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Clicker & Target Training

Both clicker and target training are fantastic tools to improve your communication with your bird. I personally use both for my birds as well as my dog and since starting have seen so much improvement in my training sessions as well as my relationship with my pets. These training techniques are used in many areas of animal care; from zoos to homes. Today, we’ll be covering what both of these techniques are and how to implement them with your own birds.

What is clicker training?

Clicker training ‘marks’ the moment that the animal has exhibited the behaviour we are looking for. This can be done with a clicker or by using a marker word (e.g. “yes”). The clicker creates a bridge between the behaviour we are after and the reward that is incoming. When we don’t use clicker training there’s a delay and often we can accidentally reinforce the wrong behaviour.

For example, my quaker Monkey has been taught to ‘wave’ and to ‘spin’. When I had done training sessions without the clicker he started to wave at the end of his spin, this kept getting reinforced as I would miss it as I was delivering a treat. Using clicker training I only click and reward when he spins and does not wave at the end. The communication is much clearer between us now as he knows he’s done the correct behaviour when he receives the click.

Clicker training is most useful for its clear communication between you and your bird. Due to this clearer communication I find that my birds learn new behaviours much quicker compared to when I don’t use a clicker.

How to start clicker training?

Many parrots can be initially scared of the sight and sound of the clicker as they are often wary of new objects. The first step is to make sure that your bird is comfortable with the presence and sound of the clicker.

  • Let your bird see the clicker while you give them their favourite treat (depending on how fearful they are it may need to start at a decent distance away)

  • Start with muffling the sound of the click if your bird is sensitive to the new noise (this can be done by holding the clicker in a pocket)

You need to build the association that click = reward so we do what is known as “charging the clicker”. This is simply done by repeatedly clicking and rewarding (not asking for any behaviours at this stage). You’ll know the clicker is “charged” when as soon as they’ve heard the click they look to you for the reward that they know is coming.

Initial introduction to the clicker should only be done in short sessions (about 1-2 minutes at a time). Once they clearly understand what the click means you can start introducing it in other training sessions, like working on target training.

What is target training?

Target training refers to when we ask an animal to touch an object with a part of their body. In parrots this is usually in the form of beak to stick. Target training is used in a wide variety of animals and settings. For example, many zoos use target training for cooperative care to get an animal into a position where they can easily be checked out in a way where they don’t need to be restrained.

Target training provides a clear communication language between animal and human. It can be used in overcoming fears, where the animal is more focused on getting to the target than walking past the object of fear. It can be used to shape new behaviours, for example ‘spin’, and typically results in a smoother behaviour than just luring with treats.

I have been using target training most recently on carrier training with my birds. I am using it to help them get through their hesitation of approaching the carrier and use it to get them to climb all over it. I am also targeting them inside the carrier to teach them to voluntarily enter it rather than having to put them in myself as this is much less stressful.

How to start target training?

I suggest using the clicker when target training so you can capture the moment the birds beak touches the target. The goal for targeting should be your bird gently touching the stick and not grabbing or biting down. You want to choose an appropriate target for your bird;

  • Using a parrot safe wood is always important

  • Small birds can get away with target sticks made with safe wood like craft dowels or chopsticks (non-varnished)

  • Larger birds with strong beaks may need something a bit sturdier, though because the goal is to teach them to gently touch the stick if taught properly can use the same targets as small birds

I start my target training with my bird on a t-stand perch. Slowly bring the target towards the bird on the side and stop at a distance where the bird can only just touch with their beak and won’t be able to grab on.

  • Some birds will be easier to introduce to targeting if they are naturally curious and want to explore new things as they will instinctively go to touch the target with their beaks

  • Some birds may be more cautious or just disinterested in the target, if that is the case, start by holding their favourite treat towards the end of the stick, this encourages them to approach and accidentally touch the target

    • Once you’ve done that a few times go back to just the target and see if they explore on their own, if not just repeat as before

When your bird touches the target they get a click followed by a reward. Once they are consistently touching the target start holding it at a greater distance where the bird needs to move to touch it.

As said previously, in parrots targeting is traditionally beak to stick. In my conure, Pistachio, who I have taught to give my index finger a high-five this has become a secondary target. If he sees me hold my index finger out he will move over to it to high five!

Wrapping it up

Both clicker and target training are the first two things I teach any bird. They both create a fantastic foundation for communication between me and the bird and easily lead to so many different behaviours in the future.

In 2021 I birdsat for a friend of mine for a couple months. I looked after her sun conure, Rebel, who hadn’t had any training like this in the past. I introduced her to both clicker and target training which helped her become more confident with me (as she grew a positive association with me being the person to give her millet).

If you’d like to see what a basic training session with different birds looks like check out my video below. In this video you will see me doing early clicker and target training with Rebel, and working on some already established skills with Pistachio and Monkey.

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