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3 Common Clicker Training Mistakes

July 3, 2009

Clicker training is a fantastic method for taming and training parrots, effective on everything from little budgies and cockatiels to ornery cockatoos. It’s amazingly simple and easy to do, and yields really fast results. The basis of clicker training is positive reinforcement/operant conditioning, and the “secret” of the clicker is that it’s a simple way to communicate. As soon as your parrot starts to understand that “click” means “good, now here’s your reward”, it opens up so many possibilities.

If you don’t know anything about clicker training birds yet, please start by signing up for the Bird-Click discussion group, where you’ll find a wealth of resources in the list and in the files, or by reading the book: Getting Started: Clicker Training for Birds.

If you’ve started clicker training and aren’t seeing great results, check to see if you are making any (or all) of these three common clicker training mistakes.

Mistake #1: Clicking But Not Delivering a Treat

A click is a promise of a treat. If you click for the desired behavior but don’t follow up, you are breaking the implicit contract of clicker training your bird. “Click” always means treat, even if you made a mistake and clicked for the wrong thing.

However, after the behavior is well established and you are sure that your bird understands what you’re asking for, you can phase out the clicker. You should continue to reward the desired behavior, but a treat is no longer required 100% of the time. (In other words, you can treat without a click, but a click always means a treat is coming.) In fact, variable reinforcement can actually be much better at creating a stronger behavior (both bad and good).

Solution: Perfect your clicker timing and always deliver a treat after clicking.

Mistake #2: Not Using a Consistent Marker

As I mentioned in my clicker training myths post, there is nothing magical about the clicker that causes the bird to do what you want, but it has several advantages: it is a distinct and sharp sound that can mark a very precise point in time; it is a consistent noise that always sounds the same; it doesn’t sound like anything else the bird is likely to hear during non-training times. The bird understand that the click has one simple function: to signal that they did the right thing and earned a treat.

You can choose not to use a clicker device as a marker (or “bridge” to the reward), but using a verbal marker is not as precise and could cause training (and learning) to go much slower. If you choose to use the word “good” as a bridge rather than a mechanical click, be conscious of using the same intonation, inflection and timing every time. If your supposed marker is just a combination of long sounds all strung together — “gooooooood. good. gooooood biiiiiirrrrd” — your bird will probably understand that you’re pleased, but have no clue what specific thing is generating the praise, which is the whole point of the marker.

Solution: Use a clicker. If you can’t use a device that makes a distinct, sharp sound, then clicking with your tongue would still be preferable to using a word.

Mistake #3: Using the Wrong Training Reward

The first “trick” you should start teaching your bird is targeting, but even before that the first step of training is figuring out what your bird’s favorite treat is. “Treat testing” involves offering your bird several high-value food items and seeing which one it consistently eats first. Whatever that is, is what your bird prefers most and will probably be willing to work for.

Birds are not like dogs in that their owner’s approval is enough to make them jump through hoops (figuratively or literally). They need to know there’s something in it for them. You don’t have to use food as a reward but it tends to be the easiest to deliver. Things like a head rub could potentially be used as a reward, but only if the bird finds it rewarding enough to work for it. Giving scritches to a bird who barely tolerates them, in other words, is not the correct way to C/T.

The problem with rewards is that we (as humans) tend to focus too much on what we ourselves think should be rewarding, not what actually is to our training subject. Remember: a reinforcer is only a reinforcer if it causes the behavior to increase. I.e., if your bird isn’t eagerly working to get that reward… it’s not much of a reward.

Solution: Conduct treat testing and observe which treats your bird is most enthusiastic about. Remove that item from his daily diet and only use it as a training reward.

Learning to Clicker Train the Right Way

Here you’ve learned what not to do when it comes to clicker training. If you’re interested in learning how to do clicker training the correct way, please join Melinda Johnson’s Bird Click group on Yahoo or get the book: Clicker Training for Birds (from Amazon).

Please also see our previous post: Clicker Training Myths and Misconceptions

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6 comments

  1. In my parrots, I seem to have the full spectrum of possible clicker training rewards. Frank works best for praise – not petting, and certainly not treats, even favored ones. However, Claudia is verrryyy picky, and only will work with you IF she does not have anything else to do, IF she is hungry enough, and IF you are offering her a large enough piece of her most favored treat. And her favored treat varies after a few weeks, as she grows tired of it. After saying that, you would never know she was at least as affectionate as Frank, if not more! The others all vary somewhere in between.


    • Stewie is an easy one to train; he’s very treat motivated. I still struggle with Mika. She likes safflower and sunflower seeds enough to target anywhere I ask, but when it comes to retrieve, she’d rather just play with the object. I’m thinking it might be time to move onto a non-prop behavior because we’re not really making progress with retrieve. She won’t work for praise, or scritches, so maybe I can use a toy as a reward for a non-prop behavior.


  2. The clicker works great for many different types of animals not just birds.


    • Exactly.

      It’s the tool of choice for most modern dog trainers, and when people think of clicker training, they think of dogs, although there’s lots of talk about using it with dolphins and circus/zoo animals. IOW, it’s a fairly mainstream concept in other animal training circles, but so many people don’t realize yet that it works with pet birds. And since this is a bird blog, my focus naturally is on using it with birds. If I had a dolphin blog, I’d talk about clicker training dolphins, even if the concept works generally with lots of animals. :)


  3. As a Professional Bird Trainer I would be lost without my clicker. All of our close contact training training is with the clicker whilst we use a whistle for flight training.
    The clicker is a fantastic tool when used correctly. I really feel there should be a practical course so that people can learn this technique properly as I am seeing many people who reinforce an incorrect behavior and subsequently reward it.
    Timing is everything as they say!


  4. Great post, as always!

    Unfortunately, I think the reward that would be most motivating to my macaw would be to allow him to bite me.

    We’re not making much training progress with the second-best options, but I’m not giving up!



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