Since people have been asking me about harnesses and it just so happens this is what I've been working on with Truman lately, I figured I'd share some techniques. First, if you are looking for information about the basics of harness training or if you haven't seen it already, I really recommend you read my Flight Harness Training Parrot article. It is about how I screwed up by listening to the stupid DVD that came with the harness and then how I remedied the phobia Kili developed of the harness with positive and negative reinforcement training. The article contains a 10 minute video for each of 3 days which reveal many tips and tricks about getting a parrot to wear a harness. Over a year since using that technique, I still stand by it fully and well now describe to you how I used it on Truman.
Aside from a very basic introduction to the harness strap material, I don't think Truman's breeder ever actually put a harness onto him. However, not more than two weeks since getting Truman, I was already sticking the aviator harness on him and taking him outside. I wanted Truman to begin wearing his harness as early as possible and start taking him outside so that he would be adapted to this from a younger age. At the point when I put the aviator harness on him for the first time, I had no way of training it to him. He had no concept of clicker, target, or treat so there was no specific way I could train him to wear it. But on the other hand he was already very hand tame and easy going to I was able to just stick it on him. I took him outside every chance I could during last summer but over the course of the winter he came to forget his harness. When I broke it out again this year, he was a different bird. He has become more independent and bold since then so after a few times he started to decide that he didn't really like to wear the harness. It was almost getting to the point that he would fly away or at least sway away from me when I was wearing it. He finally decided he had enough of the harness and wasn't going to take it.
This is the point when I realized I had to go through the formal training program with him that I had originally done with Kili. It only took two treats for sticking her head through the harness this year to remind Kili everything she knew about the harness from last year. However, with Truman it took a little more work. I pretty much followed the 3 day program the same as I had done with Kili. The first day I tamed Truman to the harness so he would stop being scared of it. First I held it at some distance and gave him treats. Then I approached with it until I could touch his feathers with it. The second day I started with the same exercises but proceeded to making a fake collar out of the larger part of the strap (not the actual collar part) and practiced putting that on him and making it narrower with each try. By the end of the second day he definitely wasn't fleeing the harness and at times even slightly leaning in. On the third day I went right to practicing him sticking his head into and out of the collar. I gave him a treat every time the collar went on. Any time he turned away or made it difficult to put the collar on, I ignored him. However, if he helped put his head in or at least didn't resist, I rewarded him. By the end of the third training session, Truman was taking steps to come toward the collar and stick his own head in.
Finally, for a week I solidified Truman's harness training by putting the harness on entirely and giving him an entire almond to eat while wearing it. With Kili, you might recall, I fed her meals while wearing the harness. Truman isn't as enthused about meals as she is, so instead I chose to feed him nuts while wearing the aviator harness to build a positive association. For that week he did not receive nuts by any other means than wearing the harness. To me, taming the parrot to the point where it is fearless around the harness material and willing to stick its head into the collar on its own is the significant part of the training. It will come to realize that the other straps will be put on as well, but as long as you can maintain that the bird wants to put on the harness, there won't be any bad feelings or biting. So it's more about accepting the harness than breaking up the different mechanics of putting it on. Sure it is possible to make the parrot dislike the harness again by rushing the process and making the process of putting it on unpleasant, but you can always revert back to the earlier taming steps. However, taking your time with the process and making sure the parrot has had a much longer positive experience with the harness than negative will help ensure that one bad experience won't ruin everything.
Wings is a great trick for a parrot to know prior to harness training because it makes the parrot used to opening its wings and having its wings touched. Also my wing opening taming technique is an important requisite for being able to put on a harness because you will have to be able to move the parrot's wings to manipulate them into the harness straps properly. Finally, it's a really good idea to be very familiar with the harness before every putting it on. In fact move the straps a bunch of times or put it on a stuffed animal before using it not only for practice but also to make the straps less stiff.
The best place to put a harness on a parrot is on a Parrot Training Perch because you can adjust the bird to a convenient height and keep your hands free. The parrot can grip onto the perch so that is one less thing to be concerned about as the parrot will be stationary. There is some pushing and pulling in the harness donning process so you will definitely appreciate having the parrot more steady. A Parrot Training Perch will function much better than a climbing tree or chair back because there won't be any extra spindles or places for the leash to get caught on in the process.
Put the parrot on a training perch or wherever you are putting on the harness so that it is facing you. The last thing to remember is to clip the leash onto your belt or at least put it over your wrist. If your bird flies off while wearing the leash in the house, it will get caught on something, crash, get hurt, and hate the harness very much. Definitely make sure that you have a secure grip on the leash as you would outside. Now on to some tips about the actual process of putting on an aviator flight harness.
First offer the parrot the chance to put the harness on by showing the collar loop as discussed before. After the parrot sticks its head through the collar, give a reward (as big as possible but small enough that it doesn't have to use its foot cause that will just get in the way). Not only does this reward the collar part but also keeps it distracted while you put the harness on. With practice this entire process can take under a minute. The quicker you do it (without going too fast or hard), the less time your parrot will have to get frustrated about the situation. If you find yourself confused about what to do with the harness, then you need to stop torturing the bird with the process and practice on your own and watch some videos of how it is done. While this harness is easy to put on when you're familiar with it, it can be quite confusing at first so definitely make sure you know what to do before getting the parrot involved. Once the collar is in place, pull all the slack over to your right hand side. The strap is barely long enough for my Cape's wings to fit through so I have to really use every inch of slack I can get. If he is playing with the end of the harness, I gotta get it out of his beak or it reduces the length just a little bit. With all the slack on the right side, I lift the wing slightly up, pull the strap around and behind primaries. I also twist the wing tip in such a way so that the primaries are aimed into the loop made by the harness slack.
Next, I transfer all the slack to my left side (bird's right wing) by pulling on the slack end of the strap. Some times some feathers under the wings get snagged. I can fix this by lifting the wing, shifting the strap, and working the feathers around it. Once I have all the remaining slack on my left side, I can lift the second wing and repeat the twist and in motion as described above and demonstrated in the video below. Since I want to keep Truman flighted, I'm very careful about not busting his primaries in this process. By aiming them into the strap loop in such a way, I can prevent them from touching the material at all and getting messed up. Once the second wing is through, all that is left is to tighten the harness. I pull the slack through the buckle in two motions. First I pull it into the buckle through the first connection. Then I pull all the slack out of the buckle from the end. This tightening process is actually much easier on Truman than Kili. For Kili I have to feed the slack through back and forth several times to get all the material out from around her. But the larger harness seems to pivot around the parrot's body better and makes it much easier to bring all the slack in on the first attempt. At this point I give Truman an almond and he completely forgets about the fact that he is wearing a harness. Or I actually take him outside and that generally keeps his mind off of it. Only when we're spending a lot of time out that he begins playing with the harness, but for this I bring lots of chew toys to attempt to distract him with.
Taking the harness is just as simple as putting it on. It is literally the exact same process in reverse. First I slacken the strap by pulling the leash end into the buckle and then back out toward the parrot in two motions. Then I lift the wing and pull it forward and through the slack loop to get the feathers through without touching. Then I bring all of the slack over to my right hand side. I let this form a loop and pull the parrot's left wing forward and pull the strap back to bring it around the wing. Finally I pull the collar forward to get the head out. Of course Truman's head is too big and the feathers get pushed in reverse so he hates this part and his head gets stuck sometimes. However, I've been developing a technique where I twist the harness straps just a little and work them so his head pops through. If it weren't for the fact that the harness sits perfectly on him when it is tightened, I would probably be looking for a size up. I don't find it necessary to reward for harness removal because the donning is consistently rewarded and makes up for the discomfort of removal. Also removal is in itself negatively reinforcing that he no longer has to feel the discomfort of wearing or taking the harness off. However, if the removal process seems to frustrate the bird a little much, giving a treat after can't hurt.
As always with Taming, long term taming is the important thing. It is better to consistently put the harness on the parrot every day (or at least a few times a week) for one big treat, wear for a while, then take it off, than to do many repetitions at a time. The parrot just needs to spend a lot of time in it, have many positive experiences wearing the harness over a long period of time, and few bad ones. While good outdoor experiences will help a parrot grow accustomed to the harness, I do not believe they are direct enough of a reinforcement to make the harness tolerable. Small treats for putting on the harness should continue being administered on a random level once training is satisfactorily completed. I rarely reward Kili for putting her harness on anymore because she clearly isn't scared of it. However, if I do this too much, she becomes more difficult about putting it on. Just a few repetitions of retaming using the steps above bring her right back to the stage she was in when I did a lot of practice. So even if your parrot used to wear a harness successfully last year, a quick reminder by retaming with the same techniques will make it more willing to wear the harness again this season.
Finally here is the promised video of how I put a harness on Truman. You'll notice that he does a pretty good job but still requires some work. He still interferes by biting the harness too much or fidgeting. Some is inevitable but it can be reduced with practice. Also he starts getting agitated toward the end of the video but that's really only because I was putting the harness on and off of him too many times to make demonstrations for the video and not because of his training. He's more used to putting it on once and going outside or eating a nut rather than going through the entire procedure repeatedly. If I want to do harness practice, mainly I will only practice the collar part repeatedly, but I try to do the complete process of putting the harness on only once and quickly to reduce the discomfort. So here is how I put a harness on Truman the Cape Parrot: