Taming and Training
It takes a book to really explain all the nuances of clicker training, so the following is just an overview of the basic process. Please see the Links section for additional resources.
All training methods use rewards and/or punishment to modify the behavior of the trainee (a bird, in our case) in a way that is pleasing to the trainer (the human). A reward is something that the bird desires and punishment is something that he wants to avoid. Rewards are designed to make it more likely that certain behaviors will occur, while punishment aims to make it less likely that certain behaviors will occur. When the trainer rewards or punishes, something is either being added to the situation or taken away. So there are two types of rewards: adding something to the situation that the bird likes (a positive method) or taking something away that he dislikes (an aversive method). There are also two types of punishment: adding something to the situation that the bird dislikes (aversive) or taking away something that he likes (technically aversive, but mild enough for limited use as part of positive reinforcement training).
As mentioned in the Bird Psychology section, birds do not understand the concept of punishment so the stronger aversive methods should not be used with birds. Positive reinforcement training methods use positive rewards to achieve desired behavior. Unwanted behavior is reduced by NOT rewarding it. This usually means that the unwanted behavior is ignored - you remove something the bird wants (your attention) when he does something you don't want him to do. There's more on discouraging unwanted behavior in the Problem Behavior section.
Positive reinforcement training can be done with or without a clicker. The purpose of the clicker (or some other sound used as a "bridge") is to mark the moment that the bird earned the reward. That way, if the she does something else in the two seconds it takes you to deliver the reward (usually a small food treat), she will know which specific behavior is being rewarded. You can get the same results in the end without a clicker, but the clicker helps to make things a little clearer and maybe a little faster. Imagine that you're taking a picture of the her doing the thing that earned the reward; the moment that you'd press the button on the camera is the moment that you click the clicker. Positive reinforcement training is a great way to interact with your bird and helps to build a closer relationship.
The technique is simple and complicated at the same time. You start out by rewarding the bird for anything that's remotely a step in the right direction. After the bird masters the first step, you then shape the behavior by only rewarding actions that are closer to what you're looking for. When you're first getting started clicker training can seem awkward and complicated. We humans are used to teaching with verbal instructions but our birds don't understand our words. We are NOT used to teaching nonverbally and it's difficult at first! But it becomes much easier as you and your bird get the hang of it.
The Basic Technique
Step 1 - figure out what you're going to use for a reward. For most birds the best reward is a food that they like very much, but some birds aren't very food-motivated and would rather have something like a head scratch or a look in a mirror. It's important to keep the rewards small, so you don't have a long delay while the reward is consumed and also so you can do a lot of repetitions before the bird gets full and loses interest.
Also figure out how you're going to deliver the treat. If your bird will eat from your hand you can let him take the treat directly from your fingers. Otherwise you might have to lay it in front of him, deliver it on a spoon, or use some other creative delivery method.
Step 2 - if you're going to use a clicker, you have to "charge" it the first time you use it. This means that you make a click and immediately give the bird a treat. Repeat this several times so he starts to understand that the click sound means he's about to get a treat. If the click scares him, you can muffle the sound by holding the clicker against your body, or you can use something else like clicking a pen or making a click sound with your mouth. If you're not using a clicker you skip this step of course.
Step 3 - start training! With most birds it's best to teach targeting first to get them used to the training process. Targeting means touching some specific object (usually a small stick like a chopstick or a coffee stir) with the beak.
To teach targeting: first hold your target stick at a distance from the bird that doesn't make her nervous, like a foot or more away. Give her a click and treat (c/t for short) just for looking at it. (Just give the treat if you're not using the clicker.) Then move the stick a little closer and c/t again. Keep on doing this until you're very close, although if she starts acting scared at any point you need to stop and work at that distance until she's comfortable. Once you're able to get the stick close you want her to touch it with her beak. And you do want her to do the touching; don't touch her beak with the stick yourself. Reward anything that's a move in the right direction. If she bites it right away that's great, but if she just turns her head toward the stick or makes a beak threat at it you can reward that too. After she starts actually biting or touching the stick then don't reward her for just looking at it.
Once he's good at beaking the stick when it's right in his face, you hold it a little distance away so he has to stretch his neck to reach it. Then you hold it even further so he has to take a step to reach it. Then further so he has to take more than one step.
It may all seem rather pointless but it really is good practice for learning more complicated things later on. Both bird and human are learning how to learn at this point and it's difficult at first. Targeting can also be very useful for getting a bird to move to a specific place later on.
Retrieve (placing a specific small object in a specific place, like your hand) is frequently the second behavior to be taught. The process for teaching it is similar. You find a small object that your bird can carry in her beak. If she is afraid of it at first, you can use c/t to help overcome the fear. Then you reward her for grasping the object in her beak. You might have to get a little bit creative to find the way that works best for you. Maybe she will pick the item up out of curiosity if you lay it next to her, or maybe she'll respond better if you hold it up at beak level.
Then you teach her to put it in your hand. One way to do this is to hold
your hand underneath the object while she's holding it in her beak and wait
for her to drop it, then c/t. If she's not holding it up high, then just
keep your hand very close to the object and reward her when she accidentally
touches your hand with it. As you continue, do your best to figure out
how to get her to actually get it into your hand. Working near the edge of a
table so she can push it over the edge into your hand is one way.
Training works best when the bird enjoys it, so keep your sessions short, fun, and relaxed. Don't expect immediate results because it can take many sessions to teach this stuff when you and the bird are both beginners. As the two of you become more experienced it will go faster. There are lots of other little tricks you can teach, like ringing a bell or climbing a ladder on command, as well as more complicated tricks like riding a birdie bicycle. Clicker training can also be used to teach husbandry behaviors like entering a carrier or cooperating with toweling and grooming. Every bird and every human are different so it takes a bit of creativity to figure out the most effective techniques for you and your bird.
Copyright 2014 Carolyn Tielfan all rights reserved