Shaping a Foot Target

Teaching Suki to touch the end of a stick with her foot. This is part of a behavior modification plan in helping a client teach her parrot not to bite.
Teaching Suki to touch the end of a stick with her foot. This is part of a behavior modification plan in helping a client teach her parrot not to bite.

I’m giving an On-Line Behavior Consultation this afternoon and just took this video to share in my consultation. Since I just sat here and downloaded it, I thought I would use this as the topic for this post.

First of all, shaping is the procedure of reinforcing small approximations toward a desired behavior. Shaping can, and usually does happen in very small increments. In this video I am reinforcing very small increments of training Suki, our blue-fronted amazon, to touch a stick with her foot. She thinks she has to touch it with her beak.

Second, a target is an object. Any object. In training, you want the target to be predetermined and you want an animal to touch a body part to it. In this video, my predetermined object is the ball at the end of the stick. I want to train Suki to touch the ball at the end of the stick with her foot.

Target training is one of the first things I train any and every animal that comes through the center, or that I am working with. This afternoon, I am helping a client teach her moluccan cockatoo that she just took in from a shelter, to touch his foot to a target stick. Why? Because one of the issues we are working on is his biting. The target stick can get her to move her moluccan from point A to point B with no initial use for physical contact in the beginning of our training, as you see Suki does at the very end of this video. Suki has to take one step to be able to reach the target stick. That is the beauty of this behavior.

Teaching the moluccan to touch the target stick will help my client develop the trusting relationship with her bird and the bird with her. If effectively using positive reinforcement training, the bird will want to begin completing her requests because it will be of high value to him. Reinforcers are always delivered for touching the stick. Soon she will be able to set the target stick down and ask her bird to touch his foot to her finger. Once he begins doing this consistently, she can then target his feet to her arm and she can then move him from point A to point B by herself.

The target is a prop used to a predetermined end, which is her being able to pick up the bird without fear of being bitten. There are several key factors here. One is to never push the bird past his comfort level. If the bird hesitates, there is a reason for it. If you think you are going to get bit, you have probably pushed the bird too far by asking a behavior beyond his comfort level. Second, is to never push yourself past your comfort level. If you are not comfortable with a request you are giving your bird, you need to back up and keep working at the previous step in which you are or were comfortable. If you are not comfortable, it is because you are not sure if you are going to get bit. If you aren’t sure, that means your bird isn’t sure either.

‘Tis the Season To Address Those Hormones

Recall training Suki and Murray, a bonded pair of parrots.
Recall training Suki and Murray, a bonded pair of parrots.

A few times a year many parrot owners and caretakers see and experience the behavior changes hormones can have with the parrots we live with and love. Are you seeing these changes now? I know I am seeing them with the a few of the birds we have here. I want to share some of the key factors we implement when we see these behavior changes arise.

One of the first things we will do is bump up the training, complexity of training, or amount we are training. Training is the best form of communication we have with our parrots and we all do it whether we know it or not. With each time we walk by a cage, talk to a bird or if the bird can hear or see us, we are training that bird. The key question is “What exactly are we training?” Are we training the bird to lung quicker as we walk by? Are we training the bird to scream louder, longer, and earlier each day? Are we training the bird to run longer distances in chasing us? So many times I see people unknowingly train undesired behaviors and train them very well.

Colleen, a client, teaching her amazon to touch its beak to a stick. This is a great way to get a bird to move from point A to point B with no contact, if desired.
Colleen, a client, teaching her amazon to touch its beak to a stick. This is a great way to get a bird to move from point A to point B with no contact, if desired.

When we increase the interaction through training, at the same time we are also modifying food. By modifying I do not mean taking food away. I mean we observe which foods the bird eats first out of its dish or foraging toys, then we set those foods and other desirable treats aside to be delivered in the same amount throughout the day but as positive reinforcers for behaviors we want to see increase. Why not positively reinforce the behavior of the bird being calm as we walk by the cage? Why not reinforce the bird for doing behaviors other than screaming?

Another major key is to give the bird something other to do than regurgitate on toys or practice other behaviors associated with ‘being hormonal’. We provide choice and complexity into the bird’s environment through foraging and gradually increasing the complexity in the foraging toys as the birds continue to figure out how to get the food or treats out of the toy. Keep those toys changing and keep the bird engaged in and with those changing toys. The same toy can become extremely predictable to a parrot. Studies show that predictability can lead to boredom and when a parrot is bored they will then move on to other behaviors that are usually not desired by us. I always say “If your bird is not engaged with the toy and just walking by them, they aren’t toys. They are objects in their way!” Give them less opportunity to practice undesired behaviors. Do this by replacing the opportunity to practice them with other behaviors.

Flight or other equivalent exercise burns off a lot of built up energy. Flight mixed with training is a great way to give the bird other things to do beside screaming or lunging. Recall train them, meaning train them to run or fly to you when called. Train them to hop to your hand and each time they do, reinforce that behavior. Gradually increase the distance until you are in another room and they are running or flying to you from other rooms. This burns off a lot of energy and mixes all of the above suggestions into one. Training, foraging for food through training by flying to your hand, and flying or running to you.

Keep your birds trained doing the things you want them to do rather than letting them practice behaviors you don’t want them to do. The longer they practice an undesired behavior, the more well practiced it becomes. One thing I have always noticed though, it doesn’t take near as long to change a behavior concern than it did for the bird to learn the undesired behavior in the first place. Keep them used to looking for behaviors from you and reinforce those behaviors.