These are some things I’ve noticed can go awry with harness training –- or with any training for that matter — but especially when training very unnatural behaviors with objects the bird may find aversive (straps, nail files and the like). Here are a few tips.

  • Use a training perch It can be difficult to interpret whether a bird moving around in an open space is bored, distracted, or if it is avoidance behavior. To make it clearer, and also to keep the session focused, I use a training perch for our harness sessions (as well as other “staying put” behaviors). Put it at a slight angle and have the harness at one end. Then the bird can come forward directly to the harness (a good sign that he’s up for the training) or he can back away to the other side (a good sign he finds it aversive).
  • Clear cuing If a behavior doesn’t have a clear cue, it’s likely the bird will be confused about what you want him to do. When I’m harness training, I hold the harness up 8-10” from the bird as the signal that I want him to come forward to put it on. (In the beginning, just approaching the harness is the target behavior.) By coming forward, he is essentially giving his consent and making his own decision. If he doesn’t come forward within a few seconds, down it goes. Part of having a clear cue is to….
  • Limit the window of opportunity Give the bird a short window of time in which to do the requested behavior (3-5 seconds). If he doesn’t do it, lower the harness. This is the same as in recall training: if the bird doesn’t respond immediately, lower your hand and remove the opportunity for a reward. If the bird doesn’t respond repeatedly when given a window of opportunity, you may be asking for too large of a step, the bird might be unclear about the behavior you want, or the reward might not be worth enough.
  • Use special treats and bonuses With difficult or unnatural behaviors like putting on a harness, I find extra special rewards are helpful. We’re asking for a lot! Let’s give a lot in return to make it worth it. When there is a small breakthrough to a new level, I give an ample bonus, then just a couple more reps before ending the session. End on a high note.
  • Limit the session length When training something that a bird would normally want to avoid (putting things on, having nails filed, etc.) I like to keep the sessions short and fast paced. If the routine is a short session with quick repetitions and great treats, I think there is much higher likelihood of the bird being eager to participate. (Short for us is 2-3 minutes.) You can always do more sessions each day if you want.

“Not for Dogs Only”
Harness life: not so bad. This is Daphne, a Ducorps Cockatoo,
on vacation with Barb Saunders in Morro Bay. Sure beats the pet sitter!

(See more of Barb’s birds and aviary here.)

Complete Harness Training Series.