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.


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.


Using a Harness with Your Bird

Posted by Raz on Mar 30th, 2009
Mar 30

I’ve been asked a lot about using harnesses: how I use them, what kind I use, how to train a bird to wear one, etc.

I find they’re a great way to allow our birds to go on outings with us, become acclimated to the outdoors, get some fresh air and sunshine, and generally improve their quality of life in captivity. I do not in general use harnesses for flying, except for a limited period when I’m practicing controlled A-B outdoor flights with a newly trained bird. The information here is intended for using harnesses as an alternative to carriers, or for short, controlled flights, not as an alternative for free-flight training.

piper beach

Piper’s first walk to the beach, Fall 2008.


Training a bird to use a harness involves more than just training to allow it to be put on. Another important component is making sure the bird is trained to remain calm when walking with you on your hand or shoulder, training to come when called, and getting acclimated to the outdoors.

For training to wear a harness, there is a good article by Barbara Heidenreich featuring Stephanie Ernst’s African Grey Dexter. Harness Training Your Bird. Before starting your bird should be hand tame and accepting of having his wings and head touched.

Before or during harness training, you can train your bird to walk around with you calmly and stay on your hand, if he doesn’t already, and also train recall. (See the Parrot Recall Training page for more info.) These are very important skills to have in place before going outside on a leash. If a bird startles outdoors and tries to fly on the harness, he will begin to dislike it and all your hard work training will go back to square one. Training recall is important in order to deal with a startle flight if it does occur, and also for safety in case of an accidental escape. These should be practiced regularly so the bird gains confidence.

Before going outside, you should test the harness indoors and practice there if needed, doing routine things around the house. When going outdoors for the first time, if your bird is not already used to it, it’s a good idea to take it slowly and not bombard him with too much at once. A short walk around the garden, or just sitting quietly with you may be enough for the first few days. Introduce new things at a pace he can handle, and always give lots of reinforcement. Pay attention to your bird’s body language for signs of stress, and call it a day or go to a more familiar location if he seems to be getting uneasy. You want to keep this a positive experience for the bird, since that’s the whole purpose!

What kind of harness is best?

I have used the Aviator, Feather Tether and Kaylor Collar (Fredbird). Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and these will also depend on the preferences of you and your bird. The general consensus about the Aviator and Kaylor Collar is that they are easy to handle and very lightweight, but the head loop is difficult for some birds to accept. Some like the more open buckle style of the Feather Tether, but some find it’s complicated to put on and somewhat bulky. Another product that often comes up in harness discussions is the Flight Suit/Bird Diaper. These are not intended to be used as an outdoor leash system, and I would not trust them to restrain birds larger than a small cockatiel. Even though they sell leashes for them, their main function is as a poop suit for indoor use.

Features that you’ll want to consider when making a choice are

  • whether or not there is a loop you have to put over the head (as opposed to buckling it around their neck) and if your bird will allow it
  • how heavy the harness is (Aviator and Kaylor are very light and have only one buckle; the Feather Tether is a bit bulkier).
  • what style of buckle it uses. Some have metal slide buckles (A, KC) while some have clips (FT)The consideration here is whether your bird can unbuckle or unclip it, as well as how easy it is to put on.
  • how the wings fit through it. Some require the wings to be pulled through a loop (KC, A) and some have straps that buckle around the wings (FT).
  • what kind of leash is used. Most have nylon web leashes like a small dog leash (FT, KC) which are quite sturdy. The Aviator has a built in elastic leash which is nice in case of a startle flight, but I’d test out it’s sturdiness with larger parrots.
  • how the leash is attached. Some parrots are very quick to unclip a dog-leash style clip if it’s nearby. A pear clip is more difficult to undo, though it can be done with a lot of fiddling. With any clip, keep a watch on what your bird is doing with it. Carly never touches any kind of clip, and Piper tries to undo everything.

. . .

Homemade Harnesses

Because I use these so much, and no one harness has all the features I want, I make my own using 3/8″ nylon webbing, D-rings and buckles that can be purchased online. The source I use is Creative Design Works ( They have a wide variety of buckles, clips, and webbing colors to choose from.

This is the design I’m currently using, which has a slide buckle on both the chest strap and neck strap, so there is no loop that goes over the head, and you don’t have to pull the wings through a loop either. But it is still relatively lightweight and not bulky.

piper harness

piper harness

A full set of photos showing how it is put on are here.

The harnesses are constructed using superglue and/or sewing machine stitching. The ends can be cut and singed with a match to prevent unraveling, and adding a bit of superglue on the end makes it even sturdier.

If you’re using metal slide buckles, they can be secured better by tying a knot in the end of the strap but you have to plan for an extra long waist strap (see photographs).

Safety Precautions

  • Always link the leash to your body (or some other secure object like a chair if you’re staying put.) There are many types of clips that can be used for this (trigger hooks, snap hooks, caribiners). Creative Design Works has a wide variety, and you can find some at local marine supply or hardware stores. Do not rely on a leash loop held in your hand or around your wrist unless it can be tightened enough that it won’t come off without direct effort.
  • It takes training to keep the harness experience a positive one. A harness is not a substitute for training. The best way to ensure the harness doesn’t become an aversive, holding the bird back if it tries to fly, is to prevent startle flights as much as possible. This includes training your bird to ride calmly on your hand in a variety of indoor environments; training a reliable recall so the bird is familiar with flying on cue, and can be retrieved more easily if there is an accidental escape; and acclimating gradually to the outdoors. As with any training, repetition and practice create confidence, so the more this is part of your regular routine the better.
  • Be aware of your environment. Just as with outdoor free-flying, having a bird outdoors on a harness involves paying very close attention to your surroundings. Keep an eye open for things that might startle your bird, as well as physical dangers such as hawks or unruly dogs. Also, since you’re the anchor, be aware of things that might startle you.
  • Use a short leash for the most control. If it is not used for flying, a leash doesn’t need to be any longer than a couple feet. Keeping it short gives you more control if the bird becomes agitated or startles, and prevents a severe jerk if it suddenly flies. I have also put extra loops or hooks on my leashes about a foot from the bird where I can hold on or attach it to me if I think it’s necessary.

. . .

Using harnesses for freeflight training

Although I don’t fly my birds on a harness for recreation, I do use it when introducing a bird to outdoor flight. I like it for acclimating a bird to the outdoors without the barrier of a cage. Also, before free-flying, we do practice sessions of short A-B recalls on on a harness with a 10-15 foot retractable leash. This allows me to test the bird’s focus outdoors without the risk of a fly-off. Once a bird is free-flying, I use it at the very beginning of each session for a week or two to make sure all systems are go (focused, motivated, relaxed). Again, it’s not a substitute for training; it’s just an extra precaution for those first few days when everything is very new to the bird.
. . .

Piper busy acclimating in Balboa Park,


and readying for take-off during some practice at home.

piper park
. . .

Some people also do short A-B recalls for fun and exercise when they have their bird on outings. As a final shot, here is Barb Saunders’ Ducorp Cockatoo, Daphne, on vacation in Lake Tahoe (sporting a turquoise blue Aviator). It’s hard not to think that’s a look of joy.


Harness links:

Aviator Harness
Feather Tether (many online and local vendors)
Kaylor Collar
Flight Suits (outdoors for tiny birds only)

Note: Freeflight Warning

Complete Harness Training Series.


Harnesses: Coming Soon!

Posted by Raz on Dec 9th, 2008
Dec 9

I’ve been promising people for a long time that I’d post information about the harnesses I make. Well, photos have been taken and I should have something written up this week by end of March. (really!) I’ll include instructions for both designs of neck straps: over-the-head loops and around-the-neck buckles.

I found a very well behaved model for the job also.


Here is a page with more photos of this particular model, showing how it’s constructed.

Update soon!


Early Training on a Harness

Posted by Raz on Nov 20th, 2008
Nov 20

Here are some pictures of Piper’s early outdoor training on a harness.
Piper Goes Out

I use a retractable leash set short at the beginning (5-6 feet), then work up to the full length eventually (15 ft). They need to be familiar with doing recall on a harness and leash inside before doing this, so they understand the concept and don’t try to fly off uncontrollably.

I personally like using a harness like this to acclimate a new bird to flying outdoors. Even when Carly had started flying on her own outside, I still used the harness for the first few minutes of our outdoor sessions at the beginning. It allowed me a way to double-check that her response was good that day, that she was not distracted or anxious about something in the environment, etc.

piper training on harness

I will take some pictures of the harness I use. It’s homemade, but similar to the aviator. I also have a version that doesn’t have to be put over the head since some birds don’t like that. The KEY with using a harness, in addition to sufficient indoor training first, is to make sure you have the leash securely attached on both ends. That means a secure fastener on the bird end that he won’t open up on his own (again — practice inside!) and a secure fastener on your end that you can’t accidentally lose hold of. That means a caribiner or some secure hook like those found at boat supply stores. I’ll include some pics of those too. Do not rely on holding the leash loop in your hand, or even looped around your wrist. If something startles your bird, and the bird tries to bolt, it may very well startle you too and you can accidentally let go of the leash. It’s also important to not have the line too long for what the bird is comfortable with doing recall, otherwise you can get tangled up.

An article about harness training by Barbara Heidenreich, featuring Stephanie Ernst’s African Grey is in Parrot Chronicles: Harness Training Your Bird .

Here’s a shot that show’s Piper’s harness better. I now use a screw-down pear clip to attach the leash to the harness because he learned how to unfasten the standard leash clip.
piper's harness

Complete Harness Training Series.


Piper in the Great Outdoors

Posted by Raz on Aug 23rd, 2008
Aug 23

We’ve mostly been taking it easy and letting Piper get used to his new home and buddies. We’re doing a bit of recall practice indoors each day, as well as targeting which he is great at! As for outdoors, he’s been getting used to the park and beach and his harness. He is relaxing quite quickly, though it still strikes me how different he, being a baby, compared to Carly. I had almost forgotten all they have to learn the first few months to a year. But notice the relaxed, fluffed feathers in many of the photos, even on his first times trying new things.

Here’s his first outing to the beach on August 12, about a week after arriving — surveying the new scene!

piper at beach

And walking around while the big boys flew.

piper beach shoulder

Today we did some recalls on the harness on our park walk. Lookin’ around a bit first…

piper park wassup

Then a big fluff.

piper park bigfluff

Ready…. set…..

piper park launch


piper airborne park

Carly is still feeding him when he’ll let her. She’s eating a lot and maintaining her weight, and he just broke 500 grams the other day — a 30 g gain since his arrival a few weeks ago. Carly’s a good mom :-)

This week we’re moving to a different apartment, which is one reason why I’ve taken it pretty easy letting Piper get used to everyone. Wendy’s babies really are confident and happy though. That foundation is quite apparent in the ease with which he adapts to new things.

Photos by Raz’s LG cu500 cell phone, except shoulder shot by Hugh Choi.


Piper Pretty in Pink (harness that is)

Posted by Raz on Jun 30th, 2008
Jun 30

I will post about harness training and use soon. For now, here is the almost 3-month old Piper in his harness for the 4th time, doing great!

An article about harness training by Barbara Heidenreich, featuring Stephanie Ernst’s African Grey is in Parrot Chronicles: Harness Training Your Bird .


A few more recent pictures are in Piper’s Gallery.