Guest Author - Melissa McIntyre
Choosing a training reward may appear an easy task, but it can be a fairly complicated problem when actually applied. If you are lucky, you may already know what motivates your bird to want to learn. However, even birds with established tastes can improve their learning curve when new incentives are offered.
It’s important to remember a few key things about training when choosing a reward.
- Food rewards work only until the bird’s crop is full; training must stop once the bird is full if only food is used as a behaviour incentive. If using a food reward, keep pieces as small as possible.
- Not all birds work for the same rewards. Preferences can also change, sometimes session by session. If a bird is uninterested in working for a reward, even if that reward has been successful in the past, try something else.
- Variety can boost the effectiveness of rewards. For the food-motivated bird, a variety of treats may keep the bird interested longer; even if they prefer one over another. By offering a variety of things they like, it keeps them thinking: “When is the almond going to appear?” and may help keep them engaged in the session.
- Some birds need a bit of trial-and-error before you find the correct reward. Take your time and try a couple new things; maybe you will find something that works better than what you used last time!
- Scarcity makes the heart fonder. If your bird has a limited list of things they will work for, it is best to keep those items for training times only. It is unlikely your bird will continue to work for sunflower seeds if they gorge on them just before a training session.
Remember, there will be times that nothing seems to hold your bird’s attention, or times that they just seem “contrary”. It’s best in these situations to end the training session to prevent frustration and bad feelings on both sides, and try again later.
Gauging the effectiveness of any reward is simple: is the bird interested in the item? Are they engaged in trying to figure out how they can get that item again? Does the item hold their attention? Is the item quick and easy to offer when they produce the right behaviour? The answer to all these questions should be “yes”!
It is also fairly simple to tell what kinds of food rewards will be best to use. Simple place a variety of food items- they should be roughly the same size- on a plate or bird-safe pan, and offer them to your bird. The first item they pick to eat is likely to be the most successful as a reward. Generally, the first three or four of ten choices will work well if mixed together for variety. You may have to let shy birds scrutinize the offering plate a few times before they will feel comfortable enough to make their selection.
There are options for those who have birds that are not food-motivated, as well. Many cockatoo owners, for example, have found their birds work best for scratches. Many caique and lory owners may find their birds work best for the change to play with a neat toy for a while. It’s usually best to have a few toys on hand for the play-motivated bird, and it may be prudent to teach the “give it back” trick first. Other birds may respond favourably to over-excited, melodramatic responses from the trainers, however, these tend to be the minority (unless you happen to live in a household of conures and amazons).
On the flip side of the coin, it is important to be able to judge when a reward is too rewarding. If your birds starts showing over-excited postures, lunges, bites or in any other way becomes hard to handle, you may want to take a break and change rewards before returning to the session. There are other factors that can contribute to difficult behaviour- frustration and boredom being a couple- but rewards that are too high-drive can certainly contribute. Rewards should keep your bird interested, but not be so engrossing that they become competitive, combative, territorial or possessive of them.
Training rewards are a key factor in well-behaved companion birds. Knowing what your bird will and will not work for is essential in being able to manage their behaviour, whether it is to solve a problem or just to teach a fun trick. By being sensitive to your bird’s preferences, you can quickly increase your chance of successful communication with your bird.