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.


Carly Log 3: Generalizing Recall

Posted by Raz on Feb 1st, 2009
Feb 1

For background see Carly’s Super-Generalizing Recall Training.

We’ve been continuing to practice regularly before meals indoors, including “emergency recalls” using a whistle and super-treats. We took a beach outings several days this week, each one a bit longer than the last. We’re up to our usual 30-40 min session that we typically have done during the week.

Set-up: We’ve been going out before her first meal, and using sprouts and nuts for rewards, and peanut butter for the super-treat.

Some new changes we’ve made, which seemed a bit counter-intuitive to me at first:

  1. I’m letting Carly and Piper stay at home in their cage several days per week instead of bringing them to work. Seems odd, but I get the impression that they often prefer to not be carted back and forth; it’s a lot of moving from place to place, often when they are already content where they are, and which can require visible treat rewards to keep it voluntary. They also seem to be finding their cage a more interesting environment than the office (I’ve been working a lot on their cage activities). And when I’m very busy at work, they are not getting much interaction from me anyway, and certainly not whenever they want it. I was also wondering if Carly might be more likely to stray off for social visits if she is fairly well saturated on being with me so much of the time. (I would be!) So they now get some quiet, private time for 6-8 hrs a few days per week.
  2. I’ve switched to feeding a base diet of pellets. Formerly I fed a small amount of pellets to both greys, just because they like them, with a base diet of sprouts and veggies. But sprouts are also a very favored training treat, so to increase their value I am now using the pellets (Lafebre’s) and veggies as the base, and reserving sprouts, nuts and fruit as rewards. We do enough work each day that she will still get a good balance of everything.

~ ~ ~

Behavior: Most days she did medium length flights, staying fairly close, with one or two longer ones playing with gulls. On all of them she came directly back to me when finished. Weather has been warm so there have been somewhat more people around. If they stop to talk I let her do her meet-n-greet (fly to them on cue, fly back for treat, repeat). Her body language has remained normal, and it didn’t change her subsequent flying. Yesterday we met a RHG only 2 minutes into our session. She predictably showed interest but didn’t fly to him until cued. I let her do some A-B’s back and forth, and she was fine when we left.

Tried the emergency recall whistle today on a longer flight and she turned immediately and headed back in. But I’ll need to see many more repetitions before I’m confident it’s trained solidly.

Continuing use of jackpot treats at the end of session and while walking back to the car (larger nuts, additional sprouts).

Other notes:

It’s getting fun again, and more relaxing, as she gets back into her old groove!