Here are a few Parrot Training Success Stories from the pages of Good Bird Magazine.

Harness training an African Grey Parrot by Stephanie Ernst
An Amazing Parrot With A Difficult Past Learns To Trust By Rebecca Bone
When Hands And Water Bottles Are Extremely Scary By Sheralin Conkey
What's The Hurry by Gay Noeth
Training Pepe by Rita M. Sambruna
Dolly's Story by Terry DeBrow

Harness Training an African Grey Parrot

by Stephanie Ernst

Last fall I purchased a wonderful baby African Grey parrot. I named him Dexter. One of the first things I wanted to do was to train him to wear a harness. Because he was not yet weaned I was not able to take him home initially after I purchased him. Fortunately I lived close enough to the woman who was raising Dexter to visit him weekly. During each visit I worked on what I thought to be “harness training.” At first, Dexter was compliant and allowed the harness to be secured onto his body. However very quickly he grew to hate the harness and would fly off at the sight of it. I was determined I was going to train him to wear the harness. When I got him home, I decided we would work even harder on his harness training. However my strategy wasn’t working. It was terrible and very frustrating. Although I was able to get the harness on Dexter, he did not like it. In addition it took me awhile to get it off. In the process I was bitten several times. Boy was Dexter trying to tell me something!

African Grey ParrotsI was very frustrated. I thought I had done everything “right.” I had purchased a confident and social baby parrot. I read every book I could find on parrots and behavior. Then, I found some very interesting articles on training with “positive reinforcement”. After a few weeks, I decided to try out some of the things I had read. Nothing I had read dealt specifically with harness  training. However the concept of positive reinforcement training seemed quite simple and I felt I could apply it to my situation.
I crushed up some almonds (Dexter’s favorite treat) and went to work. Another thing that presented a potential challenge was that Dexter was flighted. However I viewed this as a way to help me learn to be more sensitive to Dexter. Flight would make it that much easier for Dexter to say, “No.” If he did not like what I was doing, he could simply fly away. I learned to be very patient and use lots of treats to keep him interested. I started his training by putting him on a small table about chest height to me and tapping on the table. This became a cue for him to come to me. Although Dexter never became fearful of me, I still wanted it to be his choice to come to me to participate in a training session. When he saw the treats, he came quickly and was immediately positively reinforced with almond pieces.

After a couple of sessions of coming to me on the table, I got out his harness and set it on the table next to me. I would tap on the table and say “Come here” and he had to walk past the harness to get to me and his treat. Next he had to touch his harness to get his treat. He then had to allow me to touch him with the harness to get his treat. He was so funny and learned very quickly. When I would put the harness up to him I said, “Be still”. I would move the harness very slowly. He was so adorable standing perfectly still with his head down so I could put the harness on him. At first, I would hold the strap around his neck and continue saying, “Be still.” Before finally snapping it, I wanted to be sure he would not fly off with the harness only half way on. He never did. After the first time I snapped it, I also immediately unsnapped it. I always wanted to try to stay one step ahead of him so I could back off before he started showing any signs of being uncomfortable.

One of the biggest challenges I found with harness training is the potential to scare the bird if the harness is not fully secured. Once you get one of the snaps snapped, the bird is only wearing the harness partially. It is important the bird does not fly away with the harness dangling around him. This could cause the bird to be frightened of the harness in the future.
Each harness training session lasted only about 5 minutes and always ended with the “jackpot.” Now, I can put his harness on him without a problem. He still gets almond pieces as positive reinforcement for wearing the harness; however he will also accept other positive reinforcement like attention and head scratches.

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An Amazing Parrot With A Difficult Past Learns To Trust

By Rebecca Bone

African Grey ParrotsI got a copy of Barbara Heidenreich’s book “Good Bird! A Guide to Solving Behavior Problems in Companion Parrots” from her when she came to speak at the Oklahoma Avicultural Society’s regular meeting. I read it from cover to cover several times and began using the techniques outlined in the book. I have a double yellow headed Amazon parrot, named Regal, that was deathly afraid of hands. I have had her for six months now. I started using the techniques in the book a couple of days after the meeting. Want to know something? Regal wouldn’t let a hand near her at the time we met. Now she will step up, let me touch her feet and chest and just today she bent her head down and closed her eyes for a scritch! I was ecstatic! I squealed like a little kid! Barbara’s book helped me a great deal. Here is more about Regal and how she came to be such a special bird to me.

Regal, a double yellow headed Amazon parrot was in the worst shape of any bird I have rescued so far. Prior to acquiring her, she had been fed only sunflower seeds for a long period of time. Her diet of sunflower seeds led to her beak getting weak and brittle. Over time the beak began to break and flake apart. As far as my veterinarian and I could determine, a fungal infection got into the flakes and deteriorated her nares. When I brought her home she could barely breathe from one of the remaining openings. She breathed from her beak most of the time.

Regal was also underweight and her feathers were in poor condition. Her chest was only partially feathered. She also had part of a sticky fly strip stuck to her back. This unfortunately had also collected fecal matter, in addition to bugs. My veterinarian helped remove the fly strip, since it also removed feathers as we pulled it off. It was really stuck to her. Her nails were so long they curled back around into her feet. The back of her head had been pecked by the larger birds in the aviary. As you can imagine, developing a relationship based on trust was going to be a difficult challenge.

Fortunately Regal’s story and condition changed for the better. Her weight is now very good and she has regained strength in her legs. She has even taken a few short flights. Her beak has changed colors, from the grey unhealthy tissue to more normal, pinkish Amazon parrot type beak. The veterinarian put her under anesthesia and opened up her nares so she can breathe better. The beak most likely will never be totally normal due to the cell damage at its beginnings. But the flakiness is getting better as the healthy material grows out. I have had to soften her pellets for her but am able to gradually decrease the amount of water I have been putting in them. Hopefully she will be able to eat normally someday.

She seems a lot happier now and even plays with me some. With the help of positive reinforcement training she is becoming a happy bird. I was sitting on the kitchen floor making my seed mix for the other 26 birds here just the other night. Regal’s cage is in the dining area. Her cage is open 24 hours 7 days a week in hopes that she would someday venture from it. Until last night she never had. I was sitting on the floor and I heard her calling ‘mom, mom, mom!’ as I was talking to her. The next thing I know she was scaling down the front of her cage. She dropped to the floor and proceeded to waddle over to me. She climbed up my leg and just looked at me for a minute. The whole time I was telling her she was a “good girl”. I was so ecstatic to see her actually leave her cage. She then grabbed the edge of the 18 gallon tote that I was using to mix seed. She proceeded to climb up the tote. She gave squawk and then dove head first into the seeds! I was laughing so hard at her that I didn’t have the heart to take her out of the seeds. She ran around the tote picking out the first seeds she had been able to eat in a long time. She was having a blast and my heart was melting to see her so happy and content. She jabbered the whole time she was munching seeds. She is very special to me.

This parrot didn’t have a name when I got her. It took me a while to come up with the perfect name for her...Regal. I gave her this name when I brought her home because the soul trapped inside was truly Regal and spoke wonders about her ability to survive. She’s a survivor and has come so far since that day I got to meet Barbara and really begin learning how to help Regal and all my other rescues.

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When Hands And Water Bottles Are Extremely Scary

By Sheralin Conkey

My African grey parrot came to me as a feather-picker. He was also fearful of many things. He was fearful of hands, so there was absolutely no handling or stepping-up onto the hand. He also wouldn’t come out of his cage. After I learned about positive reinforcement training I decided I would try to teach him a simple behavior for positive reinforcement. I trained him to touch a target with his beak. I used a chop stick for the target, which I held in my left hand. My hands were never close to him at this point. When he touched the target, I “bridged” him (Editors note: the bridge is a sound or signal that lets the bird know it did the right thing and positive reinforcement is to follow). Because of his fear he would stretch his neck out as far as he could to accept a treat which I’d place on the perch with my right hand. I would place the treat as far away as possible from him so my hand would not be too close to him. He was still very nervous of my hands at this stage.

After he was consistently touching the target and collecting his reinforcement, I started leaving my right hand on the perch. I moved the target a bit closer to my right hand. I used small approximations of moving the target closer to my hand and shaped the behavior of him moving closer to my hand. At this point I put the treat in my right hand instead of on the perch. He started to come straight to my hand for the treat! This was a big accomplishment, no more stretching out a long neck to get the treat. Finally, I was able to hold the treat in one hand and lure him closer to my other hand. Eventually he touched my hand with his foot to get the treat. At this point we worked on step up onto the hand and right back down if he wanted. I was working full time, so I worked with him right after work when I got home and again before I went to bed.

Also, to help him get over his fear of hands, I offered him hand weaning food (Scenic Hand Weaning food). At first I gave it to him from a spoon. Initially I used an iced tea spoon with a long handle, then progressed to a regular teaspoon, and started gripping it closer and closer to the concave part with the food. Soon I was able to use my fingers try to get him over the fear of hands. By the time I switched from the spoon to my hands, he looked forward to the food and accepted it from my fingers readily. My African Grey was also petrified of spray bottles. I went to a beauty supply and bought a tiny mist/spray bottle. I hid it up a long-sleeve shirt and in my hand and misted him gently. He hadn’t had a bath in months when I got him, and he loved it. Because the bottle was so tiny, and he was in a cage with a metal skirt, the spray didn’t go outside the perimeter of the metal skirt. I did put a clear plastic drop cloth down the first few times to be sure. Once I knew he liked the showers, I slowly allowed the mist bottle to appear. Now we walk to the kitchen sink daily, and he starts fluffing and wagging his tail as soon as we get by the sink and says, “Whee.” By going slowly, not forcing my bird and using positive reinforcement I was able to develop a great relationship with my African grey parrot.

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What's The Hurry

by Gay Noeth

African Grey ParrotsIn mid-July 2005 I got a new African Grey parrot. Not a new baby parrot, but an older bird. He had to be re-homed due to an illness in the family. Actually, there were two Greys looking for homes. The difference between the two Greys was that one was fond of people and the other was and always had been, much more aloof. He was actually originally a breeder bird.

When approached about the birds I said I really didn't have time for another pet. When they told me the second one got along quite well with other birds and didn't like to be touched, I decided I would take him and eventually he could go live with my fi ve other African Greys. While my original fi ve birds are companion animals and love my attention, I thought the situation would be fi ne for this new bird since he would have many other birds of his type to keep him company. When he fi rst arrived in my home he had to be put into our bedroom for quasi-quarantine. The fi rst few days he was really quite leery of us but was allowed freedom in the room. Because he was cut off from the main part of the house it was necessary that I spend time in the room sitting with him and talking with him. In the beginning if a hand went near him he would back away. This was no surprise based on what I had been told about him. I tried very hard not to enter his comfort zone for a few days. One day I noticed he no longer backed away from my hand. When I noticed this, I laid my hand across his perch and just stood still.

Within a few moments he was edging his way toward my hand. He would get within a few inches of my hand and back away. I would leave my hand there until he turned away, never moving it. We did this a few times throughout the day. The second day he actually went to my hand and beaked it a little before backing away. The next day we repeated the procedure a few times. Within a few days he was rubbing his head against my hand. I still did nothing. Finally, one day he approached my hand and hung his head and neck down. It was only when we got to this point that I fi nally stretched out a fi nger and scratched his neck. It was accepted almost immediately and a few repetitions he was turning his head and neck to get a different area rubbed.

My husband has been doing the same thing, as per my instructions, for the last three days and he now can scratch Pooper’s head too. It still requires putting your hand down and letting him approach on his own fi rst, but what could be better? He decides on his own if he wants us to give him a scritch. We did it with no force and no rush and always let Pooper be in control of what was happening to him.

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Training Pepe

by Rita M. Sambruna

Today Pepe, my six year-old green-cheek conure, stepped up on my hand and let me rub his head. To understand how extraordinary this is, consider that until a few months ago I could not have offered Pepe my fi nger without running to the cabinet for a band-aid to stop the bleeding. Pepe came to us with the label of a “biter”, “mean”, and “untamed”. Most likely because of his previous fi ve years of neglect, Pepe did not trust anyone. He bit like a fury every time he came near a human hand.

I knew from the beginning that I needed to work with him a great deal to win his trust. The old advice (“take the bite”, “show him who’s boss”) only made things worse. I was ready to give up on Pepe and accept a relationship with him only through the cage bars. It was then that I was introduced to the science of Applied Behavior Analysis and its teachings about training with positive reinforcement.

Finding the reinforcer for Pepe was not diffi cult. He would do just about anything for a sunfl ower seed. I used already shelled kernels, which could be cut into smaller pieces. I started offering him the kernels through the bars, then progressed to putting my hand into the cage. I also used observational/ vicarious learning (fortunately Chico, Pepe’s cage mate, steps up easily on my hand) and I let Pepe observe my interactions with Chico at fi rst. Finally, it was time to offer Pepe my hand. I was not successful at fi rst. He crunched down drawing blood, but only because of my tardiness in reacting to his body language (he moves FAST!). While he was stepping up, every now and then he would lunge and bite. We were not making any progress, and it was time for me to change my strategy.

I devised a new approach. Instead of focusing on the step up for the sake of stepping up, I decided to teach him some other behaviors, and make the stepping up an “interlude”. I fi rst introduced him to a T-stand, and then started working on turn around. He learned it in one short session. Then I trained him to raise both feet in sequence for a wave. In between a turn and a wave, building on his behavioral momentum, I would throw in a step up. Once on my hand, I increased the time he stayed there by taking him for little walks in the room, then out of the room. Then I generalized the training to other rooms. The new strategy worked, as Pepe started stepping up more and more easily.

Focusing on other behaviors took the pressure off of stepping up and made it just a vehicle to get to the T-stand for the real fun. Moreover, knowing other behaviors came handy when Pepe lunged, as I could quickly redirect him toward something else setting the antecedent for positive reinforcement. Pepe and I just celebrated our fi rst year together. This little bird, initially doomed to live in his cage, is now blossoming into a happy, interactive member of our fl ock. It was not “magic” and no, I do not have a “special way” with birds. All it took was consistent training with positive reinforcement; a wonderful tool science gave to all of us.

Something else happened… Pepe is now looking forward to my presence. He becomes animated every time I enter the room, shaking his tail in anticipation of the training session. He is more alert, eats his pellets and fresh food with gusto, plays more, and is more interested in his surroundings. I can state with confi dence that Pepe’s quality of life has improved dramatically. And that is my positive reinforcement.

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Dolly's Story

by Terry DeBrow

Dolly, an African Grey, is the newest member of our home. A very good friend of mine talked to me about Dolly a little over 18 months ago. My friend had become very ill and could not take care of Dolly anymore and wanted to know if I would take Dolly as a pet when the time came. When I went to pick Dolly up, she had been left in the cage and had no human contact for over a year. My friend’s illness won the battle and her husband could not bear to see the bird, as Dolly was a constant reminder of his recent loss. Dolly, I was told, was a great talker. Unfortunately for Dolly, asking for her Momma Rose was what she was saying the most. My friend’s husband called and asked me to come and get Dolly to give her a good home since it was his wife’s request. I had to “towel” Dolly to get her into the travel kennel and home with me, but she rode beautifully.

Barbara Heidenreich, of Good Bird Magazine had given me some very good advice; “take it easy and don’t force anything on the parrot or it may do more damage than good”. I knew this was true advice since we have a wonderful Rose Breasted Cockatoo, Wookywoo, who is terrifi ed of hands after we were given very bad advice over seven years ago by a parrot shop employee.

Keeping all of this in mind, I decided that Dolly would only receive positive reinforcement. I did not want her cage bound and she needed human interaction. I could tell because on the drive home when I was talking to her, she was very attentive and watched me very closely. I committed to Dolly and myself, I would not towel her again. I needed to start at the beginning with basic step up training. I decided I would break the process into “baby steps.”

The first week I had her home, I would sit on a small stool near her cage and talk to her quietly, giving her little treats. I was not going to stick my hands in the cage until I new I had her trust. At fi rst, she slowly took pine nuts or cashews from me but would not come close. The second week, when she saw me pick up the small stool, she would come to the edge of the cage and great me with a “hello” and wait for her treat. This was my cue that Dolly might be ready for the next step.

By the end of the second week, I would say “scratch” and Dolly would go to a bar of the cage, tuck her head down, lock her beak on the bar and look at me, like “OK”. I began by just scratching the very top of her head and by the end of the third week, I was able to just say “scratch”, without treats, and she would go to our designated scratching bar and wait for me to scratch. By the end of the third week, Dolly was much more vocal when she saw me. She would just talk up a storm to get my attention. She had picked up several new phrases that she had to have learned since coming to her new home. She was calling “Wookywoo”, “Moses or Mo-Man” our African Grey, “Oreo” our dog, and several others.

At the beginning of week four, I decided to open the cage door and see how the scratching scenario played out. She was on the main perch in her cage and when I said “scratch” this time, she just leaned toward me and tucked her head. Anyone who knows African Greys knows that this can sometimes be a “lure” to get you to stick you hand in to get bit.

Based on the pinning or lack of pinning of her eyes and the relaxed body language I was observing, I decided to go for it. She loved it! She let me scratch for about fi ve minutes. By the end of week four, Dolly would say “scratch” and wait for me to come over to the cage, open the door and say “scratch.” Week six – I grabbed my little stool, my cup of treats and headed to Dolly’s cage. She was going through her repertoire to greet me and as I opened her cage door, she reached over and began to “beak” around on my hand. I reached up to scratch and gave her a treat and instead of the treat, she buried her little head into my hand. I was scratching her head and neck, and she took her beak and literally pulled my hand down and raised her foot to step onto my hand. Dolly stepped up and has been stepping up since. I ask her to step up and she’ll say “scratch” and as soon as she gets her scratch, she steps right up.

For Dolly, the food was the fi rst step, the scratching was the second and fi nal. I believe that sometimes, the “treat” is not necessarily the food kind. Dolly’s ultimate treat is to be scratched! We have been working with Wookywoo for a long time trying to get past the “forcing him to step up” scenario. I am going to start training Dolly to go into the crate next. After my successes with Dolly – Look out Wookywoo! Dolly and Wookywoo are next to each other’s cages and he watches with great interest. He’s getting prepared!

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