Companion Parrots

In the Wild

Making a Difference

Parrot News

Special Thanks

Home » 2010 - Issue 1, Behaviour, Companion Parrots, Issue

Clicker Training as a Tool to Help Manage Aggressive Parrots

By Jessie Zgurski

I still have the scars from where Fergus, a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, bit me several times during a bizarre frenzy. I agreed to foster him for a local parrot rescue, and the first thing he did when I let him out of his cage was fly towards me and bite me several times on my hands and arms.

In his last home, he had done the same thing to several people. How could such a parrot be rehabilitated? I certainly couldn’t force Fergus to step up nicely onto my hand and allow me to handle him. His bites were also too painful for me to simply ignore. However, I didn’t want him to live his whole life in a cage. I did have the option of having him sent to a new foster home, but I really began to wonder if there was a way I could get him to like being around people so he wouldn’t drive them away by biting.

I decided to do some clicker training with him, so I could hopefully show him that interacting with me could be enjoyable. I took this approach because clicker training can be used to teach new behaviours to companion animals, it is humane, it often helps calm nervous or aggressive animals, and it can be done while an animal is in a cage.

It’s the method that people who train birds or dolphins for shows at zoos use, and it’s based on many scientific studies on how animals learn. So, I hoped it would help decrease Fergus’ aggressive behaviours by teaching him how to behave around people.

The Basics of Clicker Training

Just what is clicker training? Clicker training is based on the principle that behaviours which are reinforced will increase in frequency, while ones that are not will decrease. Very little of a parrot’s behaviour is completely inflexible, because parrots will keep behaviours that result in consequences they find rewarding, such as those that result in their getting attention or treats.

Some behaviours, like preening, are simply self-rewarding. Behaviours that always result in unpleasant or neutral consequences will decrease in frequency until they disappear.

Reinforcement timing is an important part of clicker training. The faster the reinforcement occurs after the behaviour, the faster the animal will learn to increase that behaviour. There are two basic types of reinforcement that animals can learn from: positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement occurs when a positive stimulus is presented right after the behaviour. The stimulus must increase the future likelihood of the behaviour occurring; otherwise it’s not truly a reinforcer. For example, giving a sunflower seed to a bird who steps up on a hand would be positive reinforcement if it made the bird more likely to step up in the future. However, it may not be reinforcing if the bird isn’t hungry at the moment.

Negative reinforcement occurs when a negative stimulus is removed when the animal presents the desired behaviour. If a bird steps up on a person’s hand to avoid being pushed on his chest, then he’s learned step-up through negative reinforcement.

Another important aspect of clicker training involves the use of conditioned reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer is one that an animal has to learn to find reinforcing, and here’s where the clicker comes in.

A clicker is a small box with a button on it that makes a click when it is pressed. In clicker training, the sound of a clicker must be paired with the presentation of a treat. The treat is the primary reinforcer, because the bird naturally likes it, but a click can become reinforcing to the animal if he associates treats or other positive things with it. The clicker is sometimes referred to as a bridge, because it bridges the time between the behaviour and the delivery of the reward.

Why use a Clicker?

So, why use a clicker at all? Why not use treats to indicate to the animal what behaviours are wanted? It’s because in order to let an animal know that what he’s doing is correct, he must be reinforced exactly as the behaviour occurs. Often, delivering a treat or head scratch takes a bit of time, and by the time it has been delivered, the animal has done something else, such as lifting his head. A click is short and can be easy to deliver right as the behavior occurs.


Commonly Asked Questions about Clicker Training

Q: Isn’t this bribery?

A: No, because the reward generally comes after the behaviour and it is not shown to the animal beforehand, unless it is being used as a lure.

Q. Do I have to keep treats with me all the time?

A: No. You also do not need to use the clicker once the behaviour you want is performed on cue. The clicker is primarily used during the learning stages. However, be sure to periodically offer treats for behaviours like stepping up, and always offer reinforcement after using a click.

Q: I have lots of birds. Will they know who the click is for?

A: Most likely. Many animals can figure out that the click is for them only if the trainer is paying attention to them.

Q: What if my bird imitates the clicker?

A: Don’t worry about it. Just keep going and ignore it.

Q: I can’t juggle the treats, the target stick and the clicker. Help!

A: I got around this by holding the clicker and the target stick in one hand, with the clicker in my palm. One could also forgo the clicker and use a word as a bridge. Just be consistent with which word you use and the tone it is said in.

Charging the Clicker

The process of getting an animal to associate a click with positive things is often called “charging” the clicker. This is very easy to do. Just click, and offer a treat immediately after the click sounds. Only a few repetitions are really needed to “charge” the clicker in this manner. I used only ten or so repetitions to charge the clicker when I started training Fergus.

Of course, a clicker does not have to be used as the conditioned reinforcer. Any short sound will do; however a clicker is often used because it is short, easy to deliver, and few other sounds in the environment sound exactly like it. Some people use words or tongue-clicks as conditioned reinforcers. Trainers of marine mammals, like dolphins, often use a loud whistle, and people have even trained fish using lights as conditioned reinforcers.

Choosing a Reinforcer

What are the best things to use as primary reinforcers? Food is the obvious one, and a good way to figure out what food treat is most reinforcing to a parrot is to place a mix of foods in a bowl and see which one the parrot picks out first. Most birds love seeds, millet, or nuts, but dried papaya, pieces of grape, single peas, or kernels of corn are often reinforcing to birds as well.

Generally, a type of food that is used as a treat will make the best reinforcer. If the type of food used in training sessions is available to the bird at all times, then he may not be very motivated to work for it. However, some animals will gladly work for pellets. Since Fergus eagerly took sunflower seeds from my hand, I used those as reinforcers.

Use small, bite-sized pieces during training. That way, the parrot can quickly eat the food and he won’t become satiated as rapidly, so more repetitions of the behaviour can be performed during the session. Training sessions are best done before or a couple hours after a meal, so the bird will be motivated by the treats.

A few training manuals I have seen mention food restriction as a part of training birds; however, this is not necessary to train pet parrots. Most professional trainers do not recommend food restriction for training pets because all that’s needed is good timing of the training sessions. If obesity is a concern, feed your parrot a slight bit less for breakfast and dinner.

Food is probably the most common reinforcer used in training animals, but there are other possibilities. Toys, praise, or petting can be reinforcers. However, using toys or petting can make it take a bit more time to train the bird, since they can require more time to present than a treat. They also must be taken away or stopped at some point, and some birds may perceive that as punishment, as a positive stimulus has to be taken away.

These things may also not be reinforcing to each bird: if no progress is being made, then it may be time to try a new potential reinforcer. After all, something which is reinforcing to one bird may not be reinforcing to another. A gregarious bird that associates praise with positive experiences may enjoy praise, but one who has received little socialization with people may not be reinforced by praise. Tailor your training strategy for your specific bird.

blogs from the field - parrot conservation in real time