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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

Empowerment vs. Coercion

Written by Chris Biro, Copyright 2-13-2009

A freeflight list member wrote "I am reading all these messages about the benefit of empowering parrots. This sounds like something I need for my birds as food training is starting to bore them. Can someone please explain what empowering is and simple training examples? Thanks." I think the concept of empowering is about helping the bird figure out it can control elements of its environment, namely us. The trick to good bird training is helping them see that through their actions they can cause us to do things they want us to do. Training with positive reinforcement sends exactly that message. The trouble is in how to communicate this concept to the bird. Since we do not speak their language it is all about communication through body language. We use body language in the sense that we communicate through motions, sounds, inflections and timing - by sounds I am talking about sounds that do not already have dictionary definitions associated with them (like words do) 😀 . We use a bridging signal (the click) to mark the moment in time the bird did that special something that triggered you to give the bird something it wanted (the seed or nut). In this way the bird can learn to recognize what behavior it does that influences you. For the bird to feel empowered, we have to do our part in the above process. The bird cannot influence us if we do not play the game in a consistent manner. So by empowering, we make it possible for the bird to feel it has some control by actually volunteering some responsibility to comply with its requests. These requests are not just about it choosing to do what we ask, but also allowing it the choice not to do some things we ask. WIthout the freedom to choose not to comply, there is in fact no actual choice involved. Empowering is creating a training environment where the bird truly does have choices that do influence your behavior in ways the bird wants. When we use a clicker we are using a unique sound precisely timed to make the communication process more clear and more accurate. If you don't think the clicker makes that much difference, I would say try training a chicken to peck a spot without the clicker and this will become more clear. A freeflight list member wrote "Everyone seems to keep thinking that empowering the bird is actually giving them full control. I don't think that is what it is. I think it is allowing them to BELIEVE they have full control." I agree, empowering does not mean they have full control of their lives. Empowering grants them certain control of various aspects of their lives and the ability to recognize what they have control over and what they do not. The later part is often hard to keep clear both for the trainer and the bird. "It doesn't necessarily mean they do but they believe they do." I think this is a dangerous slippery slope you are on. It is not easy to keep up this appearance unless it is real. There is a dishonest component to this way of thinking that I believe the birds will quickly see through. When I am using a clicker to work with a bird, the bird does not just think it has control to get me to click and treat. It truly does. But only because I have agreed to this rule and faithfully honor it. The control the bird feels must be real. It is made real by my level of commitment to keeping it real through my actions. This is not about faking the bird out often enough that it stays willing to participate. It is about setting clear rules and boundaries so both of us are on the same page. Those rules are defined so that I get what I want and the bird gets what it wants. It just so happens I want the bird to be happy and mentally healthy so I expand the bird's choices in all areas I think will let us harmoniously live together. In some situations that does not grant the bird very many choices. In other situations the bird has lots of choices. And both of us understand these rules. That is certainly not granting total control. But this seems to be a workable solution for my birds in my situation. A freeflight member writes "I believe that most of us that have flighted birds indoors do a lot of manipulation, or just quietly lure them back into their cages before things get out of hand." Manipulation I think is another word for control. Control is part of everyday life and is absolutely ok in many instances. It is not ok when it becomes coercive. No one complains when they are controlled by positive reinforcement methods. It is when the control takes on coercive components that we dislike it. Even if it involves being set up to face situations that involve removing something we wish to avoid (negative reinforcement). Control is not bad. Coercive control is bad. Knowing what the difference is is good <grin>. "What is coercive manipulation and why is it bad?" Great question. Coercive manipulation or coercive control is the use of aversives or the threat of aversives to get an animal to do as we would like. It also includes our practice of rewarding them by allowing them to escape our use of aversives or our threat of aversives. So if you look carefully at this definition you would see this includes three of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. Positive Punishment, Negative Punishment and Negative Reinforcement. The first two are pretty obviously coercive. The Negative Reinforcement though can confuse people into thinking it is not coercive just because it contains the concept of reinforcement in the name. But lets not forget that to set the animal up to be able to remove an undesirable factor first requires you to provide that negative factor and at such a rate that the animal truly desires to be free of it. That is setting up a coercive situation. I see Coercion as the exact opposite of Empowerment. As such it is not possible to empower through coercive methods. So why is this bad? Aside from ethical issues, from a practical position, the negative side effects are often worse than the original problem. There are many reasons we turn to use of aversives and coercion. Primarily because it often works in the short term and thus is reinforcing for us. Thus we tend to use it again (as is what happens to any behavior that is reinforced). But those two words "short term" that create the problem. Coercive methods may bring about short term results but the long term effects accumulate to create serious problems. One of the problems is that successful use of punishment encourages additional use of punishment. Use of aversives can quickly become the norm rather than the exception. Another serious side effect is the secondary punisher effect. When a neutral stimulus becomes associated with an aversive the neutral stimulus also then takes on the punishing qualities of the original aversive stimulus. This pairing process is how the person who applies punishment to control behavior also becomes viewed as an aversive stimulus. If the bird connects you with the punishment, then you will become an aversive. If this intelligent animal comes to see you as the withholder of all the fun things it wants, it will come to see you as an aversive. If it feels coerced by you to perform against its will then you can become an aversive. Just like there are primary and secondary reinforcers, there are also primary and secondary punishers. The difference between primary (unconditioned) and secondary (conditioned) is the primary is inherently punishing while the secondary gains its punitive qualities through association with another punisher. Often the difference is described as the secondary is learned. This is generally true but not entirely accurate since there are learned components to many primary punishers (as well as primary reinforcers). I personally see the above two problems with coercion as the two most serious and most likely to be encountered by animal trainers. There are many others undesirable potential side effects such as learned helplessness, depression, displaced aggression, escape, avoidance, loss of creativity, loss of motivation, phobias, compulsive behavior, etc. I suspect that many of the behavioral disorders we see in parrots are directly related to the amount of coercion in the animal's life. Most live in coercive enclosures that remove by force nearly all choice and action from their lives. We do not need to add to this by intentionally using coercive methods when positive alternatives exist. With that said, we should also not swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and pretend aversives are not part of life or tools in our training tool box. We need to strive for using positive methods whenever possible and always be aware that as our skill with positive methods increases, so will our ability to find positive solutions increase. Setting boundaries is a critically important element to living with parrots. The ability to do so with positive reinforcement and minimal coercion is both an art and a goal. A freeflight member wrote "I'm confused at how we are using the word manipulation and missing the fact that if a bird chooses to do something, regardless of if we set it up that way, it is somehow implying they don't have choice or that it is demeaning. It is entirely how life works for all of us. If the consequence for doing a behavior is desired, I choose that. If a bird learns that doing xxx behavior gives it something more worthwhile than yyy behavior what was manipulated? Don't lose sight of the fact that it is only the one doing the behavior that decides if a consequence is reinforcing." I think the problem here is that the word "manipulation" and the word "control" have gained negative connotations due to how they are often misused. We manipulate our food as we eat it. We control our cars as we drive. It is only when that control or manipulation is done through a coercive method that there is a negative component to either. Control by itself is normal and neutral. The method of control is what makes all the difference. A bird may have been set up to choose between two bad options of avoiding two things it does not like, and may choose the lesser of the evils. The fact that it did make a choice, then did the behavior and that it was "reinforced" by its own perception does not mean the control/manipulation was good. There was still a coercive component. The one doing the behavior does define if a stimulus is reinforcing or not by its future behavior but I as the trainer also can detect coercive methods and avoid them when possible. Setting the animal up to face choices to avoid something only so that I can remove it, thus I am using reinforcement, is still a coercive approach. That distinction needs to be understood. Positive reinforcement is always preferred over negative reinforcement or either punishment (positive or negative) because it is the only quadrant that does not contain a coercive element. A freeflight list member wrote "I believe a bird can get empowered without me in the formula, as I know a child can be empowered if we let her be creative." There is a difference in meaning between the two words, POWER and EMPOWER. As you can see both have a common root of power. But the later, empower, implies the assistance of an outsider rather than inherent power. I cannot empower a wild bird because it has all its natural power in its unrestricted freedom and full compliment of natural behaviors and skills. But the pet bird does not have that same set of conditions. In fact it has very few natural powers available to it since I control its cage time, food, toys, and every other aspect I wish to control due to my position of superior physical strength. On the other hand though, I can choose to grant it back some of that power through my voluntarily not using all my physical constraint options and allow the bird to actually have some control over various elements of its life. That not only grants the bird some actual control but it also eases the stresses and negative fall out associated with coercive control, especially from learned helplessness. "So, are you telling that you just can empower a bird IF you are involved?! I mean, empowering it's not only having influence on your actions BUT have influence on the environment and you are just a part of that environment." There is more to it than just me being involved. It comes down to how I am involved. The concept of contingency is important. "A very good example is foraging. Foraging does empower a bird and you probably aren't there!" Foraging is an example of empowerment but maybe not a good example for this discussion. The animal does certain things that have a contingent relationship to finding certain food items. When our birds are loose outdoors in Moab they use us as foraging sources of goodies. They choose to come interact with us, knowing they can cause us to give them peanuts. They also first thing in the morning go forage on wild juniper berries. But this only works because I have enabled them to do this by giving them the freedom to go do these things. I could just as easily keep them caged or on a tight mental leash and not allow them to go do these things. So this is an example of foraging as empowerment but on a much different scale then most people will offer their birds. This example may actually confuse people about what empowerment is because our birds do have the power to feed on juniper berries but this only happens because have given them freedom and skills needed to be out doing so. "If you left some hidden items in the cage and your bird is able to find them, then he will perceive that he can get something from the environment on his own.... try to rise the difficulty of finding those items and he will try harder... and will feel even more empowered than before. Don't you agree?" Yes I do agree but I don't think this really fits into what people mean when they talk about empowering in training discussions. "I found this can be a good technique to "no hands" birds. Or with birds that are afraid of you. You can even build the confidence of the bird without being present... even so, the bird will be empowered, thinking he can rule his environment." It is not really about ruling the bird's environment, because the bird does not rule it. I think it should not feel it does rule when in fact it does not. That to me is asking for problems that do not need to exist. I think it needs to understand it has some things it can influence through its actions and others it cannot. This is simply how life works for all of us. It also needs to recognize the contingency element, the cause and effect element. As per my understanding of what "spoiled means - getting things without respect to any actions. A spoiled child is not empowered by thinking it can do whatever it wants or that it rules everyone. Empowerment involves an element of having power. Power is the ability to make things happen. The spoiled child does not actually make anything happen. It gets what it wants without a contingent element connecting its behavior to what it gets. It acts with out concern for the contingent consequences. Empowerment is helping the bird have actual power and then helping it recognize what power it has. Birds who live in a cage do not really have much power unless we give them some through our voluntary effort. It is kind of like the cursor on your computer. You do have control of it but only in as much as the mouse enables you to move it around. If the mouse fails to comply, you lose your power over the cursor. You as the trainer are the mouse that enables the parrot to move the cursor. As such this becomes a team effort. You become codependents. Empowering implies a reliance on you to fulfill certain commitments and duties so that the bird can come to feel it has real power. Empowerment also is commonly used to indicate someone who offers support to another person. This is true with our birds too. But since we do keep them in cages, and control most aspects of their lives, it takes on a slightly more active role for us than simply offering support. It requires us to give back a certain amount of the freedom we are able to keep from them. As the controllers of their freedom, the more freedom we are able return, the more we are empowering them. A freeflight list member wrote "Could have sworn that is what I said when I learn from the consequences of those choices. Past consequences form future antecedents. Consequences come in all forms. Remember, its what behavior is all about. I learn that if I do xxx I don't like the consequence so given the same situation again, I will make a different choice." Not exactly, but close. My point was to distinguish good decision making from just making decisions. There is a skill to this that can be learned with practice and guidance. Learning to make choices based on consequences starts very early in life. But learning to consistently make good choices is a little different because in this case the "good" is defined by us, the handler. Therefore we have to be consistent in our rules, how we apply them and our methods. This takes teamwork between us and the bird if it is going to be successful in the sense of empowering the bird. No matter how we look at this it always involves more than just offering choices for empowerment to work. It takes an active role on our part to help make those choices effective and in the animal's and our best interests. So actually we both must learn to help make good choices, not just choices. A freeflight member wrote "I watched Biro's birds at liberty in Moab last October and they are truly empowered. I cannot see how it apples to our captive birds whom we are constantly manipulating." Yes when our at liberty birds are loose outdoors they are empowered in ways most bird owners cannot even imagine. In their indoor cages, they are still the same wonderful birds even though they have far fewer options while caged. So in some ways they are living with the two extremes - near total control and nearly no control. It is one of the reasons we love to go to Moab and I believe also why they appear so happy while there. I cannot build large enough cages and have come to recognize this as part of the lifestyle changes that come with keeping flighted parrots. It is much more like keeping horses in that we need the right location and set up to do it "right". Empowerment by itself does not equate to high quality of life. It is only a part of developing quality of life. Empowering a bird in a cage to have control of various bits of its caged life can help but may still leave the owner feeling their bird has insufficient quality of life. My point here is to suggest people not confuse the two issues. This brings up yet another aspect of empowerment. It is not enough to just be faced with a choice. It is not enough to also have the option to choose not to take the handler's preferred choice. It is not enough to have several elements that the bird has control over in its life. There is also the necessary component of developing the ability to make effective choices. There is power in being able to think through an issue and make a good choice. To teach them this ability though involves their meeting both with results they like and results they might wish to avoid. In other words, they need not only to experience the spoils of doing things you want but also the effects of facing boundaries. Boundaries are terribly important and actually help empower the bird. But setting boundaries and maintaining them can be a really tricky line to establish without being coercive. It is easy to go past boundary setting into coercive manipulation. Being able to make effective choices can help the bird learn to coexist with us in our world. Their natural tendencies were designed for a completely different environment. But that does not mean they cannot learn to adapt to the environment we keep them. Flight is certainly one way we help them fit into both worlds. But the key for flight to work in this respect is effective decision making. Effective decision making is equally important for non flighted birds. Teaching what the boundaries are and how to make good choices to effectively work within those boundaries expands the level of freedom you can give the bird. This then is empowering since it grants them greater power over their lives.
Parrots: more than pets, friends for life. Chris Biro

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