When we think of parrot training, our thoughts often turn to tricks, targeting, advanced techniques and flight recall. However, one of the most fundamental and ill maintained parts of parrot training is a consistent step up.
So why is it so often ill maintained? Why is it so important?
Often, when we first get a bird home, it has either had some step up training in the past, or has been trained by the breeder. We initially reinforce stepping up, and we get used to our parrots doing it whenever we want without complaint or fuss.
We make an assumption that as a behaviour, it will maintain itself and be self-reinforcing, which in some cases it can be depending on our bond with our parrot. However, it often is not and we find ourselves getting into trouble with sloppy step ups or our parrot not wanting to at all.
In other cases, parrots have had no step up training in the past at all, or simply just do not know what we are asking them to do. They may have had bad experiences with prior owners or may simply just be very nervous of hands. For these parrots, stepping up isn’t pleasant, isn’t easy and needs to be trained from the very basics.
Stepping up is a fundamental skill for all parrots, it makes life so much easier for us, as we know our parrots will step onto our hand when asked. It makes it easier for them as they know that stepping up onto the hand is safe, reinforcing and not forced.
The most important rule for any step up training is ALWAYS REINFORCE. This initially should be via a favourite treat, for example millet for a cockatiel or hemp seed for a conure. This makes stepping up a positive and rewarding experience. We wouldn’t work for free, so why should our birds?
The reinforcement later can come from verbal praise, but even then it should be regularly reinforced at intermittent intervals with a treat reward to maintain the behaviour, and ensure that it doesn’t become a chore for our birds when they aren’t as inclined to do so.
Stepping up should also be consent based. Forcing a bird to step up does not create a positive association and can lead to breaks in trust or reluctance to do so over time. If a parrot doesn’t want to step up, it’s important to identify why, or give them some time before attempting the behaviour again. The only exception to this rule should be in extreme emergency or if they are in danger.
It’s also very important to make sure we ask our parrots to step up in a consistent way. This means providing the same cue such as ‘step up’ in an neutral tone, along with holding our hands up in the same way every time and offering the same bridge such as a click from a clicker or a simple ‘good’ as a verbal bridge.
Our hands need to be a stable, comfortable and safe place for our parrots to step onto. Ensuring we reward, we hold them the same way and also ask in a consistent manner will make it so much easier for our parrots to feel confident and know exactly what we want them to do.
You may ask, what if a bird is difficult, or has no training, or bites when stepping up?
The best solutions to these issues normally revolves around putting in more initial bonding work, as well as getting the parrot in question used to hands in a more general sense. This can involve passive bonding, having hands near our parrots but not directly interacting with them, or just letting them interact or get near hands for a reward.
Another key reason parrots end up nipping or biting when stepping up usually comes from how the treat is presented. If the treat is held level with the hand, our bird is more likely to use their beak to step onto it. If the treat is held high and behind the hand the parrot is more likely to be focused on the treat above them, and step onto the hand without using their beak.
As a final thought, with regards to parrots unused to stepping up and who have biting issues. There is nothing wrong with training the behaviour onto a perch or sleeved hand. This isn’t copping out or being scared, it’s simply making it easier for you and your parrot to train the initial behaviour. Once it’s consistent on there you can begin trying with the bare hand.
Stepping up is such a fundamental skill and it’s so important to get it right. There is no harm in taking extra time to ensure it is safe, fun and reinforcing for both us and our parrot friends!