Establishing Dominance Over Your Parrot?

February 22, 2008

I often hear it said that a lot of parrot behavior problems stem from the bird thinking it is “dominant” to the humans, and that the way to control the parrot is to reestablish the person’s flock leader position.

But research has shown that not only is it not important to establish “dominance” with birds, it doesn’t work. Sometimes they’ll test you to see what they can get away with, but they aren’t like dogs or wolves in that they jockey for alpha status.

I’m a huge fan of clicker training and the philosophy espoused by Melinda Johnson who admins the Yahoo Bird Click group. She advocates teaching “stupid parlor tricks” as a way to improve communication and therefore the relationship with your feathered friend. It’s not about forcing the bird to do what you want, it’s about teaching your bird to want the same thing you want and then doing it voluntarily.

When I got Stewie last July (from an animal shelter where they had no idea what to do with birds), he was one cranky little guy. In fact, I was a little worried that he didn’t like me and wouldn’t ever really be very fond of me. I started clicker training and it totally changed our relationship.

He learned that there are ways to communicate with me that don’t involve biting. I figured out how to read his body language to understand what he was trying to tell me.

He learned that he can manipulate me into giving him treats just by doing some silly tricks. I have a bird who does silly tricks for me.

We both have so much more fun together, and he’s become downright affectionate — something I never expected!

I believe wholeheartedly that we achieved this new relationship precisely because I didn’t try to establish “control.” In training, we are partners. Neither of us thinks “we’re in charge.” I respect his needs/wants (respect doesn’t always mean he always gets what he wants though…just like I don’t always get what I want either) and he does what I want him to because he wants to do it.

Stewie now steps up with no problem – whereas he used to bite my fingers whenever they were near him. The stepping up came completely naturally; I wasn’t even really trying to train him to step up. We worked on a lot of other tricks first and at some point he got so excited about going wherever it was I was going to take him that he started seeing me as a convenient method of transportation, and happily steps up when I offer him my arm ๐Ÿ™‚

Clicker training is the best way to turn a cranky, biting bird into a loving pet. I know it, because I’ve seen the change in Stewie with my own eyes.

Related: Allowing Birds on Your Shoulder – OK or Not?

Updated: I just found this article by Susan Friedman on the discussion of “dominance”. It’s a good read. Check it out.



  1. Great blog ๐Ÿ™‚ I added a link to your blog on my links page. You can check it out here.

  2. Wonderful article! Having just stumbled into it today, I will be reading more of your blog regularly now, so much good sense and obvious understanding of parrots!

  3. Thanks Sherry, but I wouldn’t claim to have a great understanding of parrots. I’m still learning every day. But I do try to provide my bird with the best possible life – and that includes respecting that he’s a parrot, not a person or a dog or a cat.

  4. I am so inspired by your blog! I bought a book on clicker training (and a clicker) over a year ago (it was a Christmas present to Jerry, my African Grey). I also joined a yahoo clicker group. However, I hadn’t bought any props, and ended up just putting the book away… I came online today to find props, finally, and found your blog. I’ve had Jerry for almost 13 years – I owe it to him to interact with him in a better way than I have recently! The videos of Stewie are amazing. I hope I can post some of Jerry at some point.

  5. Thanks Laura, that’s quite a compliment. I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun!

  6. […] Related post: The Myth of Dominance Behavior in Parrots […]

  7. Dogs don’t jockey for dominance either. I’m interested why you view being the alpha bird as a myth but readily accept the alpha dog theory?

  8. Dogs do indeed jockey for dominance!!!! Years ago, while living in Greece with my three Afghan Hounds (All obedience trained and titled), all three were in my station wagon when suddenly, the oldest (smallest) female began to fight furiously with the younger female and big male. I stopped the fight by shouting at them, but the dominance went on for the rest of their lives. No more fights, but hysterically, the older female would, just by looking at the others, send them in what ever area of the house or garden she decided they should go. Presently, we raise and show Bernese Mountain dogs. A couple years ago, we imported a bitch puppy from Fance to add to our breeding program. She, the youngest in the kennels at that time, began to show dominance over the other females as she matured. This was actually causing our other bitches to not conceive even though they were bred. We sold the French bitch and have a litter due in two days.

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