Despite the hard work of a lot of proponents of clicker training, and several excellent resources about clicker training specific to parrots, there’s still a lot of confusion around what clicker training is, how it works, and how you use it to train companion birds.
As an avid reader and participant in the training section of a popular bird forum, I often have the opportunity to talk up the benefits of positive reinforcement training. Frequently I see the same types of questions come up over and over again. Most of them are based on misunderstanding of the role of the clicker.
Parrot Riding a Bicycle by Spinndoctor
Following are the most common clicker training misconceptions:
Myth: There’s something innately special about the clicker device that make animals perform tricks better
Actually, there is nothing magical about the clicker. The clicker simply produces a sound that you, the trainer, use to mark the behavior you’re trying to reinforce. You can use a ball point pen, a whistle or your voice to make a distinct sound instead of using a “real” training clicker. The only requirement is that you are able to produce a unique and specific sound that you use to mark precisely when the desired behavior is occurring.
A clicker has no meaning in and of itself. You imbue it with meaning by pairing it with a reward.
Myth: Any type of training that involves a clicker can be classified as “clicker training”
“Clicker training,” as the phrase is used in this blog and in most training circles, refers specifically to the use of positive reinforcement training, and only positive reinforcement training. Anyone who uses a clicker to mark desired behavior but doesn’t connect the click with a reward, or a trainer who pairs positive reinforcement with positive punishment, is not applying the core principles of clicker training.
In fact, you could technically be “clicker training” without even using a clicker. As long as you’re using some sort of marker to bridge the instance of the behavior and the reward, and not using punishment to train, you’re basically using clicker training.
Myth: Clicker training is only for teaching silly tricks
Clicker training is not just for teaching a parrot silly tricks. Clicker training is effective for teaching fun party tricks, but it can be useful for teaching husbandry behaviors such as cooperating with nail trims, wings clips, toweling, etc. Furthermore, “tricks” like stepping up, recall and flighted recall, using certain vocalizations to get your attention, etc. are all behaviors that you can be trained using a clicker – those behaviors lay a basic foundation for good day to day interaction.
Most important, however, is that the process of clicker training helps birds and bird owners understand each other better. You get to learn your birds’ body language, predict how they’ll react, understand what they’re trying to communicate, and build trust. Your birds will learn that you are not capricious and unpredictable, that they can manipulate you into doing what they want, that you are the source of good things, that they get rewarded for offering friendly behaviors, and that they do not need to bite you to communicate. That type of trust-building will allow you to handle your birds and be more affectionate toward them.
Formerly untame conure being snuggly. Photo by melanie.phung
Myth: Clicker training is hard
If I can do it, almost anyone can do it. All you need is a tiny bit of coordination and timing, both of which you can work on fairly easily.
Myth: You need to tame your bird before starting to clicker train
Absolutely wrong. In fact, the process of clicker training helps you tame the bird and I most often recommend clicker training to people with aggressive birds. You don’t need to tame your bird before starting training; you start training in order to begin taming the bird. Training helps you establish a common language with your bird and demonstrates that you can be trusted because you a) reward your bird for doing things you like, b) act in a predictable and consistent manner, and c) allow him to exercise choices. Clicker training also gives you fantastic opportunities to learn (and respect) his body language. You can tame your bird by doing these things without training, but it will take longer because there will be fewer opportunities for you to show your parrot that you’re paying attention to what he’s saying and for him to see just how much choice and freedom he has.
Myth: You have to have a lot of time to devote to training
Not only do you not need to spend a lot of time on training, it’s actually better to limit individual training sessions to just a few minutes at a time. Anywhere from 2 to 10 minute sessions will generally do the trick (<– intentional pun); how many sessions you do a day depends on each bird’s level of interest.
I started off doing one to two training sessions per day, each only 2-3 minutes long. These days, time constraints are such that I barely do 1 or 2 sessions a week, mostly just reinforcing old tricks. The beauty is that birds don’t seem to forget — even after a hiatus of a week or more, my birds remember all of their tricks from before.
Myth: If you use a clicker, you don’t need to use food rewards
The clicker is not the reward. The click itself does not motivate the bird to repeat a behavior, it simply signals that a reward will be forthcoming very shortly. The reward doesn’t have to be food, although food treats are convenient, but it does need to be something your bird likes and is willing to work for.
Myth: If you start clicker training, you’re stuck carrying a clicker around forever
Once a behavior is solidly trained, you can phase out the clicker. The clicker is used for explaining what behavior you’re looking for, but you don’t need it for practicing tricks your bird already knows.
Myth: The author of this blog is an expert 🙂
As the disclaimer in my sidebar states, I’m neither a training instructor nor an avian expert of any kind. I simply love parrots. My birds, Stewie and Mika, are “just” pets. They don’t perform in front of crowds, they don’t do anything you can’t easily teach your own companion birds in just a few weeks. I’m not a particularly good trainer and, as cute as they are and as much as I adore them, my birds are not in any way geniuses.
In other words, go try this yourself. You too can have friendly, tame, trusting parrots who do silly tricks to amuse and delight you and your friends.
Related post: The Myth of Dominance Behavior in Parrots
Many thanks to professional bird trainers and clicker training experts like Melinda Johnson, Barbara Heidenreich, Karen Pryor and others who have provided the books, resources and discussion forums that have helped me develop a more positive relationship with my birds. However, any errors and gross misstatements about parrot training are mine, and no reflection on the above mentioned professionals.
For more information about the benefits of clicker training for birds, I recommend Melinda Johnson’s Clicker Training for Birds. Johnson’s book speaks in depth about concepts and techniques for learning how to teach your bird, with some good examples; it’s not a step-by-step “cookbook” breaking down individual approximations of every trick you could possibly teach a bird.
In addition, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog is an excellent book about positive reinforcement training generally (and not about dogs specifically, so don’t let the title fool you).