I received a lovely email from a family having trouble training their Green Cheek Conure to "Step-up". They had followed my previous training guides and were doing really well! However, when it came to teaching the "step-up" command, their little man Benjie would bite instead of stepping up. The family wrote to me with a great description of what Benjie was doing, so I thought I would share their story and my reply, in case some of you are encountering the same problem.
Benjie's family have followed my training guide and are now able to:
- approach Benjie's cage
- give Benjie treats
- play with Benjie a little and even give him scratches on his forehead
However, when it came to the "step-up and step-down" routine, Benjie would bite. Here's how his family described his behaviour:
In my opinion, the step-up is the basis for all training. Is Benjie's behaviour normal?....well, yes and no. Yes his behaviour is normal for a bird who doesn't want to step up and no because that's not what we want our birds to do when we ask them to "step-up". Having said that, I LOVE that Benjie's family are reading all his body signs. When they open their beaks a little (breath heavier), fluff their feathers quickly and pin their eyes - these are all signs they are not happy and are trying to get you stop. You may even observe this in a wild flock of parrots. Think of it as a warning system,
eye pinning means "I don't want to do that. I will bite if you don't move away"
feather raising (especially on the head and neck) means is like they're saying "I mean it, I really will bite you if you don't move your hand away"
The 'I'm going to kill you' is the equivalent of them screaming "I DONT WANT TO! I DONT WANT TO! STOP IT RIGHT NOW OR ELSE..."
finally - the BITE!
Why are eye pinning and raised feathers important?
If we ignore these signs continually, our birds will learn that we do not listen to their warnings and that biting is the only way to communicate to us "hey! I DONT WANT TO!" Eventually, they won't even give the warning signs any more, they will just go straight to bite mode. This is what we want to avoid.
It's important to remember that we cannot force a bird to do ANYTHING, and therefore we should respect their body language. If they don't want to step up that is okay....we can leave them alone and avoid getting bitten. The trick is to make them WANT to step-up, because they know it will be fun and they will enjoy it.
This is what positive reinforcement is all about. We make the RIGHT choice more FUN and DESIRABLE for your bird. And Benjie's family are actually already doing this - when Benjie shows aggression they walk away and come back later - that's PERFECT! When he step's up nicely he will get a treat and get to come out of the cage or play with his favourite toy or get praise and commendation (whatever he likes the most). When he show's aggression, he will get left alone until a later time, no treats, no rewards - after all, that is what he is saying with his aggressive behaviour - he just want's to be left alone.
But before I go any further I just want to clarify one thing. Sometimes people mistake a bird using its beak to balance as it wanting to bite. When we train the step-up command, it is very important to keep your hand still - let the bird step up and step down without moving your hand away first. If they see your hand as an unstable perch, they will use their beak to grip on before they step up. Judging from the behaviour Benjie's family described though, I think Benjie is being aggressive rather than this. So let's continue with how I suggest his family proceeds....
HOW TO TEACH THE "STEP-UP" TO A BIRD THAT BITES:
Quite simply, this is the same as my original guide on "how to teach a bird to step-up". However, this time we are going to replace your hand with a perch. Why? Well, it sometimes parrots like Benjie lose focus on what you are asking them to do (and they treat they will receive once they do it) because they get distracted by their hand. By getting your bird to step-up onto a perch first, before stepping up onto your hand, it shows them that it is the action of stepping up that they are getting rewarded for. Once they realise that, we can remove the perch and they should happily step up onto a hand.
[NOTE: in some cases, another training method called "targeting" may be needed in addition to this method....but we will see how Benjie progresses first and I will write a "targeting" guide if needed]
Go up to your bird’s cage and extend a treat through the bars. Make it a delicious treat, something the bird doesn’t normally get to eat (ie. a piece of cashew or almond). It is important that you hold the treat through the bars and don’t move - you don’t want to scare the bird but you want it to come to the treat and take it in its own time. If your bird doesn’t come up to the treat from your hand within a reasonable amount of time, you could try again at a time when your bird is hungrier, perhaps first thing in the morning before you have refilled its food containers.
Once your bird is happily coming up and taking treats from your hand through the bars, you can start to open the cage door and put your hand inside. Again, use the same technique here - keep pushing your hand forward inside the cage (with the treat clearly visible in your fingers) until your bird shows signs of discomfort. Stop and keep your hand there, wait for the bird to calm down, then take your hand out. Again, it is very important to stop moving BEFORE your bird moves away from you. Try again later and you will find you can get your hand a little closer to the perch, wait for your bird to calm down, then take your hand out. Eventually your bird will come up to your hand inside the cage and take the treat out of your hand.
Once your bird is happily coming up to your hand inside the cage and taking the treat, the next step is to get your bird to step onto a perch in your hand (see image below). To do this, place a small branch (ie. a perch) in your hand so that your bird has to lean over the branch to reach the treat in your other hand. Eventually, you will move the treat in your hand further along the perch so your bird has to place a foot onto the perch to reach it. It is absolutely vital that you DO NOT MOVE the perch! This is a huge trust point for your bird and if the perch is unstable in your hand it will be very unlikely to step onto it again with confidence. You will probably find that your bird steps on and off the perch very quickly at first. But eventually it will stay a little longer on the perch each time.
Eventually, you will move the treat further away along the perch, so your bird has to step onto the perch and then onto your hand (the one holding the perch) to get the treat. When you get to this point, try and flatten your hand so that your fingers look like an extension of the perch (like in the picture below). Again, let your bird step onto your hand and step off again BEFORE you move your hand. Eventually, your bird will happily sit on your hand without being in a rush to get off again. At this point, you might want to use your other hand to give them more treats, to reward them for staying on your hand. Once they realise staying on your hand means more treats, they will stay on your hand while you move it out of the cage. Start by moving it towards the cage door just a little bit, then put it back towards the perch and let the bird step off. They gradually increase the distance until your bird is on your hand and out of the cage. Then reward, reward, reward! But don’t go straight into playing with your bird now. Put your bird back into its cage - it’s overcome some huge fears today so let it have the time to think about what it has just learnt - that hands aren’t so scary after all…in fact….they are actually a good thing!
Hopefully this information helps Benjie and his family to form a beautiful bond and a bite-free "step-up"! I will keep you updated on how he progresses.