Dr. Laurie: So people often ask, how do we train our birds to do tricks? Birds are really smart. They're fun and the best way to do that is positive reinforcement. That means what does your bird like to do to eat, to play with that you can use as a reward for doing a certain behavior. We can't expect birds to do what we want them to the minute that we want them to.
So it's a matter of teaching them their behavior and working slowly and carefully to accomplish something. Usually, we do something called positive reinforcement for successive approximations. That's a big fancy way to say that if a bird starts to do something that looks like the behavior we reward them for that. So if you want a bird to step up for example, or turn around on the perch, as soon as the bird picks up his or her foot we reward them.
We reward them with a treat that they wouldn't get any other time. That's something really, really special, as an incentive to do that behavior. Then everyday we practice a little bit and we raise the bar a little bit higher, a little bit higher each day, so they have to accomplish just a little bit more before they get that reward. What are some of the things we don't want to do, Sarah?
Sarah: Things that we don't want to do are discipline the bird, if it doesn't do the trick correctly, yell at it or anything along those lines. Also, one of the mistakes I think people make when training is that they make the reward too big. That is such a... You know you give them a whole seed ball for the trick and I think they're going to forget what they even actually did...
Dr. Laurie: Exactly.
Sarah: ... to actually get that treat. Some people will suggest just using little tiny bits of sunflower seed. So basically, it's just one chew and swallow and then they can go on with working on the trick some more.
Dr. Laurie: Yeah, we can use almond slivers. Anything that your bird really likes and remember, what your bird likes may be very different from what my bird likes. Different animals and different people have different tastes. So one of the things you can do is just watch your bird in his or her cage and look for the things that he or she picks out in terms of food. The toys that she likes or he likes. What is positively reinforcing to your bird and then use that.
But just remember that the rewards and the treats that you give, for a given behavior must be something that's completely special and unavailable at other times. While you can give as you described, a big jackpot award for really accomplishing a difficult behavior. After time, you really want to save that and realize that birds are not machines.
Some days they're going to work better than others. If you don't practice for awhile, a bird may take a few steps forward and then a few steps back. They are all allowed to have bad days too. Maybe they're tired or impatient and they don't want to work on a certain day. But all it takes is just a few minutes a day and you can teach your bird to do any number of fun and exciting tricks.