I have received much criticism of my atypical approach to using the clicker from beginners to experts alike. Many have noticed that I don't always give treats after using the clicker and that I make clicks while training two parrots simultaneously. I'd like to take a little time to explain how and why I am doing this and the impact it has on parrot training.
First of all, let's go over the typical approach to using a clicker as a bridge. At the moment the parrot does the right thing, a click is issued by the trainer using a clicker. Then at the trainers soonest convenience, a treat is given to the parrot. In other words, the clicker is a promise to give a treat as reward for the behavior being performed at the moment of the click. This is a highly effective techniques for capturing and shaping behaviors in training. Using the clicker can consistently and precisely mark the desired behavior so that the parrot can catch on and repeat it more readily.
I have used and do recommend the standard method of clicker training described above. For the vast majority of parrot owners, trainers, and performers, this may be the optimal approach. However, I have taken the clicker a step further and would like to present my method for those parrot owners and trainers that want to achieve even greater success with clicker training. The fundamental prerequisite is 6-18 months of consistent and successful clicker training using the standard method. The parrot should have already learned a bunch of different tricks and be reliable at demonstrating them. Attempting my special approach with an inadequately trained parrot will surely ruin the clicker and confuse the bird so I do not recommend this approach for most people. Only put this into effect if you have had extensive success training your parrot and want to take it one step further.
My clicker approach is made up of two parts. First is transforming the clicker from a bridge to a secondary reinforcer and the second is to use it in this way with multiple parrots simultaneously. Both of these parts require extensive successful clicker training of one bird at a time. Thereafter, either one or both of these can be applied although I would put off training two parrots simultaneously to the last. If you don't anticipate to move away from one click means one treat, you can skip to clicker training two parrots together.
The main reason I moved away from one click means one treat was because I wanted to train Kili to perform many different tricks but couldn't give her treats for everything or she would get too full. Thus I employed a variable ratio reinforcement schedule when it comes to treats. What this means is that the parrot has to complete the right behavior every time it is asked but only receives a treat some of the time at a random trial. However, one problem with doing this is that if the parrot botches one trick in the process, giving or not giving treats does not provide reliable performance feedback. With classic clicker training, not receiving a treat and likewise not receiving a click mark failure in regards to the bird's behavior. Since treats are necessary for continued motivation but providing them randomly provides poor feedback, I decided to use the clicker every time the right behavior is offered but provide food on a variable interval. Thus the clicker is used a continuous secondary reinforcer while the treats are provided on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. This works out as a perfect blend of feedback and motivation with minimal satiation and maximum success/improvement.
In this way I can have my parrot run through 10 tricks in a row, click for the 9 correct times, not click for the 1 wrong time, and provide just a single treat at a random point (but only following a correct attempt). The parrot is still told that the 9 attempts were correct and could have earned a treat, 1 attempt was wrong and should not be done that way, and motivation was maintained the entire time. Furthermore, 10 treats could be used to elicit as many as 100 iterations (and thus 100 practices of performing the right tricks the right way at the right time) instead of just 10. This is how my special clicker approach is successful and goes well beyond the classic one click one treat approach. By having 110 trick attempts, 100 correct/successful ones, and 10 incorrect unclicked ones, he parrot has 10 opportunities to learn what not to do and 100 chances to learn what to do for the same number of treats that would have only provided 10 opportunities for learning. This allows my parrots to practice more behaviors, exercise more flight, and be overall more reliable than with the standard clicker approach.
Since the clicker has been so closely associated with food from the beginning, doing things to hear clicks can become desirable and thus a conditioned reinforcer of its own. Since good things tend to happen around clicks but don't have to, the parrots are still more inclined to demonstrate clicker-worthy behavior. This is also a great way to retain motivation through very high ratio variable reinforcement. For example, if I am going to make Kili fly 20 recalls to earn a single treat, as long as she keeps getting clicks, she knows it is worthwhile to keep trying and not give up. She knows from past training that as long as she keeps getting clicks, there will be a treat offered at some point. Since there is no other way to get that treat except to keep trying, that's the course she has to take to earn it.
Keep in mind that I only use this approach while I am sustaining tricks through practice. I do revert to the more effective continuous reinforcement strategy of one click one treat when teaching a fresh new trick. Once the parrot is well accustomed, I add that trick to my list of tricks to practice using variable reinforcement.
There are times when I chain behaviors either out of convenience or because it is a trick that requires multiple components. This is another great time to employ my click for correct behavior rather than treat for every correct behavior approach. Many times when I am training tricks to my parrots, I continue having them fly recalls to me from across the room for exercise. I used to feel bad when I would divert treats away from flight recall (which is valuable exercise) and use them for trick training instead. Lately, I've come up with a much better approach where I make my parrots first fly a long recall (or several) to me just to get the opportunity to practice a new trick to earn a treat.
After years of training, both of my parrots understand very well that new tricks earn treats every time while old behaviors only some of the time (although they are easier so they love to perform them). For this reason, they are very eager to give me some flight recalls for the chance to get a guaranteed treat for learning a new trick. Plus it's simply more fun that way.
Now when it comes to chaining tricks to form a long sequence, the clicker can apply in the same way. Let's take Kili's famous stroller trick (which was performed on the Late Show with David Letterman) as an example. Clearly the complete sequence is comprised of several independent tricks that she must perform in order. First she must pickup her baby, then she must patiently hold it for demonstration, then she must take it over to her stroller (and not the bed) and place it in, then she must walk around the stroller and start pushing it, then she must stop pushing and walk around, then transfer her baby from the stroller to the crib, rock the crib, and then finally wave goodnight to baby. How do you teach such a long chain to a parrot without stopping every couple of seconds to wait for it to eat a treat? This is where the click for every correct behavior but only a treat at a random time approach proves such a success! Obviously I taught Kili the separate tricks that combine into the sequence separately, but when I was finally teaching the complete sequence, I used this exact clicker approach. A problem that I was running into was her eagerness to skip steps to jump to the end and get the one final treat for finishing the sequence. For this reason I went back to the click every correct behavior and offer a random treat to ensure that all steps in the sequence are equally rewarding. After she got really good at the trick, I returned to clicking along the way (to remind her that she is doing things right by not skipping to the end) and only giving one treat at the end. Since she won't get a treat at the end of she misses a click along the way, she learned to patiently go through the entire routine.
The final non-standard complex use of the clicker I employ is teaching two parrots simultaneously while using just one clicker. I sneaky (but too annoying) approach could be to have two different sound makers where one is for each parrot and they know their sound. I differentiate who is earning clicks through attention and eye contact. Even though I say I train the parrots together, it's not actually in the exact same moment. Normally I'll have one bird stay on its training perch while I have the other fly over to me to learn something. The parrot near me knows it is earning the clicks and not the one far away. If I have the two birds on perches next to each other, they know when I am clicking for them because I am looking at them at the time of the click. Sometimes I have them perform the same tricks at the same time. In this case I am looking in a blank way toward both of them. They are exceptionally intelligent and catch onto all of these subtleties. The important thing is that I am consistent in these methods so the specifics they learned apply each time.
Although it might seem that mixing the clicker in the ways I do would be confusing or dilute its effectiveness, this couldn't be further from the truth in reality. Parrots are so highly intelligent and catch on to things very quickly. They learn the multi-dimensional complex of the clicker based on the context they observe. It's like we can hear the sound “toooo” and still be able to understand whether we are talking about “to”, “two”, or “too”. Since my mixed clicker strategy has not resulted in a diminish in clicker effectiveness (and in fact improved it), I am certain that parrots too can learn to understand things in context.
So that is my special mixed method of parrot clicker training. Although I would not recommend anything but the one click-one-treat approach to most people, I think this article should help clarify what I do and why. Also for the select few who have taught many tricks and wish to take their training to a new level, I share my approach. Whatever clicker approach you use, as long as it is effective, the parrot is learning, and you are both having fun in the process, it is already a major success.
I would like to announce to you the winners of the parrot clicker contest. I'm thrilled that so many parrot lovers participated for a chance to win.
The clicker is a fundamental tool for parrot training and I am happy to be able to share it with our winners. Henry from North Carolina won a clicker by subscribing to the Trained Parrot Blog. Marian from Missouri won a clicker by liking the Trained Parrot facebook page. And laducockatiel from the UK won a clicker by posting a link to the Trained Parrot Blog on his website. Congratulations to our winners and I wish them great success in their training efforts.
Finally I'd like to thank all of my supporters and participants. I'm glad you all took the time to follow my blog and allow me to share my parrot training endeavors with you. I hope everyone can give parrot clicker training a shot. If you don't already have a clicker or would just like a copy of Kili & Truman's favorite clicker, you can order them on the Parrot Wizard site.
To commemorate posting my 200th video on youtube, I would like to host a small contest as a way to say thanks and give back to my loyal viewers and readers. At first I was just going to do it for a single clicker but I know how much fun it is to win so I decided to make three different ways to win a clicker to that more people could get one to start training their parrot. As an added bonus, a 25% off coupon for a single order of any products from my Parrot Wizard toy and training supply store is also included!
A clicker is very helpful for parrot training as it can be used as a consistent bridge and secondary reinforcer for trick training. If you are reading this blog, then chances are you've read all about clicker use in training in my articles and seen me use it in my videos. I give treats to my parrots for tricks more randomly but prefer to maintain the consistency of click for correct behavior every time. This way they learn to always do the right behaviors even if they aren't getting a treat for them because it is at least confirmed to them with a click.
Now onto the ways to win. There will be 3 separate random drawings for a single winner from each of the following categories. This means you can win as many as 3 times or more likely just have a better chance of winning than if there were only one drawing.
1) Subscribe to the Trained Parrot blog. This is such a no brainer. Find the green box called "Subscribe to Blog" in the left hand column of any page on this site and enter your name and email. Be sure to use a valid email address or I won't be able to reach you in case you won. You can use your first or full name, but I will only mention by first name who the winners are on the site and then notify by email. Subscribing to the blog is a way of showing your support for the cause even if you don't want frequent emails about updates. You can manage you subscription and set it up for weekly updates about new blog posts or even opt out of receiving emails. Please limit 1 subscription per person.
If you already subscribed to the blog or liked the facebook page, there's no need to do it again! Everyone already signed up is automatically included in this contest as a thanks for your continued support.
3) Finally the last method is for owners of websites, blogs, and other web pages. Link to Trained Parrot Blog, The Parrot Forum, and/or Parrot Wizard websites from your page for a chance to win in this third drawing. You can improve your chances of winning by linking all three sites on a single site or linking my parrot sites from other websites you own. In other words, every link you make from every site counts as an additional "raffle ticket" toward winning. Limit 1 link per my parrot site on your page (one to each of the 3 sites I mentioned) but no limit to number of your own sites you can post these links on. Notify me of the sites you posted links on by entering them on this page. Feel free to submit as many times as you want as long as they are all valid and follow these guidelines. However, abusing the system could lead to disqualification.
Link to any one, two, or three of these sites you choose:
Keep in mind that it has to be your own site or page. Links from forums, social networks, and other people's pages will not be counted toward the contest because I don't want to encourage anyone to go spamming in attempt to win. However, if it is your own website, blog, or public page (something like myspace would be ok, but facebook wouldn't), then feel free to link to any one of those three sites you like or all three of them to triple your chances.
The contest duration will be one month and winners will be selected on July 6th. With people going away for summer vacations and such, I want to leave sufficient time for everyone to have a chance to participate.
As you can obviously tell, the purpose of this contest is to get the word out about my parrot training sites. I hope that the more people that can see them, the more owners will be equipped with the tools and knowledge to build a loving relationship with their parrot based on trust and positive reinforcement. Thank you for your support and good luck with the contest!
Here is the fine print about the contest rules. Everyone is welcome to participate, however, only winners in US or Canada are eligible to receive clicker and coupon as no cost. International winners would be responsible for paying international shipping for clicker if they choose to claim it. International winners are still eligible for 25% coupon but are responsible for the cost of international shipping for products. 25% Parrot Wizard coupon is for all products in a one time purchase (limit 10 products) and does not apply to shipping charges. Any abuse of the contest (such as same person signing up multiple times for same contest category or submitting illegitimate sites for links) could result in disqualification from winning. If winners in each category cannot be located within 7 days of contest completion, are ineligible, or turn down their prize, the contest will continue to be redrawn in that category until a winner can be rewarded. Winners will be responsible for providing me their shipping details by email to receive their prizes but can be assured their information will be kept private. I will only announce winners by their first name and will not disclose their email or further details without their permission. I would appreciate a photo and update of winners clicker training their parrot if possible to post on the blog as a follow up. The contest details should all go as stated above but since I haven't done this before and cannot foresee what kind of issues I could run into, I reserve the right to discontinue the contest or amend the rules at any time. Thanks for your understanding and for participating.