Basics of Clicker Training
Clicker Training Your Budgie
WHEN TO TRAIN
You need to train when your bird is most motivated for the reward. If food is your reward, then this will typically be during their natural foraging times - morning and evening. An easy way to use this natural timing is to train before they get to their food bowl in the morning.
Most budgies love millet. Really love it. Spray-form millet is convenient for training as you can use a small nub of it between your fingers. If your bird doesn't go bananas for millet, you will have to find another reward that works for you.
WHY A CLICKER?
Many people are used to the idea of using food to lure a bird into doing something they want. The problem with this is that when the bird trained this way can't see the reward in your hand, they're less likely to do behaviour you want - because they're not silly, and they know there's no reward coming.
The clicker is a promise of an unspecified reward. Praise, fun experiences, food - these are all part of the reward protocol we use, and because the bird can't see the reward immediately, getting them to give behaviour without a reward is much easier, as they are already conditioned to the idea that producing the behaviour asked for gives a pleasant reward, without that reward being seen beforehand.
The other reason we use a clicker is to make it easier to capture or mark behaviour.
1. Prime the Clicker
Goal: communicate to the bird that the sound of the clicker means something good is coming!
Why? A click is a precise, repeatable, consistent and quick to produce sound that you can use to mark behaviour that you want repeated. When trying to "capture" behaviour for reinforcement, you can't be fumbling around for a treat.. By the time you reward, the bird has moved on and won't associate the behaviour with the reward, and doesn't understand what you are looking for.
How?. This is a repeated sequence of click, reward.. click, reward.. You're associating the sound of the click with the giving of a reward. You repeat this several times in succession, giving time to eat between. After a few rounds, you can hesitate before giving the reward, looking for anticipation of receiving the reward (the bird will look at the hand you're rewarding with, or move towards where you place the reward).
This means your bird buddy has got the message: click means something good is coming!
2. Target training
Goal: get the bird to touch a stick with their beak.
Why? This is helpful in showing a bird where you want them to go - to a perch, to their cage, to a location ready for a next element of a trick. It's great in the vet surgery - again, you are teaching them that if they go where the stick is, it's worth their while.
How? We show the stick, we say a command ("target", "touch" etc.) and watch for a response. Depending on the response, you will probably need to use SHAPING to get the desired behaviour.
So, the first time you show the stick, the likely response will be to back away. Leave it there for a few seconds and look for any positive behaviour towards the stick. This could be a glance at the stick, a step to the stick, or if you've a fearless bird that's super curious, many steps towards the stick. When you get a positive response, click and reward.
SHAPING: this is where we gradually draw out of the bird the behaviour we want by making rewards harder to get.
So we may reward a glance at first, then once the bird gets the idea that the glance is a reward, we may stop rewarding that. The bird thinks, "oh, she didn't see that.. I have to make it bigger!" Then a bigger movement - or even a step towards the stick is given, and then a reward.. Over time this shapes the behaviour to what we want.
JACKPOTS: you can use jackpots - bigger rewards - to show the bird when they did REALLY well to help shaping. So the bird may be glancing at the stick, and then takes a step. So you click, praise and give extra rewards.
REWARD FOR POSITION: This is important for helping you to shape the behaviour, and is frequently used poorly. Use the giving of the reward (maximum motivation!) to help your bird take the next step towards the shaped behaviour. So click for a glance, but hold the reward such that the bird has to take a step towards the stick to receive the reward. Use the bird's anticipation to help you communicate what you want more effectively.
TIMING: You are trying to teach the bird to give a prompt response, so don't leave the stick hanging out there all day. Show the stick, say the command, look for a response. If no response in 5 seconds, take it away, pause for a bit and then try again. Clicker training means you can step backwards if you need to, to allow the bird to retreat into their comfort zone. You are not trying to force them at all - they set the pace.
TRICKS WITH CLICKS
So, your bird knows the clicker and the target stick.. You have a reliable way of communicating to your bird where you want them to go, and when what they did is what you want. That's the hard part done!
Now it's about how to use the tools you have to capture behaviour on cue, or create new behaviour.
Here's some examples:
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