Training a Bird to be Petted

Posted by Raz on Dec 3rd, 2008
Dec 3

The previous comment on using flooding to make a bird accept petting is similar to a discussion that has been going on recently on Barbara Heidenreich’s Good Bird Group. A question was posed about how to “train” a bird to allow a person to pet it. Although no one there was considering using anything but positive reinforcement to achieve that, it still brought up an interesting point: do you really want to train this behavior? Or do you want to set up the environment and build your bird’s realtionship with you so that he feels free to initiate it himself? This was my musing on the topic…

This reminds me of the previous discussion about training and touching a bird. I don’t know quite how to express this without sounding judgemental, which is not my intent at all. But I think this gets to the core of what we expect of these pets that are essentially wild animals.

What’s the purpose of getting her to let you scratch her head? Is it for her or for you? Typically birds bow their head for a scratch because they like how it feels. Clearly not all birds do, so why push it? To me there is a huge difference between asking a bird to give me her foot for a nail trim (something that isn’t pleasurable — though not painful — but still a necessity) and having her bow her head and ask me for a head scratch. The initiation on her part is what the latter is all about. Most of the time if I initiate a head scratch with my greys they don’t want it. I don’t see the point of training them to allow it if it isn’t usually pleasurable enough for them to ask for it on their own. They might “learn” to like the behavior because it earns an external reward, but to me that misses the point of what a head scratch is all about.

I have two cats, a male that loves belly rubs (unusual for a cat) and a female who doesn’t. I could probably train the female to allow it, but for what purpose exactly? What’s so fun about giving the male a belly rub is that he wants it. That’s also what’s so magical about a bird asking for a head scratch — even more so because these are wild animals, not ones who have been bred for thousands of years to be companions for humans.

It kinda reminds me of little kids being “trained” to allow grandma to give them a big kiss when they don’t really want it. It’s clearly for the benefit of the grandma, not the kid. I just think it’s important that we ask ourselves what our motivations are in training sometimes.