By S.G. Friedman, Ph.D.
If you ask a group of parrot lovers, “What’s the most important behavior to teach pet parrots?” without giving it a second thought, many people would respond, “Step up!”
That’s what we used to say, too. Then one day, my daughter sent me a photo she’d taken in Washington, D.C., with the caption, “How do you walk a bunch of lil’ kids to the city museum and get back to school with the same number you left with?” The answer: Teach them to target! So we gave it a second thought and decided that targeting should be added to the list of important skills to teach our parrots.
Reach Out & Touch — Target Training
Targeting is the behavior of touching a designated object — the target — with a designated body part, like a hand or beak. We hardly notice the many examples of targeting behavior that occur every day. In the case of the little kids on their way to the museum, the children learned to target a rope with their hands to earn praise and a field trip. Toddlers readily target adults’ outstretched hands with their own little hands. And, school kids quickly learn to target their seats with their bottoms when their teacher gives the cue, “Sit down!”
Pet birds routinely target their perches with their feet when presented with a dowel inside their pet bird cages or on playgyms. And some pet birds target their caregiver’s lips with their beaks, also known as giving kisses. Even stepping onto our hands is an example of targeting.
Teaching parrots to target a stick or other object with their beaks is a great learning goal because it gives us a hands-off way to guide their movements. It also gives us the opportunity to enrich our pet bird’s lives with fun activities and lots of positive reinforcement.
Let Your Imagination Soar
What can you do with a parrot that touches its beak to a stick? The answer, says trainer Catherine Crawmer is, “What couldn’t we do with it?” Below are several suggestions for how targeting can be used to improve our interactions with our parrots. Let your imagination soar with even more ideas.
A parrot that is uncomfortable interacting with people can be taught to touch a target stick while it remains securely inside its cage. This can be the beginning of a great relationship that can lead to future hands-on contact. It also provides an opportunity for in-cage exercise.
A parrot that avoids going into its cage, stepping onto hands or getting off shoulders can be taught to follow a target to the desired location without force or coercion. This positive approach can change a chronic objector into a cooperative partner.
A parrot with a strong targeting response can be redirected to the target and away from charging, chasing, or biting. This can turn a probable disaster into a positive-reinforcement interaction in the blink of an eye.
Targeting can be part of teaching medical and husbandry behaviors such as stepping onto a towel or scale, going in and out of a travel cage, and bathing. Eventually, the behavior can be paired with a different cue, such as a hand signal or word, and the target stick faded out of the picture.
With targeting skill, parrots can learn new fun behaviors such as turning in a circle, climbing up and down ladders, and ringing a bell. This can enrich their lives in captivity by adding stimulation, problems to solve and physical exercise. It also increases productive one-on-one time with their caregivers. This is much preferred to shoulder or perch potatoes.
Teach Your Parrot to Target
Training a parrot to target is not hard when you follow the principles and procedures of positive reinforcement teaching. The key to great teaching is to arrange the environment to make the desired behavior comfortable to do and very rewarding. Here are the basic steps to help you train touching a target.
Decide on the object that will serve as the target. This can be a chopstick, coffee stirrer, or even your closed hand. This item should be used only for targeting (touching with beak), not for other purposes such as a perching.
Identify a favorite item, activity or food treat to reward the desired behavior. Present the target as close to the bird as you can while ensuring that the pet bird remains comfortable. Some pet birds will touch the target right away and you can capture the behavior with quick delivery of the reinforcers. Other pet birds will learn better by rewarding small steps starting with looking at the target, leaning toward the target, moving toward the target and, ultimately, touching the target with the beak.
Reward each step consistently and immediately to communicate clearly to your parrot what behavior produces the reinforcers. Praise or click the instant your bird does the right behavior to “mark” it and then strengthen the marker by delivering a treat or other strong reinforcer every time you praise or click. As your parrot gets closer with each step, discontinue reinforcing the previous steps.
If your bird grabs the target, calmly let it go. After a few minutes of exploring the stick, your pet bird will get back to work finding the behavior-consequence contingency, which is: When the stick is in view, if you touch the stick gently, then you will earn reinforcers. If grabbing the stick yields less reinforcement, the behavior will decrease in favor of touching the stick.
Once the pet bird is touching the target without hesitation, start moving it around so that your parrot has to move to touch the target. Hold it left, right, high, low, closer and further away. If you need to go back to an easier, step, don’t hesitate to do so and then slowly raise your criterion for reinforcement again. Sometimes you have to back to go forward. The idea is to have fun learning together.
Where the Beak Goes, The Body Will Follow
Targeting is an important behavior for all companion parrots. With targeting we can guide parrots to move in ways that protect, manage and enrich their lives without force or coercion of any kind. Depending on a parrot’s history with humans, stepping onto a hand or even being touched can be an advanced behavior. Teaching targeting allows us to build a positive relationship first, before we ask for more than some birds can comfortably give. Every bird is an individual — a study of one — and our teaching plans should be customized accordingly.
Target training is also a great first behavior for beginning trainers to teach their parrots. By focusing on delivering a high rate of well-timed reinforcement for small approximations toward the end goal, your training sessions will be right on target.