Training Tidbit – 5 common mistakes to avoid when training your parrot with positive reinforcement

Everyone should be aware that parrots are difficult to keep in our homes. It is MANDATORY that you enrich their lives, through toys, foraging, social interaction, variety and training. Start by training simple behaviours using positive reinforcement. It is the most effective, least intrusive form of training available. Studies have shown that animals learn faster, and retain more, when being taught with positive reinforcement training. Scared to start? Here are the five most common mistakes when training: (and what to do about them)

  1. Using the wrong reinforcer. Identify many things your bird loves. It may be food, it may be treats, it may be a mirror, it may be head rubs, it may be tea, it may be Kleenex, etc. Whatever your bird LOVES goes on the list. If you aren’t sure, or a previous reinforcer has lost its value, test it. Take 5 items and present them together, whichever your bird chooses first is the most valuable right now!
  2. Having bad timing. It is easiest for our birds to learn what we are asking if we are clear to them. By giving them a reinforcer when they are doing the right behaviour we are helping them understand what we would like them to do. Too early, or too late, will be confusing for your bird and will make training harder. Try using a marker signal (like a clicker) to be even more clear!
  3. Reinforcing the wrong thing. This is easy to do. When your bird jumps off his play gym, and you run over to put him back on, you may be inadvertently reinforcing the jump /off/. If you want him to stay on his gym, give him attention /before/ he leaves. Staying on the gym is a great way to /get/ your attention!
  4. Thinking you can stop reinforcing stuff they ‘already know’. If your bird is skilled at behaviours like step up, or recall, you may fall into the trap of letting the reinforcement stop. If your bird is very reliable, that’s great, but make sure to give a reinforcer for his effort. This is especially important in challenging or complex situations. An intermittent schedule of reinforcement will help behaviours from degrading.
  5. Making things too hard. When teaching new behaviours, it is best to take small baby steps towards your goal. There are huge benefits to small approximations, such as high rate of reinforcement (they get it right quickly and often), and errorless learning (they don’t have to get it wrong to get it right). If your bird seems lost, cut him some slack. Make it easier, and teach smaller baby steps.

The BIGGEST training mistake: Using punishment. IE: taps on the beak, ‘earthquake’ shaking, laddering, holding the bird down, tossing the bird off you, pushing into the birds chest, grabbing the bird, spraying with water, etc. Any and all forceful means of interacting with your bird will destroy trust. With trust being the basis of a good relationship with our birds, it is not recommended to use any method that will degrade that trust.

The ways of the past are being amended. As we know better; we do better. Our birds deserve the best! With positive reinforcement, there is no corner that you can’t train your way out of!

– Robin Horemans KPACTP

www.calgarybirdschool.com