Exotic Middle Eastern Garments

Posted by Raz on Oct 3rd, 2009
Oct 3

A package arrived today from afar: genuine Omani Tinkwear. After custom tailoring to Piper’s size, we attempted the first modeling session. The dreaded head loop that he grew to despise on a previous harness took about 5 minutes to train. I think ShanLung laces his harnesses with drugs.

We’ll see how it goes from here. Definitely is soft and light. Many thanks ShanLung.

There was an interesting comment on the earlier discussion about acclimating Piper. Erin wrote:

I’ ve trained working dogs for ages and some of your story of Piper reminds me of this one pup I started up a few years back. Keen little dog , but unfortunately the first time I turned her loose on sheep it was a wreck by pure act of fate. Turned the pup off by sucking the confidence out of her and made her real up tight about sheep. I tried and tried to get her back interested with miserable out comes. Finally, I gave up in a way I’d tie her inside the 10 acre field to the fence line where she could see me and watch me work all the other dogs. After months of this one day I looked over there and noticed she was finally looking at the sheep with her pre wreck intensity, ok she was practicality foaming at the mouth to work. So I cut her loose and she was on those sheep and never looked back. So perhaps “forgetting” about Piper and let him just kick back and watch Carly be comfortable outside flying and you work with her while out there may get his little mind thinking it is ok. I know too from decades of starting young horses sometimes if training just wasn’t going the way I’d like I’d just shelve the horse for a length of time to give his young mind a chance to working things out. Physical maturity doesn’t alway denote mental maturity, also my female horses and dogs have always been faster to mentally mature and much more focused work ethic right off the start. Looking forward to see how this shapes up for you.

I’ve been thinking along these lines myself, having seen Carly go through similar phases. When we started flying outdoors she had no inclination to fly at the beach, never gave a single signal that she wanted to do anything other than sit on my shoulder, even though the macaws were flying. Then after about 6 months, one week she started doing her “wanna fly” motions that I’d become familiar with at the park and she was good to go. (We started small of course, with short recalls.) But I think it was much better for her to make the decision herself.

Piper comes out to the beach with us on a leash and rides on my head quite contentedly. Same around the park/pool where we live. When we’re able to generalize the locations so that he is calm in many more situations, and when it is clear he wants to be outdoors, we’ll start thinking about doing some outdoor flying. In the meantime, let’s hope he likes his exotic new duds.


Piper’s Outdoor Acclimation

Posted by Raz on Sep 21st, 2009
Sep 21

I am training Piper for recall with the same general methods as I did with Carly, but whereas with Carly I had to take quite a lot of time training flight skills because she was never fledged, Piper came ready to launch. However his disposition is entirely different than hers and he spooks very easily and often outdoors (and indoors some also). It has taken time to acclimate him to specific locations so his behavior is relaxed, but he still becomes alarmed by a variety of things. Carly is an extremely calm bird outdoors, so spook flights were never an issue. Her alarm response is typically just an alert posture, or at most flying up and doing a short loop (5-15 feet) then back down to me. Having seen several losses and near-losses of free flighted Greys after spooking, it’s a very high priority of mine to ensure Piper is confident and secure outside before flying with Carly.

This puts us in a bit of a catch-22 however: the biggest reinforcer, normally, for wearing a harness is not there. Going outside isn’t a reinforcer but instead needs to be trained systematically. But he needs to wear a harness for that acclimation. (I don’t think th experience of being outdoors in a carrier or aviary is the same at all; they are quite protected spaces. Piper does fine on our enclosed balcony that is up in the trees with an open view of the sky.)

Piper puts on a harness well, but does not like to keep it on long. I just can’t seem to find reinforcers big enough, and can’t use going outside as a reward. When reading one of ShanLung’s recent blog posts I was reminded how his Grey Tinkerbell was so prone to spooks, indoors as well as outdoors, which was his main motivation for flying her on a harness with a long line (with a controlled recall). To do that he designed his own harness that is very soft, light, and a bit stretchy, so it can be felt as little as possible when on. I already use a hand made custom design, but it is still more bulky than the Tink harness.

When emailing about some of our experiences with acclimation and spook flights, ShanLung generously offered to make me a nice comfy Tink harness for Piper. I’m hoping the Tinkerbell UltraLite will be more comfortable and make the acclimation process easier. I’m also going to begin training flying up in a small loop (like Carly does) so he may perhaps learn there is a controlled way to respond to something startling.

The Tinkerbell UltraLite

The Tinkerbell UltraLite

So when our package from Oman arrives, we will try the Tinkerbell UltraLite model of harness (sans the long line). And I think I owe a parrot conservation organization a nice donation :-)

More thoughts on the subject of outdoor acclimation, as well as weight management and training ethics are in the next post, The Right Training Tool.

The Part with the Caveats:

ShanLung and I are always stressing ATTACH THE HARNESS TO YOUR BODY, and that the bird must be well trained in staying with you and recalling before using a harness. I was amused by this post of his, which he calls the Cargo Cult Rant, comparing people who don’t consider the bonding and training part of it to indigenous south Pacific islanders who thought it was the landing strip itself that caused food cargo planes to land during WWII:

‘using’ harness without the understanding and training is like South Pacific islanders building airstrip and wondering why planes do not land with cargo for them.

(The history of cargo cults is a rather fascinating example of magical thinking.)

So to reiterate, harnesses must only be used on birds who are trained to ride on your hand or shoulder, and who have a good trained recall, and have been acclimated on wearing the harness indoors or another familiar place.

See the complete Harness Training series of blog posts and the Recall Training page for more details.


Harness training: Building up a Positive Account

Posted by Raz on Aug 12th, 2009
Aug 12

Before restarting outside with the harness on Piper I want to build up a strong history of positive experiences. So in this phase I’m doing our usual indoor recalls with it on, giving bonus treats, and giving him dinner while wearing it.

harness dinner

If he happens to have a bad experience outside or gets spooked, I don’t want there to be such a strong association between outdoors and harness that he doesn’t want to put it back on.

A very different training experience than with Carly. She was calmer outside from day one, so there was very little risk of anything associated with the outdoors becoming an aversive.

This is not from day one, but day two, after coming home at age 4 months. In the background is the rest of the gang, Fergus the cat at right, Moby my homing pigeon walking on the path at the left, and Ripley the dog in the center (over Carly’s head).

the gang

* No, she is not on any kind of restraint here. She was always so calm and stuck to me it never even occurred to me that she should be on a harness (at the time I didn’t even know such a thing existed). She was also given an extremely severe clip at the store, so she literally couldn’t fly, period. In a very stiff wind it might have been possible, but we don’t get much of that here so it was easy to avoid. As her wings started to grow out, and before I learned about training, I was very fortunate that she was never inclined to take off.

For more information about using a harness, see the Complete Harness Training Series of blog posts.


Harness Training — Going with the Flow!

Posted by Raz on Jul 26th, 2009
Jul 26

I had an unexpected breakthrough tonight with Piper on the harness. If you’ve been following the blog you know that Piper developed a dislike of his previous harness which had an over-the-head loop. So we stopped using it and have been training a new design (shown here). It’s been slow going, but we were to the point where he would walk up to the end of his perch, have me put the strap around his neck and fasten it, and put the belly strap under one wing and through the back strap. We’ve been doing this for awhile, and whenever he showed any sign of wanting it off, off it came. So tonight, after a very lazy day, I went to do our usual short session before our dinner time recall training, and we got to the usual point. He seemed very keen on his sprouted sunflower seed treats, and not paying much attention to the harness, so I decided to take it a step further and go for the strap under his other wing. That went fine. So I gave him big bonuses — handful of sprouted seeds, and he still was fine. So then I fastened the belly strap also, and gave him another handful of sprouts. Still fine! I kept feeding him his sprouts for several minutes, while carrying him around on his harness.

This surprised me but it shows how you just have to go with the flow of what the bird is presenting you. If an opportunity shows itself, take it. And if you are making big breakthroughs, give big bonuses! (Heck, even on little breakthroughs I give big bonuses.) But tonight I gave him almost his whole dinner while on the harness. My plan is to keep doing this for the next week or so: harness training combined with his whole dinner.

Here he is while eating dinner out of my hand (sorry for the blur — trying to work iPhone with one hand while feeding!)


This comes at a very good time, because he has become very interested in exploring the outdoors now (trying to follow me out the front door) and getting quite relaxed walking at the beach. So I was planning to start working A-B recalls on the harness at the beach this week.

So of course this warranted a celebration. Witness the fate of probably the last surviving blood orange of the season in southern California:


Training note: Piper is being trained at at-lib weight. His indoor recall is excellent, more reliable even than Carly’s. He is just over one year old, and it is not recommended to restrict weight on parrots less than a year old. His weight range now is only slightly higher than when he arrived at 4 months old, and he is in good condition from flying a lot indoors, so this is a good range to work with. His response to training does not warrant any change. Acclimation to the outdoor environment is something that can be done without weight reduction, as it is an entirely separate issue than food motivation. Comfort with the environment is one of the major elements in the list of factors that should be considered when training a new behavior, and it is far up the list from weight reduction.

My position with regards to outdoor training is that you go at the pace the bird himself sets, whether that is a matter of flight skills, recall response, comfort with the environment, or eagerness to fly in the first place. I am doing this for the enrichment and benefit of Piper. I’m sure Carly would love to have him as a flying companion, but first and foremost, they enjoy each other as indoor companions, which is where they spend the vast majority of their time. I feel no need at all to push the pace of training. African Greys can live to be 40-70 years old. Piper is 16 months!

Complete Harness Training Series.


Complete Harness Training Series

Posted by Raz on Jul 9th, 2009
Jul 9

Here are the basics of harness training in a video by Barbara Heidenreich:

And an article from Good Bird Magazine:
Harness Training an African Grey Parrot, by Stephanie Ernst.

Please remember, it is VERY important to go as slowly as necessary and build up trust so the harness does not become something to avoid or fear. It’s hard to undo those feelings!

Flight Blog Harness Training series:
Using a Harness with Your Bird
Baby Steps with Harness Training
Tips & Hints for Harness Training
Harness Training: Going with the Flow
Harness Training: Building up a Positive Account,
Also, a post about using the harness with Piper in his early outdoor training:
Early Training on a Harness.

This is Stephanie Earnst’s African Grey, Dexter.


Baby steps with harness training

Posted by Raz on Jun 9th, 2009
Jun 9

I just addressed a question about training the Aviator harness on a forum.

I forget all the details of how the Aviator recommends training, but I know they don’t emphasize how slowly you need to go and don’t break it down into small enough steps. I think if they were honest about that it would probably decrease their sales because people would perceive it as “too difficult”, or at least too time consuming.

Here are some tips for those very first steps.

If you’re seeing visible avoidance reactions, you’re going too fast. Too many of those and it will become a serious aversive and instead of training to wear a harness, you will have trained to hate harnesses.

At each step go only as far as your bird is comfortable with. A big problem with the Aviator is doing the loop over the head in baby steps. Starting with treats through the loop is good, but when it comes to actual contact that’s a huge step. When you approach that part don’t even try to put it all the way on. Just put it over his beak or head as far as he will allow without backing off, then immediately remove it. BIG treat. Repeat it at that level as long as it takes until he’ll allow a little bit more. It may seem like you’re not making any progress, but you’re actually setting up a big history of reinforcement. Repetition is good!

When you get to the point where he’ll allow it all the way over his head, be prepared to remove it immediately at first. You don’t want him to feel trapped. Just over the head and off, then treat. When that’s going well, you can do over the head, treat — BIG treat — then off. Then leave it on a little longer before the treat. Always be prepared to take it off immediately if he wants it off.

Lots of praise and treat at the end of session!

Repetition good!
Repetition good!
Repetition good!

Complete Harness Training Series.