Some thoughts on Harness training parrots

Lately, it being summer and all, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to harness train their parrots. It makes me very happy to see people taking the time to do it in a force free manner using positive reinforcement, as opposed to just strapping the harness on an unwilling, uncomfortable and even scared bird as some people unfortunately choose to do!
Some owners have great success, some less success, and this post will be about some of the things that I feel it’s easy to forget when you are new to harness training parrots.

The number one thing I think separates training things such as allowing a harness on their body, towel training, being in a crate and similar things to training other behaviors like many tricks, is that we rely much more on classical conditioning (you know, Pavlov’s dogs!) and animals emotions, and not “just” operant conditioning (if I do X, Y happens).

Just like being harnessed, being toweled can be an aweful experience, or a wonderful one. Can you guess how Eris is feeling about it? : )

Just like being harnessed, being toweled can be an awful experience, or a wonderful one. Can you guess how Eris is feeling about it? : )

This means, that as opposed to when teaching, say, a wave, where the bird just have to lift his foot to earn a reinforcer, we now need to teach the bird to like to have something wrapped around it’s body; something that can be really scary to many species and individuals, and this is indeed a bit trickier.
In reality, what this means is that we as trainers need to be very, very observant, looking a lot closer on each response we get from the animal, always paying attention to that ever so revealing body language to avoid creating even the slightest fear response.

For example: two birds putting their heads through a head loop in an aviator harness can look vastly different.  One might have relaxed feathers, almond shaped eyes, it’s weight distributed evenly and reach in to the loop without hesitation to earn it’s treat. Another bird might have big, round eyes, the feathers on the head/body lying flat, the bird “standing high” on his legs with the wings tightly folded against it’s body, and with twitchy motions try to get the treat that you are holding on the other side of loop, quickly pulling his head out again as soon as he’s got it.
What does this tell us? In the first case, we have a relaxed bird enjoying the experience.  A perfect time to move forward in the training process to the next criteria.
The other example… Well, even though this bird is doing the same thing as the first one, it’s not feeling the same way about doing it. Here’s where most people go wrong and keep trying to push the bird even though he’s doing everything in his power to tell you he’s uncomfortable. Sure,he is reaching for the treat after all – apparently he wants it really bad – but he is not having fun. What you are doing here is actually hindering the learning process in the long run by making things too difficult for the bird and working him when he is too stressed! If a bird is presenting the same or similar body language as the one in the second example: take it back a notch. Work more on just being close to the harness and presenting relaxed body language, and make sure that everything you do with the harness leads (no pun intended) to a pleasant experience for the parrot. Or, like Barbara Heidenreich ( said: “Take it slow to get there fast!”

Here’s a video of some early harness training with a relaxed and eager student, my Grey parrot Eris. I am doing a few minor mistakes though, see if you can spot them! : ) This was early on in the training, hence the very frequent reinforcement!

Some quick tips for harness training:

  • Always pay close attention to body language so that you never create a fear response, or make the bird uncomfortable.
  • Rewards heavily and frequently, especially early on in the training process. Remember that the more reinforcement history your bird has with the harness, the less chance you will have to move back in the training process if something your bird doesn’t like were to happen.
  • Divide the harness training into super tiny approximations, and do not move to the next one if the parrot is not showing comfortable and relaxed body language at the current step.
  • Choose your training sessions wisely. Don’t try to work on harness training (sitting still, paying attention) if your parrot is in the middle of a hyper-fit. Instead, work on some flight training or tricks where he can move around, and save the harness training to when the bird is somewhat calm.
  • Don’t be a tease. Do not present a treat and try to pull it away slowly when the bird reaches for it to “get more behavior”. That will just make your parrot frustrated, and teach it that reaching for treats results in them being moved away, and, by proxy, that harness training sucks. Presenting a treat is like a making a contract: “Get here and it’s yours”. We don’t break contracts!
  • Remember that getting the harness on the bird is not all. We also need to work on feeling relaxed outdoors, not to mention getting the harness off!

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