The Aviator Harness is awesome. It has played a pivotal role in helping me achieve the awesomely well-behaved parrots that Kili & Truman are. Their beautiful plumage, outstanding social skills, flight capabilities, and showmanship would not be what they are if I didn't take my parrots outside regularly. With the Aviator Harness, I have the peace of mind that I will not lose my parrots to the mayhem that is New York City.
It has been over 3 years since I started using an Aviator Harness for my parrots. Looking back, we've made leaps and bounds in progress going outdoors as such. I'd like to look back at some highlights and offer tips and tricks that I have learned about using a harness.
First there's putting the harness on the parrot. This is where most people start and end. The majority of people that I have come across that purchased a harness gave up because they could not get past this point. But of course without this critical step, all other harness procedures are useless. Why are parrots so unwilling to wear a harness? Part of it is that it is uncomfortable but a bigger part is that they don't like the process of having it put on. The first part can only be solved by time as the parrot gets used to it but the second one gets solved by training. Without solving the second problem, you can't get the duration and practice to solve the first one.
Basically the process of sticking the harness on is a bigger deterrent from the parrot than the discomfort of actually wearing it. I know this, because my parrots can wear it all day long if need be. Even with a tame parrot that let the owner stick the harness on the first few times quickly learns to resist having it put on. After all, why should the parrot let you stick that uncomfortable thing on it? It really gets no direct benefit from it. The parrot doesn't realize that going outside is the result of putting the harness on. But even then, going outside for a house body of a parrot isn't necessarily a good thing! Until the parrot is accustomed to going outsides, it may be scary and unpleasant in itself.
The secret to teaching a parrot to wear a harness is to make it WANT to wear it. Forcing the harness on only makes the parrot want to wear it less and avoid it. But if you can convince the parrot that it is to its advantage to be wearing the harness, you're in business and the rest is just technical! Now how do you convince a parrot to voluntarily commit the equivalent of putting on a straight jacket? Well it's simple. On one hand you bribe it, but on the other hand you make a solid promise to take it off really soon.
So let's take the straight jacket example further. If I wanted to get you to put on a straight jacket, you'd tell me I'm nuts. If I said I'll give you a hundred bucks, you still wouldn't do it because you'd be afraid I'd just leave you tied up like that. But if you had a solid promise from me that all you had to do was wear it for a minute and then have it removed and get a hundred bucks, that's not so bad is it? So how can we demonstrate the promise of removal to the parrot? A verbal promise is useless because the parrot does not understand. Well, we can demonstrate the promise behaviorally.
If you briefly touch the parrot with the harness material, and then take it away and give a treat, you are demonstrating what will become the promise of removal. Continue in baby steps where the parrot is briefly enveloped in the harness but then it is removed. Progress with putting more on and for longer, but always going back to removal. Since you build up the duration, prior removals act as negative reinforcement for future ones, thus you develop the promise of removal. Yet the reward is still mandatory because that is what the parrot is working for!
Another aspect, and going back to the straight jacket example, is force vs volunteering. Think about the difference of being physically forced into that straight jacket (despite being paid and promised of removal). Someone grabs your hands and holds you down while the jacket is applied... That is painful, frightening, and uncomfortable. Now on the flipside, what if someone holds that straight jacket and you can walk over and put your arms into it yourself at your own pace? That is far more painless. Still, someone will have to do up the straps in the back, but you weren't stressed while putting it on so the hundred bucks makes it worthwhile. Don't you see how putting a harness on a parrot is like putting on that straight jacket!? This is why it is so important to let the parrot volunteer to put on the neck collar, promise imminent removal, and give good rewards for the process. With time and practice, the duration can increase, the rewards can diminish, and the entire process will become easier.
However, the Aviator Harness is no straight jacket. It is very unintrusive and allows the parrot full flight capability while wearing it. But at first, to an animal, putting anything on may be analogous to my example.
I'm not going to elaborate on the process further here but I strongly urge you to read and watch all the videos in this article about how I taught Kili to wear her harness in 3 days. It may well take you longer but this shows the techniques that have led to success.
I always clip my parrot's harnesses to my belt loops before even putting the harness on them. I never trust just the wrist strap alone, plus it gets in the way. By clipping the harness to my belt using a 99 cent keychain carabiner, I have the peace of mind that the parrot is secure.
I keep my parrots on the short leash of the harness at all times except when I intentionally want to fly them. At that point, I take out the special yellow kite string that I measured out and prepared for this. I made loops at both ends of the string and secured them so they can't untie. The way I make the swap from harness only to harness plus extension leash is a neat trick. I pass one end of my string through the harness wrist strap. Then I run the other end of the string through the end loop in the string, thus tightening one end of the string around the harness wrist strap. Then I add the other loop end of the string to my carabiner hook. Finally I take the wrist strap out of the carabiner hook and the parrot is now on the long leash. This special exchange ensures that my parrot is never disattached. At this point I'm not particularly worried about the bird flying off in this short exchange but it is still a good practice to maintain.
I never "freefly" my parrots outdoors wearing a harness. That is I don't let them fly at will. I encourage them to always stay on me, a perch, or to only fly to me on command. I don't want them to think it is acceptable to fly at will because there is too much they can get the harness tangled in if they were to just fly. To keep things more controllable and limited to my judgement, I always set things up to allow only controlled recall flight. At first I flew the birds only to the length the short harness leash would allow. Then I proceeded to use longer and longer leash extensions. Virtually every time the parrots flew off "at will" they ended up hitting the end of the line and realized that it's a bad idea. Thus the harness automatically punishes flying behavior. By rewarding only requested flights, the parrots eventually learn to stay put except when called. This works out well in the end because the parrots stay put when they are me wearing a harness. At home they fly off at will but outdoors they stay which gives me confidence to take them places.
Don't forget that hawks and other predators (including cats/dogs) pose a huge threat to your parrot outside even if it wears a harness. I live in a busy city where there are few birds of prey but I do occasionally spot them so it's a point I am aware of. I keep my eyes open and am ready to protect my bird as best as I can. I do avoid taking them to large open rural fields where birds of prey may be more abundant.
I keep challenging my parrots to wear their harnesses for longer. Whether it's taking them to an event (even indoors if things are hectic), camping, on trips, or just about, it helps make them more accustomed to wearing harnesses.
Not only is it fun to take the parrots places but it is also one of the best things for them. Besides the health benefits of receiving natural sunlight, the socialization experiences make them far better pets. As they experience more people and places, they are far more prepared to cope with anything that life may throw at them. It makes them better behaved and less likely to bite.
Finally here is a video that shows how quickly and easily I can put harnesses on my parrots. It's not a race but I want to show how quickly we can do it. By wasting no time, it gives the parrot less time to play around with it or resist. Since we have done this so many times, they cooperate and assist in putting it on by moving their body and wings to go with the flow. When a parrot resists, it is far more difficult to get all the straps on in any reasonable span of time.
My upcoming book is just days away from shipping out for printing! It includes information about harness training parrots but more importantly it presents an approach to attain the relationship that prepares you and your parrot to make use of that harness and beyond. So please stay tuned for more announcements about the book.
And here is the latest photo of my baby at 4 weeks old!