Posts Tagged ‘clicker training’


Book Review: Reaching the Animal Mind

April 10, 2010

I recently read the new Karen Pryor book “Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals” and would like to recommend it to anyone who has an interest in training and how learning takes place.

I’m a huge of Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog” — the book that brought clicker training to the masses (no, it’s actually not about dogs or dog training). Pryor is often credited for inspiring a revolution in animal behavior modification and making positive reinforcement the favored teaching method for most animal trainers; it also created the groundwork for other training books, including Clicker Training for Birds by Melinda Johnson. So I was definitely interested in what Pryor had to say about her experiences and observations about how animals learn.

Reaching the Animal Mind is probably not the best *intro* into clicker training as it’s not a how-to book; rather, Pryor shares a lot of really fun stories and anecdotes from her many decades of being a trainer (which includes stories of training and observing all types of animals from dolphins to wolves), which all support some points that she argues about what makes clicker training different from traditional training methods. She even makes a very strong case that clicker training is significantly different from 100% positive-reinforcement training that doesn’t use a clicker.

While she does talk a little bit about science (how data travels through the brain, etc), the whole thing is very accessible and fun… and hopefully it’ll inspire more people to use these principles in dealing with all animals (including fellow humans).

I particularly liked the chapters about how cues can act as reinforcers on their own and how to address the extinction curve so that the training subject doesn’t get frustrated. This was material that was new to me.

Also noteworthy is that every chapter includes a note about where on her website you can find videos of the examples/stories she talked about. I haven’t watched them yet, but you can find them on the official Reaching the Animal Mind website. (Navigate to more videos using the “chapter” links along the top).

The book is a lot more entertaining than one would think based on the subject matter, and I definitely encourage anyone interested in behavior and training to at least flip through for new insights and inspiration.

> Read more reviews of Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals


Pionus Parrot Learning to Fetch

August 8, 2009

Finally I have some video to share of Mika (white capped pionus) working on her retrieving skills!

[updated: I’ve noticed some criticism of this video floating out there, so I want to make a couple of points: 1) This is NOT her regular cage. I just needed a surface to work on that I could wheel in front of the camera. You can see pics of her daytime cage here. 2) She is not food deprived. She has plenty of food available all day, but she will work for treats because she WANTS to. 3) I made this video to demonstrate the how’s and when’s of bridging with a clicker. I purposesfully avoided praising her because one of the mistakes that newbie trainers make is that they’ll confuse the bird with lots of noise and mistimed clicks. Don’t worry, she gets lots of praise and affection outside of this 5-minute demonstration video.]

Before we got to this point, we started with her standing on her regular cage’s door and taking the pink ring from me and then letting go again. Then I upped the criterion so that Mika would get C/T’d only when the ring landed in my hand.

When it finally “clicked” for her that she needs to put the pink ring in my hand, I set up her travel cage in front of the camera to document a practice session.

In our previous sessions we only worked on the door of her cage so she didn’t need to move much, just lean in one direction or the other. This video shows Mika’s first session on a surface where she has to walk in different directions to get the object into my palm. I also didn’t hand her the ring, making her fetch it herself. She did better than I expected given the new, higher criteria, demonstrating that she understood the end goal.

We’ll continue working on this trick for a while to get Mika’s retrieve really solid and generalized to a couple different options. But one thing I want to be careful about is making sure that Mika continues to enjoy playing with foot toys by herself and doesn’t start to think of every toy as simply an object that needs to be retrieved to me.


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


Parrot Skateboard Training: Part II

April 20, 2009

In my previous post about skateboarding parrots, I mentioned the skateboard prop I bought and the first steps I took to train my sun conure to stand on it.

Basically I began to desensitize him to this new object by C/T’ing him for stepping close to it and beaking it.

But I needed to be careful that he didn’t think beaking it was the final objective (i.e., he started to think the desired behavior was to “target” the skateboard). The catch with “shaping” a behavior is not to linger on one step too long, or that becomes the behavior the bird gets stuck on.

So after it was clear that Stewie was comfortable getting close to the prop, it was time to move towards getting him to put his foot on it.

My first approach was to put the prop in his way (braced, so it wouldn’t accidentally move and startled him) and asked him to touch the target stick behind the prop. My hope was that he’d step on it in order to get to the target stick, but he usually just stretched his neck or found some way to walk around it.

Then I decided that my best bet was to get him used to stepping up on the skateboard while I held it.

Stewie and His SkateboardHere are the steps I used to shape him to stand on the skateboard like a perch:

1.) I held the prop between my thumb and forefinger, kept my arm horizontal to the floor and presented my hand directly in front of him.

2.) I asked him to step up, so it looked like I was asking him to “step up” on my finger. (He’s not a big fan of stepping up onto fingers, so this wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice.)

3.) I started by rewarded a foot lift.

4.) We moved to touching his foot to my finger and the skateboard at the same time.

5.) Then I required that he put weight onto the skateboard with one foot.

6.) Only after it was clear that he understood that touching the skateboard was part of the trick (as opposed to reaching around my finger and stepping up on my wrist), I changed the way I held the skateboard so he could stand on the skateboard like a perch. At this point, I kept my hand where it was so he could step off as soon as he got his treat. I feel it’s important in the early stages to give him the opportunity to back off quickly if he isn’t feeling secure, otherwise he might not be as willing to leave his comfort zone the next time I ask.

7.) Once I had him stepping onto the skateboard prop consistently, I fed him several seeds one after the other to let him know I wanted him to stay on it, rather than stepping back off.

8.) After that, I started moving him a few inches away from his cage to get him comfortable with the idea of standing on it while it moved.

9.) To document his progress, I got out the camera to take photos 🙂 At this point he was comfortable enough to stand on one foot to eat his reward.

Still a little unsure:


A little more comfortable:

Stewie on His Skateboard

Now we’re getting it:

Stewie on His Skateboard

Ready for a half-pipe:


This is all progress he’s made over the course of a couple 5-minute training sessions staggered throughout the weekend. For the next couple of sessions we’ll just continue to reward what he’s comfortable with so far (which is to step up onto the skateboard whenever I hold it in front of him).

Part III in the skateboard training process (whenever I get around to it) is to get Stewie comfortable with standing on the skateboard while I push it along a flat surface.

I could probably have achieved these pictures much faster by using a bit of luring and simply not giving him the opportunity to retreat, but the point of the training is not simply to force him to stand on the skateboard (and get some cute pictures), but to ensure he’s comfortable with the prop and get him excited about making progress on this trick.


Don’t Shoot the Dog: Book Review

February 11, 2009

I’ve probably mentioned that I recently read Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, a book that popularized clicker training among pet owners in the United States, and which spawned a whole industry — including clicker training books like Clicker Training for Birds by Melinda Johnson, which talks specifically about how to train parrots.

Since I just reviewed that clicker training book on this site, I decided to post my book review of Don’t Shoot the Dog to, where I thought the topic could appeal to a broader (read: non-bird) audience.

But if you already own Clicker Training for Birds and want to get a broader understanding of the clicker training philosophy or just want to know what inspired Melinda Johnson’s how-to guide for birds, please check out my latest post on PetKnows: Don’t Shoot the Dog – Book Review.

(Or, if you trust my judgment implicitly and don’t want to bother reading the review first 🙂 just go straight to to pick up your own copy of Karen Pryor’s book.)


Clicker Training Myths and Misconceptions

September 11, 2008

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 on a Bicycle by Sphinndoctor

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.

Something Up My Sleeve

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).


Getting Started Clicker Training Mika

July 28, 2008

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to convince Mika to eat a bigger variety of food. I’ve put off training with her because she’s such a picky eater that it’s hard to remove treats from her regular diet to use for rewards.

Furthermore, she’s a very slooooow eater. So far there’s nothing she likes that doesn’t take her a few seconds to eat, so we’ve been very slow to get started with training — that’s because the training reward should be something that can be eaten quickly enough that it doesn’t stop the flow of training. The bird should not be given any opportunities to get distracted from the behavior being reinforced.

My first goal before I even started training was to change her diet: no more peanuts, fewer seeds, high-quality pellets instead of filler and, if possible, fresh foods. In addition to being better for her, it would be awfully convenient if Mika and Stewie ate the same foods – it would cut preparation time in half!


(In the past few weeks I have convinced her that Nutriberries — Stewie’s favorite treats — are yummy, but that’s a little like convincing a kid who only eats candy that oatmeal cookies are good! lol.)

The good news is that seeds are finally a much smaller part of her diet, with the majority of it consisting of a combination of Zupreem Avian Maintenance Natural pellets, the same type as Stewie’s but bigger, and Kaytee Exact Organic pellets, plus a mix of dehydrated vegetables. She still gets pumpkin seeds for snacks, but the sunflower seeds are only for rewards now.

Even though unshelled sunflower seeds still take a little longer for Mika to crack and eat than I’d like, it seems like the best training treat option for her. I might even try shelled sunflower seeds if it appears that it takes her too long to shell them herself.

So I think we’ve finally overcome the hurdle to the very first step of clicker training: finding an appropriate treat.

We’ve started on the second step of clicker training: charging the clicker. This is where we introduce the parrot to the concept that click –> treat.

Once that’s established we work on teaching that trick –> click –> treat (i.e. that specific behavior –> reward)

I actually never charged the clicker with Stewie — we just started on tricks right away; to tell the truth, I’m not sure he even gets the whole concept of the clicker — but he certainly “gets” training. For some reason it just seems like Mika requires more introduction to the concept and the clicker might be necessary for marking the desired behavior more precisely since she does react more slowly than he does.

Here’s a video of me charging the clicker with Mika and asking for step ups:

At the end of this session, right after this video ended, I tried introducing the target stick, but she just ran away from it, so I’m saving targeting for a separate training session.

Since I haven’t really done any training with Mika, there aren’t a lot of videos of her. So if you’re wondering why there are quite a few of the Stu-monster and so few movies of my pionus, that’s why. I promise it’s not one of those no-one-takes-photos-of-the-second child things 🙂 I’ll take more videos once she knows how to do some tricks, and I’ve asked my videographer friend who did the cute Introducing Stewie video to make one of Mika as well. With her looks, there’s no reason she can’t be a movie star too.

Update: July 31

Only our second training session ever and she already seems to get targeting. She’s even taking a few steps towards the target on her own. Hurray!