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Clicking Is Really for the Birds!

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Back in 1979 I taught a training course for keepers at the National Zoo. The zoo had a display full of abandoned cockatoos, some of which had been relinquished for behavior problems, others simply because they had outlived their owners. They were so hungry for attention and stimulation that one of my students taught a bird several tricks (hanging upside down from a branch, for instance) with the 'click' being a tap on the glass with her class ring, and the primary reinforcer nothing more than a chance to pretend to nibble her ring through the glass. Ever since, I have been touched and saddened by the loneliness and impoverished environment of many captive parrots and their relatives.

According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, nearly five million households in the US own one or more pet birds. Thanks to great improvements in captive breeding techniques, many of those birds are in the parrot family. From huge macaws to tiny conures and parrotlets, they are beautiful, sociable, intelligent, and fun to own—except for three big problems: fear of people, screaming, and biting.

As the bird rescue folks can tell you, these habits mean that many a bird winds up living in solitary confinement in the guest room or even the cellar, or worse yet, being punished physically, which makes all the problems much worse. Now, there's help. Melinda Johnson's Clicker Training for Birds. While the book applies to any bird from a canary to an emu, it focuses on the lovable but challenging parrot family. With this easy guide, any pet owner can begin to change a bird's habits for the better, starting with the very first clicker lesson.

Melinda is an expert clicker trainer and an amusing writer; the book is laced with her wry wit. She gives detailed instructions for good bird care and management; and she also takes you step by step through several chapters of very up-to-date clicker training. You'll see how to click for good husbandry (wing and nail trimming, baths, introduction to new toys, foods, and environments) and also for all kinds of amusing tricks. If you have a bird, or have friends or relatives with birds, this is THE book. We are proud to be the publishers of this book; it should change many a bird's life for the better.

Clicker Training for Birds comes as a book or in a kit with a special bird target stick, clicker and treats and, best of all, a mini-CD that fits in your computer and carries over 100 photos of clicker trained birds from all around the world. These photos were contributed by members of Melinda's bird-click online list. Both the birds and the trainer/owners are wonderful! You'll meet Raven, a little conure who lived for 15 years in toy-less, friendless solitude, and then was rescued, Tinkerbell, who lives in Taiwan and goes for free-flying holidays by motorcycle with her adoring owners, and Gizmo, a tiny bird with a huge repertoire including (on video on the CD) retrieving a ball. And lots more. Learn more/Order here.

Getting a Cue at APDT

Earlier this month I was honored to be a speaker and workshop presenter at the Association for Pet Dog Trainers' annual meeting. One of the treats for me was the chance to give a workshop on fading unwanted prompts and transferring cues. The popularity of lure-and-reward training means that a lot of people have found themselves stuck with dogs that won't work if there's no food around, or won't do their behaviors (down, heel, etc.) without that luring hand in front of their nose. How do you fade the lure? Minimizing it from the beginning is one way; re-shaping the behavior is another. (Learn more at ClickerExpo, from Kathy Sdao's workshop,"Sure you should lure?")

Often dogs fail to respond to a cue not because they are being stubborn, or because they don't know the cue, but because we gave the cue carelessly. With the wrong hand, with another word or two mixed into it, or in a new environment where some aspect of the cue that the dog relied on is changed or missing. If you've been inconsistent, and the dog doesn't always respond even though the behavior itself is well-trained, transferring the cue you've been using to a new cue can help.

To show how to transfer a cue, I asked for a clicker dog with a big repertoire of on-cue behaviors. An audience member volunteered her dog. I asked "What's the dog's favorite behavior?" "The wave." Perfect. Up on the stage came the APDT member and her nice herding dog. I clicked and treated the dog; he instantly focused on me. (For a clicker dog, finding a new person who clicks must feel the way it feels for us when we're in a totally foreign city and run across someone—anyone!—who speaks English.)

"Will he do his wave for me?" I started to ask, and the audience laughed because the dog had his paw over his head before I finished the sentence. Good! Communication had been established. So in roughly five minutes I transferred the cue for wave from a spoken word to my sunglasses. Show him the glasses, he waves.

Well, why would you want him to do that? Maybe for a joke: "I'm going to the beach, who wants to come?" I said, taking out my sunglasses and putting them on. "Me, me," says the dog, waving his paw in the air.

More importantly we had demonstrated that anything can be a cue, including an object; the dog has no preferences. We had also seen that you can transfer to a new cue—a hand signal instead of a voice signal, say—in next to no time, if you do it right.

Try it! Pick some easy behavior that is firmly on cue and teach your dog to do it when you say "Banana," or show him a hat or a soda can. Here's the system:

  • Give the new cue. Pause a beat. Give the old cue—behavior, click, treat. Repeat immediately, as soon as the dog is swallowing the treat.
  • On perhaps the fourth repetition, lengthen that little pause after the new cue. If you get ANY move toward the behavior—in my case it was a weak lifting of the paw a couple of inches—click and treat. You are not working on the criterion "Perfect wave" right now, but on the criterion "Respond to this cue." Repeat.
  • If you're using an object, "turn off the cue" by putting it behind you as you click. You can also "turn off" the cue if he fails to respond in two or three seconds, and then try again. Work fast. Lots of clicks, lots of treats.
  • Try your new cue while facing in different directions, and then in different places. Or get someone else to give the cue, while you click and treat.

At APDT I transferred the cue to the owner. At first, when she picked up the glasses and showed them to the dog, the dog practically shrugged. The cue was meaningless. Why? I'm left-handed, and held the sunglasses in my left hand. The owner had picked them up in her right hand. Good example of differences in a cue that might be small to us, but huge to the dog! When she moved the glasses into her left hand, bingo. Big wave.

In three or four more clicks the job was done. Could she have gone on then to transfer the cue to her right hand? Of course. Right hand—pause—left hand, behavior, click treat. Fade out the left hand. Might take no more than four clicks, that way; retraining it from scratch in the right hand might take thirty. Save yourself trouble. Transfer cues step by step.

P.S. If you are competing in canine sports, have a look at our first training 'toon. The subject ? Cues, of course. I think this cartoon expresses the way many people feel some days! Perfect on a t-shirt, mug, even a mouse pad. Learn more/Order. It will definitely bring a smile to your face.

Benefits of a new cue

There's some evidence that transferring a well-learned behavior to a new cue cuts down on the time needed to get the dog performing well in new, scary, and distracting environments; in fact, some people are using this technique to reduce or eliminate the need for elaborate desensitization and gradual exposure to new environments such as show grounds and city streets. I'll be talking about this and other powerful uses of cues and cueing at all three ClickerExpos, in my Get a Cue workshop and in main stage presentations. Come and get a cue for yourself!

Clicker Challenge at ClickerExpo

My apologies for the absence of an August letter and the late arrival of this month's letter. My family and I were on vacation. In early October my daughter Gale and I are going to England to participate in a clicker conference and the Clicker Challenge. We are having a round of this great new game at ClickerExpo every day. GREAT NEWS! We have reworked the schedule at ClickerExpo so that you can participate or spectate both the training and the competition without missing a minute of any other program. If you are bringing a dog, think about signing up for the Challenge! There's no way to practice, so you don't need to be experienced; anyone has a chance to win! And it's a lot of fun!

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

BlueHairBob's picture

The enormous bird problem and its solution

I hang out at an exotic bird rescue/re-homing facility in Oregon several days a week talking to the birds, looking for training ops, helping out, evaluating new birds, etc. In our little corner of the North West, we see several new birds every week. The number of birds adandoned or abused or needing new homes for other reasons is enormous. And, as you say, the reason is very often a lack of training.

It appears to me that the answer is "Don't Shoot the Parrot". Getting rid of the bird is a method ONE solution (shoot the dog). The nuber of people clicker training birds is still a small minority from what I can see in the pet parrot community. I hope that it begins to catch on as fast as it has changed the dog training community.

Maybe in 10 years (or less) we will see the same kind of major shift in the parrrot world.

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