is to make the items of food valued independent of hunger. Myself I use mostly the favorite treat method and sometimes boost its effectiveness by controlling their access to food prior to training, thus adding some appetite/hunger interest in the food beyond the desire for the item of taste etc. I also use most of the strategies for increasing interest in food items. When on the road doing shows we do use the controlled free feeding method - the birds are fed all they want when returning to the motor home at the end of our 6 hour day. I almost never find myself needing to resort to withholding food to reduce weight. Other inherent interests the birds have can also be used for training. Interests such as social needs, play needs, security needs, pair bonding needs, etc. Each of these though will take “building” up to a level and manner usable for training. Anything the animal desires that you can control access to and that you can dispense in a timely and controlled manner is potentially a good reinforcer for training purposes. The more of these alternatives we have available and know how to use, the more effective we will be at getting the behavior we desire from our animals.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Indoor Recall Training

Indoor Recall Training A Young Bird

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008

When starting with a baby parrot (6-8 weeks old), the first task is to just let the baby grow and feel secure. During most of the infant phase it will mostly sleep, eat and poop. During this phase we are spending some time everyday just holding the baby or letting it rest on a towel on our chest as we recline in a chair. This helps the young bird develop a sense of security in your presence. This is similar to what the parents are doing, just being there with the baby. We have never had any of our babies have clingy social issues later in their lives as some people claim will happen if you give them "too much human attention" at this age. I believe that allowing them to fledge and fly at this early age elicits a host of natural and instinctive behavior, such as independent thinking, that directly counters clingy behavior. Our babies have each gone through a dispersal stage, somewhat similar to human teenager phase, and in some cases, if we do not pay them enough attention, they more resemble wild birds than pets as they mature. As thee babies body starts to become more covered with feathers the baby will start becoming more active and become more interested in observing the surroundings. At this stage they can become playful for short bursts but quickly tire and if they feel secure will often just fall asleep where ever they are and in some of the most humorous positions. If they do not feel secure, like if in a different room, they may attempt to find something to hide under - we supply an upside down cardboard box with a suitable sized doorway cut in the side for them to enter the box as they feel the need. The ability to retreat from scary objects or conditions and then advance again to further investigate as they feel comfortable is critically important to their development. At this age they are usually partially feathered and hand-feeding several times a day. They will often start wing-flapping exercises even before they have any wing feathers. At about the time their bodies are becoming fully covered by feathers they will become much more active and eager to spend time with you out of the nest. Notice the wing feathers because as the wing feathers grow to the point that the outer flights start to cross behind their backs, these little birds are about ready to start making flights. Within a week or two, depending on the size of the bird, there will be a noticeable change and the bird will suddenly start making flights in the room. It is much like a switch has been turned on and once it starts there is no stopping it. Watch the shaft of the flight feather as they will turn from filled with dark fluid to clear as the feather matures. The process of natural selection has designed the baby bird to bring both the flight feathers and sufficient mental facilities to maturity at the same time in order to be ready to make those first flights from the nest. Once the flight feather shafts turn clear, the baby has mature feathers and can and will fly. Initially the bird will make flights to get to some place it desperately wants to reach, usually not very far away. Often these are flights to or toward you. Sometimes they may be hops across the floor or short flights up to a higher perch. A lot depends on where you let them spend time playing. We often have them supervised on the floor with an assortment of toys. At this point we are not doing any training, only continued socializing and confidence building. We select the room to be fairly small so should they become startled and take off suddenly they cannot build up enough speed to hurt themselves should they hit a wall or window. Usually we do not have such troubles with a bird that feels secure in the room it is playing in. Within a few days the bird will gain enough confidence to start making exploratory flights just for the joy and practice of making flights. These flights will usually have no easily identified destination and often result in the bird circling around the room and landing where it started. They have now demonstrated a level of self-confidence that I feel is sufficient to start teaching them some cause and effect relationships. In the wild these birds would now be following mom and dad around being shown how to be a parrot. This would include finding and identifying food and water sources, how to identify and react to dangerous conditions such as predators, flying as part of a flock, communicating with other flock members, etc.. To me this seems the appropriate time to start my formal training with them. At this stage I start "capturing" the first behavior elements of recall - flying to me. Recall is coming to you when called. At first though, every time the bird flies to you, it gets something it wants, be it food, snuggling, head scratch or just plain being with you. Initially you will not have established a cued response - the cue is you signaling (calling and/or raised arm) the bird to come to you. At this stage you should reinforce the bird every time it flies to you, even the non-cued flights to you. The primary goal of recall is establishing a way to get the bird to come to you when you ask. At this age and stage in development getting the bird to come to you should be fairly simple. Getting it to recognize it should do so when you call it may take a little work but should happen fairly quickly. As the training progresses we raise the criteria so the bird must come when cued to get goodies for doing so. But initially, all flights to you count and should be encouraged and followed by a reinforcement of some kind. I encourage you to read more about stimulus control. I then turn this captured recall behavior into a fun game of flying back and forth from me to a perch on cue. I will slowly start to ask the bird to fly to me in places where I am partially visible and then not visible, like around a corner in another room or through a door. In doing all this you are teaching the bird to come to the sound of your voice (not just respond to your raised arm) so should you have a problem with the bird when it gets outside it will already know how to find you even if it cannot see you. "At this stage, what else should I be doing?" I start clicker training the bird just as soon as it will eat solid foods. I start with targeting, touch the end of a target stick.
  • √ First they must just touch it,
  • √ then they must move their head in a different direction to reach over and touch the end of the stick,
  • √ then they must move their feet a bit to come touch the target stick,
  • √ then they must walk the length of the perch to come touch the target stick,
  • √ then they must walk the length of the perch and step across from the perch onto my arm (held against the perch) to touch the stick,
  • √ then they must step across a small gap between my arm and the perch to get to my arm to touch the stick,
  • √ then they must hop across a slightly larger gap to get to my arm to touch the stick,
  • √ then across a little larger gap,
  • √ then two foot gap to get to my arm,
  • √ then four foot, etc.
and at some point they only need to land on my arm and no longer need to touch the target stick. You now have a lured recall. Start adding a cue to signal that you want them to fly to your arm before showing them the target stick over your arm. At some point you can fade out the target stick and only use the cue to get them to fly to your arm. You now have the start of a cued recall. Next you will start NOT reinforcing for every recall response. You will start being selective of which recall responses were not cued or too slow - depending on your birds responses you may want to work on these two issues one at a time. Those are the ones you occasionally do not reinforce. Note that I am not saying that you suddenly stop reinforcing all non cued or slow recall response. You will not reinforce the non cued or slow responses to keep the reinforcement rate at about 80% (4 out of 5) though so try to keep track of how many recall responses out of 5 were reinforced. I highly encourage teaching the bird to fly to a perch and then back to you. In most baby birds that I have raised and trained the fly to me part was super easy to get started. The fly to a perch took only slightly more work. At this stage the bird is probably starting to eat solid foods and still eating hand feeding formula or softened pellets also. Find a solid food the bird really likes and then offer that when they fly to you and then send them back a short distance to the perch to eat the item. This way they learn that flying to you gets them goodies and then they have a reason to fly back to the perch: to eat the goody. Build this into a fun game starting short distance (whatever it will do initially) and expand that distance as the bird is capable until you are fully using the indoor space you have available. Then start calling the bird when you are just visible partially around a corner or just inside a doorway. Do this a few times then try it when you are completely behind the corner where the bird cannot see you. At first you may need to let the bird see an arm or your face to help them learn this step - this is called object permanence, the ability to track an object once it disappears behind another object. Expand this game until the bird is responding to your calls and is finding you in various places in the house. When you have all this done then we can start thinking about what is needed to go outside and start this all over again. I would also encourage giving an indoor flyer time in a cage outdoors near your home. You never know when the bird will escape out a door or window and it greatly increases the chances of the bird staying close to home, and thus being easier to recover, if the bird is calm, comfortable and familiar with the area it is loose in.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

Stimulus Control

Written By Chris Biro, Copyright 2008

Often people have problems with training one behavior because they have not yet finished training the previous behaviors they think they have already "trained". Recall is just such a behavior that often gets only partially trained. Whether a behavior is fully trained or not is a question of how well you have established stimulus control. Stimulus control has several levels and each level is trained through its own step. Step 1) Getting the animal to do the desired behavior at all. This is usually trained by any method necessary to get the bird to initially do the behavior. For recall training that would start out with getting the bird to fly to you for any reason. Step 2) Getting the desired behavior to occur after being cued. Usually trained by offering the cue immediately prior to when you KNOW the behavior will occur. For recall this means that some time after you call the bird it will come to you. Step 3) Getting a quick response to the cue. This is usually taught by a shaping routine where the quicker responses are always reinforced and/or more heavily and the really slow responses are not reinforced (or reinforced only occasionally) but the intermediate responses are still lightly reinforced. For recall the bird should immediately begin heading in your direction. I understand Steve Martin is really big on a "window of opportunity" to perform the behavior. The animal is offered the cue and has a certain amount of time to respond and earn the reinforcement. After that time expires, no reinforcement is offered for the behavior. And the cue is not offered again until some time later. This way the animal learns to offer the behavior immediately upon receiving the cue. Step 4) The animal does the desired behavior only when properly cued and at no other time. This is usually trained by tightening the criteria so that ONLY correct responses are reinforced. This is one that I personally have for some time been uncomfortable with training my flighted birds. However, I am beginning to see that not training this step leads to confusion and overall poor performance. I always enjoyed that my birds often fly to me on their own volition and I would like them to continue to be able to do so. But what I think I need to do is to train them to have a "free time" cue that means they are free to do what ever they wish. The idea is to establish a clear "working mode" and a "free time mode". I have had some trouble with Cosmo (B&G) at the fairs with this issue and can see how this would really help things out a lot. Cosmo has this tendency to want to fly to me constantly during the show but if I work to stop her during the show, she then feels uncomfortable flying to me at all. She does not understand that there are times flying to me uncued is ok and other times when it is not ok. Training a free time mode should help this. For some people 100% recall means to them that they can get their bird back every time. They may be good at adjusting the antecedents to get the bird to do what they want but may not actually have good stimulus control. This is really more how I have worked with my birds. I am very good at manipulating the antecedents and as such have been bit lazy on establishing good stimulus control. After watching some good dog training I am convinced I need to get more serious about good stimulus control. I believe that such is equally trainable with our birds and is as immensely valuable to us owners of freeflighted birds as it is to owners of competitive dogs. If your bird doesn't understand the one cue/one response concept, placing them into a new environment will cause confusion over what is acceptable and what is not. Which time when you call do you really mean to come? What other conditions have to be met before you really mean it? Do you need to have treats visible, do you have to have the special target stick visible, have you been clicking other behaviors? This is like when people train their dogs to sit, and say "sit fido, sit, sit, sit" and then can not figure out why when they take their dog to a party, the dog will not sit when they say "sit fido". Fido doesn't understand 'sit fido' as a cue to sit (he probably has not generalized 'sit' to other locations yet either), he knows "sit fido, sit, sit, sit" (and only in certain familiar locations). Training an animal to full stimulus control can be a lot of fun and it has many rewards. And the more often you do this, the easier it becomes. Not only will the trainer get better with his/her training skills but the animal will generalize the behavior of "Learning Stimulus Control" and "get it" more quickly.
Parrots: More Than Pets, Friends For Life Chris Biro