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.