Working on Harness Training

May 23, 2010

A long time ago I decided to buy the Aviator Harness for Mika. Last weekend I finally got it out and introduced it to both the birds.

Mika checks out the Aviator Harness

The Aviator Harness comes with a DVD, which I have to admit I haven’t watched yet 😦 Apparently you’re not supposed to watch it where your birds can see it, and well, the TV is in the same room as the birds’ cages. I tend to be the kind of person who tries to figure things out without the instruction. (Caveat: I also break things because I don’t read the instructions, so I really don’t advise following my lead in that regard.)

I know from doing lots of reading and understanding the principles of positive reinforcement training that the key is to take is slow and make sure the birds only associate good things with the harness. Any early setback with it can cause the birds to panic and become afraid of it, pretty much ruining your chances of ever getting it on them again.

With that in mind, I started off just showing it to them and playing with it myself. I draped it on my desk and then held it up to them while feeding them treats for being calm. Just seeing the harness didn’t really phase either of my parrots, so I moved on to step 2: asking them to put their heads near and through the harness loop.

Harness Training Mika

Here is a video of my pionus being introduced to the Aviator Harness and being asked to target near or through the large loop.

Mika, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is not that highly motivated when it comes to training. I kind of think that she doesn’t “look” like she’s having a lot of fun (because she doesn’t act “eager”) even though I do think she enjoys it. I say that because she could quit anytime she wanted to, but she always ends up coming around and doing the behavior (even if she gets distracted and/or takes a few detours).

This video shows training that isn’t really that great. For one thing, I think it would be helpful to have a “marker” but I just didn’t think I could juggle the props, treats and a clicker very well. Luckily Mika is quite familiar with targeting, so she already understands that biting the target is what got her the treat. If the asked-for behavior was simply to put her head a certain distance through the loop, you could see how the timing of the treat delivery would be very confusing for her. (I.e., without a clicker marking the precise point of the completed behavior, she could easily think in some of those reps that beaking the harness is what led to the treat, since she does the behavior, then beaks the harness, then gets a treat.)

I also like using the target in conjunction with the harness because it requires her to actively participate in the training. Rather than luring her or asking her to sit still while I move the harness, she knows that she’s making a choice to earn her reward. Once we move forward, however, I’m not sure that I’ll be able to juggle the leash, the treat and the target stick while also manipulating her wings through the harness, so I may end up dropping that part of it moving forward.

Harness Training Stewie

When I first bought the harness for Mika, I didn’t even bother getting one for Stewie, the sun conure — I didn’t think he’d want any part of it. At that point, he did not like being touched in any way, shape or form (although he’s come around a lot in that respect since then – now he allows me to scratch his head and neck) and I just couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be able to get this on him.

However, the first part of it (getting him comfortable around the harness and putting his head through the loop) turned out to be really easy. He’s very food motivated and has “targeting” down cold. He seemed very comfortable putting his head through the loop to nip the target stick and get his reward.

(I apologize for the poor quality of the video.)

With Stewie, I asked him to put his head through the small loop because he seemed ready for a bit more advanced work. However, this specific harness is also too large for him, so the opening isn’t as tight as it would be if I had gotten a conure-sized Aviator Harness. If the training continues to go well and he ends up letting me put his wings through this one, then I’ll go ahead and get one in his size.

Because Stewie is so food-focused and isn’t really into toys, I didn’t have any problems with him trying to chew on it. Mika, on the other hand, likes to explore with her beak and wanted to chew on the harness, something you’re supposed to discourage.

Next Steps for Harness Training

The next step is to get both the birds comfortable with the harness draped across their backs. If we continue to take it slow, I don’t think that part will be problematic either, but I do worry about what we’re going to do once I need to manipulate their wings to fit through the large loop. Neither of them is really keen on me touching their wings and safflower seeds might not be good enough to entice them to cooperate with that part of the work.

Wish us luck!



  1. Very helpful videos. What do you use as treats?

    • We mostly use safflower seeds. But your bird should be the one to decide what you’re using as a reward (i.e., just because Stewie and Mika will work for safflower seeds doesn’t mean it’s the right reward for your birds). A good reward is anything your bird will work for and is small enough to be consumed quickly. Some good treats to try are safflower seeds, half or quarter of a sunflower seed, a lick of unsweetened organic apple sauce off a spoon, a tiny bit of almond or walnut — if your birds are eager to work for any of those, go for it!

  2. I have a green cheek conure who tolerated the harness for a while. unfortunately, a couple of things happened and he’s not so keen on it now. firstly, a bird swooped him while he was quietly sitting in a tree.

    then, when he had some flight feathers, i encouraged him to fly with the harness on (i ran while he was sitting on my finger) but i think it was premature and he, quite frankly, freaked out.

    i think i might have ruined the experience for him for some time, but will give it another go when spring comes around again (i’m in australia).

  3. Good luck! I will be very interested to see your results. I have a couple of aviators (timneh and caique-sized) but gave up before making significant progress.

    I know my macaw would accept one readily, but I’m hesitant to buy yet another one if it wouldn’t get used.

    I’m hoping your progress will inspire me!

    • Hi Mary! If you look through my blog’s archives, you’ll see I have also started tricks and then never trained them through completion (for example: the Psitta Puzzle… we never made it past the circle shape. Or color recognition… didn’t keep going with that either.) In most cases it’s a matter of me forgetting about it, not the birds getting stuck beyond help. And my lack of follow through on these tricks doesn’t bother me in the least. It’s not like I’m training them for a show — it’s all just supposed to be fun and, as far as I know, neither of my birds is embarrassed that they never learned the whole thing (or upset with me that I abandoned the trick) 🙂

      What I’m doing with Stewie, which might make sense for you too, is to see how far you can get with the harness you have, even if it’s the wrong size. You don’t need to fit it all the way on him, but just see if he’ll put his head through the big loop, observe how he reacts to the harness being draped across his back, etc. If that all goes well and it looks like you could go further, only then go out and get a harness in his size. If it ends up looking like you’re not going to get very far with that behavior, then no harm/no foul (and you won’t have spent the money on yet another harness).

      Maybe we can be harness-training buddies and cheer each other on!

      But isn’t your macaw the one who would shred your fingers into confetti if given the chance? Seems like a tough candidate for harness training 🙂

  4. Neat. I just got my cockatoo an aviator harness and I’m going to try this to get him used to it, since he is target trained. He also lets my husband spread out his wings, so I hope we can get him harness trained. He could go out a lot more if he was.

  5. I watched it in the same room with Nani, she didn’t seem to care and getting her used to it was relatively easy. At first she HATED having it on. She would go limp and roll on her back. But after she got outside she was as happy as could be. Having said that she was only about 3 months old at the time so she was pretty easy to work with. If I tried putting something new on her now I’d be missing appendages! Mr. Feathersworth has worn it a few times, I didn’t do much other than take it out and put it on but again, he was only 6 weeks old when I started. Both birds allow me to put it on but both chew on the front part so it’s all frayed. Mr. F also preens frantically I suppose because his feathers feel “all messed up”. It’s kinda funny looking actually. I’ll try to get video and post it on Nani’s blog. 😉

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