As an exotic bird trainer, I use different tools to help keep training easy and fun for the birds and myself. One of the most basic tools is “the target” which is an object we teach the bird to touch. Once he learns to touch it, we then use the target to lead or direct a bird, by having the bird follow the target to touch it. Many professional animal trainers use this application to aid in training. This is a great first behavior for beginners to teach because it is easy and can be taught in the cage to birds that are fearful or cage bound. Targeting can then be used as a tool to lead a bird to a new prop, or to come out of his cage. It can aid in teaching a bird to step-up, to turn around, to overcome his fear of a new object or toy.
To teach targeting, the bird must first be conditioned to the clicker, which means that he knows that click=reward, or since I use food, I will say that click=treat (C/T).
If you wish to lean more about clickers and clicker training, please read my previous article Trick Training and Its Benefits -Try Clicker Training.
Then we need to decide what to use for the target. The target does not have to be a stick shaped object. But if it is, it cannot be the same hand held perch that you use to have the bird step up on. The target, like any other prop, should only be used for training sessions or demonstrations. We don’t let the birds play with the props during other times, or they lose their meaning. I prefer to teach this from a t-stand or training perch first so the bird can’t wander. This helps to focus his attention on the target.
We start by holding the target near the bird and C/T for any movement toward the target. Then withold the reward until the bird actually touches the target and C/T.
I teach him to touch it with a gentle grip of the beak as the bird will have a tendency to open his beak to touch it. If you have a bird that is very aggressive and wants to grab the object out of your hand, then you will need to hold onto the target and not let him pull it out of your hand. The first time he does a gentle grab C/T with extra treats and praise. This is commonly called a “jackpot”. He should soon get the idea of the gentle grip. Once he understands that, only C/T for gentle grip touches.
Once the bird is reliably touching the target from the perch, by having him move up, down, right and left, we can then move the bird to the table top training area. If the bird seems nervous at first, go ahead and move the target close to him to begin with. Then start moving it back a little at a time, and C/T for each touch. Soon you should have him following the target anywhere on the training area. This usually only takes two or three short sessions to train, but don’t be discouraged if it takes longer.
The benefits of teaching a bird to target with a gentle grip, is that grabbing something with his beak is natural for him.
We can use this to our advantage if we want to lead him to a prop that we want the bird to pick up. We “target” him to the prop, then remove the target and see if the bird will grab the prop. If he doesn’t we simply back up a couple of steps. Once the bird knows to grab the prop, we don’t need to use the target. We have then used another tool of training and that is generalizing.
If the bird is cage bound, we can start target training in the cage.You may have to take more time to do this, but no need to rush things.It is best when doing it this way, to empty the food bowl and then when you C/T, you simply drop the treats into the food cup. Just remember to refill the bowl when you are finished with your training session.
Once a cage bound or aggressive bird has learned to target, you can start teaching him to step up using the target. I don’t recommend using your arm first to step up on if there is any chance of getting bitten. In training, we ALWAYS avoid bites. Use a hand held perch for the bird to step up on. You can either hold the clicker on the target stick and the perch with the other hand or use a mouth click (like used for horses). Hold the target where he will have to step onto the perch to reach the target. Take your time and don’t worry if you have to back up. We don’t want to frighten the bird. As the bird becomes better at stepping up, you can then teach behaviors away from the cage.
Targeting is just one of the tools we use in training. The important things to keep in mind about this behavior are:
- The basic idea of targeting is to have the bird follow an object to touch it.
- Once he has the idea of the gentle grip only reward him for that.
- Always C/T for every gentle grip of the target.
- Use jackpots to help keep up his interest.
- Try and end sessions on a positive note.
- Have fun, keep training simple and never train if you are in a bad mood.
Once a bird has learned a behavior, he won’t forget it.