How to Harness Train Your Parrot
Most of us want to spend as much quality time with our parrots as possible, both in our homes and outside. Going out is emotionally and physically healthy for our pets so long as we can keep them safe. Birds that are allowed outside time, get fresh air, sunshine and enrichment. They have the opportunity to socialize with other humans and sometimes other parrots. These experiences bring the bird and the owner closer together, at the same time they help to reduce unwanted breeding behaviors in pets. However, taking your bird out of your home can be a terrifying ordeal. Some people choose to harness train their parrots to reduce the risk of their birds flying away or getting hurt.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN TRAINING
Harness training can be a challenge! Getting your bird to accept and wear a harness is not easy because you must teach the bird numerous behaviors before he is finally wearing a harness comfortably. In the process you may have to deal with fear or a bird that wants to destroy the harness. These are issues that must be dealt with before putting the harness on the bird.
One of my concerns with harnesses is that most of them have an ordinary leash. Make sure to use a leash that has some elasticity to it. That way if the bird flies to the end of the lead they will not get jerked back and plummet to the ground. The leash should allow the bird to go to the ground gradually and softly.
CHAINING BEHAVIORS TOGETHER
While you are teaching your bird to wear a harness, you should be teaching a couple other behaviors. The first is pretty easy if your bird will step onto your hand. You must teach your bird to allow you to handle his feet and move his leg around. You will need a new verbal cue for this behavior. For example you might say, "May I see your foot?" When you reach for your bird's foot odds are good he will lift his foot to step onto your hand. Immediately reinforce touching your raised hand, so that he will not step onto to your hand when you give him this new cue. You must also be consistent in your use of cues and not confuse the cues. Once you are touching your bird's foot you will have to convince him to allow you to hold his foot. Lightly grasp his foot. If he does not pull away, mark, reinforce and let go of his foot. If he pulls away, go back to just touching. Slowly shape the behavior until you can hold his foot and move his entire leg around in all directions. Do the same thing with his wings. This will be more difficult to do since birds do not naturally handle each other's wings and we seldom handle our birds' wings.
You will eventually chain these behaviors together. This includes having him put his head through the harness and allowing you to manipulate his legs and wings through openings, if this type of handling is required to put on the style harness you bought. Each behavior is shaped and then they are chained together.
When you first introduce the harness to your bird, it may alarm your bird just like any other unfamiliar object. Babies are less likely to be afraid of a harness than adults.
To desensitize your bird to the harness, begin by holding the leash and watch your bird carefully for any uncomfortable body language such as, raising his feathers, stiffening his body, opening his mouth or moving away from the harness. If you see that your bird is uncomfortable, take a step back and put the harness down. If your bird now looks comfortable, leave the harness there.
If your bird is still not comfortable, keep moving the harness away until you observe relaxed body language. Reinforce relaxed body language—you can give your bird treats, play with him, sing to him, pet him, praise him, or do anything that is reinforcing and pleasurable.
Once the harness has been in this comfort zone for a while, remove... and then bring it back to the same location. If your bird is still relaxed, reinforce again.
Now, remove the harness from sight and bring it back again—this time placing it a tiny bit closer to your bird. Watch for escape and avoidance behavior, if at any time you notice that he is not relaxed, move the harness further away until he is calm. Continue reinforcing calm behavior. Slowly move the harness closer and closer to him, reinforcing calm behavior each time. You are shaping his ability to remain relaxed around the harness.
The key to successful training is to allow the bird to set the pace for learning. Some birds will move through all or some of the steps very quickly while with other birds, it may seem painfully slow. However, taking it slow is always faster than trying to force an uncooperative bird to move at a quicker rate than he is comfortable.
The pacing can be too slow as well. When moving too fast, your bird will fight the training, but if you go too slowly, he will become apathetic about training and lose interest and he will begin looking for something more interesting to do and you will not have his attention. In most cases you will find that birds will move at various rates as you desensitize and teach each part of a chain of behaviors. They may quickly put their heads through the harness, but be slower at allowing you to put their feet through the openings. Expect your bird to learn some behaviors quicker than others.
INTERACTING WITH THE HARNESS
At some point, the harness will be right next to him. Allow him to touch it with any part of his body other than his beak. You do not want him to even think about chewing the harness, it is not a toy. However, reinforce touching it with his feet or wings.
If he reaches for the harness with his beak, tell him he is "good," but before he touches it, offer him a delectable treat. Each time he reaches for the harness, give him a treat as quickly as possible before he touches the harness, so that his reach for the harness becomes shorter. He will learn that each time he gets near the harness with his face, but does not touch it, he will get a treat.
Note that your bird may feel comfortable with the harness lying on a surface, but not if you lift it above his head. You may have to do additional desensitization by holding the harness up and then moving it closer in small approximations towards him.
Now you can begin allowing the harness to lightly touch him. However, while he may have been happy doing the touching, he may not like having it touch him. If he grabs for it with his beak, but (because of the conditioning you did earlier) does not touch it, reinforce not touching it. Then, recognize that his response means you are moving too fast. You may have to take some ribbons that are the same color as his harness and hold them over his head. The small pieces of ribbon can be less frightening than an entire harness.
GETTING INTO THE HARNESS
Once he is completely comfortable with the harness touching him, you can begin holding the harness in front of his face and lure him into putting his head through the harness. Place your arm through the opening where he will have to put his head. Hold the harness open with one hand. Hold a treat in the hand that you placed through the opening and let him take the treat from you. Repeat several times as you slowly begin to place your hand nearer to the opening...until your hand is behind the opening. Now, he will have to reach through the opening to get the treat. Make sure you cue this behavior as well as mark it and reinforce it.
When you see he is putting his head through the opening quickly and reliably, begin waiting a few moments before marking and reinforcing the behavior. Following that, let the harness to touch his neck, mark and reinforce the harness touching him. Allow the harness to drape around his neck when you are confident that it will not alarm him and he will not run off and get tangled in the harness. Keep one hand on the top of the opening so that he is less likely to get tangled in the harness and you have more control over the situation.
Should you have a set back at this point, you will not have as much trouble getting him to the same place in training again. You will not have to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over either. This is one of the advantages of using shaping to train a behavior. If you use an aversive method that makes him want to avoid the harness you will typically have to start over from the beginning and retraining will be slower.
WEARING THE HARNESS
Once he is wearing the harness, do not leave it on for too long. The length of time he wears the harness will have to be shaped too.
Slowly increase the time he has the harness on. He may find wearing the harness aversive if he is made to wear it for too long. A man, who is not used to wearing a tie, may put one on and wear it all day because he feels he has to. During the day he may tug and pull at the tie around his neck. Once he feels he no longer has to wear the tie, he will rip it off. Your bird should not feel this way about his harness. By slowly shaping the time he must wear his harness, the more comfortable he will be with wearing it.
When you decide to take him out for the first time, remember that he will be seeing new sights, hearing new sounds, and all his senses will be reeling. Decide in advance how long you will take him out for his first outing with his harness on. Multiply that length of time by three. That is how long he should be comfortable wearing his harness indoors. Any behavior that must be done for a particular length of time, train your bird to do it comfortably three times longer than required.
READY FOR THE OUTSIDE WORLDNow that you have desensitized him to the harness, taught him how to put his head through the opening on his own, allowed you to manipulate his legs and wings chained these behaviors together and wear the harness without fear or discomfort you are ready to go out into the world together. Even though you have done all this work it is still wise not to take him into frightening situations. The harness is not meant to drag him into places he does not want to go. It is only meant to keep him close to you and provide you with a little more control when you take him out, so that you can both feel safe.